How Emmy-Award Winning Producer Rudy Gaskins Is Helping To Make the Entertainment Industry More Diverse and Representative
Forgiveness does not mean giving someone a pass for doing negative deeds, but to give up the self-righteous indignation of holding it over their head like a giant hammer. Practicing forgiveness opened my heart and lifted an enormous burden that I hadn’t realized was slowly but surely draining me of the capacity love myself and others. It seems plausible to me that being able to see a person’s humanity beyond their worst deeds creates the space for healing.
As a part of my series about leaders helping to make the entertainment industry more diverse and representative, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Rudy Gaskins.
Rudy is the Co-founder, Chairman & CEO of the Society of Voice Arts and Sciences™ (SOVAS™), and international nonprofit corporation that oversees That’s Voiceover!™ Career Expo, the Voice Arts® Awards and multiple programs providing training, education, academic/financial aid scholarships and career counseling for voice actors. SOVAS™ is the longest running voiceover conference in the world and has honored legendary talents, such as James Earl Jones, Lily Tomlin, Muhammad Ali, William Shatner, Michael Buffer, Erin Brockovich, Ken Burns, Nancy Cartwright, Sigourney Weaver, Patrick Howard Fraley, Phil Lamarr and Malcolm-Jamal Warner.
Rudy is an Emmy-winning producer who began his professional career after graduating from New York University’s Film and Television program. He directed and produced several award-winning short films before signing on as an apprentice film editor on Francis Coppola’s The Cotton Club. From there he went on to work with some of the most influential filmmakers of our time, including Jonathan Demme, Brian DePalma, Milos Forman, Spike Lee, and Alan Pakula. He then joined PBS as a director, where he produced 12 hours of documentary programming.
The PBS journalistic tradition was an ideal training ground for his next challenge as a producer with ABC News advertising and promotion. At ABC News, Rudy oversaw the creative direction of the advertising and promotional branding for World News Tonight, featuring the legendary Peter Jennings, 20/20 with Barbara Walters and Primetime Live with Diane Sawyer.
He then joined Court TV as vice president of creative services, developing the on-air branding strategy and network identity during the infamous trials of the Menendez Brothers, OJ Simpson and Aileen Wuornos (later portrayed by Charlize Theron in Monster) Rudy played a central role in the successful re-brand and re-launch of Court TV from a news network to a news and entertainment venue — overseeing an award-winning re-branding campaign, that foreshadowed its final relaunch as Tru TV. He resides in Weehawken, New Jersey with his wife and business partner, Joan Baker.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve been a lover of the arts since high school, and it was my good fortune to be introduced to the George Washington University School for Careers in the Arts, which offered a special after school program for high school kids. The program later became the Duke Ellington High School for the Arts. I immediately gravitated to the filmmaking curriculum. It wasn’t taught so much as a career option as it was art for art’s sake. My last two years of high school were devoted to making short films and nothing in my life was more exciting. As a result, I chose to study film and TV directing at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
It wasn’t long before I realized that my professors and advisors considered Blacks and women unlikely candidates for successful careers as directors in the film industry. I remember one professor saying with great academic brio, “You won’t find opportunities for Blacks or women as directors of major feature films in our lifetime.” That statement is all the more profound when you consider that, at the time, Spike Lee was a graduate student at NYU, author Ralph Ellison had just retired as one of their professors of humanities, and Jesse Jackson was running for President of the United States. Yet this kind of matter-of-fact dismissiveness was the norm.
After graduation, I found work as an apprentice film editor, joined the union, and began moving up the ranks, working with legendary directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Spike Lee, Jonathan Demme, Brian De Palma, and others. It was a magical time, but working for major directors was not my dream. My goal was to direct, and Spike Lee was evidence that it was possible. So, I wrote and directed a documentary called This Is My New House, about a former Black Panther member who was now living an upper middle-class life in a rural white suburb. As a result of that film, I was invited to produce and direct documentary programming for PBS. After several years, I was offered a job producing and directing advertising and promotions for ABC News. To my surprise, I found the creative and competitive nature of advertising to be an exciting challenge. I went on to become Executive Producer of Food Network’s creative services department, and Vice President for the Court TV Network. Advertising had become an obsession, and I wanted to explore traditional product brands outside of the TV space. To do this, opened my own creative services agency and worked for brands like American Express, Delta Air Lines, Costco, various small businesses, BET, TV One, Bravo, and numerous others. It was also during this time that I won my first Emmy Award working for NBC Sports on the Olympic Games.
Even with the apparent success, I felt that the work I was doing was not feeding my soul. I wanted my work to mean something beyond paying the bills. So, at the urging of my wife (Joan Baker) and with her unbreakable support, I focused my personal time on self-healing and finding my purpose. This new journey continues to be transformative, and it is the heartbeat of what drives my work and life today. Nothing I’m doing today, would have been possible without Joan as my partner, and I would encourage anyone with an entrepreneurial dream to find a partner, not necessarily a love interest, but a likeminded partner who truly believes in the mission.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
While I was still working as a feature film editor, I did two films with Spike Lee. Spike called me at the start of the first film (School Daze), and without missing a beat asked, “Do you know any black production assistants I can hire?” The empowered boldness of the question caught me off guard. I felt conflicted as to whether the question conflicted with labor laws. But how else were things going to change if not by addressing racism and exclusion head-on? I gave him a few names and he hired them. On the second film, Do the Right Thing, the head sound editor wanted to bring me on as an assistant editor rather than a full editor. Because I felt secure under Spike’s leadership, I didn’t think twice about expressing my concern. I was promoted and we went on to make a great film. What I learned is that those with the power to change things for the better must also be empowered to use it. Too many with the power to affect change are waiting for a higher authority to validate their choices.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was beating the pavement for film jobs, I would wear my best suit with a tie and a fresh haircut. One day, after knocking on doors and passing out resumes at Sound One, New York’s largest postproduction house, a guy from one of the offices I had visited, came running out after me and caught up with me outside on the sidewalk. He told me two things. 1) “Don’t wear a suit because everyone thinks you’re a product salesman. We dress casual here.” 2) “When you don’t get a job or a lead, don’t walk out of the room dejected. Your disappointment carries over and makes us feel bad too. Instead, keep the same smile you walked in with and say, ‘Thank you for your time. I look forward to connecting again in the future.’” That taught me the importance of knowing your target audience before you knock on their door. Within two weeks I was working for Sound One, and six months later I was an apprentice editor on a Francis Ford Coppola’s Cotton Club.
Ok, thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our discussion. Can you describe how you are helping to make popular culture more representative of the US population?
Most efforts to manage diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI) are instigated by a complaint or the appearance of unfairness. Many companies set up a so-called DEI department by giving one person a big title like, SVP of Diversity, but no power to effect change. It positions the company as caring, while giving them legal cover against lawsuits where inequality is at issue. Nevertheless, the existence of these positions increases the likelihood for meaningful change. It depends on the personal creativity, drive and courage of the Diversity Officer.
With Society of Voice Arts and Sciences we have taken the opportunity to create an international platform from the ground up with diversity, equality, and inclusion as its foundation and at its core. It wasn’t a matter of having to fix a problem, but the challenge of seeing the world and institutions through the lens of equality. We made it our mission to create an organization that was exemplary in its commitment to DEI, and it begins celebrating and empowering voice actors — a large, marginalized swath of entertainment professionals whose talents and contributions were in the background and rarely given the appreciation they’ve earned.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by the work you are doing?
One such individual, and this is indicative of others here in America and from around the world, is Oluwaseun Shobo, a Nigerian-based entrepreneur, educator, and voice actor who founded the Voice Over Academy of Nigeria. We became aware of him through the effectiveness of his brand communications across social media. Upon looking closer, we saw that Shobo was literally revolutionizing the world of voice acting in Nigeria, and influencing other English-speaking countries of Africa. 27 out of 54 countries on the continent speak the English language as their official or secondary language. Shobo’s Voice Over Academy is elevating the expertise and professionalism of voice acting in Africa. He is also reaching out to African buyers and government officials to clarify the moral and business case for raising salaries to levels commensurate with the skill and financial investment required by the voice actors. It’s an enormous challenge and Shobo is on the frontlines. This past December, SOVAS honored Shobo with the Voice Arts Global Influencer Award. This honor, coming from SOVAS, put an international spotlight on his work. He has since been besieged with requests for articles and interviews, and his work has gone viral.
In the year leading up to the award ceremony, we enlisted Shobo’s ambassadorship to initiate the inaugural inclusion of voice acting categories for English-speaking African nations. As a result, Shobo’s mission has expanded, and the voice actors of Africa are now literally appreciated on a global stage. They flew in as nominees from Egypt and Nigeria to South Africa to claim their recognition at the Voice Arts Awards Gala, which took place in Los Angeles, CA at Warner Bros. Studios. To punctuate this extraordinary event SOVAS enlisted a spectacular African dance and drumming troupe called Le Ballet Dembaya as our keynote performers. The whole experience was like a warm, loving embrace for everyone involved. Nothing needed to be fixed. Diversity is the new mainstream. It’s about choosing to live into the possibility of our highest selves.
As an insider, this might be obvious to you, but I think it’s instructive to articulate this for the public who might not have the same inside knowledge. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important to have diversity represented in Entertainment and its potential effects on our culture?
Art and Entertainment is a key indicator of the health of our global culture. Any lack of diversity in art and entertainment is symptomatic of a decaying society. But it’s about more than diversity. It’s about diversity, equality, and inclusion. Diversity is meant to ensure that all parties have a seat at the table. Equality ensures that everyone has an equal vote in the decision-making process. Inclusion ensures that each party has an equal opportunity to contribute and debate ideas and choices to be voted upon. That’s DEI in a nutshell. I’m reluctant to offer three reasons as “really important” because whatever I say will trivialize the depth and complexity of a problem that has plagued humanity for as far back as recorded history. Humanity is in a phase of development where we can imagine the power of peace and good will toward others, but ultimately, we don’t believe it’s possible. Lofty ideals like “peace on earth” remain a punchline for speeches by beauty contestants.
Three observations that come to mind, however, are as follows: First, much of what we adults consider to be brilliant intellectualism is just child’s play. For example, if you look at the government leadership of most any country you will not be able to distinguish their methods of problem solving from those of a group of six-year-olds in a sandbox. I make this connection because it was as children that most of us first experienced being excluded, bullied, or outright shunned for no reason other than being singled out as different, and as children we lacked the tools to process the emotional trauma. So, one important reason for DEI is to have people examine how their negative childhood experiences perpetuate negative feelings about themselves and towards others.
Secondly, DEI sets us on a course to evolve the concept of what makes humanity humane. It gives us the possibility for an enlightened point of view from which to create a world where people from all backgrounds can coexist peacefully. DEI is more than meets the eye. It impacts all aspects of society and human suffering: discrimination, social unrest, war, environmental destruction, human trafficking, and on and on. This is how critically important DEI is. Don’t make the mistake of thinking DEI is just a social program for giving marginalized groups their fair share of a broken system. DEI is a global antidote for creating workability for humanity.
Thirdly, DEI releases us from intolerance — the fear-based triggers that drive us to exclude others. One way the fear shows up is in the idea that the integration of the races means diluting the purity of the white race (extinction). Another is that the inclusion of new voices in the boardroom means taking chairs from existing board members. Inclusion is a healing proposition. It means everyone, not just those who have been marginalized and dehumanized.
A somewhat new phrase that has entered our vocabulary is the “overview effect.” It refers to the cognitive shift reported by some astronauts while viewing Earth from space. One sees no borders, races, religions — just a tiny, fragile ball of life hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. Researchers have characterized the effect as “a state of awe with self-transcendent qualities, precipitated by a particularly striking visual stimulus.” Hopefully, we won’t all have to become astronauts in order to recognize that we’re in this life together and can compel ourselves to act in the interest of all.
Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do to help address the root of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?
1) Don’t be afraid to call out exclusion when you see it. It’s not always as obvious as people marching in the street chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” Sometimes it’s just a matter of calling out projects meant to impact marginalized groups but where there is no controlling representation by those groups in the process. Speak up. Assert yourself. Inspire the group to adjourn and change the agenda until the necessary constituents are present. 2) If you believe you are the target or victim of exclusionary practices, talk to a labor lawyer with experience in these matters. 3) When taking a job, joining an organization, or accepting a board position, find out what their DEI policies and goals are, and what ongoing, fundamental evidence they have to show that their policies are working.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is exemplifying your beliefs, goals, and vision through personal action. It’s also inspiring others to champion the value of achieving that vision.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Know the difference between believing in something and being stubborn. The examples of this in my life are too many, but suffice it to say that I have missed out on many opportunities because being right was more important to me than listening. Most of us would agree that we occasionally tune out when others are talking. The more likely scenario is that we occasionally tune in.
- You can declare into being anything you wish to manifest. For a very long time I was one who waited for a higher authority to validate my life, ideas, choices, etc. That left me with a rudderless and unempowered existence. Once I discovered that I had the power to declare what I wanted to manifest, I found I had an endless resource for creativity.
- You will benefit greatly by nurturing your capacity for healthy, loving, loyal, faithful, and committed relationships with people on all levels. From my late teens to my late 20s, I was oblivious to idea of self-help as a practice for nurturing my personal growth. I struggled with low self-esteem, guilt for not being all things to all people, and I demonized myself in the process. I learned that many human frailties can be forgiven when people know your heart is in the right place. Take whatever time you need to become a fully self-expressed, autonomous being. Explore who you are and how you want to contribute to the world. It’s not up to others.
- You are not at the mercy of your feelings and thoughts. The things you feel stem from what you think — your interpretation of events. Something happens and you immediately assign meaning to it, followed by feelings. The feelings tend to dominate your way forward. If instead you take events on face value, training yourself to perceive them objectively, you will have a clearer path to choose how you want to respond without the morass of emotional highs and lows obscuring the facts. You can choose the way you want to be and create your life accordingly. To be happy, grateful, giving, strong, supportive, confident, loving, and empowered is a path that is available to all of us.
- Forgiveness does not mean giving someone a pass for doing negative deeds, but to give up the self-righteous indignation of holding it over their head like a giant hammer. Practicing forgiveness opened my heart and lifted an enormous burden that I hadn’t realized was slowly but surely draining me of the capacity love myself and others. It seems plausible to me that being able to see a person’s humanity beyond their worst deeds creates the space for healing.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The growth of social media, is an example of a movement that impacts more people than anyone could ever have imagined. Whether the impact is “good” is highly debatable, but the exponential nature of its reach is promising. But social media is mechanism for doing. It’s not the doing itself. How do we create humanitarian efforts such that they have a positive, exponential, and measurable impact on the world? I believe what we’re doing at SOVAS is contributing. I’d like to think that whoever takes the reins in the future will take this organization further than I can imagine.
Here’s the thing. There are so many extraordinary people and nonprofits in the world. “There are over 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States,” says the National Association of Nonprofit Organizations & Executives (NANOE). Many of them focus on very similar missions. Rather than coming up with another movement, let’s have a movement that consolidate the focus of like-minded charities, thereby cutting waste, redundancies, and creating laser focus backed by a larger, better funded group. The final step is to build into the new model the same mechanics that drive social media.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life? Purpose is driven by service to others.
My early focus was on achieving traditional milestones: education, employment, money, promotions, house, etc. Underneath all of that was a desire to be admired, which was driven by ego. I didn’t want my last thought on my deathbed to be as lame as, “I was greatly admired.” This quote was at the core of an intense, five-year investigation into the possibility of creating a life I truly loved. What became available to me through serving the good of others has given me an easy sense of purpose, and focus. I appreciate nothing more than people reaching new milestones in their lives because I helped steady the ladder in some way. The ultimate reward is when people pay it forward with complete abandon. In life, the distraction of what others think about me is a constant challenge. I imagine that in death, I will be more focused on how I feel about myself than how others feel about me.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would like to sit down one-on-one with Werner Erhard. I would dispense with the distraction of breakfast and put time aside so that we could focus fully on his insights into human behavior and the creation of happiness. I’ve been emboldened by the second-hand teachings of Erhard’s devotees, but it would be great to get it straight from him.
On the other hand, it might be equally informative, perhaps more so, to spend time with that one kid on the playground who no one plays with, and who isolates himself on the periphery of the action. What would I learn from him?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!
How Emmy-Award Winning Producer Rudy Gaskins Is Helping To Make the Entertainment Industry More… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.