Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Voices of Public Transit

Earlier this morning actor Seth Rogan announced that he would be the voice for Vancouver's public transit system, TransLink. The video, posted by Rogan, shows a Twitter conversation between he and Vancouver's TransLink, the city's transportation network, which serves "residents and visitors with public transit, major roads, bridges and Trip Planning." Vancouver journalist Stephanie Ip made the suggestion to TransLink back at the end of May when the transit provider originally announced that Morgan Freeman had been selected to provide train announcements in partnership with Visa. The Vancouver Sun reported that Freeman's voice would be used in announcements of the partnership, and for transit etiquette, but not for individual stop announcements. Freeman, just a few days later, was pulled from the project after allegations of sexual harassment. Others questioned why a Canadian celebrity couldn't do the announcements. (Freeman is/was the voice of Visa.)

Ip's suggestion of Rogan came to fruition today. Rogan, who grew up in Vancouver, is shown in the video announcing "Any opportunity to enrich the lives of the Canadian people is an opportunity I will take." Rogan will make announcements about etiquette, with one sample from the video reading "I know your bag is probably very nice, and you care deeply for it, but, that doesn't mean it needs its own seat." Another read "Those are very nice sneakers, but kind of a horror show of a sole. So get those feet off the seat. My momma might be sitting there one day, come on!"

So, if you're in Vancouver anytime soon, listen for Rogan's voice on your next transit trip. This will undoubtedly raise the awareness of public transit in Vancouver, and I think we can expect other agencies to follow suit. I can imagine (and recommend!) Houston's METRO including announcements from Beyonce, or from local athletes JJ Watt or Jose Altuve. Again, this would be a great marketing approach for any local transit agency, and something that would be quite fun, and educational.

It's doubtful that there will be any long-term influence solely through the use of celebrity transit announcements, but it may be something that entices people to ride transit (maybe just once, just to hear a voice!) that might not otherwise consider it.

Voices of Public Transit

Four years ago I wrote a post chronicling the voices of a variety of transit systems throughout the United States. (It was also posted on the Motherboard website.) It began with my curiosity of the announcements I heard each day riding Houston's METRO buses.

There was a woman who greeted thousands of transit riders per day in Houston. She never missed a day, and was consistent in her delivery. She greeted riders every morning with the same reminder: "Please tap your Q Card as you enter the bus." She read our route numbers and crossroads, and pointed to key destinations along the way. She even thanked you for riding METRO

Courtesy: METRO
If you ride Houston's light rail system she will remind you of each station, and what side the car doors will open when arriving at the station. There are also notices in Spanish for stations and door opening directions. So, that begs to ask, is the METRO Lady bilingual? Really, who is she? Does she live in Houston? Does she herself use public transit? Does she have to listen to herself each morning on her commute? What are her hobbies?... Okay, that's getting carried away. But in all curiosity, it's a voice Houstonians hear every day. So, METRO, who is the METRO Lady that reads our travel destinations each day? Does she have a name? If not, maybe we could give her an official name. 

After a bit of searching, I was able to find out who provided METRO's announcements. I also found out who provided the voices of many other systems. Thankfully, Bernie Wagenblast, a transportation communications expert in New Jersey, has been helping provide updated information about transit systems and their voices over the past few years. It's a fitting time to make sure that this list is updated.

But in all curiosity, announcements are something that urban denizens hear every day if they utilize public transit. Riders can probably find themselves remembering phrases throughout their routes, sometimes throughout the rest of their 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", now let's shed some light on the voices of those who accompany riders on some of America's largest public transit and rail systems.

New York City - Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York (MTA) / The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PATH)

Charlie Pellett

New York City's transit system has many voices. One of the voices for announcements in stations and on trains is provided by Charlie Pellett, a veteran news anchor and reporter for Bloomberg Radio.

Carolyn Hopkins

Another voice in New York City MTA stations is provided by Carolyn Hopkins. Hopkins lives in Maine, and has recorded subway announcements for about 15 years. Oddly enough, this article from the New York Times City Room blog gives light to the fact that Hopkins herself has only ridden in a subway once, back in 1957! Here's another article that explains how Hopkins and colleague Jack Fox have come to be the voices of 110 airports (I'm sure you'll recognize her voice!), as well as the New York City subway system.

Bernie Wagenblast

Bernie Wagenblast, a transportation communicator, 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 one through six trains. Wagenblast records his announcements from the desk of his New Jersey home office.

The New York Times City Room blog had some fun with Wagenblast back in 2012, calling for fantasy subway announcements.  Wagenblast recorded a selection, 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 he is.

Here's another great clip of Wagenblast chatting with local access broadcaster Paul DeRienzo about his recordings, as well as his other radio and transportation related activities.

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 hasn't been exempt from mocking either. The Gothamist reported that the MTA found that only 17 percent of their station's platform announcements were audible. And, even SNL took to making fun of the issue in a January 1993 skit where Harvey Keitel and the SNL cast made an entire skit surrounding the premise of inaudible station announcements. (I've looked for the skit, and can't seem to find it anywhere online.)

Washington DC - Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA / METRO)

Randi Miller

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 was occasional transit rider Randi Miller, who was working at a Lexus dealership at the time of the competition. Miller was selected from 1,259 contestants, and as a result has been routinely recognized throughout Washington DC. Station announcements on trains are still given manually on DC's Metro.

Chicago / Chicago Transit Authority (CTA)

Lee Crooks

For Chicago transit riders, Lee Crooks is a name that not many know, but whose voice they recognize and hear every day. Crooks is the voice of Chicago's CTA announcements.

Crooks records the announcements for the system's L-trains and buses. Crooks, a professional voiceover artist, has done work for 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 shed some light to the fact that he and the CTA try to follow up to make sure that pronunciations are consistent with local dialects, and understands the impact that his announcements may have on the identification of a street or station. Riders of Chicago's L have even dedicated websites to local station announcements.

Boston / Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority  (MBTA)

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 his transit announcement job by accident. Oglesby explains how he landed the job as he worked in the system's communications department. In this Boston University article, Oglesby recalls how MBTA decided to transition from manual announcements to recorded announcements to comply with Federal Transit Administration standards. MBTA needed a voice, and Oglesby has had the job ever since. 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.

San Fran / OAK / (Bay Area Rapid Transit) BART

George and Gracie

In 2009 the San Francisco and Oakland area's Bay Area Rapid Transit system announced new voices for their transit system. However, instead of actually having a human record announcements, digitally created announcements were introduced. BART named George and Gracie, the new synthesized voices of BART.
BART relied on human, conductor-given announcements on its trains, but made the decision to move to an automated system in the late 1990's. 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."
"BART chose a text-to-speech (TTS) system from Lucent Technologies, based on the long history of Lucent’s Bell Labs Division in developing TTS products. 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."

Riders of BART may argue that the system's announcements lack the same intimacy or connection that other major systems have, knowing that there is not an actual person associated with their transit announcements. George and Gracie sound more like robots than station guides.

Philadelphia / Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA)

Alvin Elliott

Riders in the Philadelphia area will recognize the voice of Alvin Elliottone of the eight rail announcers that SEPTA uses to relay travel information to passengers. And, like all systems, SEPTA has instituted changes to their destination names to keep them current with the built environment. Elliott was a station attendant and when SEPTA transitioned to automatic announcements around 2000, he became the voice of SEPTA. There's even an imitator on YouTube that is quite caught up by Elliott's station announcements.

Atlanta / Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority  (MARTA)

Michele Torres

In Atlanta, Michele Torres is the voice of MARTA. She's also now a model. She has had a very tough last few years, battling breast cancer, as well as the loss of her brother. Skip to the 2:48 mark of this story to see her MARTA announcement.

Los Angeles / Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro)

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. A recent review of Metro's Los Angeles rail system compared it to Washington DC's Metro. Among other things, the reviewer noticed that announcements in Los Angeles were made automatically, while those in Washington DC are still made manually aboard trains.

Mathew Fleming of the Los Angeles Register recalls:
An automated voice informs riders what the next destination is in L.A., but in D.C., 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. 
One might be led to think that with the entertainment industry in Hollywood that there might be a famous voice behind the station announcements. Like Houston, this one is still a mystery.

Portland / TriMet MAX Light Rail

Enrique Andrade

In Portland, Enrique Andrade works as a courtroom interpreter, but moonlights providing TriMet's MAX Light Rail Spanish announcements. In a recent Oregonian story by Joseph Rose, we are given an update on a 2006 story, which highlights how Andrade became the Spanish voice of MAX announcements. Andrade, like many other transit voices, has lent his voice to local media outlets, and is represented by a voiceover talent agency.

Jodi Lorimer

Jodi Lorimer is the female voice to Portland's MAX English announcements, pointing riders to stations and the door side for each stop. Lorimer's voice "welcomes you aboard, advises to use caution when crossing track and gives a polite reminder to move for seniors and people with disabilities", as noted by Joseph Rose. More of Lorimer's credits are listed on this Portland MAX blog.

Orlando / Walt Disney World Resort Monorail

Tom Kane

Finally, what public transit list would be complete without the Walt Disney World Resort monorail? 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 has played to role of Yoda in Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

Hong Kong / MTR (Mass Transit Railway)

Cheri Chan Yu-yan

In Hong Kong, Cheri Chan provides the voice for city's trains and stations. She has been the voice of the MTR since 1992, beating out five other candidates for the position. She continues to provide announcement updates for new stations as well as re-worded announcements. Her voice provided standardized announcements, which replaced the often incomprehensible announcements made by individual drivers.

Minneapolis - St. Paul / Metro Transit

Kathleen Humphrey

Actress and singer Kathleen Humphrey lends her voice to her hometown Metro Transit Authority in the Twin Cities. She regularly sings in front of orchestra and opera audiences, but her biggest audience is the 60,000 people per day that ride Metro Transit's light rail system. Humphrey "won the part of the voice of light rail through an audition process in which both men and women applied. The goal is a voice that's 'warm, sort of neutral, authoritative, calm, reassuring.'"

Philadelphia, PA, Camden, NJ / PATCO

Bernie Wagenblast

PATCO, the Port Authority Transit Corporation of the Delaware River Port Authority, recently revealed the agency's "'next generation' train cars -- refurbished cars with upgraded interiors, as well as communication and operating systems" according to Greg Adomaitis of Based on the agency's social media accounts, they began operating their refurbished train cars during the first week of June 2015.

The refurbishment of PATCO's train cars features new interiors, security and mechanical improvements, as well as upgraded communication systems, including clear station announcements. Riders of New York's subway line may find the voice familiar. It is none other than Bernie Wagenblast, most noted for his "Next Train Arriving" announcements for New York City's 1-6 subway lines. In this sample of the new PATCO announcements, you can hear Wagenblast announce "Westmont Station next, Westmont". Riders seem to enjoy the new announcements, as Adomaitis described them as being "crystal clear".

Mobile Users: Tap to Hear the Audio (Shout)

New York City - Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York (MTA) - Lexington Avenue Line (45, and 6 Trains)

Jessica Ettinger

Jessica Ettinger is the Today Show radio anchor for Sirius XM, but is also the voice of subway announcements that passengers hear on New York's Lexington Avenue subway line. New York's NBC 4 said in a recent story that "Fifteen years ago, Ettinger lent the MTA her voice while working at Bloomberg News. They had her record "the next stop is" just once, and then she recorded the names of all the stops on the line." It seems her recordings are a bit too long for station stops, and the MTA is considering replacing her announcements with shorter ones given the record number of subways riders, which results in increased frequency of trains.

London - Transport for London (TfL) bus, and London Overground rail

Emma Hignett

The Guardian Cities features Emma Hignett, the voice of London's bus and London Overground rail system. Until 2005 London's transit announcements were made manually by bus and train drivers, when they were replaced by pre-recorded messages. Guardian Cities asks whether this shift will "kill personality on the morning commute." While the personality of driver-led announcements provides some charm and flexibility, the article is quick to point to the benefit of consistency, and the ability to readily provide announcements in multiple languages (as evidenced in Cape Town, South Africa).

Toronto - Toronto Transit Commission - TTC

Danny Nicholson

Danny Nicholson has provided his voice for Toronto's TTC announcements for nearly 20 years, but has now retired. Nicholson served as a radio announcer for many years before returning to school to study corporate communications, and eventually landing a position with the TTC. He became the voice for system announcements after a coworker suggested he audition for the job. Brad Ross, TTC executive director, corporate communications, offered, "Danny’s familiar and friendly, but authoritative voice, has been a mainstay in the subway for the last 16 years. If you didn’t know to stand back of the yellow line, mind the gap or not smoke on TTC property, you soon did after hearing one of the many public service announcements Danny recorded over the years."

Nicholson's voice will now be replaced with a professional female announcer.

Andrea Rooz

It hasn't taken long, but it appears that Toronto's TTC has chosen to use Andrea Rooz to be the voice of their transit announcements. Rooz notes that she grew up mimicking the TTC's announcements, but now she gets to record them for real according to Toronto's Metro News. Rooz says "nothing is as satisfying as being able to help the thousands of commuters who take the TTC every day."

Ottawa - OC Transpo 

Julian Doucet

Julian Doucet lends his voice to Ottawa, Canada's city buses and certain train lines. Doucet's experience in becoming the voice of OC Transpo is chronicled by the Megan Gillis in the Ottawa Citizen. As opposed to other Voices of Public Transit that auditioned for the role, Doucet's voice was picked from a bank of voice talents, and he competed with three women for the voice role, and he notes that "it was like American Idol but for bus stops."

Milwaukee - Milwaukee County Transit System

Maria Lopez and Tom Pantaleo

In 2017 the Milwaukee County Transit System announced that Maria Lopez and Tom Pantaleo, both personal voiceover artists, would be providing system announcements. Mass Transit reports that "Maria can be heard announcing all route names, bus stops, landmarks and transfers, while Tom is responsible for letting riders know about important rider messages."

Salt Lake City - Utah Transit Authority / FrontRunner

Ananda Alles

In Utah, Ananda Alles has quite the story. The 66-year old once-retired native Sri Lankan is now an engineer for the UTA's FrontRunner commuter trains. Alles's voice can also be heard by riders in recorded safety messages. Alles retired and relocated to Utah after one of his sons and his family decided to stay in Utah after attending college at the University of Utah. Alles grew up riding trains in Sri Lanka, and recalled his enjoyment of them. He answered an advertisement in the newspaper for UTA, and has been working as a train engineer for the past few years.

Alles says "I’m lucky. I found something I love. If you have a good day and a nice train, what could be better than that?"

Denver - Denver International Airport Train

Alan Roach and Kim Christiansen

In early 2018, 75,000 Denver residents voted to continue to hear the voice of local sports announcer Alan Roach, and to include the voice of news anchor Kim Christiansen, in Denver International Airport's train announcements. 10 local media members were selected from 60 nominees, allowing the public to vote from those 10. Roach and Christiansen were selected, and now inform travelers of information surrounding the operation of the airport's train when travelling between terminals.

San Francisco - SFMTA / Muni

Erica Kato

In July 2018, the San Francisco Examiner brought us the story of Erica Kato, a SFMTA employee and former television reporter, who is now providing announcements on the city's transit system, as well as other media content for news related to the SFMTA. While Kato isn't providing announcements for all routes and stops, Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez reports that she will be 'the voice for spot announcements, like the warning to “Please hold on,” or to “please” give seats to seniors and people with disabilities.'

Kato was able to provide SFMTA with announcements on the fly, which is important, considering transit conditions change quickly. This is a difficulty of contracting for voice actors. What also makes Kato's involvement interesting is her familiarity with the city, and with the transit system. Rodriguez notes that SFMTA has been criticized in the last few decades for providing inaccurate announcements for street names, a result of using a voice actor (and Texan) to pronounce local street names.

Local transit agencies have a variety of choices for announcements, but it's continuing to prove worthwhile to look for talent within your own city. And for that matter, maybe even someone within your own organization, or who regularly rides your system.

For travelers or riders of public transit, these are some of the familiar voices that greet us each day. We know their voices, but at least now we've got some faces to go with them.