You've Got Voice

Two Newport News residents can be heard by millions of America Online users in new versions of the familiar "You've got mail" greeting.

Saying "You've got mail" for Internet giant America Online sounds like an easy way to make a few extra bucks.

Repeating it 2,300 times doesn't sound like fun.

But it's still a very good gig.

Just ask Newport News residents Patricia Walden and Chris Kepics, a pair of talking professionals who recently hit the voice-over mother lode.

Through Studio Center, a Norfolk company that records audio commercials for hundreds of national clients, Walden and Kepics were hired to utter the familiar phrase for a new feature of America Online. About a month ago, the Internet service started offering personalized greetings for people eager to get on a first-name basis with their computers.

  • "Hello, Patty."
  • "You've got mail, Patty."
  • "You've got voice mail, Patty."
  • "You've got pictures, Patty."
  • "Goodbye, Patty."

Starting in December, Walden and Kepics recorded those five phrases while substituting in a list of 2,300 names. Both spent more than a week in front of the microphone repeating nearly the same words for as long as five hours a day.

For Kepics, it was a dream assignment. "Sometimes we would stop and laugh at the names," the 32 year-old Phoebus High School grad said. " 'Dorcus' is one that sticks out. Who would name their kid that?" "Huong" and Ilya were also on the list.

"It never really became monotonous," Kepics said. "It was smooth-flowing, really an enjoyable thing. I looked forward to coming in and recording the sessions."

Of course, the pay didn't hurt. Kepics and Walden aren't allowed to discuss their compensation. But America Online - with 24 million subscribers in the United States - has deep pockets. A spokesperson for Studio Center said the AOL project was the largest undertaken by the 38 year-old company, recently purchased by William Prettyman and Sunshine Wireless, Inc.

"Let's just say I was compensated adequately," Kepics said. "I'm very eager to do projects with them in the future. It was very nice. It was a healthy paycheck. But I'm still working at my job as a waiter. So it wasn't like I could quit or anything."

When he's not recording spots for Studio Center, Kepics waits tables at an Italian restaurant in Hampton.

Walden, a 34 year-old mother of two, has been working for Studio Center on and off for five years. "But when people ask me how long I've been doing voiceovers, I tell them, 'Since I was five years old, just not officially.' " As a kid, Walden made audio diary entries with her tape recorder and traded them with her friends. "This is just something I've always wanted to do. And I guess I've just always loved words. In college, I took courses in etymology," the study of word origins.

AOL's new personal greetings are part of a set of special features allowing subscribers to customize their Internet service. Members choose from styles and colors of wallpaper, icons, decorative designs for e-mail, even celebrity voices - from millionaire Donald Trump to cartoon dog Scooby-Doo - who welcome them or bid them farewell.

Offered under the banner "AOL Expressions," the options are very popular, America Online spokesperson Jane Lennon said. "These are ways members can personalize their online experience, make it just the way they want," Lennon said.

"Basically, what we wanted to do was to add another level of personalized expression by adding new voices that can greet a member by name. They can have the option of hearing a male or female voice speaking to them by name."

So why did Kepics and Walden get the nod? The company had hundreds of expert talkers to choose from.

"What we really wanted to find were nice, crisp and clear voices," Lennon said.

"And we wanted very contemporary and approachable voices. Both of them were great."

There's no way to tell whether the Newport News pair is headed for the demi-fame of Elwood Edwards, the pipes behind America Online's best-known performance of "You've got mail."

Edwards - whose relentlessly cheerful greetings remain the default choice for millions of Internet surfers - operates his own voiceover service from his home in Ohio.

He's represented by the powerful William Morris Agency. His greetings are still available to all America Online users.

Kepics and Walden, who didn't know each other before their AOL jobs, hope that they're on the road to bigger and better things.

"The sky's the limit," Kepics said. "I'm ready to do the voice-over for 'Shrek 3' if they want me to."

Voicing a character in a Walt Disney production would be the ultimate thrill for Walden.

She said, "I think that would be the most awesome thing ever known."

Sam McDonald, Daily Press