Operator's Voice Wins Pacific Bell's Search for 'Human Connection' on 411

Times Staff Writer

Thank you for calling. The number is . . . .

In cordial, crystal-clear tones, she can already be heard giving out phone numbers in more than 30, mostly Eastern states.

Now, her voice can be heard reciting phone numbers in Orange County for the first time.

Following a nationwide talent search, a new voice has been selected to be Pacific Bell's directory assistance operator. The one chosen belongs to Teri-Ann Sax, a 39-year-old former telephone operator from Rochester, N.Y..

Sax's voice--or rather, a computer's rendering of her voice--began a two-week trial run in Orange County on Nov. 3. Following the test, she will become the statewide voice for directory assistance, Pacific Bell officials said.

Via the magic of computer chips and circuitry, she will help you find the phone numbers you lost, forgot, or are just plain too lazy to look up in the phone book.

What should you hear when you dial "411," the number for directory assistance that made Pacific Bell officials single her out?

"You should be able to hear a little bit of sympathy, a little bit of a smile," Sax said in a telephone interview.

The search for a new directory assistance voice began last year. Pat Cullan, staff manager for Pacific Bell's operating services, said customers thought the old voice sounded too much like a machine.

Surveys revealed that customers preferred a voice with a more "human-like quality."

Six voices were picked in a nationwide search, Cullan said. Telephone operators throughout the state were asked to judge the voices on the basis of clarity, speed, quality and cadence.

"From that, Teri-Ann came out the favorite," Cullan said. "Her voice had more of those (four) qualities than any other voice."

No stranger to reciting phone numbers--with five years experience recording directory assistance tapes--Sax went to a recording studio in Camden, N.J. There she spent two one-hour recording sessions reading different combinations of seven-digit numbers.

The recording session marked the beginning of a process called "digital reconstruction," in which sound waves from a human voice are transformed into electronic impulses stored in a computer chip.

It means that the voice you hear when you call directory assistance is not an ordinary tape recording but a synthesized version of Sax's voice that has been reconstructed by a computer.

An operator looking up a number for a caller simply activates the computer, which recites the number using the reconstructed human voice. The caller has the phone number and the operator is free to assist a new caller.

Sax's computerized voice will "know" each phone number in the 714 area, said Pacific Bell spokesman Craig MacDonald. In her first full day on the job, she recited about 360,000 phone numbers--the average number of weekday calls for directory assistance in this area, he said.

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