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By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
Do the names Harlan Hogan, Nancy Cartwright or Don LaFontaine sound familiar? Maybe not, but their voices sure do. You probably know them better as the man talking in the Disney “make the dream come true” commercials (Hogan), or the voice of Bart Simpson (Cartwright), or the guy you hear in many movie trailers (LaFontaine).
Soon, Randi Miller’s voice will sound very familiar to Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) riders. In February, the 44-year-old — a Lexus dealership lease retention manager — won a WMATA contest that earned her the official title of the “doors closing voice.” Beginning this month, Miller’s warm, soothing tone will be heard on subway cars telling passengers that — you guessed it — the doors are closing.
In January, WMATA launched the contest in search of a fresh voice to replace the other female voice that for the past decade has been politely telling riders to stand back from doors before they close and the train departs. Passengers had grown accustomed to hearing the voice, and tuned it out or tried to squeeze through doors at the last minute, causing service delays, says Ron Holzer, WMATA’s special projects officer.
“Messages get stale and become background noise,” says Holzer, who was in charge of the contest. “We’re trying to change that in hopes that if people hear something different than they’re used to, they’ll pay attention.”
WMATA received 1,259 entries — a number that surprised officials since they weren’t offering monetary compensation. Holzer and eight others narrowed the pool to 10 finalists: seven women and three men with voices that were pleasant but firm and who could clearly read a script that included sentences with run-on words and difficult-to-pronounce station names, such as Grosvenor-Strathmore and L’Enfant Plaza.
In round two, finalists recorded three “doors closing” messages for a panel of judges who evaluated vocal quality, versatility, enunciation and elocution.
Miller’s velvety alto stood out to the judges; her confident, earthy tone conveyed the “friendly yet authoritative” voice they were seeking. She beat out many contestants who’d had professional voice training, including six of the finalists. Miller’s only professional experience was narrating a few industrial videos.
“I recorded ‘Welcome to your 401k program’ and other riveting works like that,” she says.
Upon hearing announcements she made over the public-address system at the Lexus dealership she works at in Alexandria, Va., Miller’s boss urged her to enter the contest.
So far, Miller’s recorded several train announcements for WMATA, such as, “doors closing ... please step back to allow customers to exit the train” and “doors opening...”
The messages use different tones, ranging from a warm tone to a stern voice to falling “just short of get your butt out of the way,” Miller says.
Last month, WMATA officials began playing the announcements on one car to gauge passengers’ reactions. The authority plans to play the announcements on all cars this month, making Miller a celebrity of sorts in the D.C. area — and, hopefully, paving the way for future voice-over success.
“It was always a dream of mine to become famous,” she says. “I was a songwriter, singer and guitar player from the time I was 11 into my 20s, and I always thought that would be my avenue for stardom.”
Following a new dream
Instead, the contest — which was covered by the Washington Post, television stations, The Today Show and Newsweek — has given Miller the exposure to use her voice in other ways. The day after she won, Miller landed a paying voice-over gig to provide online tutorials and sound-bite prompts for Peer Impact, an online network for purchasing music, video games and movies. Miller also recorded a professional demo and gave it to an agency in hopes of getting some audio book or advertisement work.
She’s already got plenty of fans. People leave Miller messages at work saying they were just calling to hear her voice, or come to the dealership hoping to catch a glimpse of her. And having people ask her for her autograph or to have their picture taken with her has become a somewhat common occurrence, Miller says.
A little strange, yes, but she’s not complaining.
“People have always told me I have a nice voice, and I always thought it would be nice to use it in some way,” says Miller. “Now, I have that opportunity.”