Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

A new, bossier announcer is wanted for the Washington underground. The commuter's heart sinks
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The Independent Online

They are but a few disembodied words from an intercom - but they could be a tiny pointer to the country's future. Soon we who use Metro, as Washington's excellent underground system is known, will have to get used to a new sound. No longer will the recording of a warm and slightly Southern-sounding lady named Sandy Carroll inform us that the train doors are about to close. Alas, Ms Carroll sounded too nice. Metro's powers-that-be deemed a sterner style was needed to keep the service moving.

So they held a competition to find "a fresh voice and a new sound". Last Friday the contest closed and this week a panel of Metro officials will select 10 finalists from the 150-plus entries. In early February the winner will be presented to the press and her (or his) new recordings will be heard a few days later. In the meantime one thing is already clear: whether male or female, the voice that henceforth intones, "Doors closing; stand clear of the doors", will mean what it says.

The rules of the contest laid down a Mussolini-like mission, "to ensure trains run on time". Each candidate had to submit no fewer than three separate recordings of two test announcements, each recorded in a "polite," a "serious", and finally an "authoritative" style. In terms of boarding a train these might be translated as, "Please get in", "Get in now", and "Get in - or else!" Not surprisingly, the competition has generated much local interest. But there is a tinge of resentment as well from those who make a living from being voice-overs.

Apparently the union rate for a short public announcement, which does not run on TV or radio, is $237 (£135). Metro, however, is offering neither money nor a job nor even free travel - just the less than thrilling award of Door Closing Voice 2006. True, there will be much local press exposure. But the Miss America pageant (whose 2006 edition took place in Las Vegas last night) this ain't. As Melissa Leebaert, an unseen PA announcer in local cinemas, told The Washington Post, "How would people feel if they were on a Metro train and they knew the driver wasn't being paid, or the people who mend the rails weren't being paid?" It should be pointed out that bitching at Metro is par for the course here.

Washingtonians just don't know how lucky they are. The New York subway (where some lines have automatic voices but others boast a live if usually incomprehensible conductor) is a clanking throwback to the early industrial revolution. The London Tube (where carefully selected voices intone the immortal "Mind the Gap") may be sleeker. But it is crowded, claustrophobic and desperately unreliable.

By comparison, the Washington system is a veritable five-star hotel. It is quick, clean and modern, with airy and softy lit stations - and carpets on the carriage floors, no less. The network is barely 30 years old, a stripling by the standards of London and New York. But read the local press and you'd think it was a rattling, antediluvian deathtrap. And whatever the new voice of Metro says, and however it says it, is unlikely to change that.

But the choice may prove an intriguing clue to national character. Each country has its own style of petty bureaucratic instructions. The British tended to go for a nannying, slightly bossy approach (witness earlier generations of BA hostesses). But in an age in which live people and live instructions are being replaced by automated recordings, that is changing.

Back in London last week I read that Emma Hignett, a broadcaster who had appeared with Jerry Springer and once did the words for Sensodyne toothpaste ads, had been selected to be the voice of the London bus network. The aim is not to project overbearing authority. Rather, she insists, her voice is "approachable and friendly," neither irritatingly shrill nor over-sexily low. Of course, it's anyone's guess whether this careful balance is enough to placate enraged passengers on a massively delayed number 19 bus.

British nannying, however, was nothing compared to the way the pettiest Soviet bureaucrats exercised their power. How well I remember the icy "Vam kuda?" - "Where are you going?" - from my Moscow days, as some busybody stopped me on my way to perfectly official pre-arranged appointments. The American way is subtler. Outwardly, a minor official - the airline hostess who tells you to put your seat in the upright position, or the policeman who urges you to move along - will be scrupulously polite. You will be drowned in Sirs" and "Ma'ams" and "pleases" and "do-you-minds?" But the politeness is oddly formulaic. Listen closely, and you realise that this person is making you an offer you would be most unwise to refuse. Somehow, I suspect, that's the way Metro is going, too.