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The Surprising Origins of AOL’s ‘You’ve Got Mail’ Voice

2 minute read

To me, three things perfectly symbolize the 90’s as a decade: Friends, Shaquille O’Neal, and AOL’s “You’ve Got Mail” voice.

In a new book, former AOL CEO Steve Case shares the story behind that classic sound effect. Case’s book, The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future, argues that disruptive entrepreneurs are about to upend industries from healthcare to transportation.

Here’s Case:

I had an idea. Why not make the service more personal by adding the voice of a person? Karen Edwards, one of the customer service team members, overheard me make the suggestion.

“If you need help with that, my husband, Elwood, does voice-overs,” she told me. “He’s done a bunch of radio commercials.”

I’d never met him, and didn’t know what his voice sounded like. But I figured it would at least be a good prototype, a sample we could play for other voice-over actors when we started auditions. So I scribbled a few phrases onto a Post-it note and handed them to Karen.

“See if he’s interested in recorded these for us. Think he could get it done by the end of the week?”

“He’ll do it tonight, she said. “I’ll make sure of it.”

The next day, she brought the recordings to me. His voice couldn’t have been more perfect. It was disarmingly friendly, like the voice you’d expect from a stranger who offered to carry your grandmother’s groceries. The second I heard it, I knew we weren’t going to be auditioning anyone else. I instructed our engineers to add the voice files to the new version of our software.

Within a month, we were mailing CDs to millions of Americans, each containing out upgraded software, and a message from Elwood.

“Welcome . . . You’ve got mail.”

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