Charlie Pellett wishes to respectfully assert that he is not from the Midwest, despite what you may think about the way he speaks. He's used to having his voice aped by kids and tourists as he rides the train to and from work every day-even when he is not actually speaking-and it now amuses him more than it bothers him. But he was still disturbed when a snotty fellow passenger on the 6 train responded to the sound of his voice by sneering "Shut up, Mr. South Dakota!"
Pellett is not from the Badlands, but is a native of England who has lived in New York for more than 20 years. He is the most overworked voice in the MTA, though he has never been paid a cent for his labor; and like you and me, he won't see a cent of the 33% fare hike slated for May 4 of this year. His day job is hosting WBBR's "The Bloomberg Money Show," but even more New Yorkers hear him instruct them to "stand clear of the closing doors, please," a recorded announcement heard on the MTA's newest subway trains. By now, he has pretty much eliminated all traces of his homeland from his voice. "My wife says she's pretty much the only woman who married a Brit without the accent," he jokes.
Whatever you think about the new prerecorded announcements, at the very least they're audible. If there's anything worse than languishing on a still subway train, it's languishing while the conductor makes an ear-piercing, lengthy and unintelligible announcement. On a recent ride, as I sat on a stalled G train, some mushmouthed squawking signaled an attempt to keep us poor commuters in the loop. One man, clearly at the end of his rope, leaped in the air repeatedly so he could punch the offending speaker above his head, screaming, "Learn to talk, goddammit!" No one took exception to his protest.
In recent years, the MTA has attempted to alleviate one of commuters' biggest pet peeves. A 1997 internal task force recommended "maintaining regular communication with conductors regarding delays and changes in service" and "beginning a 'back to basics' announcements training syllabus." The resulting booklet, Customer Communications and Platform Observation Procedures (also known as the blue book), lists 17 situations and the official announcements that a conductor should make. Conductors are expected to know these service announcements and be able to recite them at a moment's notice.
According to MTA rules, a conductor must make an announcement as soon as there is a delay in service and every two minutes thereafter. Clearly, this is more the goal than a rule. According to a study released last year by NYPIRG's Straphangers Campaign, 74 percent of all subway service disruptions are either lacking any announcement at all or they're further exacerbated by "an inaudible, garbled, or useless one." This tally was down only slightly from the 80 percent that Straphangers noted in 2001.
Years of complaints about the aural hieroglyphics led the MTA to include prerecorded announcements on its newest trains, the R142, R142A and R143, which began their runs in July 2000. More than 1000 new cars, built by Bombardier and Kawasaki, were ordered by the city to replace the rickety "redbird" trains, some of which had been in use since the 50s. They're now running on the 2, 3, 5, 6, and L lines. (Rumors abound as to which train will be gifted next.) Meanwhile, the old redbirds are spending their retirement as part of fishing reefs, the first off the coasts of Delaware and South Carolina.
In addition to Mr. Pellett, the voices of these announcements belong to other personalities on Bloomberg Radio, including Jessica Ettinger Gottesman, Melissa Kleiner and Dianne Thompson. Their shared place of employment has nothing to do with our current mayor; two years before the 2001 election, Bloomberg donated the time of several of its employees as a "public service."
In a recent interview, Pellett called the chance to record the subway announcements "the most unbelievably cool broadcasting opportunity in the world." He recorded what he called "an enormous list of announcements," some used more than others. In addition to the "closing doors" bit, he lent his talents to "We apologize for the unavoidable delay" and "This is the last stop on this train," among others.
He describes himself as a passionate and vocal advocate of mass transit in general and the subway in particular. He recalled how, in his first years in the city, "I would stand in the front car so I could look out the window." (This habit, he admitted, was compulsive enough to cause the loss of a girlfriend.) A Brooklyn resident, Pellett takes the 4 and 6 to work every day, and is as desensitized to the new announcements as any other commuter. He often chuckles to himself when he hears fellow riders mimicking his voice, but resists the temptation to confront them, even when they misidentify his land of origin.
By Pellett's estimate, he recorded his announcements 18 months before the new trains ever saw the light of day. After they were delivered to the Westchester train yard in the Bronx, he was invited to a sneak preview. "Hearing myself through the train for the first time was a bizarre but amazing experience."
His opinion of the $2 fare? Pellett still remembers his first years in the city in the early 1980s when track fires and graffiti-covered trains were considered the norm and ridership was at an all-time low. "The MTA has made amazing strides since then," he said. "Even if it goes to $2, it's a steal."
Subway buffs are legion, opinionated, and very vocal, if the online forum at Straphangers.org-the Rider Diaries-is any indication. It's amazing that relatively few of them have griped about the prerecorded announcements. However, like gleeful fanboys who email George Lucas with continuity errors, they never fail to point out when the announcements do not match up with the stations, as often happens when trains are switched from one line to another.
Some lament the passing of the announcement torch to trained professionals, fearing that this may bring an end to the art of conductors' verbal improvising. The Straphangers' forums abound with tales of humorous announcements from frustrated motormen. One favorite, as posted by forum enthusiast "Missing the B": "Thank you for riding MTA New York City Transit. And to the gentleman in the 7th car who gave me the finger at the last stop: No, sir, YOU'RE number 1!"
Maybe the prerecorded announcements will force subway wits to go the way of the buffalo. But we can at least take comfort in the fact that as one of the new voices of the trains, Charlie Pellett is "honored to be part of the biggest and best mass transit system in the world."
The natives should be so eloquent.