If you want to hear a measured, musical, mellifluous voice on a Pittsburgh bus, there's only one thing to do: Hire someone from outside the area to provide it.
Those recordings you hear are provided by Clever Devices, a Plainview, N.Y.-based firm that "provides a wide range of technical products and services to the transit industry."
"We build the technology, collect the data, empower the Smart Bus ... so it all makes sense," the company boasts, sounding oddly like a cross between Ken Kesey and the Six Million Dollar Man.
Clever Devices' "Automatic Voice Annunciation" system brought the Port Authority into compliance the Americans With Disabilities Act, an enlightened piece of legislation requiring agencies to accommodate deaf passengers and other handicapped riders. And once the system was installed in the winter of 1999-2000, Pittsburghers could hear their stops announced in clear, unaccented English.
Which, of course, only confused them.
It was clear from the outset that, whoever that voice belonged to, she clearly wasn't from around here. Early on, for example, the system pronounced "Carnegie" with the emphasis on the first syllable, rather than on the second. In February 2000, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette chased down the reason why: The recordings had been made by a 34-year-old native of Toledo, Ohio, named Sarah Weaver.
Weaver had been hired by Clever Devices, the P-G reported, because "She is a possessor of unaccented English, which is what the company wants in its announcers." But "high technology can't replace local knowledge," the paper observed, "which is why Weaver ... announces the Winebiddle Street stop as 'winna-biddle.'" Weaver -- whose voice can also be heard on transit systems in Boston and Dallas and even the occasional slot machine -- had to re-record some stops in the local idiom.
"We tried to get that Pittsburgh-accent thing going, but we couldn't find a company that could do it right," says Judi McNeil, Port Authority spokesperson. Plus, the voice recording is just one part of the Clever Devices system. The announcements are triggered by a global-positioning unit installed in each bus; satellites beam down the bus' coordinates and tell the system which stop to announce. This saves your driver having to push a button to play the message -- freeing him up for important tasks like dodging pedestrians and muttering under his breath while I fumble for my monthly pass.
Weaver's isn't the only voice of Pittsburgh transit. The light-rail "T" cars actually do use a male voice, for one thing; the vehicles were built in Europe and have their own recorded-announcement system. (No one at the Port Authority seemed to know who that guy is.) And Port Authority personnel can record their own messages to alert riders of emergencies. So if you ever do hear a Pittsburgh accent over the loudspeaker on a T platform, it's not likely to be good news.
But for the most part, says McNeil, "They've got it all pretty much automated now. There are several hundred announcements programmed, and hundreds and hundreds of words that we can string together."
So ... could we just get rid of Port Authority spokespeople? Replace them with an automated system that could just string together phrases like "We apologize for the inconvenience" and "We need a dedicated source of state funding"? McNeil takes the question in stride. "Add 'No comment,' for questions about [construction in the] South Hills," she jokes.
Given the Port Authority's fiscal problems, it will probably be awhile before we need to record messages for any new stops. But while unaccented voices are fine, here's a thought: The next time we need to cut a recording, have a contest to choose a transit rider to provide it. In the past, the Port Authority has depicted notable Pittsburghers on an "honor roll" pasted to the side of the bus; why not let the riders narrate their own commutes? It'd give the bus some local flavor at a low cost, and help dedicated riders leave a more fitting tribute than the occasionally disturbing seat-cushion stain.
I'd have passed this thought along to McNeil myself, but it came to me late at night, and I figured that if I called, I'd just get a recording.