Backstory: How a subway finds its voice

Nation's capital seeks cheekier command below corridors of power.

If our nation's capital had a hall of fame, Sandy Carroll would be inducted next week. When she intones "doors closing" for the last time, the city should respond with an equally soft: "doors opening." Ms. Carroll's decade as the voice of the Washington Metro gripped this city longer than any president has held the White House since FDR. Her velvet-voiced dominance seemed unshakable to thousands who glide daily through the elegant capital underground.

But Metrorail is looking for a fresh voice - with some attitude. With 5 million new riders each year, chaos in the cathedral-sized stations is overpowering Carroll's gentle nudge, says spokeswoman Cathy Asato. The familiar voice has become background noise, she adds, and Metro needs something fresh to "make riders take notice."

This, apparently, is no time for niceties in the subway. Moving away from a kinder, gentler era, Metro opened the new year with a contest for a more authoritative - even cheekier - voice of the subway. In just three weeks, the "Doors Closing Voice 2006" contest drew more than 1,200 entrants from as far away as the west coast.

Metro asked contestants to record two messages in three tones of voice: polite, serious, and authoritative. One audition script, calculated to convincingly menace door-blockers was: "One arm. One leg. One briefcase. One purse ... can delay everyone."

Ten finalists auditioned last week at a D.C. recording studio. This week three "industry professionals," as Metro calls them, will crown the "Doors Closing Voice 2006" winner. Soon after, a new voice of authority will be echoing in the transit tunnels beneath the nation's corridors of power.

But this isn't just the story of the new kid on the train. This is also the story of a retiring icon. Sure, finalists went through a grueling 10-minute recording session, a tougher contest than Carroll ever had to face. But once the winner's voice is loaded onto a chip and placed in Metro's 950 train cars, will he or she command and control commuters ... and their hearts? Only time can tell.

It's no surprise that Metro won't pay the new voice or even let the winner ride for free. Carroll herself never made a dime from the recording she made in her Washington apartment as a favor to a friend.

Still, it's hard to step down. "I'm really very sorry to be losing the job," she says in the same caring but confident tone she has on the subway. "I have enjoyed it so much for all of these years and I really love D.C. very much."

Carroll, the public voice too private to say anything about her life beyond the loudspeakers, has lived in Washington for three decades, was on board the first train when the Metro opened in 1976, and still rides every day without gripe. "Public transportation is great," she says.

Over the years, people have told her that her voice makes them think good thoughts. Recently, the Washington bureau chief of the British newspaper The Independent wrote a column headlined: "Bring back soothing Sandy. I don't want to be hectored on my way to work."

"I feel the same way," Carroll resignedly concurs. "When I go to work, I don't want to hear a loud, aggressive voice telling me what to do."

***

"Jeepers, Batman! Did you see that person just shove their briefcase in the doors?" Imagine having to voice that Metro script convincingly while standing in a recording booth with a dozen reporters scrutinizing you through the sound-proof glass.

This audition is no cakewalk. There are more media than organizers. The 10 finalists - three men, seven women - take turns at the microphone with TV cameras shoved in their face. Their reward for making it this far will be a D.C. edition of Monopoly.

"Please stand back," Carol Rabel a voice-over professional from Silver Spring, Md., says into the microphone.

"A little more authoritative," requests Dave Marinaccio, an advertising professional giving directions from the production table.

"Please stand back," she delivers.

"Ok, I'm stepping back," Mr. Marinaccio says, content.

Marinaccio guides finalists through a list of sentences they will record for the judges. The first are standard "doors opening," "doors closing" messages. The last three, "Jeepers Batman!" among them, are longer. (And, no, no one has to pronounce L'Enfant or Grosvenor - but they did in the first round.)

It's not easy. Especially doing the authoritative voice, says Angela Stevens, a young local radio traffic reporter and lifelong Metro rider. "I'm too nice."

"Everybody knows this one," says Marinaccio, introducing the phrase that made Carroll famous. "It's one of the most important things that riders hear in the morning. It needs to be enunciated very clearly and very strong."

"Doors closing," Stevens says, and you know she wants to win.

Most of the 10 finalists have had some experience behind a microphone - either as DJs, radio reporters, or doing voice-overs. Sarah Fraser, a D.C. resident, has been working in radio since August and is still abuzz after her tryout. "If I win this, I'm on the Metro every day," chatters the pony-tailed hopeful. "And then I'm just going to harass riders constantly. 'Doors closing. Does this sound familiar to you? Doors closing.' I can't wait. I think it's going to be fantastic. Fingers crossed."

If not the voice of the Metro, she's definitely the voice of a new generation.

***

If all this is weirdly fascinating, don't worry. You're not alone. Subways make passionate fans, and the Internet is the perfect hangout for fastrail devotees. One of these sites, Metro Bits, has a list of metros around the world, a collection of their various logos, maps, and a selection of ... you guessed it, metro voices or noises. In Paris and Rome the closing of the doors is signaled by a buzz. In Moscow you'll hear "Mind the closing doors" - in Russian, of course. In London, it's occasionally the spoofed "mind the gap," while in New York more often than not it's an impatiently grumpy driver hurrying uncooperative passengers.

Carroll's voice will be, in Metro's words, "a thing of the past" by the end of the spring. But it's hard to believe it'll be quickly forgotten. The contest finalists are aware they're competing to replace a legend, but are confident their time has come.

"Very big shoes to fill," finalist and voice-over professional Mary Whittington says. "But I can do it."

The champion, Carroll advises, should enjoy having the bragging rights. But she never did, never pointed out to anyone on the train - not even to those mocking the recording - that they were listening to her, the voice of the Washington Metro.

"It will always be my job in my heart," Carroll says, and her signature vocal chords perk up on cue with her signature line: "Doors closing."

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