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Tom Bodett: an American Voice  

His jingle for Motel 6, “We’ll leave the light on for you,” is one of the more recognizable, and long lived ad campaigns in existence. Tom Bodett’s voice speaks of American sensibility – an honest, no nonsense tone telling a tale of how it really is –the subtle inflection and timbre threading into the fabric of a national essence, and has become an American treasure of sorts. Of course, he’d probably downplay that. How he got there is no surprise. The Michigan native credits his father, Peter, “who had an exceptionally dry and sarcastic wit,” as the origin of his own delivery. “Not everyone found him to be funny,” he adds, “but obviously, one of his sons found it funny enough to imitate.” Tom found himself drawn to writing – to storytelling, and writing and radio were, as he describes, “natural extensions” of that practice. “I tend to pick projects that interest me and then stop... when they don't interest me anymore,” he writes. That authenticity permeates his work.

His coming of age period began in his early 20’s as a cross country trek took him to the frontier world of Alaska – that untamed bastion of wilderness and grit that has forged the likes of Jack London, and ill fated adventurer of Into the Wild fame, Chris McCandless. Bold images of gold nuggets in wooden sluice boxes, mukluks, huskies hauling sleds – rugged and real – all come to mind. “Alaska is in almost every way the place where I grew up – even thought I didn't get there until I was 21,” Bodett says. He remained there for some twenty five years, forging lifelong friendships, and establishing his voices of both written and spoken word. Now living with this family in Dummerston, Vermont, a rural community in the more geographically connected region of New England, Bodett still remembers Alaska as a place of “jaw dropping beauty,” but fraught with the thing that paradoxically makes it so appealing – the distance.

Working in construction in Alaska, Bodett decided to hunker down and continue his writing – churning out an article for the Anchorage Daily News on a typewriter. To his surprise they published it, and his self effacing, from the hip take on things drew the attention of a local public radio host, who invited Tom on his show. One thing led to another: parlaying the success into an NPR spot, and from there the Motel 6 ad campaign.

Bodett also had a role in the mid nineties Steven Spielberg creation Animaniacs. When discussing his work on the show, Tom described it as: “The most fun I ever got paid for.” He would occasionally record in his Alaska studio, or sometimes travel to Los Angeles for work on the animated series. “It was a room full of grown-ups who make cartoons for a living. We laughed a lot,” he adds. That earnest take on the project – the humble, yet bull’s-eye perspective on things carves to the essence of Bodett’s career. The segment Good Idea/Bad Idea showcased Tom’s almost laconic delivery as a hypothetical “good idea” was juxtaposed with a corresponding “bad idea.” The intro to the recurring bit featured conspicuously, the “o” letters in “good,” and the “i” of “bad idea” as pull string light bulbs being turned on – nodding to the cultural gravitas of Bodett’s almost canonical ad work with Motel 6.

Tom continues to be a contributor on NPR, an enterprise that first landed him the Motel 6 gig in the mid 1980’s, and a venue that forces him to “watch my grammar,” with an audience that “keeps you on your toes.” His humility is apparent. Bodett’s sincerity comes through in his voice, both written and spoken, and in many ways, he speaks for America.

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