The voice that moves millions


By Lou Carlozo
Tribune staff reporter

Date of Publication: April 24, 2002
Source: Chicago Tribune


Ask him if creating the voice for the CTA's elevated system was challenging, and he can give you a thousand reasons -- all in the same cheery-but-blank cadence.

"I had to count from 1 to 999 with virtually the same inflection," he said. "It was a real Zen experience. I just shut my eyes and went, '1! . . . 2! . . . 3! . . . 557!" (The CTA's computerized system uses those numbers to announce the train run, as in "Welcome aboard Brown Line run 617!")

You hear his voice every time you step on a CTA train -- "Belmont is next! Standing passengers -- please do not lean against the doors!" You just don't know him by name. So who is this anonymous announcer, this automated mensch of mass transit?

CTA Guy, for reasons we shall soon divulge, will not be railroaded into revealing his identity. But after two years, the man behind the voice of the "L" is finally talking. And he's not confining his replies to "Doors closing!"

"I've avoided this interview for years," he said. Why? "I'm a voice-over [person]. There are people who will hear that CTA voice who will think, 'Oh, that's the only thing he can do.' "

Another reason for secrecy is that the actor gets a kick out of an ongoing series in the alternative newsweekly Chicago Reader, where commuters craft identities for CTA Guy. One guessed he's a suburbanite would-be adulterer who loves Cuban cigars and golf. Another speculated that he's a gay, monogamous white male in his mid-30s.

"I'm having the best time with the Reader thing and what they're doing," said the actor, who collects the clippings. "That's really my only hesitation, because I don't want to spoil it. It's almost the one fun thing about it -- they can't place the guy. I just crack up when I see these things."

Here's what we can say about CTA Guy: He lives in Milwaukee and, before starting his voice-over career in 1990, was a sound engineer who played guitar and keyboards in bar bands. He's in his 40s, of European descent, married with two kids (so much for those speculating on his sexual orientation).

Hearing him shoot the breeze in real life is more than a transit fan's fantasy: It is a shock. He is as different from CTA Guy as Jim Nabors speaking is from Jim Nabors singing. If he chatted with you on a commute, you'd never know he was also informing you that "doors open on the right at Fullerton!"

"I don't sound like the guy on the train," he said, "and that's the point."

If a gig pops up to be, say, "the T guy" in Boston, he says he'd try out. But around here, you won't hear him on the O'Hare monorail, Metra or a tourist trolley. "Nope," he said, flexing his voice: "I'm CTA Guy!"

Finding the right inflection for CTA Guy involved equal parts inspiration and vacation. Back in 1999, the voice-over actor was invited to audition for the role. He was mulling how to tackle the part when an idea hit like a flash from the third rail.

"Not long before, I'd been down to Disney World, and that guy's voice on the monorail was fresh in my mind," he said. "The idea was to make it clear, understandable, friendly and rather faceless with no obvious accent, no discernible region."


Stiff competition

He recorded a demo tape in his home studio. Six months passed, and the actor assumed someone else landed the job. "Then when I got the call, I said, `You're kidding,'" he recalled. It was a far cry from his usual commercial work for the likes of Tru-Value Hardware or Little Guys Electronics.

CTA Guy was chosen from among a half-dozen hopefuls, male and female and of a racial mix, said CTA spokeswoman Noelle Gaffney. An Americans with Disabilities Act advisory committee and CTA's executive committee voted for the winner, which in this case was no contest.

"The voice selected was the No. 1 with both groups because it was clear, easy to understand, friendly but also professional," Gaffney said. That was crucial, because for blind commuters, the voice would offer a means of navigating the "L."

It took several days in a Chicago recording studio to create all the sound bites heard on the trains today.

With a CTA supervisor and audio engineer behind the glass, he read from an inch-thick script in what he describes as a "stilted" fashion. "They would say, `Can you put a little more smile in it?' or `Make it slower, or faster.'" The phrases were chopped into digital audio slices so they could be programmed into the CTA's computerized system.


Next stop, the liberry

In the control room, spirited debates arose over how to recite certain stops. "North and Cly-born" or "North and Cly-burn"? "I just did what I was told," he said. At least one stop had to be redone later, the infamous Harold Washington "Liberry."

"I said, `Li-brary,' he insisted. "I said it very lightly." But somewhere in the transfer, the audio quality eroded and "the `r' really got lost. We have re-recorded it. I don't know when it will hit the trains, but it will be coming. I tend to be really picky about that stuff. But I admit, I could've been better on that one."

You might think after all that work, he rode the rails to hear how his auto-ego was faring. "I haven't," he confided. "Honest to God, I haven't, because where do I live? Milwaukee. And when I come to Chicago, I take Amtrak or my car."

But he finally got his chance with the photo shoot for this story. At the Chicago Avenue Red Line stop, his canned voice welcomed him aboard. He laughed. "It's like being in a movie," he said. "I think it would be weirder if I had to ride the train to work every day. I'd get sick of myself."

An hour of joyriding later, he exited at Grand Avenue. Over the train intercom, he heard:

"This is Grand!"

"Now," he replied, "wasn't that poignant?"