7 World-Famous Voices: How They Earn A Living Speaking For Machines

Voices come out of our cell phones and GPS machines. Out of our computers and train platforms. Ever since a jolly man told us "You've got mail," we've come to trust, even love, the disembodied sounds of total strangers. After all, it makes us feel better about living in a world made ever more of silicon and steel and things that go beep. Apple even got mad when the man who voiced British Siri identified himself publicly, telling him, "We're not about one person."

But who are those people actually? And how did they end up with a job that gets millions of people to trust and love them? Scroll through our slideshow of seven of the most famous voices attached to non-famous faces in the world, and learn of the toils and very lucky breaks that landed them, well, everywhere.

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7 World-Famous Voices: How They Earn A Living Speaking For Machines

His voice brought Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan together, and made millions of Americans feel popular everyday. Elwood Edwards recorded the iconic "You've Got Mail" for Quantum Computer Services in 1989, along with other personal greetings, like "Welcome," "File's Done," "You've Got Pictures," and "Goodbye." In 1991, Quantum Computer Services changed its name to the much niftier America Online.

Like many celebrated voice artists, Edwards honed his craft in radio back in high school. He then did some work for TV, both off-camera and on, reporting on news, sports and the weather. In 1989, his wife was working for Quantum Computer Services and told Edwards that the company was looking for a voice to personalize the internet experience. So he recorded four phrases on a cassette tape. The rest is history.

Since then, Edwards has done news graphics and video editing work for TV, and re-recorded the iconic AOL phrases for a whole host of parodies. “It never really went much past that,” he told Cleveland Magazine. “I think I became typecast.”

Bernie Wagenblast wanted to be in radio from the age of 10, and told The New York Times that during his childhood summers he would read the local newspaper out loud to perfect his voice. At Seton Hall University in New Jersey, he spent almost all of his free time at the school's radio system, reporting on news and sports and being a DJ. Then in 1979, Wagenblast caught his big break, when he was hired as one of the original reporters for Shadow Traffic, which gives traffic reports to news outlets.

With his background in transportation and having a very pleasant voice, Wagenblast was hired over the coming years to do recordings for highways, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, the New Jersey Turnpike, and the New York State Thruway. In 2006, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority asked him to add his voice to the soundtrack of the New York subway.

"It was (and still is) magical to speak into a microphone and have your voice come out of speakers in cars, homes and offices throughout the region," Wagenblast told Schools.com.

Russ Leatherman had the great fortune to have a business partner who sounded, in his words, like Donald Duck. So when they founded the movie-listing service Moviefone in a Los Angeles garage in 1989, he ended up being its voice. Leatherman had some experience as a voice, after all. While studying TV and radio at the University of Idaho, he worked part time as a radio DJ.

"Hellooo and welcome to Moviefone!" he said in greeting millions of Americans planning their date nights. The joy of being a nationally-known voice isn't in that you are necessarily loved, he told The New York Times, but that you are remembered. And it's probably an added bonus if you can get really really rich in the process. When AOL bought Moviefone in 1999, he got a solid chunk of the $388 million price, and kept earning a six figure salary as the company's president.

Millions of callers have heard her lilting voice daily. She is Pat Fleet, or "Ma Bell" in the telephone industry. For over three decades, she's been the voice behind AT&T.

The phone company was looking for a "sound trademark" and sampled a host of different voices for the role in nationwide focus groups. But Fleet's was by far and away the winner. She is one of the few Americans to have her phrasing trademarked by the U.S. Patent and Trademark office.

An Ohio native, Fleet lived most of her years in Atlanta, Georgia. But she never got a southern accent; her "region neutral" voice was in fact one of the reasons AT&T liked her in the first place, and why many other companies have hired her dulcet tones too, like Paramount Pictures, Bank of America, McDonald's, Boeing, and Verizon.

She's the voice that guides, soothes, and grates over 25 million people around the world as they sit behind the wheel. Karen Jacobsen, or "Australian Karen," never planned on being the most popular GPS voice in the world. At the age of seven, she saw Olivia Newton John in "Grease" and had her life goals set: to be a professional singer, and to move to the U.S.A.

She arrived in New York City in 2000, and began releasing albums on her recording label. Then in 2002, she was chosen as one of the Australian English options on various GPS units, and spent almost 50 hours recording all the various phrases.

As a child, Jacobsen had fantasized about hearing her singing voice coming out of the car radio. "I never imagined that it would be my speaking voice coming out of all of those GPS units around the world," she said at a TED conference, "giving drivers directions."

A focus group plucked out Emma Clarke's voice back in 1999 to guide them on the London Underground. She remained the sound of the morning commute until 2007, when she recorded a handful of spoof announcements on her website. Spoofs like: "Passengers are reminded that, like all voiceover artists, I probably look nothing like you imagine and may turn out to be somewhat of a disappointment." And, "Would the passenger in the red shirt pretending to read a paper but who is actually staring at that woman's chest please stop. You're not fooling anyone, you filthy pervert."

British newspaper The Daily Mail stumbled on the recordings, and wrote a story about them, including some choice quotes from Clarke herself. Quotes like: "The thought of being stuck in the Tube with strangers for minutes on end and having to listen to endless repeated messages of my own voice fills me with horror." Clarke claimed her remarks were taken out of context, but her employer didn't care, and fired her in 2007.

But Clarke has some other gigs to fill her time, writing for the radio and BBC television, and running her own voice-over company.

When Don LaFontaine was 13, his voice broke. Mid-sentence, his tone changed from squeaky prepubescent boy to thundering call of the gods. When his teacher demanded that he speak up in class the next day, she made him leave the room, because he thought he was joking.

But the joke was on her, when LaFontaine's booming vocal chords ended up on thousands and thousands of trailers and hundreds of thousands of commercials between the mid-1960s and his death in 2008. His voice may just be the ur-voice of advertising. "Fortunately my voice lives in an area of the sound spectrum that nothing else lives in, so I can speak very very quietly and it cuts through the explosion," he said. "It cuts through the music. It cuts through everything."

LaFontaine always preferred narrating trailers for action films, but he handled each flick with equal respect. "My philosophy is that you have to really believe what you're reading, even if you think the film's a piece of junk," he told Swindle magazine. "Even the worst picture is someone's favorite film, and that someone is the fan I am always talking to."

Jon Briggs was watching TV, when an iPhone ad came on. And there he was, a disembodied him anyway. He was the magical marvelous Siri ringing out from the British version of the iPhone 4S.

Five or six years before, he'd recorded 5,000 sentences, over three weeks, for a company called Scansoft, reports The Telegraph. That company later merged with another company, which then got a contract with Apple. Those same recorded sentences are also unparsed and reparsed to provide announcements for one of London's busiest railway stations -- although Briggs only received on payment for the whole thing.

Briggs was a technology journalist by trade, and says he fell into voice-over work by accident. "I'm amused to be part of the fabric of things," he told The Telegraph.


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