CHICAGO — He delivers the bad news during a delay. He tells you where to transfer. He warns you not to gamble.
Millions know his voice, but few know his name.
This is Lee Crooks, the voice of the CTA.
When the 53-year-old voiceover actor records for Chicago’s buses and L trains — mostly announcements of stops and stations — he keeps the average commuter in mind.
“I look at it as, I’m dispensing information that these people need so they can get to where they’re going. And I want to make it as clear for them as I possibly can,” he said. “I try to make it very informative, without being in your face about it.”
Crooks lives in the Milwaukee suburbs, but he drives to Chicago a few times per year to record updates to the transit system.
One recent December afternoon, he was holed up in a small River North recording studio with a sound engineer and CTA producer to make announcements for detoured buses.
In front of the microphone, headphones on, Crooks closed his eyes. The Brown Line rumbled by outside.
“Travel south to 55th,” he said. It was cheery and recognizable.
But sound engineer Milt Smith could tell it wasn’t right.
“Do you want to blow your nose?” Smith asked.
“I didn’t think I needed to. Do you want me to blow my nose?” Crooks asked.
It is precise work.
Attention needs to be paid to small changes in the actor’s voice: if it’s a tad nasal, or too low in pitch, or if he’s speaking too fast.
If it's not perfect, what he records won’t fit in seamlessly with other announcements as they come through bus and train speakers.
“It’s much more time-consuming than people imagine,” Crooks said.
And after all the time he has put into his most famous work — like counting from one to 1,000 for route numbers — Crooks rarely gets the chance to hear it.
“The only time I ever hear my voice on the CTA is when I happen to be standing on a street corner and a bus pulls up,” he said.
Still, reminders of his work are on every street. After all, he’s said the name of every one of them.
He recently walked past a sign for Beaubien Court.
“As I was walking, I’m looking at it going, ‘I know we said that, but I have no idea: Is it Bo-ben or Bo-ben?”
He can’t remember whether it’s “Ruh-cine” or “Ray-cine,” either. He probably did a “tweener,” a blend of the two, he said.
When Crooks originally was hired in 1998 as the voice of the CTA, he knew what he recorded would “become the de facto reference for how we pronounce every street in the city.”
Special attention was paid to Goethe (“Ger-ta”) and Throop (with a hard “T”), but a technical problem during audio file compression caused the Harold Washington Library stop to come out wrong.
“When it got all crunched it came out 'liberry,'” Crooks said. “So we recorded library as four syllables, ‘This is lie-buh-rare-ee,’ and by the time is got squished down, it sounded right.”
Though he's now established in his industry — he's done commercials for Sears, Pillsbury, Chevrolet among others — Crooks had shied away from being known as the voice of the CTA until recently.
Landing the gig was his "big break," and he used the Disney World monorail voicover as inspiration for his audition. But he didn’t want to be "pigeonholed" as an announcer.
“That’s not what somebody wants when they’re selling pancakes or when they’re selling cars,” Crooks said. “It’s a very stylized voice. I don’t know that you’d want to hear somebody talking to you like that all the time.”
But for 1.6 million daily riders on the CTA, that’s how Crooks talks to them, all the time.
And there's something strange about knowing his voice echoes out to millions across the city every day.
“It’s not even fathomable to me,” Crooks said. “I can’t even wrap my head around it, so I try not to.”