The Gentle Giant of the MBTA
By Kyle Clauss
Frank Oglesby, Jr. is mountain of a man. The ceiling of the Starbucks inside the Westin on the corner of Copley Square seems to struggle to accommodate him as he patiently waits his turn in line. The African American man is dressed in a tobacco brown suit and a tremendous trench coat. He orders a grande passionfruit lemonade, sweetened, in a velvety baritone with immaculate diction and cadence. He pays and receives his fluorescent pink drink from the barista, then sits down at a café table helplessly dwarfed by his presence. Beside him, an unsupervised child climbs atop a chair and starts to scream for his mother.
"Maybe we should do the interview somewhere else," he quips.
The barista may not know it, but chances are very good that he has heard Frank's voice at least once before. Chances are good that he will hear it again. Frank Oglesby, Jr. is the voice of the nation's oldest and fifth largest mass transit system, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), serving as narrator of the trains that dart across the Hub of Universe each day. Despite the recent institution of a price hike and the boisterous public outcry, this February marked the thirteenth consecutive month of growth in ridership for the MBTA, the longest such streak in its history. According to Metro, a record average of 1.3 million riders used the system each weekday, which means a record number of riders have heard Frank's mellifluous timbre. The gig is a voice artist's dream, though he is no voice artist; he is the deputy director of customer service for operations of the MBTA. Auditory icon is a side job.
"About twenty-one years ago, I was in the MBTA marketing department. They had an audio/visual unit, and it was run by a gentleman who used to do training films for bus and subway operations. He had a bus driver who was doing narration, and he wasn't satisfied with him; he had a bass voice, but he had awful diction. He was a Southerner. As am I, but you can't tell."
Two years later, the MBTA ordered production of new trains for the Red Line, complete with a voice announcing each station, stop, and major connection.
"We were having a major problem with the Federal Transit Administration," says Frank. "Our operators were not fulfilling their duties. One of their main duties was to announce the stations and stops. Our compliance was abysmal." The MBTA felt automated announcements was the solution to problem. Frank got the job.
Never once did Frank consider a job in professional radio, despite a solid background in the field in college. In his days at University of Massachusetts Boston, Frank hosted a reggae funk program from ten at night until two in the morning, and he reminisces fondly about experimenting with his radio voice in the wee hours of the morning on the airwaves.
Nowadays, Frank is by no means ruling professional radio out. If it were up to him, he would host a radio program about fitness and alternative medicine. In fact, Frank practices Eight Diagram Palm, or Bagua Zhang, one of the four Chinese internal martial arts. "It's very combat-oriented. It's vicious. It's a great way to stay in shape. It works you internally as well as externally. My specific style is particularly vicious." Frank laughs bashfully. "It's funny to talk about, actually."
After college, Frank said, "I've done a few commercials. I did one for a bank that's now defunct, Boston Savings Bank." Frank also did commercials for Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, though he was unable to meet the late actor and philanthropist.
"I'm rarely on other systems," he admits, though he claims to know the voice of the New York City subway system through a friend of a friend. When WMATA, the Washington, D.C., area equivalent of the MBTA, ran a contest several years ago to find its next narrator, Frank considered entering.
"I didn't do it. I was afraid of what might happen if I won it. Now, I'd do it. I have guts now where I didn't before," he chuckles.
Frank's work began with the Red Line, and he remembers seeing the first train bearing his voice before it was pressed into service. It was put on display outside South Station, where the public could stroll through and admire the new, multicolor cloth seats. The cloth seats would later be removed for hygienic reasons.
"I remember walking through that train thinking, 'My voice is going to be on this train.'"
Despite possessing the most recognizable voice in a metropolitan area of nearly 4.5 million people, Frank maintains an endearing degree of modesty. He acknowledges not every announcement is perfect, and when prompted, he casually rattles off what he calls "inconsistencies."
"When I announce 'The next Red Line train to Ashmont is now arriving,' there's a hesitation between 'the' and 'next.' There's a hesitation, and I hear it every time. It bugs me." It instantly becomes exceedingly apparent that Frank is a consummate perfectionist. He notes the almost uncertain tone that punctuates the Hynes Convention Center announcement, and reveals it is the result of an older, just slightly longer announcement – Hynes Convention Center/ICA – getting edited down when the station itself changed names. When asked why the MBTA did not ask that he record a new announcement, Frank shrugs. Every subway ride is a self-critique, a personal reflection on his own work.
However critical Frank is of his own work, the public provides far more stringent, particular, if not peculiar feedback. "Occasionally they'll have me read a list of ones they want me to do differently because they've gotten enough calls that my emphasis was on the wrong syllable," he says. He then demonstrates on the word "Broadway."
"People don't like the way I say Broadway. Broadway. Broadway. I don't know."
Though Frank's voice is free of any distinct accent, there has been much speculation regarding its origin. "There's been criticism that they wanted a more local flavor. Some people have written in occasionally that I'm a Midwestern voice, that I'm a Canadian disc jockey," he laughs. Then he recalls another complaint. 'That's arrogant. Listen to the way he says such and such."
"I've heard people say, 'That's not a real person,' and I don't say anything. Sometimes we have service disruptions or delays, and I've been waiting for someone to say, 'I wish he were on this train.' And I could say, 'Yeah, he's late too.'"
Frank's favorite announcement can be heard on the Orange Line, in the dark, dank caverns of Back Bay Station. "When I'm standing on the Orange Line platform at Back Bay Station, the acoustics are perfect. If I could put that on MP3, I could get a lot of jobs." Frank laughs then delivers the announcement. "'The next Orange Line train to Forest Hills is now arriving.'" His face suggests he has just tasted an expensive chocolate.
A former resident of Newton, Massachusetts, Frank travels the Green Line most frequently, though it is hardly his favorite work. It was the second line he did voice work for, and his dissatisfaction with his sophomore recordings is evident. "I sound like Darth Vader on those trains. It doesn't sound like a natural voice to me. Maybe I was trying too hard to sound deep."
"I think I sound more natural on the Blue Line, but they want me to sound a certain way on the system. They don't want a natural, conversational tone. They want authoritative. So Blue Line's my favorite because it's closest to what I'd like to do." Frank paused for a moment. "They want a certain thing, and I deliver it. It's less creative, but it's a job."
Interestingly enough, it was Frank's wife who recorded the outgoing message on their home telephone answering machine. Frank's voice is heard from the sleepy brownstones of the South End to the bustling tourist traps in North End, to the sprawling beaches of Wonderland, to the doorsteps of the nation's elite academic institutions, bookending the Charles, to the neon theatre district on Boylston, where he courteously beckons, "No smoking, please." Yet his voice is not present on his own home's answering machine.
Frank's vocal presence, though far-reaching, has not yet eclipsed the MBTA's commuter rail service, yet he is in no hurry to conquer any further. "There's another gentlemen who I haven't met, but I like his voice. He has a great voice."
At a "Talk to the T" public forum held in South Station last November, MBTA acting general manager Jonathan Davis announced an increase in the number of trains running on the Green Line, not only the busiest line of the MBTA, but the most heavily ridden light-rail system in the country. With the addition of these new trains, Frank will find work once again.
Throughout the interview, it becomes increasingly evident that ego is of little consequence to Frank. When asked what the most rewarding part of his job is, he gives a surprising, yet heartfelt response.
"Knowing that I'm providing an essential, valuable service to people with disabilities: the blind, people who are sight-impaired. I've heard from them, like the Boston Council for the Blind, about how my voice is so important to them in terms of travel," Frank says. "It lets them know, when maybe a bus operator or a train operator isn't letting them know, where they are, where the next stop is. That's the real reason I work, that I was asked to do this, and I've never lost sight of that."
"So when I make announcements on the train, I'm not trying to be cute. I'm trying to do the essential job: make sure it's clear and loud enough."
Through his narration, Frank has built not a network of far-flung vocal monuments to himself, but rather stepping stools, to maintain the metaphor – elevating those previously forgotten and disenfranchised by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
Source List: Annear, Steve. "MBTA ridership hits record high in February." Metro. Mar. 2012.
Frank Oglesby, Jr. Dec. 1, 2011. email@example.com.