For months, The City marshaled its forces to warn tens of thousands of Muni metro riders that the Twin Peaks tunnel would soon close for temporary construction. Leading up to the June 25 tunnel shutdown, The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency hung signs, passed out flyers, and sent emails to warn riders of bus substitutions.
It also made audio announcements.
But unlike the last decade of Muni audio announcements, which were often criticized by local riders for mispronouncing street names and which feature a semi-robotic yet feminine voice, these announcements were different. That’s because SFMTA has quietly started making some spot announcements in-house, instead of by contractor, using someone who knows The City.
The new voice of Muni announcements is SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato, a San Francisco native and former local television reporter.
Kato hasn’t replaced the entire Muni fleet’s audio announcements, which have unique recordings for each street and stop. Instead she provides the voice for spot announcements, like the warning to “Please hold on,” or to “please” give seats to seniors and people with disabilities. At some point, most of the riders taking Muni’s daily 700,000 trips have heard Kato’s voice —and that includes her friends and family.
“It’s kind of silly in a way, I keep getting text messages from numbers I don’t recognize saying, ‘I hear you!’” Kato said. The numbers sometime turn out to be old friends. Kato’s grandmother, who turns 90 next year, keeps insisting Kato take her on a bus trip to hear the announcements. “She’s so adamant,” Kato said, “But I’m like, ‘You can hear me. In person!’”
Kato leaned on her broadcast television background to produce the 60 or so audio clips she’s made so far. She was a traffic reporter both for KRON and KCBS and joined the SFMTA in late 2015, where she works as a spokesperson and produces videos for SFMTA promotions, among other duties. Despite the change of scenery, the tools of her trade are the same: A shoulder-mounted video camera, professional microphones and the video/audio editing software Edius.
She was coached by the SFMTA to mimic the inflection of the previous recordings. “There’s this digital component to it, you can pick up on it right away,” she said. “Please … give.. seats … to … seniors,” she mimicked, robotically.
SFMTA often needs new audio clips on the fly, which is difficult to do when contracting out voice work to outside parties, she said. Even in preparation of the Twin Peaks tunnel shutdown, the agency shifted shuttle stops for riders, requiring a quick turnaround on an audio announcement from Kato. She retrieved her equipment from her boss’ office, sat in an SFMTA conference room at the agency’s 1 South Van Ness Ave. headquarters, and read the street changes.
“It only took a couple minutes,” she said, “I crank those out quickly.”
Kato, a 4th-generation San Franciscan, isn’t the only member of her family to work for The City: her father recently retired as a San Francisco Police Department lieutenant. In her family, city service is a point of pride. “I knew at some point I would work for Muni,” she said.
Answering that age-old San Francisco question, Kato said she attended Mercy High School, an all-girls private school in the Sunset, though she hails from the Richmond District. That neighborhood gave her different burrito tastes than Mission natives, she said, noting that she grew up a “Gordo’s Girl.”
That was largely due to her transit choices, she said. “I was on the 38 (bus) since birth. If the 38 didn’t go there, neither did I.”
Notably, her local bonafides aren’t just for show.
In 2009 SFMTA was criticized for contracting its announcements to now-defunct contractor DRI Corporation, who enlisted a Texan voice announcer to read San Francisco’s street names for Muni buses and trains. The problem? The Texan pronounced the San Francisco street names dead wrong, according to NBC Bay Area.
Noe Street was pronounced “No” instead of “No-ee.” Sansome Street was pronounced “San-SO-mee.” Complaints poured in, and re-recordings ensued.
Kato remembered at least one of those bad street readings. “My favorite was Sta-NYE-an,” she said, laughing. Locals pronounce Stanyan Street “Stan-yan,” she pointed out. Her grandparents taught her to pronounce Cabrillo Street as “Kah-brill-oh.” She noted one street that often trips up newcomers is Gough Street. “People say ‘go.’ It’s ‘goff.’”
To test her knowledge, the San Francisco Examiner wrote one street name down on a piece of paper, slid it over to Kato, and asked for her pronunciation.
“That is up for debate!” she said, laughing. The street? Portola.
“Some people say “Por-toll-ah,” she said, some people say “Port-ah-lah.”
The latter pronunciation is as old-school San Francisco as the Old Clam House. Or Muni itself, for that matter.