01 Sep 2015

3-Minute Briefing: Fred Newman (MBA 1978)

The executive noisemaker on the making of a sound business
by April White

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How “the human fly” saved Newman from a cold call.

I wasn’t unique as a kid. In small-town Georgia, all the guys did sound effects. We’d swap them like baseball cards: Show me how to do a finger whistle, and I’ll show you how to bark like a dog.

My mother always wanted to know for her bridge club: “What do I tell people you do?” In HBS terms, I’m the creative director of my multi-hundred-dollar corporation, Talking Dog Productions Inc. But I’m just a storyteller—across different media.

Having a corporation insulated me. When I’d go to an audition, my soul wasn’t on the line. I was just a shoe salesman. I wasn’t crushed if they didn’t want me or my ideas. I just hadn’t made the sale.

I came of age watching television, and old radio was fading out. It’s so exciting to see audio come back and to see that influence my daughter, who has her own sketch-comedy podcast. Audio is the most nimble of media.

When I deliver my stories, my sounds, I’m an inch away from the listener’s ear. I deliver them to one person. It’s such a joy to be able to do a delicate little water drip [imitates three drips of water] up close, yet the sound is going out to 4 or 5 million sets of ears.

I’m always listening. That is the key. When people ask “How do you do that?” I say it’s not about getting the sounds out, it’s about getting them in.

Newman at his home in Connecticut, on the chair from which he listens to dusk. (Photo by JJ Sulin)

Since I was 10 years old, I’ve recorded sounds wherever I’ve gone, particularly at dawn and dusk. That transition from birds to amphibians and insects—now that is pure jazz.

My single favorite sound effect was created for an unrehearsed Guy Noir sketch. Guy Noir was going to a chiropractor. Suddenly, he was about to have a spinal adjustment. I grabbed a ribbed water bottle and wrapped it in a towel. I slowly twisted that muffled bottle, and the whole audience shifted in their seats and went “Ooohhh!” Wails of laughter. It had hurt good.

The best lesson I learned at HBS: The big progressive companies spent 20 percent of their profit on R&D. Twenty percent of my time—one day a week—I do something that I have no idea where it’s going. Any of the breakthroughs I’ve had in my life have come through the time I’ve given to R&D.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1978, Section I

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