He's Got a Voice That People Are Glad to Hear

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The flashing red light of the answering machine has long been a sight for sore eyes. Those of us with addictive personalities phone home five or six times a day to gorge ourselves in message retrieval. Yet, of late, that flashing red light has been upstaged by three thrilling words, "You've got mail."

That's also the title of an upcoming romantic comedy from that powerhouse posse, Ephron-Hanks-Ryan, in which Hollywood close-focuses its camera on the care and feeding of the e-mail romance. A widespread occurrence, the electronic dalliance gives new meaning to the term "blind date."

And, for tens of thousands of Americans online, Cupid is no longer a chubby kid with wings; these days, Cupid is the fella who keeps expectant e-mailers in touch. His name is Elwood Edwards, a.k.a. the voice of America Online, also known as "The 'You've got mail' guy."

Edwards, who like Tom Hanks' character found love in a chat room, brings his melodious vocal stylings to sound-files like the incomparable AOL "Welcome," the delightful crowd-pleaser "You've got mail" and other hits, such as "File's done" and "Goodbye." More than 27 million times a day, AOL customers are greeted by Edwards' sound-file salutation.

Back in 1989, a primordial America Online known as Q-Link, an online service of Quantum Computer Services, was looking for a way to make its service less geek-o-fied and more user-friendly. Figuring a human voice would be just the ticket, CEO Steve Case said sure when an employee offered her husband, an announcer whose voice has hawked cars, Pepsi and the weather.

That was Edwards, 48, who had been announcing since high school. Edwards says that he had always been told that his voice was "friendly" and "personable," but he was unaware that he would become a cyber-icon whose voice would become a key component to a splashy Hollywood film.

According to "You've Got Mail" director Nora Ephron, the real reason AOL is so successful are those three little words. Said Ephron, "Every time I hear them, I'm happy."

Such reaction pleases Edwards. Of the throngs of e-mailers who wait for his words, Edwards says, "I hope they think of me as the 'mailman'--someone who is bringing them something special." And he can certainly relate to the power of computer communication. Edwards not only met his wife, Karen, in a Q-Link chat room in 1987, but they exchanged vows in a virtual wedding before their real one.

Edwards has established a Web site http://members.aol.com/voicepro/ where prospective advertisers (and die-hard fans) can sample his sound and contact him for voice-overs. He's also been lighthearted enough to record some alternatives to the AOL standards at http://www.neonpages.com/wizdomme/noize/altaol.htm. Here, you can pick up some WAV files and configure your AOL software to tell you, "You've got credit card debt!"

AOL customers who grow weary (heaven forbid!) of Edwards' vocal stylings can trade in his voice for some computer cameos from such celebs as LL Cool J, Mike Myers, David Letterman and Dennis Rodman. Their ab-fab voices are available, free of charge, as a celeb-sonic welcome mat. Keyword: celebrity voices.

Finally, "You've Got Mail" has established a nifty site (http://www.youvegotmail.com/), where Warner Bros. invites anyone with an Internet browser to hear Edwards' greatest hit. Along with a virtual tour of the Upper West Side locales visited in the film by Meg Ryan and Hanks (including subway sounds), the site offers downloadable goodies (screen savers, icons, etc.), interactive storytelling (Ryan's character reads children's books aloud in her shop) and opportunities to snoop through the movie couple's flirtatious e-chatter.

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Erika Milvy writes about lowbrow arts from her home in San Francisco. She can be reached at erika@well.com

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