SEPTA replaces automated announcements with one fan’s lively voice for an afternoon

Caleb Stone is a familiar face at SEPTA board meetings. He’s on a first name basis with enough high-ranking employees to make this transit reporter jealous.

Stone, 20, loves trains. Lots of individuals with high functioning autism do. His dream is to one day work for SEPTA, an authority he obviously loves … but not uncritically. Stone is a regular voice during SEPTA board meeting public comment periods, asking thoughtful questions and friendly suggestions. Lately, Stone’s turned his critical ear to panning the canned announcements heard on SEPTA trains and platforms.

“I’m a guy who really wants to change automated announcements on SEPTA,” said Stone. “That’s my mission, my primary mission.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Stone enjoyed a try-out of sorts with the transit authority, replacing a few dozen pre-recorded regional rail arrival announcements at Jefferson Station with his own live versions.

It’s a nice gesture by a government bureaucracy. But it has the potential to be even more than that, if SEPTA has been really listening.

NOW ARRIVING ON TRACK 3…

Stone is working on his basic job skills right now. He’s transitioning from living at home with Mom to living on his own, and he’s started working at his old school. He has an aide, Kenny Pfender, who helps him with things like scheduling skills and handling unexpected changes to routines. Pfender noted that Stone helps him whenever he needs to figure out the right bus or train to get around town.

It’s a lot of change for her son, said Valerie Stone. But his love of transit systems has been a constant. Even as a baby, her son has been attracted to trains.

Stone didn’t merely announce the next train. As a Paoli-bound train pulled up, Stone announced all its stops, in order: “making stops at Suburban, 30th Street, Overbrook, Merion, Narberth, Wynnewood, Ardmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Rosemont, Villanova, Radnor, St. Davids, Wayne, Strafford, Devon, Berwyn, Daylesford, Paoli, Malvern, Exton, Whitford, Downingtown, Thorndale.”

“He surprised me with that one,” said Ralph Mazzuca, Assistant Director of Station Operations at Jefferson. Mazzuca is one of many employees who has known Stone for years. Mazzuca said the first time he met Stone was when one of the station employees left the information kiosk to use the restroom. “Caleb was standing there, helping customers. I went up to him and asked ‘Can I help you?’”

But Stone was, and still is, far more interested in giving help than receiving it.

“I’m the one who says, ‘why doesn’t SEPTA have this?’” Stone said. “I would like to work here some day, and make things better.”

Stone was doing just that between announcements trains, offering tips for making things better as Ron Hopkins, Assistant General Manager of Operations at SEPTA, listened on. Part of Hopkins’ job is to respond to the suggestions that passengers make at meetings and during public feedback efforts, often needing to explain to these well-meaning riders that fiscal restraints stand in the way of making their ideas reality.

Hopkins explained to Stone that SEPTA is more focused on the accuracy of information – like providing real time updates – than the sound. But, he said that the agency is willing to listen, and admitted: “Can it be more personalized? Absolutely.”

…FEEL GOOD STORY HEADING TO BROADER ISSUE JUNCTION

In between discussions with Hopkins over installing new cameras or overhauling specific track systems that – quite frankly – I wasn’t technically proficient enough to follow, Stone continued to make his case for replacing the robotic sounding announcements, saying: “I’m the one with a passion.”

That isn’t just the biased opinion of a young man angling for a job – although Stone was doing that, too.

Lots of people find robotic-sounding voices discomforting. It’s a psychological phenomenon known as the “uncanny valley,” and we usually hear about it when a computer animated film goes for too much realism, not enough cartoon, and creeps out audiences. It’s why the cold voice of a GPS system’s “recalculating” can inspire blistering road rage in usually calm drivers, and why some robocalls can really freak us out.

Many announcements in the stations are recordings made a few years ago by a baritone SEPTA employee, whose staccato delivery does sound a bit robotic. And on some vehicles, like the new Silverliner V regional rail cars, it’s your standard faceless robot voice.

It’s a subtle difference that not many would notice, but Stone did, noting that transit systems in New Jersey, New York and even LA use more personable voices for their announcements.

And as he made announcements, the excitement in Stone’s voice cut through the loud din of the station. The usual suite of SEPTA announcements sound lifeless in comparison.

To some, all of this may seem silly – no matter how fine the elocution, riders will hate the sound of announcements like “the 10:35 train to Paoli is arriving 15 minutes late.” And that’s even if they hear anything at all: at least half the passengers on the platform during Stone’s announcements had headphones on.

But the small things matter. Train and bus announcements are part of the symphony of city living, and even the smallest improvements, like replacing a tinny, automated voice with a human touch, can translate into more pleasant user experiences.  Imbuing SEPTA with a real voice could help humanize what can often feel like a faceless bureaucracy. 

SEPTA already knows how things like announcements and station stop calls can radically change how people feel about their commutes. Philadelphia City Paper introduced West Philly’s poetic trolley driver to the rest of us last year, and @SEPTA_SOCIAL (itself a lauded program for improving user experience) constantly re-tweets the small things drivers and customer service reps do that make riders so happy they give SEPTA a shout out on Twitter. These are the little bits of élan amid the ennui of the daily commute can add up to change how the general public generally thinks about public transit. 

And, in the grand scale of things, “more agreeable announcements” isn’t a big lift for the transit authority.

But, even if SEPTA does decide to upgrade its announcers, Stone faces some stiff competition for the job. Studies suggest Americans prefer female voices to male voices, which is why Siri, and the Silverliner V’s voice, are women. And even if SEPTA decided to get rid of the canned recorded announcements, that would probably mean the voices of drivers and conductors, not Stone’s, over the loudspeakers.

But even if announcements aren’t the right job for him, there’s reason to believe that Stone could one day find a dream job at SEPTA still. Stone knows he has some work to do developing his basic job skills, but he already has one thing that makes for great employees: passion.

Passion is something management gurus try to inspire in employees; it’s something that largely cannot be taught. It’s often the difference between good and great. And, for a little bit on Tuesday, passion came over the station loudspeaker, loud and clear.  

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