Greater Greater Washington

How about local celebrity voices for Metro announcements?

Good speakers aren't always good subway operators, and vice versa. In a city where most of the subway stations look alike and a large percentage of riders are tourists, a clear announcement system is key. What if Metro used local celebrities to make train and station announcements?


Photo by AlbinoFlea on Flickr.

Some Metro drivers mumble incomprehensively, or the poor quality of the sound system muddles their voice. Other drivers speak clearly, but cut off the microphone halfway through the message. And all of them should focus on driving, not speaking.

The DC area is a region of many notable voices. Why not take advantage of that and have some famous local voices make recordings?

Riders will always need verbal announcements on the train. The new Metro cars will have lighted destination signs. But when they're crowded, they will be of limited use to me because I am short, and handrails obscure the lettering, making it difficult to read unless you are already familiar with the station names.

In Moscow, it used to be that the recordings had a male voice when riders were headed to work downtown in the morning, and a female voice when headed home that evening. That system was archaic, even for Moscow, and won't work here. But recording voices for the station announcements is still a good idea.

With so many notable voices in the region, Metro could take advantage by having famous local voices record announcements. Each celebrity could do about 4 or 5 stations, defining an area.

Riders on the Green Line near College Park could hear Kermit the Frog, a famous alumnus with a famous voice. Takoma Park native Goldie Hawn could voice announcements on the Red Line headed towards Takoma, while her Blair High School classmate Ben Stein could take over at Silver Spring. Where the train passes Channel 5's headquarters in Van Ness, newscaster Sue Palka could remind riders not to leave personal belongings behind.

The different announcers could become part of our regional lexicon, along with the "third alphabet." Soon, folks will say someone "lives out past Palka."

Not all local voices are appropriate, though. As tempting as it is to have Bill Clinton do Farragut West, keeping politicians out of the mix is a better idea, no matter how memorable Eleanor Holmes Norton's and Marion Barry's voices are.

Let's have some suggestions. Who would you have do some of the recordings?

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Tracey Johnstone is a recovering political pollster who is completing a dissertation on Russian economic reform. She is also secretary of the Action Committee for Transit. She has lived in downtown Bethesda since 1996, and previously lived in Toronto, Moscow, and Alexandria (before the Metro).  

Comments

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Isn't it enough that all of them seem to be beatboxing anyway?

by Crickey7 on Mar 19, 2014 3:09 pm • linkreport

Ian MacKaye or Henry Rollins would have to be the voice of Town. Tori Amos could do Rockville. Dave Chappelle could easily do Silver Spring. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus could get Bethesda. There's your Red Line.

Dave Grohl could do Vienna. Martin Lawrence could get Landover. Christopher Meloni could do Alexandria. And Paul "HR" Hudson could do Anacostia.

by Dave Murphy on Mar 19, 2014 3:34 pm • linkreport

Ian Mackaye or Henry Rollins would be the voice of *TENLEYtown

by Dave Murphy on Mar 19, 2014 3:35 pm • linkreport

I didn't know about Henry Rollins' ties to Tenley.

Where's Denyce Graves from?

by Tracey A. Johnstone on Mar 19, 2014 3:37 pm • linkreport

Kojo Nmandi's smooth voice could help keep us all calm when we're gnashing our teeth about delays...

by Aimee Custis on Mar 19, 2014 3:40 pm • linkreport

This idea is...silly. Better station speakers are needed, not necessarily better 'speakers'.

As for the trains, the 7000-series cars will have automated announcement (besides just door closing) and a voice has been selected already (it's female).

by JDC on Mar 19, 2014 3:43 pm • linkreport

If the dad from the Friday movies is a enough of a local celebrity to appear in Eastern Motors commercials, he's good enough for Metro.

Book him.

by CP on Mar 19, 2014 3:45 pm • linkreport

Automated recorded announcements are a great idea. Celebrity voices, not so much. They had that in NYC taxis at one point, and it was extremely irritating. Ben stein's voice could probably drive me to homicide.

by alurin on Mar 19, 2014 3:48 pm • linkreport

@JDC --

Well, of course... and upgraded communications are actually a part of the Metro Momentum plan... but in the meantime, this is kind of fun to imagine!

by Aimee Custis on Mar 19, 2014 3:50 pm • linkreport

"In Moscow, it used to be that the recordings had a male voice when riders were headed to work downtown in the morning, and a female voice when headed home that evening. That system was archaic, even for Moscow, and won't work here."

Why won't that work here?

by richie on Mar 19, 2014 4:01 pm • linkreport

Wouldn't we rather have Lewis Black, Montgomery Blair grad, for Silver Spring and red line. Or Sly Stallone, another former Silver Springer...

by jnb on Mar 19, 2014 4:04 pm • linkreport

+1 Kojo Nmandi - though some drivers have voices I like already and that's the best

by asffa on Mar 19, 2014 4:04 pm • linkreport

@JNB - Lewis Black as metro announcer...imagine all the tourist hands clapping over children's ears.

by Distantantennas on Mar 19, 2014 4:09 pm • linkreport

This totally needs to happen. Why have a robotic voice declare the station names for the new train cars when we can have politicians? It's way more fun. This is part of building DC's "brand".

And have you heard the terrible mechanical voices that MWAA uses for the trains at Dulles? "Waatch yuur stepasyou eh-xit". It barely sounds human. Get Patrick Steward, for goodness' sake.

by Ben on Mar 19, 2014 4:26 pm • linkreport

@jnb Lewis Black is a Springbrook grad

by Dave Murphy on Mar 19, 2014 4:34 pm • linkreport

(1) Wale (Shady Grove?)
(2) Sandra Bullock (Arlington County-- perhaps Clarendon?)
(3) Peter Schickele (of PDQ Bach fame lived in Adams Morgan, I think- Woodley? )
(4) Kathie Lee Gifford (PG County-- perhaps New Carrollton?)
(5) Kevin Durant (played for Montrose Christian, so Rockville?)
(6) Connie Chung (a lot of competition for the Silver Spring Stop)
(7) Lewis Black (Gaithersburg, so Shady Grove? )
(8) Roberta Flack (went to Howard so Shaw?)

by DanF on Mar 19, 2014 4:36 pm • linkreport

@Ben - from your idea of Stewart I've gone onto dreaming about Majel Barrett (yes she's died, sadly). She did all of the Star Trek computer voices.

by JDC on Mar 19, 2014 4:36 pm • linkreport

But Connie Chung is also a Blair grad

by Dave Murphy on Mar 19, 2014 4:37 pm • linkreport

What we need isn't celebrities, what we need is for the operators to be given clear guidelines on how to properly make announcements - not only station announcements, but in general.

The big problem right now is that, for all intents and purposes, train operators can basically say whatever they want. They also seem to think that they're flying planes or something (I once heard an announcement that we were "on our final approach to Farragut North", I kid you not, and as a student pilot, those words are etched into my memory forever). I once heard an operator announce an escalator outage at Union station by saying "you all are in for a walk, escalator's out!" If I were running WMATA and I heard that, the operator would totally be fired (and then ATU Local 689 would make sure the firing was overturned). The solution isn't celebrities, it's competent On-the-job training for rail operators.

1. Announcements should provide clear and concise information. Right now, I hear too many announcements like "This is your red line train to Shady Grove". No surprise, a bunch of people bunch up to board (necessitating another announcement to use all doors or that a train is directly behind). The announcement should be "Red Line, Shady Grove." Announcements should never, ever, under any circumstances be for the express purpose of providing necessary information. The phrase "There is a train directly behind us" actually has a whole number of other contexts, including the possibility of an impending rear-end collision (extremely unlikely, yes, but still possible).

2. When a train is stopped between stations, an announcement should be delayed by 60 seconds after the train stopped. It's always great when I hear someone get on the PA immediately after the train stopped to announce that there's a train ahead, and then the train starts moving literally as soon as the announcement finished. Why even bother?

3. Adopt standard phrasings and be strict about what does and does not go into announcements. I once had to put up with a 2 minute (I kid you not, 2 minutes, I timed it) announcement outlining the definition of single-tracking (which, interestingly, had multiple errors). We do not need or want that. In most cases, I'll hear "single-tracking is in effect" and "trains are single-tracking" concurrently. Incidentally, the phrase "single-tracking is in effect." is awful and should never be used (but that's just my opinion).

4. End the "please take all personal belongings..." speech out of circulation. We're not on a plane ("on our final approach to Farragut North", I guess we were that time), not everyone is getting off the train, and also we're not all children.

Sorry if I'm coming off as angry at little things, but they do pile up when you regularly commute via Metro and are used to another transit system with automated announcements (grew up in Chicago)

by Aaron on Mar 19, 2014 4:38 pm • linkreport

LOL to Lewis Black, and tourists think we're rude now.... ;)

by Abigail Zenner on Mar 19, 2014 4:40 pm • linkreport

Jim Vance is THE smooth voice of DC. Kojo Nmandi no way. He would lull everyone to sleep.

by aaa on Mar 19, 2014 4:41 pm • linkreport

In New York, the newer cars use Bloomberg Radio personalities for the announcements. The clarity of their diction does help a bit.

Moscow does still use the inbound/outbound male/female voices. On the ring line, it's clockwise/counterclockwise. They transition in the city center, although I don't really understand how that's determined.

by Neil Flanagan on Mar 19, 2014 4:42 pm • linkreport

Although I'd miss the woman who says "Clare-EN-dun."

by Neil Flanagan on Mar 19, 2014 4:42 pm • linkreport

Surprised nobody has thrown Maury Povich's name out there

by Dave Murphy on Mar 19, 2014 4:48 pm • linkreport

Maybe at least do it on April Fools Day since they dare not do real April Fools pranks. I'd let a riders poll pick the voices.

Airlines need to do this to for the preflight announcement because the way they do it, nobody listens.

by JimT on Mar 19, 2014 4:49 pm • linkreport

The possibilities are endless.

Martin Lawrence for Prince George' County stations?

by Ronit on Mar 19, 2014 4:54 pm • linkreport

How could I forget Roberta Flack?!? Forgive me!

Jim Vance - great choice.

I'll also offer up Sonny Jurgenson for the Mt. Vernon area.

by Tracey A. Johnstone on Mar 19, 2014 4:55 pm • linkreport

Joan Jett for Wheaton stop?

by asffa on Mar 19, 2014 5:00 pm • linkreport

Am I the only one that sees the irony in demanding announcements on par with professional voice over work when the starting salary for a train operator is around $17/hr? You get what you pay for.

by dcmike on Mar 19, 2014 5:03 pm • linkreport

Automated announcements with good voices, yes.

Celebrity voices, NO, NO, and again NO. I don't want to hear recognizable voices doing Metro announcements.

by TimK65 on Mar 19, 2014 6:30 pm • linkreport

I don't care if the voice is famous or not, but it definitely should be recorded. If the "doors opening, doors closing" can be recorded, why can't the station announcements.

by Jonathan on Mar 19, 2014 6:49 pm • linkreport

The consistency of a tape would help. When half the operators say "red" like "ray" (short for "raid"), the other half say "green" also as "ray" (short for "grain"), and the rest can't remember which station they're in or which way they're going, you just can't tell what's going on.

A point in favor of better training is that many announcements are unusual. The one I remember best was entirely adequate, and had two parts. The first part, delivered matter-of-factly: "We holding here, there's a down train ahead." Then after several seconds - a very sad voice - "Two down trains."

by Turnip on Mar 19, 2014 6:57 pm • linkreport

Yes, some train operators could be clearer.

But there are a few of them who 'personalize' their messages and I love it -- the guy who tells that Foggy Bottom is at 23rd and I -- or the woman who tells me to have a good day, or the guy who tells us to get to know each other and move to the center of the train. It's awesome.

by mch on Mar 19, 2014 7:09 pm • linkreport

Katie Couric, Sandra Bullock, Warren Beatty (originally Beaty) and Shirley MacLaine have ties to Arlington. Maybe Shirley can offer horoscopes too. (Well, that might not be such a good idea.)

As for odd pronunciations, some of the train operators say "Claring-dun" and "Ju-dish-uary Square".

by Citizen on Mar 19, 2014 7:50 pm • linkreport

I agree that Jim Vance has a nice voice, but I also like Tony Perkins, Shawn Yancy and Sue Palka (of Channel 5 News). I don't care so much about celebrities that don't actually live here anymore.

by Nancy on Mar 19, 2014 8:34 pm • linkreport

I'm totally on board with you, Nancy.

All great suggestions.

by Tracey A. Johnstone on Mar 19, 2014 8:53 pm • linkreport

I vote for Kevin Spacey in his Frank Underwood Voice..."Next Stop Metro Center...Welcome Back"

by Aaron on Mar 19, 2014 8:56 pm • linkreport

Pre-recorded, clear, well-enunciated stop announcements are a must. The buses already have them. The problem with most of the train announcements today -- which are mumbled, even slurred -- is that they already sound like that notorious local celebrity Mayro-for-Life Marion Barry after an all-night, night-owl bender.

by Amy on Mar 19, 2014 9:24 pm • linkreport

Can't say I' would miss "Jew-dish-you-airy Square."

by Buzz on Mar 19, 2014 9:27 pm • linkreport

mmmm, Jim Vance would make any trip better.

by spookiness on Mar 19, 2014 9:52 pm • linkreport

@ Aaron

"Announcements should never, ever, under any circumstances be for the express purpose of providing necessary information. "

Why not ? They should give necessary info that is what should be done with the announcements should give as much info as possible as long as it is not confusing; which happens all the time with WMATA.

WMATA should give all Train operators a map of the stations with their names spelled phonetically. I can already see Wiehele becoming the new Judiciary Square with messed up pronouncations

by kk on Mar 20, 2014 1:38 am • linkreport

@kk

Did I type it that way? I meant literally the exact opposite. Announcements should always, always, always be for the express purpose of providing information. I have no idea how I mistyped that to mean literally the exact opposite of what I meant.

by Aaron on Mar 20, 2014 7:16 am • linkreport

@ Aaron

If you are indeed a regular commuter--which I find hard to believe given all the odd things that drive you mad and which most of us don't even register--you really, seriously, totally need to chill. You're going to have a heart attack one morning due to a train operator announcing something you don't agree with.

by OX4 on Mar 20, 2014 7:17 am • linkreport

@OX4

You're accusing me of lying? First off, my daily commute is Takoma-DuPont Circle. When the weather gets nice I

Anyways, just because these things don't get regularly noticed, doesn't mean they're not unprofessional and potentially dangerous. And if you look at any of the other posts here, you'd know I'm not alone anyways.

As for my heart health, I assure you, I get regular check-ups and when I don't take metro, I bike, so I'm not a particularly high risk of that, but thanks for the concern.

by Aaron on Mar 20, 2014 7:37 am • linkreport

Though they aren't from the area,
Cecil Baldwin (Welcome to NightVale)
to get the sinister, mysterious aspects of Metrorail;
Or John DiMaggio, in the Bender from Futurama voice,
To capture the selfish, uncaring attitude of Metrorail.

by scratchy on Mar 20, 2014 9:06 am • linkreport

I think they need to get rid of all the 'doors closing' announcements. Just a chime and then shut the doors. We don't need to hear 20 times "stand back and allow the doors to close" while the driver messes with the people jamming on. It would eliminate most of the aural noise in the system and make all the actual need announcements stand out more. I was in the Montreal metro a few months ago and it was so pleasant. Station name, doors on right/left. Then a chime. Train continued. No unnecessary noise.

by jyindc on Mar 20, 2014 9:16 am • linkreport

At a Metro forum I once asked about automated announcements and they said that the reason they didn't have them was that it gave train operators something to do and thus kept them engaged. The trains were so automated (this being before the Red Line crash) that they needed a task that would keep the operators from losing focus (or falling asleep). So, it was human engineering.

Funny story about this. We do the same kind of thing at my work. I remember that once we decided that we needed to make sure that the people monitoring a satellite in real time checked certain data points every orbit. So we had them manually fill in a worksheet with the values. This worked well for a few years, but then, because of normal turnover, all the real time monitors had changed and none of them knew why they were filling out the sheet. So one of them wrote a computer program that would fill it out for them, thus defeating the purpose. They were so proud of themselves "Look at all the time I saved us!" that it broke my heart to tell them that we couldn't use it.

by David C on Mar 20, 2014 9:25 am • linkreport

All Kojo, all the time, with Potemkin microphones for drivers so inclined to use for engagement, as well as real mikes that can override taped Kojo in emergencies.

by Fearing Dystopia on Mar 20, 2014 10:48 am • linkreport

When I got off the subway this morning at Capitol South, two workers who seem to have come in via MARC from Baltimore were joking with each other on how incomprehensible the station announcements were.

Drivers will still need to speak to explain delays, etc. But the station announcements would be better if they were recorded.

Jim Vance and Kojo seem to be leading the pack here - what about the female voices? Goldie Hawn, Roberta Flack or Sue Palka? Should each line have its own, individual voice? Should inbound and outbound voices be different? I think all these options would make riding easier for the novice.

by Tracey A. Johnstone on Mar 20, 2014 11:01 am • linkreport

The first couple times you hear these, it seems cool. After that it is old and you ignore it. cf. the video safety announcements for the short lived Presidential Airways that flew out of Dulles and featured some woman soccer player doing the announcement.

by Richard Layman on Mar 20, 2014 12:39 pm • linkreport

@Tracey A.

Actually, delay announcements can and are frequently automated. CTA has automated announcements for a number of situations. Of course, the PA still exists for explaining complex situations and more serious issues.

by Aaron on Mar 20, 2014 2:34 pm • linkreport

I think I've mentioned it and a few others have as well, but the big issue with these celebrity announcements is that they can often detract from the informational purpose of messages.

I can't stress it enough, but the current way train announcements are done is actually a safety concern. Remember, vision-impaired and blind passengers cannot reliably use signage, meaning that if an announcement is incorrect it could have serious consequences. In addition, the number of extraneous announcements means that most passengers just tune everything out. The operator of my train this morning was basically yelling at passengers about standing clear of the doors and using all available doors at every station. What if there was some sort of emergency? Since she was already basically yelling, how would she then be able to convey something that's actually serious?

by Aaron on Mar 20, 2014 2:50 pm • linkreport

I love this idea, Tracey. I do smile when I get the operator who pronounces the "S" in Grosvenor, ("Red Line train to Grow-zz-venor") but occasionally the operators are abusive, especially, I imagine, when the train is behind schedule. "Stand away from the doors or I'll put this train out of service!" I nominate William Hurt, who was born in Washington, D.C., the son of a State Department employee, for Foggy Bottom. And today, March 20, is William Hurt's birthday!

by Wendy, a Walker in Bethesda on Mar 20, 2014 3:30 pm • linkreport

I've been saying this since 1975 when I first heard the announcements at Farragut Square. So, how many years later are we still talking about this. I always wondered whether some operators would make up names for stations that would eventually become the language of METRO.

by Marc Soronson on Mar 20, 2014 4:50 pm • linkreport

"I vote for Kevin Spacey in his Frank Underwood Voice..."Next Stop Metro Center...Welcome Back""

Ah, as watchers of House of Cards will appreciate, associating Frank Underwood with a Metro station may not be the best idea,,,,,

by Buzz on Mar 20, 2014 4:55 pm • linkreport

Ah, as watchers of House of Cards will appreciate, associating Frank Underwood with a Metro station may not be the best idea,,,,,

Ah yes.

"Welcome to Metro. Safety is our highest priority..."
"Please step back from the platform edge..."

by Alex B. on Mar 20, 2014 5:00 pm • linkreport

Ah, as watchers of House of Cards will appreciate, associating Frank Underwood with a Metro station may not be the best idea,,,,,

"Cathedral Heights. Last stop. End of the line."

by Matt' Johnson on Mar 20, 2014 5:08 pm • linkreport

Maybe rotate through a series of clear recorded voices, celebrity or non-celebrity. Regular customers tend to notice a new voice, like they did when the "stand clear of the doors" voice changed some years ago. (One of those recordings was a bit snippy: "PLEASE stand clear of the doors!")

by Citizen on Mar 20, 2014 5:32 pm • linkreport

This seems gimmicky. Personally I'd rather they just fix the quality of the sound system so the operators are audible. That's all we really need.

If nothing else, I like hearing local accents in the operators' voices.

"The DC area is a region of many notable voices." Do people really associate Kermit, Goldie Hawn, or Ben Stein with the DMV region though?

by AL on Mar 20, 2014 7:29 pm • linkreport

How about Courtland Milloy?

"Get off the train, you myopic twits..."

by thesixteenwords on Mar 20, 2014 10:42 pm • linkreport

Root Boy Slim

by Orgasmaddict on Mar 20, 2014 11:09 pm • linkreport

I haven't thought of Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band in YEARS!

How about Bob Edwards?

by Tracey A. Johnstone on Mar 20, 2014 11:14 pm • linkreport

One thing that has not be brought up is price. Does anyone think these celebrities will do this for free ?

by kk on Mar 21, 2014 12:22 pm • linkreport

I bet they would do it for free.

by Tracey A. Johnstone on Mar 21, 2014 12:23 pm • linkreport

Some of the comments here seem to suggest people don't like the accents of untrained voices raised in DC

by asffa on Mar 21, 2014 1:56 pm • linkreport

"Ju-dish-uary Square". That is how it's pronounced.

by asffa on Mar 21, 2014 1:58 pm • linkreport

Indeed. Kevin Spacey: "Cathedral Heights. Please watch your step."

by Mike S. on Mar 21, 2014 3:11 pm • linkreport

I think people would listen more attentively if celebrity voices were used. It would also be a slight incentive to Metro to keep the PA system in working order.
I think DC doesn't exploit its glitz and many residents aren't aware of the celebrity connections to our region. It would do a bit for civic pride if Metro could list the voices and their stops on the Metro site, and people could remember or learn that Sandra Bullock (associated with New Orleans) grew up in Arlington and Georgia Engel (remember "Georgette" from Mary Tyler Moore?) is a DC native, as is actor John Heard.
It won't happen. Remember Metro pulled up the flowers at Dupont Circle. Someone at Metro is determined to be, and appears to be, hostile to the idea that Metro can be pretty (the flowers) and distinguished (the celebrities).

by Wendy, A Walker on Mar 21, 2014 3:29 pm • linkreport

If it's celebrities, keep them actually local, not locally "connected."

There are few things more pathetic than a city claiming "local celebrities" who actually fled the city as soon as they could. Someone who "grew up here" but then chose another place as fast as they could and never looked back... well that's not really a point of pride is it?

Also, isn't the colloquially impossible-to-understand Metro announcing part of the local charm? Isn't that part of what makes Metro - Metro. Whenever guests comment on it, I always laugh and say that's the way we do it here, and people find it interesting. Why change it at all? It's an original piece of the now 36yo system (granted not old enough to be historic yet).

by PK on Mar 21, 2014 4:02 pm • linkreport

wow, Root Boy Slim

by asffa on Mar 21, 2014 6:24 pm • linkreport

Metro announcements that people can't understand can cause major problems for people unfamiliar with the system not to mention probably an ADA violation.

by BTA on Mar 21, 2014 6:43 pm • linkreport

Two other women who have distinctive voices are the disc jockey [do they still use that term?] on WPFW. She's the Queen of Smoooooth.

And the older [she's been there a long time] woman on WETA Classical. It's also very distinctive.

by Tracey A. Johnstone on Mar 22, 2014 5:12 pm • linkreport

I've always thought getting the living former (and BHO) Presidents to do a line each would be so cool. They'd need to get on it because Jimmy and Bush 41 aren't getting any younger.

by westwoodking on Apr 15, 2014 10:44 am • linkreport

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