Who Is the Voice Behind Your City's Public Transit Announcements?
If you're like millions of other people, you hear the voices of faceless train conductors every day. Whose are they?
Photo by Jens Scott Knudsen
If you're like millions of other people, you hear the announcements of faceless train conductors every day. You may find yourself associating a particular place or intersection with the announcement on your route. We've seen the woman behind the voice of Apple's Siri and the voice behind AOL's iconic "You've Got Mail." But what about the voices of those who accompany riders on some of America's largest public transit and rail systems?
New York City
New York City's transit system, which is run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York (MTA) and The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PATH), has many voices. One of them belongs to Charlie Pellett, a veteran news anchor and reporter for Bloomberg Radio and an avid subway commuter. "Stand clear of the closing doors!" Pellett can often be heard warning over the speakers in the city's newest subway cars, the R142s. There are also less frequent announcements. "If you see an elderly, pregnant, or handicap person near you, offer your seat," he warmly advises New Yorkers. "You'll be standing up for what's right. Courtesy is contagious and it begins with you."
Carolyn Hopkins lives in Maine, and has recorded subway announcements for two decades. A former soul singer, Hopkins got her start writing radio commercial jingles. When her bosses started Innovative Electronic Designs, a company providing automated paging systems for airports and large buildings, she became the company's smiling female voice. Today IED is the world's leading automated voice provider, putting Hopkins' voice in over a hundred airports, along with the Paris Metro and the Chicago transit system. Oddly enough, reports City Room, Hopkins herself has only ridden in a subway once, back in 1957.
Bernie Wagenblast, a transportation consultant, is yet another voice of New York City's subway system. He can be heard in subway stations throughout the city, providing updates on the 1 through 6 trains. Wagenblast records his announcements from the desk of his New Jersey home office.
In 2012, Wagenblast recorded a selection of fantasy subway announcements, which can be found on the City Room blog. They included "Watch the gap—and by the way, you look marvelous, simply marvelous!", and "Wake up everybody, it's time for volleyball!" There was even a subway rap ("Spitting Mad 411 Remix") submitted by Christopher Bonewitz, to which Wagenblast performed like the subway MC that he is.
PATH trains in New Jersey seem to still employ manual announcements on some trains, and some conductors have especially smooth deliveries, including this announcement on a train as it terminates at Journal Square in New Jersey (system map). Other PATH announcements are still delivered by recording.
New York's subway system has, naturally, been widely mocked. The Gothamist reported that the MTA found that only 17 percent of their station's platform announcements were audible. Even Saturday Night Live took to making fun of the issue in a January 1993 skit (not found online) in which Harvey Keitel and the SNL cast parody the subway's (then and sometimes still now) inaudible station announcements.
In 2006 Washington DC's, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority announced a competition to find the voice of their subway system. Just as in New York City, transit riders had complained about the inaudibility of announcements. The competition's winner—selected from 1,259 contestants—was occasional transit rider Randi Miller, who was working at a Lexus dealership at the time of the competition.
On DC's Metro trains, station announcements are still given manually by the conductor. "An automated voice informs riders what the next destination is in LA," writes Mathew Fleming of the Los Angeles Register, "but in DC, this job is done live, and no two drivers are the same. Some talk really fast, some have a broken mic, some are peppy, some sound sad. Occasionally, you get one that's not afraid to show some spunk."
For riders of the Chicago Transit Authority, Lee Crooks is a name that not many know, but whose voice they recognize and hear every day. Crooks, a professional voiceover artist, records the announcements for the system's L-trains and buses. He has lent his voice to some of the country's largest corporations, including McDonalds, Wrangler, Beltone, Coors, Sears, John Deere and Walgreens, among others. He auditioned for the CTA's announcement role in 1997 after imitating the announcer's voice on Walt Disney World's Monorail. In an interview, Crooks said that he and the CTA try to make sure that pronunciations are consistent with local dialects. Riders of Chicago's L have even dedicated websites to local station announcements.
Frank Oglesby, Jr.
In Boston, baritone Frank Oglesby, Jr. greets riders on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's trains each day. Oglesby is MBTA's deputy director of customer service for operations, and landed the job after MBTA decided to transition from manual announcements to recorded announcements to comply with Federal Transit Administration standards. You can hear all of his Red Line announcements in this video, as a recent train decided to cycle through all its station announcements at one time.
George and Gracie
In 2009 the San Francisco and Oakland area's Bay Area Rapid Transit system announced its transition from conductor-given announcements to automated voices. But they didn't belong to humans. BART concluded that "with dozens of stations and thousands of train arrivals every day, real live human beings just couldn't keep up with the job of voicing all those announcements." The voices were designed by Lucent Technologies, whose Bell Labs Division has been a pioneer in text-to-speech technology. "Lucent called its male voice John and its female voice Grace; at BART, they came to be called George and Gracie. The announcements alternate between the male and female voices on odd- and even-numbered platforms." As realistic as they may sound, the robotic voices lack the personality that riders of other transit systems enjoy.
Riders in Philadelphia will recognize the voice of Alvin Elliott, one of the eight rail announcers the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) uses to relay travel information to passengers. Elliott was a station attendant in 2000, when SEPTA decided to transition to automatic announcements; after an audition, he became the voice of SEPTA ("He's just one of those positive-type persons," enthused Joe Baldino, director of the Center City SEPTA stations). There's even an imitator on YouTube.
In Atlanta, Michele Torres is the voice of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. A model, singer, and occasional TV host, Torres has experienced a very tough last few years, battling breast cancer and the loss of her brother. Skip to the 2:48 mark of this story to see her MARTA announcement.
Metro instituted automatic announcements on their gold and green lines in 2004, with its blue line following in 2006. There are variations in voices among different lines within the system, but there appears to be no identifiable voice. You can listen to some of the announcements yourself here. One might think that with the entertainment industry in Hollywood there might be a famous voice behind the station announcements. Yet, as with the voice of Houston's METRO, the real identity of this voice remains a mystery.
Disney Monorail. Photo: Gary L Wood / Flickr
In 2012, Walt Disney World Resort decided to change the voice of their monorail announcement. Orlando native and voice actor Joe Hursh had been the voice of the monorail announcements since 2004. Disney did not change the recognizable "Please Stand Clear of the Doors. Por favor manténganse alejado de las puertas." These were the words of Jack Wagner, a former voice actor who passed away in 1995, and was the monorail's first announcer when it opened in 1971. The new voice of the monorail is Tom Kane, a voice actor who played the role of Yoda in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Among his singular announcements: "Ladies and gentlemen: this monorail will return to the Magic Kingdom."