December 29, 1996 in Features

‘You Have One New Voice Message’ To Learn About The Voice Of Voice Mail, Press On With Phone Interview

Barbara Brotman Chicago Tribune

I would know her voice anywhere. I call her every day. Many, many, many times a day. We do not talk; I listen.

A captive audience with little to do during my endless re-hearings of her voice besides indulge my natural inclination toward neurosis, I hang on her every inflection.

“You have … one new voice message.”

A measured, professional tone. She is determined neither to get my hopes up that this is the call I was waiting for nor to chide me over my paucity of messages.

“You have … three new voice messages.”

Do I detect a slight note of disapproval? She has been here, waiting for my calls; where was I? Was there something I considered more important than answering my phone? What, exactly - what, conceivably - might that be?

“You have … 18 new voice messages.”

Oh, now it comes out! Stung by my refusal to answer my phone, she is gloating over my resulting call-returning workload.

Can’t you hear it in the way she says “18”? A combination of amazement, tinged with disgust, that I have let things go so long, and coldhearted awareness that I will spend the next hour and a half listening to and answering messages.

Yes, I would know her voice anywhere, this disembodied constant companion, this innocent repository for my anxiety and paranoia. And now here it is, on my phone, but this time live and attached to a name - Marsha Graham, the Voice of Voice Mail.

She is the voice of voice mail by Octel Communications, the Silicon Valley-based world leader in voice messaging systems. With Octel holding 27 percent of the voice-messaging industry market share in the United States and 25 percent abroad, for a total of 40 million mailboxes, that is one very big voice.

She is on voice mail offered to customers by Ameritech, Bell South, US West and Southwest Bell. She is the voice of her father’s company’s voice mail. She is the voice of her brothers’ companies’ voice mail. She is the voice of her own voice mail.

“It’s very strange,” she says - and then the voice that tells me I have pressed an incorrect key laughs.

The ear thrills. She jokes as well as prompts! Her voice is slightly higher and more animated, but it is unmistakably the same person who guides me through the recording of an extended-absence greeting.

Shyly, I asked about her technique.

“I’ll go through each number with the entire phrase in mind,” she says. She demonstrates the way she combines thinking parts of phrases and speaking the number.

“I’ll say silently to myself, You have … ‘Four’ new messages. You have … ‘Five’ new messages. …’ I listen, dizzy with excitement at the live, personal performance, the telephonic equivalent of the Rolling Stones doing “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” in my kitchen.

She was initially baffled by her vocal, if anonymous, celebrity. She had a fan club at one corporation. She found herself a star attraction at an international telephone system users’ conference.

But she has come to regard the phenomenon as a yearning for a human connection to an impersonal technology and to see her own role as bringing humanity into the voice-mail relationship.

“To connect the person with the voice changes the way you approach listening; you’ve made a connection,” she says. “I feel it is a responsibility of mine to bring that personal connection back.”

So she makes public appearances, where she personalizes her autographs with recipients’ favorite voice-mail messages. Most popular: “Are you still there?”

“I’m not just a voice,” she says.

And even when she is a voice, she is not just a voice. She knows we are listening carefully and repeatedly, and she modulates her voice to project comforting attitudes.

“Sometimes it’s compassion for being stuck,” she says. “Sometimes it’s being knowledgeable, friendly or articulate, not condescending or distant.

“One of the hardest things I recorded was, ‘I’m sorry,”’ she says, which I have heard her perform in that classic phrase in the voice-mail genre, “I’m sorry, that is not the correct password.”

“I wanted to be sincere; I didn’t want to offend.”

For the Voice of Voice Mail is a genuinely caring person who has more to say than, “To exit, press star.”

She has been a singer and voice-over and on-camera commercial actress for nearly 30 years. She lives in Sausalito, Calif., a charming town on San Francisco Bay. She loves the beach and mountain climbing. She has a 24-year-old daughter. She takes with aplomb the fact that the fame that eluded her as a singer has come to her now, in an odd sort of way.

“It’s very funny,” she says. “I started out as a singer. I had aspirations for a hit record and all that kind of stuff that would be recognizable. Now I’m doing things where I don’t have name recognition, but it’s really nice. I’m out there.”

She may be out there, but she is also right here, on my desk, as she was before - only now the keeper of my messages is forever imprinted in my mind as the owner of two cats: a fluffy Himalayan and a garden-variety kitten.

I think I will pick up my phone and check my Marsha.

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