Meet the Voice of the NYC Subway, JFK, and 200 Other Airports

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mta-subway[Video below.] The next time you are standing there waiting for the subway, late for work and worried your boss will notice, think of this: The voice that tells you a train is two stations away, and then one station away, is up in Maine, about as far from the Penobscot River as you are from the front of the train. When it finally comes.

Carolyn Hopkins has been recording subway public-address announcements for 15 years. In all that time, she has never ridden the subway.

“We’ve been there a number of times to catch cruise ships, but we’re always in cabs,” she said.

She did take it once, before she was its voice. “In 1957,” she said.

In the last few months she has become a more noticeable presence in some Manhattan subway stations, thanks to a pilot project that paralleled a more ambitious one to install signs in the ceilings of numbered-line stations. The signs tell how soon a train will arrive and whether it will be an express or a local.

If the signs are high tech, the system that plays the voice of Mrs. Hopkins in lettered-line stations from West 207th Street to West 23rd Street is medium tech: it used existing signals and processors, tweaked to do more than they used to. But it has its limitations. It cannot tell an A train from a D. So she tells you about “the next Brooklyn-bound train on the express track” without saying whether it is going to Far Rockaway or Coney Island.

New Yorkers almost expect unintelligible announcements in the subway, with phrases like “the next Brooklyn-bound train” sounding like “2qliun-sojn uaine.” Jay H. Walder, the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the parent of New York City Transit, remembers a skit about garbled announcements. “In this day and age, there has to be a better way to know a train is coming than by leaning over the edge,” he said.

Mrs. Hopkins works from a windowless room in her house with sound-absorbing material on the wall – a tapestry, hung like a painting but covering foam. The microphone and recording equipment came from Innovative Electronic Designs of Louisville, which developed the system that plays her voice in the subway.

What you hear, standing on the platform, are a series of short takes, each no more than a few words, strung together by the computer. “Ladies and gentlemen” – one take. “There is Brooklyn-bound” – one take. “Local train” – one take. “Two” – one take. “Stations away” – one take. The longest take is 16 words: “Please stand away from the platform edge, especially when trains are entering and leaving the station.”

You can hear her saying much the same thing in Chicago, Washington, even Paris (where she is the voice that speaks what little English is spoken in the Metro). But subway riders are not the only passengers she talks to. She has recorded announcements for the Staten Island ferry and most of the major airports in this country, including La Guardia, Kennedy and Newark Liberty.

“Plus Incheon in Korea; Charles de Gaulle in Paris; Beirut, Lebanon; and I’m forgetting some in China,” she said. “Once we walked into the John Wayne-Orange County Airport in California. I had completely forgotten that I’d done the announcements there, and it hit me like, ‘Oh, O.K.’ I was telling myself to watch unattended bags. That’s always a good one.”

On the telephone, her voice does not have quite as much oomph as it does on the subway. “My husband says he doesn’t hear the nice voice as often as he’d like,” she said.

But the nice voice cannot be disobeyed. Before 9/11, when they lived inLouisville, Ky., he drove to the airport to pick up her. He was early. He parked right in front of the terminal. He could hear her on the public-address system, saying no one was supposed to park there.

A traffic officer came along and said he had to follow the voice’s orders.

Her husband said, “I don’t listen to that voice at home; I’m not going to listen to it here.”

The officer looked puzzled. Mr. Hopkins explained that he was married to the voice. Then he complied, driving around until she came out of the terminal.

Mrs. Hopkins grew up in Louisville and worked at a video-audio production company that was connected to Innovative Electronic Designs. “I could do the voice they wanted,” she said. “I had done commercials and things like that.” She is 62 – “I’m not young anymore,” she said, “but I try to keep my voice from sounding like it’s aged.”

New York City Transit plays Mrs. Hopkins dozens of times an hour, far more often than the guy on the radio who says, “You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world.” Guess what? He does not live here, either.

Click below for a video report:

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{NY Times/ Newscenter}


  1. amazing!!!!!!!!!!!!! i always wanted to know who that voice was!!!!!!!!!!!! i never knew!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


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