Darby Carpenter will never forget the first time he heard “the voice” in downtown Augusta.
As the general manager of Farmhaus Burger on Broad Street, Carpenter regularly helps set up the patio furniture outside the restaurant before the lunch crowd arrives.
One day last year, he was setting up a table near the corner of 12th and Broad streets when he heard an unusual voice coming from the nearby crosswalk sign.
“Someone walking by had hit the crosswalk button and, all of a sudden, I heard this male voice with a very thick Southern accent say, ‘The walk sign is on across Broad Street,’” Carpenter said. “I immediately thought, ‘That can’t be what that recording actually sounds like. There is no way.’ So I decided to stand out by the sign for a minute and press the button and wait to see what would happen. And, seconds later, the next thing I heard was the same Southern voice saying, ‘The walk sign is on across Broad Street.’”
The voice used for the recorded crosswalk message sounds more like someone who should be narrating a bird dog show or a shade-tree mechanic program on public radio rather than providing street directions to pedestrians in downtown Augusta.
Carpenter just stood by the crosswalk sign in total shock.
“I still didn’t believe it,” Carpenter said, laughing.
“I had to go in the restaurant and get another staff member and ask them, ‘Come out here for a second. Tell me if I’m just crazy or does this thing actually have a Southern accent?’ And, sure enough, it does.”
Ever since hearing the recorded Southern voice at the crosswalks, Carpenter admits he has become slightly obsessed with it.
“Now, I always have to point it out to people because it just cracks me up. It’s so funny,” Carpenter said. “I guess when the city installed the lights, they set the recording. I mean, that cannot be the standard greeting across America. There’s no way.”
The only reason Carpenter believes he noticed the recorded message that day was because 12th Street was closed to traffic due to the clearing of property right across the street from the restaurant.
“There was no traffic going down 12th Street, so it was a little quieter than usual,” Carpenter said. “Typically, the only thing that most people will hear is the automated voice at the crosswalk saying, ‘Wait. Wait.’ But if you actually wait, you’ll hear this very distinct Southern voice coming from the crosswalk. It’s hilarious. I love it.”
Augusta Traffic Engineer John Ussery said the person whose voice was recorded for the downtown crosswalks was actually a contractor working for the city.
“A few years ago, when they built the Augusta Convention Center and the parking garage, the city kind of revamped that section of Reynolds Street,” Ussery said, adding that he joined the city’s traffic engineering department in 2016 after the completion of the project. “But as part of that process, the city decided to upgrade the traffic signals to make a more unified look as you drive down Reynolds Street.”
Along with the upgrade of the traffic signals, the city also added new pedestrian crosswalks in the downtown area, he said.
“At the end of the process, the city installed the new pedestrian crossing heads and all the apparatus that help people cross the streets downtown,” Ussery said. “As part of that, we needed a recording for the crosswalks. And, after some discussion about what was needed, nobody really wanted to do it. Nobody wanted to record their voice.”
The city had to make a decision, he said.
“With the units we installed, you could either go with a standard greeting and instructions or you could put one in like a sound bite file,” Ussery said. “The idea was you could put a recording in that was different than just the standard one that everybody else has.”
The city decided an actual person’s voice would be better than the standard robo-voice message, Ussery said.
“So, after some discussion, they finally got somebody who was part of the contractor’s staff to do the recording because he was the only one who stepped up and wanted to do it,” Ussery said.
“I don’t think it was intentional to sound really Southern like it does. It was just that this gentleman, who stepped up to the challenge and decided to allow us to record his voice, that’s just how he talks and so it was kind of a happy accident.”
However, because the gentlemen was part of the contractor’s team who worked on the project, Ussery said he doesn’t know the identity of the person who recorded the messages.
“I honestly don’t know the guy’s name, and I have no idea where he is,” Ussery said. “But he really helped us out because pretty much everybody who was asked to record their voice said, ‘No way,’ until we got to this gentleman, and he agreed to do it. And now you can hear his voice on both Broad and Reynolds streets.”
The public seems to have really embraced the truly Southern voice heard at the downtown crosswalks, Ussery said.
“It just happened to turn out really well. It’s unique, so we just kept it,” he said. “We’ve had lots of people say they really do like it. I’ve never had anyone complain that they don’t like it.”
The recorded voice is just much more interesting than a robo message, Ussery said.
“We could, at any time, switch it back to a very standard, ‘Walk. Don’t walk’ message, or we could replace his voice in the future with something else if we wanted,” Ussery said. “But, for now, I think it adds a little bit of character to the downtown area and people like it.”
Ironically, many longtime business owners and operators in downtown Augusta were shocked to hear the Southern voice recordings at the crosswalks.
“That’s hilarious. I had no idea,” said Matt Flynn of Stillwater Taproom on Broad Street. “They should dress the sign up in overalls and a straw hat to complete the gag.”
With the St. Patrick’s Day parade and celebration coming up this weekend and Masters Week just around the corner, Flynn said a lot of folks could potentially hear the downtown crosswalks’ unique Southern recordings.
“I’m not sure how visitors will react,” Flynn said, chuckling. “Personally, I think it would be nice to hear a female voice, too.”
Of course, that suggestion opens up a whole mess of possibilities.
How about a recording that says, “Sugar, hold your horses! Don’t get squashed like a grasshopper!”
Or what about a Southern voice counting down the crosswalk saying, “One Mississippi, two Mississippi…”
Carpenter said he would love to hear unique voice recordings at different crosswalks all over the city.
“My hope is, but obviously this is just a comedic aside, but that each neighborhood would have a recording that would reflect their neighborhood,” Carpenter said. “Like, for a crosswalk that’s located on The Hill, it would say something like, ‘Y’all need to wait before you cross that street there, dawg.’”
How about, “Goodness gracious. You’re slower than cream rising on buttermilk.”
Or what about, “Are you fixin’ to cross, or are you gonna sit a spell?”
After hearing the Southern voice recordings at the crosswalks in downtown Augusta for the first time this week, Soul Bar co-owner Coco Rubio said the city could get very creative with its crosswalks.
“It’s too bad that James Brown did not do the voice recordings because that would be awesome,” Rubio said, laughing. “The city could have recordings like, ‘Get up off that thing … cross the street now!’ or ‘Get on the good foot … now cross the street!’ Or how about, ‘Please, please, please … cross the street carefully.’ I’d like to hear those kinds of messages at the crosswalks.”
Carpenter said the city could have a lot of fun with the voice recordings if it wanted to, but, of course, the messages would still have to be useful to pedestrians.
“It’s just one of those things where everybody has a talking device these days. Your phone talks, Siri talks, Alexa talks, your Google Home thing talks,” Carpenter said. “Everything talks to you, but none of it is regionally specific. That’s why I find these crosswalk messages so fascinating.”
Over the past several months, customers sitting outside Farmhaus on Broad Street have also noticed the extremely Southern crosswalk messages, he said.
“We have that one patio that is right on the corner with a table and four chairs,” Carpenter said. “And if it’s a quiet day and there’s not a whole lot going on and they are the first customers of the day — like they’re sitting outside between 11 and 11:30 a.m. — it’s usually quiet enough for them to hear it. I’ll watch their faces. I always see people looking at each other and laughing.”
Carpenter said he thoroughly enjoys seeing people’s reaction to the recorded voice.
“I have several times walked up to a guest and said, ‘Did you just hear the crosswalk sign?’” Carpenter said, smiling. “And they’ll say, ‘Yes! Is that for real?’ And I’ll say, ‘That is absolutely for real.’”
As Masters Week approaches, Carpenter said it will be very interesting to see if any of the out-of-town patrons will notice the recordings at the crosswalks.
“It’s tough to say whether they’ll notice,” Carpenter said. “I think if they are from overseas, they might just think everybody from America talks like that because they might just come to the Masters every year and this is really the only place they come to visit in the United States.”
Chances are, more Americans who are from the North or out West will notice the extremely Southern messages, Carpenter said.
“Folks who aren’t from the South, but they are from America and hear it, I think that it will stick out more for them,” Carpenter said, chuckling. “For example, I lived in Boston for years and years before I moved back home to Georgia, and I can’t imagine what people from Boston would think if they heard that message. They’d probably say, ‘What did that thing just say?’”
While it might be a bit unusual to have crosswalk messages with such a thick Southern accent in a downtown area, Carpenter said he wouldn’t dare want the city to change the voice.
“I really enjoy it,” Carpenter said, laughing. “This isn’t insulting to the city or the guy who did it at all. I just think it’s hilarious. It’s kind of a cool local thing that is totally unique to Augusta.”