Letcher County’s ‘60 Minutes’ man
By Sally Barto
The Mountain Eagle
On weekday nights at 6:30, the voice of Letcher County native Robb Webb can be heard introducing news anchor Scott Pelley to the 6.1 million viewers who have tuned in to watch “The CBS Evening News.”
On Sunday nights, Webb’s voice addresses 12 million viewers who watch the CBS News magazine, “60 Minutes.”
And remember those “Get rid of cable and upgrade to DirecTV” ads that were all the rage not too long ago? Webb’s voice (“When your cable goes out, you get stressed”) is credited with helping make those ads some of TV’s most popular ever.
Webb is a voiceover actor whose work has been heard by many millions of people, whether they were visiting Disney World in Florida, the Hershey chocolate factory in Pennsylvania, or, until this past May, watching the “Late Show With David Letterman.”
This recent view of Robb Webb at work on a voiceover project was shared on the social media website Pinterest. Webb’s recent work includes a series of National Football League documentaries that will air soon on the NFL Network. He was in Letcher County last week to visit his younger brother, Jim Webb, who lives on Pine Mountain near Whitesburg.
He spoke with The Mountain Eagle about growing up in Letcher County and elsewhere and about his long and successful career in radio, television and advertising.
Nelson Robinette “Robin” Webb was born on January 29, 1939 in a house on Riverside Drive in what is known as the Upper Bottom section of Whitesburg. He was named in honor of his grandfather. His father, Watson Caudill Webb, was superintendent of the Letcher County school system in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s.
“Whitesburg was part of me,” said Webb. “I knew I was born here. I have pictures of me wearing a band uniform when I was probably three years old and marching with the band because my dad was superintendent.”
After the Letcher school board hired Martha Jane Potter as superintendent in 1943, Watson and June Salling Webb and three-yearold Robin moved to Louisville, where the elder Webb worked at a defense factory during World War II.
The Webbs moved back to Letcher County a couple of years later and Robin attended first grade at a two-room school at Sergent, where his mother’s parents lived.
In 1945, Watson and June Webb had their second child, Jim, who was born at the Jenkins hospital. The family moved to Bellaire, Ohio a year later, where Watson Webb took a job as a traveling suit salesman, a job he held earlier in his life to pay his way through college.
“He would go around to coal camps, because everybody had to have a good suit,” remembers Jim Webb, who works as a radio announcer in Whitesburg. “They were tailor made. He would do the measurements and stuff. He carried samples of the materials. He would send it to Cincinnati and they would make the suits and send them back to Dad.”
In Ohio, the Webbs settled into a house in the town of Shadyside, located a few miles from Bellaire near Wheeling, West Virginia. There, Robin, as he was still known, was to start school as a second-grader at the Bellaire school, but was advanced to third grade instead.
“I was this kid from Whitesburg who talked with a Kentucky accent and the kids up there all made fun of it,” said Robb Webb. “I was known as Robin, which was not a popular boy’s name in those days.”
Both Robb and Jim Webb recall that all of their family vacations as children were spent visiting relatives in Letcher County, including their mother’s family at Sergent.
“In Ohio, we had no kin at all,” said Jim Webb. “Then we would come down here and it seemed like we were kin to everybody. Everybody knew us and we didn’t know them.”
Beginning at age 16, Robb Webb spent two summers in Letcher County with his uncle and aunt, Gordon R. and Nan Lou Lewis, owners of Pine Mountain Sand and Gravel. He earned $1 an hour driving a sand-loaded dump truck from the quarry down Pine Mountain. He remembers that when the mechanical devices that loaded the sand into the trucks broke down the workers had to shovel the sand by hand.
“Shoveling three to six tons of sand into a dump truck was no fun at all,” Webb said before adding that working at Pine Mountain Sand and Gravel was mostly enjoyable. “Whitesburg remained a big part of my life. It was the two most important high school summers — actually having a job and having a responsibility driving a truck with six tons of sand in it. I felt very important.”
After graduating from Shadyside High School, Webb attended Ohio State University, where he majored in radio and television, his goal being to find a job as a television director.
While Robb was a student at Ohio State, his parents and brother returned to eastern Kentucky in June 1959, this time to Hazard, where Watson Webb took a job with the Perry County school system and June Webb accepted a position with the Miner’s Memorial Hospital in Hazard (now ARH).
After three years of college in Columbus, Ohio, Robb Webb became unhappy and quit.
“So at Ohio State I looked at a bulletin board,” he said. “A guy had put up a sign saying he was driving to California [on] such and such a date. If you’d share expenses, he would take a passenger in a Volkswagen, which was unusual in 1959. So I called him up.”
Unable to find a good job in California, Webb enlisted in the Army in February 1960. At age 21, he landed an assignment with Armed Forces Radio and Television.
Meanwhile, an FBI agent was sent to Letcher County to conduct a security check required for Webb’s Army position. As part of the security check, the agent walked into the Letcher County Clerk’s Office in the courthouse in Whitesburg and asked for information about Webb. Expecting to leave with a birth certificate, the agent was given more information about Webb than he needed. It just so happened that Grace Wells, the nurse who delivered Webb, was also in the clerk’s office at the time.
“She just turned right around and tells this FBI guy intimate details — what time, where and who was there and stuff like that,” Jim Webb remembers being told of the agent’s visit.
With the security clearance now taken care of, Robb Webb was assigned to work at a radio and television studio in Asmara, Ethiopia. Located at an elevation of 7,628 feet, Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea, is located on an “escarpment,” a cliff formed by a geologic fault.
“It was absolutely one of the most beautiful places I have ever been,” said Robb Webb.
Webb eventually became program director at the station.
“I directed the evening news on camera,” he said. “I directed sitting at a desk reading news that came over from the Associated Press.”
He was also the disc jockey for an afternoon radio show and he directed and produced a Saturday dance party for teenagers.
“They had an American high school,” said Webb. “Military over a certain rank could have their families with them. We had a sort of a Dick Clark-type dance party that I produced and directed. We would very often have costumes. We played music and they danced. We had three cameras out on the floor trying to be as good as Dick Clark, but not. We had no budget. It was black and white TV. We didn’t have videotape back in those days.”
Most of the programming consisted of television shows sent from the U.S. on film without commercials. Each show was about 24 minutes long. Webb also directed specialized shows including a western and a space adventure.
“I had a great time with the radio and TV station,” he said. “I got a lot of experience working radio and TV.”
The Army base in Asmara, located on the Horn of Africa, was Kagnew Station and was actually the United States’ largest antenna installation for monitoring Russian and Chinese communications during the Cold War.
After his two-year stint in Ethiopia, Webb became an information specialist at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.
“I was going on occasional trips and interviewing soldiers at Army posts in western states,” he said. “A group of us would travel. There would be a TV guy with a camera and a soundman. I would interview soldiers in full uniform. Then they would send these one- and two-minute things,to the home TV station nearest the soldier. So I did probably a half a dozen of those trips. When I wasn’t doing that I was writing press releases for Fort Sam Houston.”
After completing is military obligations, Robb Webb took a job as a day shift disc jockey at AM radio station KITE in San Antonio, Texas. He kept the job for four years, during which time he married, had a child and divorced.
Webb then accepted a job as program director for a radio station in San Bernardino, California, but after three months he moved back to San Antonio and was hired as a copywriter for an advertising agency.
“This was a real complicated time in my life,” he said.
A job with a radio station that competed with KITE lasted for six months before Webb decided that particular station wasn’t for him.
“I had to start at 6 (a.m.) and I really hated that,” he said.
While bought his first really good camera. He later realized that he loved taking pictures and ended up being one of the principal photographers for HemisFair ’68, the official 1968 World’s Fair that was held in San Antonio.
“It was the best job I have ever had in my life,” he said. “It was great. I loved it. I got really sharp at being a professional photographer. I said never again am I going to work in radio, television or anything like that. I am just going to be a photographer.”
During his time spent working in radio and at HemisFair ‘68, Webb began acting in plays at an amateur theatre in San Antonio. He was one of a group of 12 actors who started The Billboard Theatre in a renovated restaurant building that overlooked the San Antonio River.
“It became a very important part of my life and I acted in many plays,” Webb said.
After a couple from the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas, watched Webb perform in “Barefoot in the Park” while they were in San Antonio during the latter part of the World’s Fair, Webb was asked to audition for work with the Alley Theatre. He was hired to be in the acting company and to take photographs at a salary of $120 a week.
“Two plays into the first season they asked me if I would like to join the union and become a full fledged equity member and I did,” he said. “I worked very hard at the Alley Theatre and had never taken an acting class in my life. It became apparent sometimes when they’d audition me for a certain part and I wouldn’t get it I would realize why. I wasn’t as smooth as some of the other actors when the material was new. It took me longer to get used to them. By the time the second season ended I decided to move to New York.”
Webb and his wife moved to New York in 1970 and he immediately began taking acting classes.
“It took me four years to start getting regular work,” he said. “I was getting some voiceover work because I had worked in radio. I did some plays that you don’t get paid for. They were semi-professional. You could work for no pay.”
Webb also worked two or three evenings a week at a classical music radio station in New York City, earning $50 a day.
“They offered me a fulltime job at the radio station and I turned it down,” said Webb. “I thanked them very much. They were very nice to me, but I turned them down. I never worked in radio again.”
With radio now behind him, Webb continued to do voiceovers and audition for plays. Webb said he became more employable after he performed in the March 1976 off-Broadway play, “Who Killed Richard Cory?” by then-rising playwright A.R. Gurney, whose later works included “Love Letters,” starring Kathleen Turner, and “The Dining Room,” which starred actor William H. Macy among others.
“My one and only Broadway play was ‘Sly Fox’ with George C. Scott,” said Webb. “I was basically an understudy. I was on stage a lot, but didn’t say much. At one point I had to go on in my understudy role with no notice. I was nervous as hell every single time because I never really rehearsed that role.”
“Sly Fox” premiered on December 14, 1976 and was directed by Arthur Penn. Webb was paid about $400 a week for his role in the play, which he kept for nine months.
“That was important because I could now say that I had done a Broadway show,” said Webb. “It wasn’t a major break because it was a minor role.”
Meanwhile, Webb continued to audition for voiceovers and began to find success.
“I started making a really good living doing voiceovers,” he said. “I was making money in a number of different ways and it suddenly occurred to me that since I was doing really well in voiceovers maybe I should take time off from theater and not worry about that. I could always come back to it. I’ll wait ‘til I really establish myself in voiceovers and then I will come back to theater and movies. I never did. I kept meaning to.”
Since leaving his acting career behind, Webb has narrated books and scripts for a wide variety of projects.
“My wife and I went to Disney World years ago,” said Webb. “They had machines talking about the products they do and I was the voiceover. “’Press this button now and watch what happens.’ I was the voice on several machines at Epcot Center.”
Jim Webb was touring Hershey, Pennsylvania several years ago and was visiting an attraction that told the process of making a Hershey bar when he heard a voice that sounded familiar.
“Wait a minute,” Jim Webb remembered thinking. “That was Robb. I recognized him immediately.”
Jim Webb said his brother has a great voice and an acting background, which allows him to use his voice in a wide range.
“I can approach it as a solid newsman or as a dangerous newsman,” said Robb Webb.
Webb has done voiceovers for more than 1,000 commercials. He played the part of Mark Twain on camera for an Exxon commercial portraying famous Americans.
Since 1997, Webb has worked as the announcer for “60 Minutes” on CBS. At the end of each show, it is he who says, “For more on this story go to …”
Each week he records 10-second promos that air on CBS on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The promos either begin or end with “Sunday on 60 Minutes” or “Tonight on 60 Minutes.” Webb recently narrated highlights for 10 NFL team documentaries to air on the NFL Network. And don’t forget those 2012 DirecTV “get rid of cable” commercials.
“They started with three commercials and they kept adding more,” said Webb. “It worked very well. It got me a lot of other work, too.”
From 1998 until May 2015, when David Letterman retired from CBS, Webb could be heard on some of the fake commercials that were featured on “The Late Show with David Letterman.”
“I could do funny,” he said. “I could do news like. I could do pretty much anything they wanted me to do. That was a great gig. I loved doing those.”
Webb said he only met Letterman one time during all those years. He said that came when Alan Kalter, the regular announcer for the Letterman show, took off for a week to mourn the death of his father and Webb, who had auditioned for the announcer’s position years earlier, filled in for two episodes that were filmed in one day. Letterman walked up to him in between filming and thanked him for filling in for Kalter.
“He’s a very, very private man,” he said.
Webb also did the narrations for actor and musician John Lurie’s show, “Fishing with John,” which aired on the Bravo and IFC cable channels in 1991 and featured actors such as Matt Dillon, Willem Dafoe, and Dennis Hop- per, and musician Tom Waits.
“It was spoofy stuff,” said Jim Webb. “It was a fishing show unlike anything else.”
The show featured Lurie, co-founder of the Lounge Lizards, on fishing trips with one celebrity at a time.
The show continues to have a sizeable following and is available on DVD.
“John Lurie called Robb the Michael Jordan of narration,” said Jim Webb. “That is quoted in The New York Times.”
“ He really liked my work,” said Robb Webb. “John was very fond of the way I narrated. It’s comedic, but it is very straight faced. He was glad that I could say some really ridiculous sounding things that came across as funny. They were ridiculous because there was no indication that they were jokes.”
As Webb reflected on his long path to finding happiness in his career, he cautions young people interested in the acting business.
“I loved going to movies and wanted to be in a movie,” he said. “Times were less sophisticated at that point. A single movie could be one of the most important things of your life and you could be remembered forever. That doesn’t happen very much anymore.”
Webb said it is hard to make a living as an actor.
“I proved it by moving to New York and trying to be an actor and discovering that, yeah, I worked occasionally and I made a little bit of money but I was making a living doing these voices,” said Webb. “That’s a little different. Having been in the Army for three years and traveled overseas and having traveled with a film crew in the Army and Texas when we were doing those documentaries, I had a lot of experience working in and around the industry so I think it was probably a secret thing to one day be an actor.”
Voiceover work is also becoming more competitive, Webb said.
“It used to be actors don’t do commercials,” he said. “That’s not the case now. Tom Selleck is all over commercials now. George Clooney has some commercials that are running in Japan.”
Celebrities are no longer belittled or considered washed up if they are in commercials, he said.
“If you are a really well known actor and do commercials you make a lot of money,” he said. “It’s changed now. Everybody wants to do commercials. A lot of times it is not necessarily because they sound better than you or read better than you. It is because the guy gets to go to the session and have coffee with them and sign an autograph for his kids.”
The single rate for a nationally aired television commercial is between $500 and $600. The commercial runs 13 weeks.
“If they play on the air they have to pay you every time they play,” said Webb. “I have made as much as $20,000 from one commercial. Not anymore. It doesn’t happen that much anymore.”