JANE BARBE gets phone calls like you wouldn't believe.
About 60 million people a day call her up. They want to know what time it is, what the weather's like, what Joe What's-his-name's new phone number is. Barbe is seldom ruffled. In more than 250 cities, and about 25 trillion times a year, Barbe patiently replies.
"At the tone, the time will be...."
"That number has been changed to...."
Jane Barbe is The Voice of the Bell System. People talk to her, people rely on her, people respect her. Hers may be the most-heard voice in the world. Very few people have ever seen her, though. Telephoned live at her Atlanta home, The Voice comes through loud and clear. It's wonderful to hear something besides the usual-spiel.
Barbe, a drama major at the University of Georgia who sang for several years with the Buddy Morrow Orchestra, is in the jingle business with her husband, John. They do mostly local and regional commercials (national ones include Crisco and Shake'n'Bake).
"When I'm at a party and somebody finds out that this is what I do, they get very enthusiastic and say, 'Oh, I talk to you all the time.' Which delights me. They seem very pleased to be able to put a face with the voice. For some reason, they immediately want to put me in the celebrity status. Then when they see me again, they say, 'Oh, I talked to you yesterday.'"
Barbe has been providing well-modulated information for the Bell System for more than a dozen years. She records twice a year on the Time-Temperature Telephone Announcer developed by the Audichron Co. of Atlanta. Announcements are recorded on three separate drums (for hours, minutes, temperature) that revolve continuously. A magnetic head tracks the time recordings, which are synchronized with the National Bureau of Standards. In most cities, a thermometer on the roof of the local telephone company relays its readings to the temperature announcer while a second magnetic head feeds the proper announcement into the telephone equipment.
"What we go for [in the studio] is no accent at all because it has to go everywhere," Barbe points out in the familiar Voice that suddenly has a bit more of its natural Southern accent. "We try for a pleasant, friendly, one-on-one approach. We don't want it to sound like a recording and we try very hard to keep it from sounding mechanical. It's not foolproof, though. In some cities, we have an Automated Intercept Machine and everything is recorded out of context. This machine can grab the right words and numbers, little bits and pieces, and put together the right message. It does sound a little bit mechanical," she admits.
Automatic Intercept is a computer linked to an announcement machine where 96 prerecorded tracks (words, phrases, digits) are connected in a programmed sequence by means of a switching network; information on non-working or changed telephone numbers is stored in a large magnetic disc file. The machine is smart enough to choose between Barbe's recordings of both neutral and falling voice inflections in order to assemble a natural sounding announcement.
Even though the information she records for Bell may seem timeless, Barbe goes into the studio twice a year to cut new tapes. "In most places around the country, 'time and temperature' is sponsored by some commercial organization. If you put an advertising message recorded this week with a 'time and temperature' recorded six months ago, when they go together on the final play, they'll sound a little bit different in voice levels. The quality of the voice will change just a little from day to day, so we upgrade them twice a year."
Of course, Barbe sometimes has to talk to herself. "The first time I ever did it, I did not call me deliberately. I called Western union to send a telegram, completely forgetting I had recorded some intercept messages. So I got the intercept, telling me I couldn't reach Western Union because 'the number has been changed to...' It startled me so to get myself that I failed to get the new number. I had to hang up and call the old number back to get the intercept message again.
"I don't think about it much, anymore. I get a little tired of getting me, if you want to know the truth."
Now, if there were only some way to work for Bell on a performance royalty basis...