You've heard him before Voice: AOL's "You've got mail" greeting is not a digitized sound, but comes from a person.

December 21, 1998|By Patti Hartigan | Patti Hartigan,BOSTON GLOBE

It's a deep and resonant voice, pleasant enough but ever so slightly affected. It's not exactly James Earl Jones, but more along the lines of Ted Baxter in the old "Mary Tyler Moore Show." And it's vaguely familiar, the kind of distinctive sound that makes you think, "Have I met this guy before?"

Chances are you haven't met Elwood Edwards, whose Dickensian name is as memorable as his voice. Unless, perhaps, you've wandered through the booming metropolis of Orrville, Ohio, where he lives with his wife, Karen.

But you may be one of the 14 million subscribers who hear his voice all the time on America Online. He's the "Welcome. You've got mail!" man, the guy behind the relentlessly perky greeting the online service has used since 1989. He's also the voice of "File's done" and the inevitable log-off, "Goodbye."

Now, there are icons and there are icons. Elvis and Einstein are big icons; Elwood Edwards is a "Jeopardy" question icon, a nice man who unwittingly became the voice of the biggest online service provider in the business.

He never applied for the job of the mailman; he never asked to extend the welcome mat. It just worked out that way. In September 1986, he was a broadcast announcer in the Washington area; out of curiosity, he bought his first computer, a Commodore 64, which is now a museum relic. The computer came with software called Q-Link, which was the online service of Quantum Computer Services (which later became AOL). He decided to check it out and ended up in a chat room for Christians.

"I received an online message from KarenJ2, and it simply said, 'We're almost neighbors.'" He lived in Gaithersburg; she lived in Fairfax, Va. "It was just friendly conversation, and we chatted on line every once in a while over the next few months," says Edwards, 49.

The cyberbuddies eventually met for dinner. "It was July 6th of 1987," the man with the voice recalls. They got married the next year.

At the time, Karen was working in Quantum's customer services department, and one day, she overheard AOL founder Steve Case and a few programmers discussing adding a voice to the service. "She said, 'Why don't you try El? He's a broadcaster.'"

Try him they did. Edwards recorded the four phrases on a cassette recorder, and they've been using those simple recordings ever since.

"I like to think I'm the mailman, always bringing good news," he says, laughing.

He's not employed by AOL, never has been. He allows that he has received compensation for his voice, which the company says is heard 27 million times a day. "I'll go so far as to say that my relationship with AOL is very satisfactory," he admits, "but I don't elaborate any more than that."

Most AOL members tend to think the voice is computer-generated, but that's likely to change soon. The "Welcome" man is heard repeatedly in the new film, "You've Got Mail," a sort of cyber love story starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

Edwards hopes to generate interest for the voice-over business he runs out of his home after the film is released. (You can see his photograph and hear "the voice" at his Web site, members.aol.com/voicepro.)

A silver-haired, bespectacled man who stands 6 feet, 6 inches tall, Edwards has been in the broadcast business since he was a teen-ager in North Carolina.

"I made a pest of myself at the local radio station," he recalls. "I had fallen in love with the idea of being a DJ, and the people at the radio station figured, 'If we don't do something with this kid, he'll never stop hounding us.' I became a DJ back then."

He's worked steadily in both television and radio announcing, selling products, that sort of thing. He's not exactly recognized every day for his quirky contribution to online lore: "I don't walk around saying, 'You've got mail,'" he notes.

His wife, however, will tell anyone who will listen.

"Sometimes people will be talking about the mailman in the chat rooms on AOL, and women will say they've had a crush on 'that little man' for years," says Karen, whose own voice comes out an octave higher than her husband's, with a distinct drawl. "I pop up and say, 'That little man is 6-foot-6.'"

The Edwardses are certainly one of the first married couples to have met in an online chat room, which is a small claim to fame. Were they a tad nervous about meeting in person? "I was a lot nervous," Karen says. "I almost didn't show up. My friends thought I was crazy and said he could have been an ax murderer."

He was just the mailman, though, even though he hasn't written a postal letter in quite a few years. "I like to think I have a friendly voice and it doesn't grow old," he says, before delivering that oh, so familiar sign-off. You know how it goes, deep with a slightly lower tone on the second syllable: "Goodbye."

Pub Date: 12/21/98

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