BY SAM RAPPAPORT
This past weekend, Velina Mitchell, who was born and raised in Queens’ East Elmhurst and Corona neighborhoods, rode the subway with her family not to get anywhere in particular, but simply to catch the announcements coming over the train’s loudspeaker. The voice that Mitchell heard was her own.
“It was just a proud moment to hear it,” Mitchell said. “It felt like I was a part of the New York culture.”
Mitchell has worked for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) for more than 25 years, first as a train conductor, then as a train operator and tower operator, and now as a dedicated announcer supervisor.
Recently, she was tapped by the MTA to record a series of announcements that are now being heard on subway cars across the city. This new round of recordings is aimed at improving the accuracy and reliability of the MTA’s communications with its riders. The initiative to improve customer service and communication was a major tenet of MTA President Andy Byford’s comprehensive plan to overhaul the city’s transit system, which he unveiled last week.
“As part of the subway action plan, we are taking a hard look at our communication and pledging to improve the accuracy, consistency, and reliability of our announcements,” said Sarah Meyer, the chief customer officer for New York City Transit. “We also want to make them friendlier yet authoritative at the same time.”
In the past months, Meyer began to search for a new voice for MTA announcements after she started to feel that the pre-recorded messages being broadcast had become stale and cluttered with transit jargon.
“I wanted them to sound more New York,” she said. “The previous announcer was from the Midwest. The city deserved a New York announcer.”
One day, while touring the Rail Control Center, Meyer found her woman.
Mitchell, at the time, was stationed at the Rail Control Center, where she was dispatching announcements to those stations beleaguered with delays and construction inconveniences.
Meyer heard Mitchell’s voice and immediately knew that it was the right match for the MTA.
“It was authoritative, yet kind,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t specifically looking for a new voice there, but once I heard her voice, I knew it was good enough. We didn’t have to go outside of transit to get studio-quality announcements.”
Mitchell jumped at the opportunity to have her voice become a staple of the New York Public Transit experience.
“I knew they were looking for someone who sounded like they were from New York,” Mitchell said. “I felt honored; I felt great. It was exciting, and it was something new for me, and it all happened so quickly.”
Mitchell recorded approximately 12 announcements for the MTA. Some of the recordings encourage ride etiquette, such as those that say, “Step aside and let the riders off the train first.” And some recordings add a level of specificity to train-delay information. For instance, instead of “There is train traffic ahead of us,” Mitchell’s voice might clarify, “There’s a train ahead of us with a door problem.”
“With this new voice, we’re hoping we’ll get people’s attention,” Meyer said. “Before I started working here, I was just a transit customer too. We all have been tuning out the constant announcements.”
Meyer said that Mitchell’s new announcements are an important step toward modernizing the MTA’s communication style.
“We’re doing a massive amount of work,” Meyer said of public transit renovations, “and we have to talk about it differently.”
Mitchell, who has ridden the city’s buses and trains her entire life, is taking a moment to bask in the glow.
“My family, my friends, my neighbors, they’re all just so excited about this opportunity for me,” she said. “People just want to go ride the trains now.”