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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Voice of 511 Often Calls Himself

Posted By on Wed, Mar 31, 2010 at 7:30 AM

click to enlarge This is the fellow telling you where to go on 511 -- Bob Hesse
  • This is the fellow telling you where to go on 511 -- Bob Hesse
Halfway through a phone interview with Bob Hesse, we just can't help it anymore. It's just too much of a trip. Here we are talking to the voice of 511 -- and he understands what we're saying. None of those "I didn't get that," or "I missed that" or half dozen other ways the automated mass transit and traffic line has of informing you that you need to enunciate.

And he's funny, too -- which is more than we can say for the times when his voice informs us there'll be no N-Judah trains for 27 minutes.

Earlier this week we reported on the elaborate "Cal North" character  Bay Area 511 created for Hesse to personify while offering street directions or traffic updates. The voice you hear when dialing in supposedly belongs to an "ex-Highway Patrol officer with 20 years experience. Cal is the

epitome of the knowledgeable source of all transportation information," according to 511.

"I think they even listed hobbies," recalls Hesse, a Sacramento voice actor. If he kept these hobbies in the back of his mind while offering directions on the 66 Quintara, it's hard to tell. Hesse has an impossibly deep, resonant, and mellifluous voice; content aside, he sounds the same during a phone interview as he does on a 511 phone call. And that has led to humorous situations.

Yes, people have buttonholed him and asked if he's "the 511 guy." But that's rare. More often, he'll just get a quizzical stare while standing in line at the grocery store or cafe. People recognize that voice, but don't make the connection.

A number of Hesse's friends have randomly dialed 511 through the years and were shocked to hear a familiar voice on the line. Many of them then query if Hesse spends all day fielding calls. No, he tells them, it's automated.

Hesse estimates he was able to knock off the insane amount of diction required for 511 in seven four-hour sessions. "The toughest thing about it is, I had to read every street name in the greater Bay Area alphabetically," he recalls. "I did all those with one inflection and then started over and did them with a different inflection depending on if they were at the beginning or end of a sentence." This came out to some 9,000 prompts. And, he notes, every Spanish-derived place name was read three or four different ways with varying degrees of anglicized pronunciations.

Landing the Bay Area 511 gig has been very, very good for Bob Hesse. He's spun the job into doing the same work for San Diego's and San Luis Obispo's 511 as well as the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Iowa, Georgia, and others he can't remember without going and looking it up.

And he remains a faithful customer of himself.

"Oh yeah, I use the service all the time," he says. "When you're coming down to the Bay Area from Sacramento, it's the quickest way of finding out if traffic is stacking up."

With 9,000 separate prompts, there are some he'd probably like to have back. But he can live with the results.

"I don't stop to critique myself," he says. "I'm more interested in if there's an incident on the 680."   

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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