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Underground Voices

“Panic control” is key in MTA staffers’ speech training.

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Stacey Mitchell speaks with the silky, soothing voice of a late-night disc jockey. But for a subway announcer, that purr was a problem.

Mitchell is one of the MTA’s 35 “dedicated announcers,” employees stationed in some of the city’s busiest stations—such as Grand Central—whose sole job is to make announcements to passengers on platforms. The announcers broadcast an average of 1,882 messages per week (nearly one per minute). For Mitchell and her colleagues, mastering that message load meant speech training.

“She lacked a sense of urgency in the voice,” says Mitchell’s supervisor, Velina Mitchell (no relation). “She sounded relaxed all of the time.” Mellow doesn’t work if someone has fallen in front of the L train, as happened on one of Stacey’s shifts.

During Stacey’s three-week schooling, Velina worked on adding emotion to her pupil’s messages. Other trainees have different oratorical shortcomings. “Native New Yorkers—many drop the ending of the words,” bemoans Velina. “ ‘Trains are runnin’ on the local track.’ ”

But if making the announcers understandable is a high priority, why do people often have such a hard time understanding them? The problem is generally with the broadcast equipment, not the broadcasters themselves. “I think of us as the software,” says Termaine Garden, the MTA’s director of customer communications. “It’s time to fix the hardware.”

Conductors undergo similar speech training, in addition to learning “panic control.” Talking points are carefully laid out, in a conductor’s blue book and a six-page announcer’s script, to ensure uniformity. “We also create scripts on the spot to make sure everyone says the same thing,” Velina says. If the problem were, say, a pack of wild dogs at West 4th Street, “we wouldn’t say it’s because of wild dogs,” she says. “If service had to be suspended, that’s what we’d be talking about. Not the dogs.” And by no means is a train ever delayed by a “fire”: Blame “debris on the tracks.”

So what happens when a conductor bellows, “If you don’t let go of the door, we’ll just sit here”? “That’s completely against policy,” says Lewis Riley, who oversees all communications training. “You should never hear frustration. We don’t throw conductors on the whipping post—but they are spoken to.”


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