Robert “Dr. Bob” Polo – THE English voice of radio for many Czechs

A lot of Czechs might not recognise Robert Polo by appearance. But many undoubtedly know the American’s rich and distinctive voice – and Dr. Bob persona – thanks to his work as a prominent presenter over the years on the radio stations Metropolis, Expres and Color Music Radio. Polo is also a leading voice artist in the Czech Republic, as well as an in-demand compere of live events. When we spoke, he told me he had already been a broadcaster for some years prior to his arrival in Prague in 1994.

Robert Polo, photo: Ondřej TomšůRobert Polo, photo: Ondřej Tomšů “When I originally came here I was supposed to be here for a week. And I think, like many people, you come and – as Kafka said – Mother Praha has claws. And you just don’t leave.

“I’d heard of Metropolis and I decided I was going to work for them.

“I’d heard that they were auditioning for a new morning announcer because the previous morning announcer, Buzz Leboe, who was kind of ‘the voice of Prague’ at that point, wanted to step down.

“They were training a couple of kids. They were good. They were ambitious, they were young, they had some talent.

“But I walked in and I said, Well look, I want to do the job. And they said, No, we already have somebody.

“So every day at 4:30 – yeah, 4:30 – I would be out in front of the broadcast bunker and would say, Is it my turn yet?

“And through my tenacity I got myself in the door – and within five minutes of hearing me they sent everybody away.”

And Radio Metropolis was somehow connected with Voice of America, is that right?

“It originally started as I guess Club VOA, and they were able to commercialise it.

“And, oh my, what a cast of characters. The Czech management I didn’t really know that well but the boss’s name was Zdeněk Vlk.

“He smoked these crooked Ukrainian cigars and everything was, Zitra, zitra [tomorrow]! Especially when it came to paying us [laughs].

“One day we were broadcasting, I think it was in March of 1996, and one of the programme directors, Mike Belosov, came in and said, It’s done.

“I said, What do you mean, it’s done? And he said, Well, we haven’t been on the air since 7 AM.

“So basically for two hours I had been broadcasting into a wall…”

Tell us more about the place – you mentioned that the studios were in a bunker.

“Through my tenacity I got myself in the door at Metropolis – and within five minutes of hearing me they sent everybody away.”

“It was a former Czech telecommunications bunker, at Parukářka. The entrance was on Jeseniova. And there was a blast door – an 18-inch thick concrete door that you had to open.

“Of course there was a vrátnice [reception] there and the guy would wave you in and you went around a corner.

“It was built as a nuclear fallout shelter and it had these different angles to prevent blasts from coming up the hallway.

“About 100 metres into the hill you would make a left and that was our column. We had two or three big office spaces – one of which I ended up living in.

“The studio that we had was down at the end of the hall and it couldn’t have been more military. Again, it was like being on a submarine, with big doors with handles you could close up and seal yourself in.”

And you lived in this underground space? Way underground, I’m guessing.

“I had returned to the US to get a bunch of my possessions and come back. And, as was pretty commonplace back in those days, my landlord found somebody else to rent the flat for more money.

“So when I came back all my possessions were in the hallway. I had no place to go, so the people from the radio station said, You can live here.

“I was living in this space and it was complete sensory deprivation. When you turned off the lights at night it was black, complete darkness.

“So I had this pattern. When I shut the light off, I knew it was two steps over and two steps to the middle of the room, where I had the cushions from the couch laid out.

“One night, and it wasn’t because I was drinking or any substance abuse of any type or anything like that, I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“I jumped up... And to this day I get goosebumps when I talk about it. It was a very, very creepy experience.

“I packed my things the very next day and I left the bunker. Because something was there. Maybe it was an old Celtic spirit or somebody who had died building the bunker.

Parukářka bunker, photo: archive of Radio PragueParukářka bunker, photo: archive of Radio Prague “But it was my last day at the bunker.”

Was it a kind of underground warren? Could you walk for some distance under the hill there?

“The gentleman who operated that section of the bunker decided after a couple of bottles of rum one night that he was going to give us a tour.

“We actually ended up somewhere on Italská by Riegrovy sady. So if you calculate that, it’s the better part of a kilometre, down through Žižkov.

“Also on the back side [of the hill] there’s a rail hub underground.

“Let’s face it, if you go to Motol or any of the significant sized hills in the city, they’re full of bunkers.”

You mentioned your landlord kicking you out because he found somebody who would pay more. Those were of course the Wild East days. I sometimes think it was lucky that there wasn’t any social media in those days to record what we were doing. What kind of a ‘90s did you have?

“Put it this way, if you were here in the ‘90s, you know what kind of ‘90s we had. If you weren’t here, well, you’re probably better off for it.

“Do you remember, when you made a meeting with somebody, or you left a note on a bulletin board, you had to be there?”

Of course, there was no way to communicate. Nobody had any phones.

“Nothing, nothing. And the community was much closer knit because of that, I believe.”

Getting back to your work, after Metropolis, you went to Radio Expres, is that right?

“I didn’t quite make it there. There was a large gap of time [between the two broadcasting positions] – it was the better part of six years.

“I needed to find a way to capitalise on what I did, which was music formatting and DJ services.

“I started working in clubs as a DJ, but honestly, it’s the kind of lifestyle that really takes a toll on you.

“So then I started doing music services for businesses. Because if you remember, here in the ‘90s you would go into a lovely restaurant with white tablecloths and they would be playing [radio stations] Evropa 2 or Blaník.

“I thought, Wait a second, there’s something there, we can create formats for businesses.

“When I go to Brno, they greet me like I’m Elvis.”

“I was kind of on the forefront of that and made some spare change doing that.

“Then in around 2001 I heard that Expres Radio had Big J and a guy by the name of Philip Parun doing an English show.

“So [laughs] once again, with the same tenacity, I went up to them and said, You know what, you really need to have me on the air.

“Roman [Ondráček] and Miloš [Pokorný], Težkej Pokondr [a music and broadcasting duo], were running the station at the time and they heard me.

“We got along quite well, we kind of hit it off, and I started a show there called Expres Evenings in English, which ran for four years.

“Then I was asked to step into the programme directship, when MAFRA bought the company.

“It was quite an interesting experience, because I hadn’t worked inside a large Czech organisation. And I probably never will again [laughs], thanks to MAFRA.

“But the people were very interesting and I had, at that point, the only English language morning show in, I guess, mainland Europe.”

You must have been quite famous in those days – were people recognising your voice in the shop, or whatever?

“Actually, I find today that people recognise my voice more.

“Because a lot my listeners today have children the same age as my kids so I’m at more of these events where you’re with your children, and they go, Hey, you’re Dr. Bob – I remember you.

“But thanks to having that platform it certainly helped me with my voice work.”

Now you’re also doing something called Color Music Radio – what is that?

“Color Music Radio is an interesting project, because we’re kind of the last of the real independent radios.

“We’re working on the paradigm of people sharing the passion for great music, whether it’s Celtic music or African music or, in the case of what I do, it’s an amalgamation of rock'n'roll, punk, soul and RnB from the 1950s through to today – maybe not so much from today; I stick with the music I grew up with.

“And we’re an independent band. Right now there is nothing else like it in the Czech Republic.”

Robert Polo, photo: Ondřej TomšůRobert Polo, photo: Ondřej Tomšů Is it online? How can people actually hear it?

“You can find us online, of course, through play.cz or radiocolor.cz.

"But we also have terrestrial signals, all be they not very strong, in Prague, Brno, Opava, Český Krumlov, Znojmo and Karlovy Vary.”

Do people take you as the kind of 'classic American DJ'-type guy, because of your name, because of your voice?

“I think it’s more because of the voice than the name.

“I have to say, Pražané [Praguers] can be very stuck up. People here are very nice to me for what I do, but when I go to Brno, they greet me like I’m Elvis.

“People come up to me and ask for my autograph and photo opportunities.

“I don’t know if it’s just that they have a more soulful experience from what I do, but I really enjoy going down there now.

“In the smaller markets it’s very interesting, because they really take you as their local guy. Because for example in Opava there is no other locally based radio station there.

“They take Color Music Radio as theirs so when I visit there, again, I’m kind of like their big star.”

You’re also one of this country’s best-known voiceover artists. What kind of stuff do you do?

“I think the better question is, What kind of stuff won’t I do? There are very few products that I won’t represent. I can’t think of any off the top of my head right now, especially if the price is right.

“But – we were talking about this off-air – I’ve stopped doing audio guides, because for me to do 10,000 words, which is double what an average person speaks in a day, it takes a toll on my vocal cords.

“You can hear it now… When my vocal cords start to go south, I just stop talking. I shut things down until they’re better again.”

I was thinking, of all professions, yours is one where you simply can’t work if you’re ill or have a head cold. A politician can appear in public and a radio news journalist can do their reporting with a head cold, but you just can’t work, I presume?

“Could you please call my wife and explain that to her? Because she really thinks I’m a hypochondriac.

“And bless her soul because perhaps I have been a little bit over the years, but the second that my vocal cords start to go the Vincentka [mineral water] comes out, the tea, the honey, the slivovice.

“I wrap up my neck and it’s like, Leave me alone.

“But there are other clients that like the raspy sound. So it depends.”

What makes a great voice, for you?

“Believability. Sincerity. If people believe what it is you say, and you have to have a certain degree of sincerity in your voice in order to do that, then you’ve accomplished something if you can communicate that.”

Do you mainly work for Czech clients or for foreign clients?

“I’m very fortunate that I have a very decent client base in the Czech Republic.

“I travel, not as extensively as I would like, to Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Austria.

“Germany is a very tough market to break into because they have a large amount of voice artists there.

“You get a lot of voices online now, people who will do stuff for five dollars.

“Well, I have my fee and if I can’t get that I’m not interested in doing it.

“But in most cases people want you in the studio. They want the meat puppet there so they can say, Do it this way, do it that way.

“I have not had as much success as some other people that we know in doing this stuff across the internet.”

Over the years I have done a little bit of this kind of work and I’ve sometimes found myself in strange situations. For instance, in places somebody is calling a studio but it’s not actually a studio.

“Bathrooms with egg cartons! I’ve seen the scope of them.

“But over the years post-production facilities here have not only increased in number, they have certainly in quality as well.”

Again in my limited experience of dubbing work, sometimes the texts that you receive, it’s just not English. What do you do in that case?

“It started out where I would just go ahead and voice what they had.

“But once my voice became my brand, I’ve told clients, If it’s not right, I can’t put my voice to it.

“So what I decided – because I’ve had 35 years’ experience of writing copy – was that I would offer to restylise it for them.

“The majority of clients accept that. And it’s quite good, because they majority of copywriter write the written word to be read, not to be spoken.

“So it’s a different cadence, there are different breathing points that you need to find.

“And it’s gotten considerably better, especially as the bigger agencies start bringing more international clients in. It’s become more of a priority for them.”

But isn’t it very strange when they say, No, we don’t want you to improve the text. I’ve had this experience too. They say, No, we’ve had it done by a professional – with a diploma!

“We’ve had it done by a native speaker!”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean that he’s smart. That doesn’t mean that he knows what he’s doing.

“You have to be careful, of course, because they’re the client, they’re paying you.

“But on the other hand, when you stand your ground and say, Fine, get another voice to do it, then they understand that you’re pretty serious about it.

“I’ve had pieces of copy, recently, come to me that were so bad that I couldn’t even read them.

“When I tried to restylise them they gave me a headache. I could do a sentence, then I had to walk away and have a cup of coffee and come back.

“I could see what they were trying to communicate. But it’s like they went into Google Translate and just found the synonym with the most amount of syllables.

“And I can kind of understand, because we do it with Czech as well: Oh, that’s a colourful word. But it’s not appropriate.

“So we’ve got to give them some credit. They’re trying.”

Do you work equally between the voice work and radio? Have you got a preference? Which do you do more?

“The radio is a passion. The voice work I love – I’m fortunate in that I don’t wake up and say, Aw, I have to go to work again.

“I would say it’s pretty balanced. The radio is daily and I would like to see the voice work be daily.

“As far as how much revenue I generate, the voice work is much more lucrative.”