The Voice Of The CTA Makes A Stop At Vocalo
Written by Vocalo Radio on October 25, 2023
You may not know Lee Crooks by name, but if you’ve ever ridden the CTA you definitely know his voice. Lee Crooks has been the voice of the CTA for the past 25 years — and made a stop at the Vocalo studios to discuss his career.
Crooks sat down with Vocalo’s Nudia Hernandez to share his journey to becoming the voice of the CTA and his tenured career as a voice actor in the city and beyond.
Across Chicago, perhaps the most recognizable sound is one drilled into the brains of commuters saying, “This is State and Lake.” The disembodied voice isn’t a robot or AI — it’s actually voice actor Lee Crooks, whose words have echoed through the CTA trains for more than two decades.
As an audio engineer in the early 1990s, Crooks transitioned into the voice industry after receiving encouragement from colleagues who recognized the potential in his vocal abilities. He was invited to audition for a “train voice,” and he drew inspiration for his iconic CTA voice from an unexpected source. After a family trip to Disney World, Crooks remembered the voice of the monorail announcer at the time, Matt Hanson.
“We’d just ridden the monorail down in Disney World and I remember very distinctly what the guy sounded like,” he noted. “He was the voice of Disney for a long time. And so I just did my imitation of that, within the parameters of what CTA wanted me to do.”
Although he officially began the role in 1998, Crooks’ voice officially began playing in CTA trains in 2000, and buses in 2003. Crooks has become a symbol of Chicago to its residents, even though he lives in Milwaukee and commutes for recordings. He acknowledges the responsibility that comes with being the “voice of the CTA,” as his voice is part of the city’s identity.
The voice actor never imagined he would hold this role for 25 years: he initially believed it would be a five to 10-year stint before they moved on to another voice. Nonetheless, Crooks has remained the CTA’s distinct voice. Over the last two decades, however, he has noticed significant changes in his voice, and so have many of the city’s commuters.
“It’s been 25 years, and I’m trying to match things I did 25 years ago to sound like the same person,” he said. “I’ve read things that people have said, ‘Yeah, his voice has changed. It’s not the same. You can tell it’s the same guy, but he’s a little bit older.’ And that’s just life.”
Despite these changes over the years, Vocalo afternoons host Nudia Hernandez revealed the overwhelming positivity in the comment section of Block Club Chicago’s 2015 YouTube video, which featured Crooks meeting commuters on the CTA. With nearly 200,000 views, the video’s comment section was full of praise and appreciation for the voice actor.
“’He became a symbol to us Chicagoans,'” Crooks read aloud. “I’ve heard that! I’ve heard that a few times. And it’s sort of hard for me to wrap my head around.”
Crooks says he hopes to continue his role as the voice of the CTA “as long as they have me!” Learn more about his 25-year career by listening to his conversation on Vocalo Radio.
Nudia Hernandez: Vocalo Radio, Chicago’s only urban alternative. Nudia in the Afternoon here with you! 2:06 on your clock. And in the studio right now, let me tell you, the whole Vocalo team, for at least like a month and a half, have been so excited about this guest. If you follow us on Twitter, on Instagram, you might have already seen that we have the voice of the CTA in the studio with us, Lee Crooks. Hello!
Lee Crooks: Hello! Thanks for having me on.
NH: We are, again, we’ve been so excited about having you in. And you kind of laughed when we told you that, but we, I mean, your voice is epic. Congratulations, you’re celebrating 25 years!
LC: 25 years.
NH: Being the voice of the CTA.
LC: Yeah, it actually hit in 2000. But we recorded in 1998, so I consider that 25 years.
NH: That is crazy. I mean, talk about job stability, right?
LC: I’m grateful!
NH: Because, I was reading some things, and in 1998, back then auditions had to be mailed in, right?
LC: They did have to be mailed in. I had to FedEx the audition in on a CD.
NH: Yeah. So for all you Gen Z’s, mail is… You had to put a, was it a cassette or CD?
LC: At that point, we were starting to burn CDs. Not long before that, it was cassettes. And we all had little home studios so we can do auditions. And my agent sent me an audition email, actually. And they were looking for a new voice for the trains, not the buses at that point. So I recorded it at my home studio and sent it via FedEx on a CD.
NH: And I love this, because … a lot of people have jobs that people don’t think about. Being the voice of the CTA, people are like, “Oh my gosh, yeah, someone needs to do that. That’s actually a job.” So a little background, Lee is an American voice artist. He first worked as an audio engineer, and then he transitioned to the voice industry in the early 1990s. The late 1900s, as some of the kids on TikTok are saying! He has done voice work for commercials, audiobooks, the Discovery Channel’s “America’s Deadliest Storm,” Walmart, Kellogg’s Froot Loops and True Value. I mean, the list goes on. I can’t be here all day to read all your credentials!
But you’ve done so many things as a voice artist, and it’s funny because the city of Chicago knows you best for being the voice of the CTA. But you said you actually got some inspiration when you were at Disneyland, right? For your audition.
LC: Disney World! My family had just gotten back from Disney World. The email was sitting in my email box, and they said they’re looking for a “train voice.” And I’m going like, “What does a train voice sound like?” I had no idea. Then I thought, “Oh!” We’d just ridden the monorail down in Disney World. And I remember very distinctly what the guy sounded like. Mark something is his name. And he was the voice of Disney for a long time. And so I just did my imitation of that, within the parameters of what CTA wanted me to do.
NH: Yes, because these auditions, they can be a little vague, right?
LC: Very, very much so.
NH: And you’re like, “I don’t know what to do!” They’re just like, “Do it, and if we like it, you’re hired.” And you’re like…
LC: Very often, that’s exactly what they are.
NH: And being an audio person, you probably listen very closely to audio noises, more than the normal person.
LC: Yeah, I definitely do.
NH: Like, a lot of people wouldn’t have noticed that train voice. But you noticed it
LC: Oh, yeah, I definitely noticed it. You know, I was getting going in voiceover at that point. And so I was listening to any kind of recorded voice to see, “Oh, hey, that might be something to keep in mind … as a reference.”
NH: And so were you an audio engineer … for like, 11 years, right?
NH: What kind of made you make that switch into becoming a voiceover artist?
LC: Well, I had a recording studio for roughly 10 years, 10, 11 years. I sold the studio and then a year after, I continued to be a recording engineer, but not owning the studio. And whatever my voice sounds like, it’s always sounded like. So I would occasionally have clients say, “Well, why don’t you try to do some voiceover work? Here, we’ll stick it behind the mic.” And of course, I didn’t know what I was doing and crashed and burned terribly. But … it’s hard to make a living as a recording engineer, and so … that’s why I sold the studio and I was looking around for something else to do. And my lovely wife said, “Well, why don’t you try doing voiceovers? You’ve been told you have a good voice. Give it a try.” So I came down here, [to Chicago,] got some training with a gentleman named Ray Van Steen, made a demo tape and I’m still here.
NH: You know what, let’s do a little claps. And also, shout out, claps for your wife, okay! She’s a real one. We have to give some claps for all the supporting partners out there.
LC: She’s very supportive.
NH: I love it, because a lot of people nowadays, there’s this big thing of like, “Get a normal job, get a real job.” And these are real jobs. Being a voiceover artist is a real job, being a radio host is a real job. These are just creative jobs, and not as not as “normal” as other jobs.
LC: Not as ordinary as other jobs. But we still lead a pretty normal life. I don’t think that I’m doing anything odd. You know, I live in the suburbs and have a car in the house, so.
NH: Did you think, when you sent in that audition tape and you first got the gig, did you think it would last 25 years, this gig?
LC: Oh, heck no. I figured this was a five to 10 year thing, and then they would move on to another voice, and it just kept going.
NH: That’s beautiful.
LC: I know, I’m grateful as heck!
NH: And I, you have to tell this story … this has kind of infiltrated a lot of different spectrums of your life, to where it even infiltrated your daughter’s wedding, right? Can you tell us the story? You have to tell this story.
LC: It did. So my daughter got married a couple years ago, and she and her husband, now husband, have friends in Chicago. So right before I did the obligatory father of the bride speech, I went over to my daughter and said, “Is there anything you want me to say?” And she goes, “Can you give a shout out to our Chicago friends in your CTA voice?” And I said, “Yeah!” So I introduced myself, thanked everybody for coming, and I sent it, “And then by the way, for the table over here, ‘This is State and Lake.'”
NH: And you said the crowd went in an uproar, right?
LC: Yeah, everybody laughed and clapped. So they loved it.
NH: I love that. And the funny thing is that – people may not know – before you, the train conductors would have to make the announcements.
NH: And it was really, I’ve seen a lot of comments about it, and people have said you never understood what they were saying, because they weren’t that interested in saying the announcements
LC: No, they were all, “This is Illinois coming up. Doors open on the left.” You know, I mean, they all sounded muffled…
NH: They’re busy driving the train, right? Like, they’re not really…
LC: Right! Which is what you want them to do.
NH: And then your voice came along, because I was reading this comment, it said that, a lot of the times you weren’t able to hear the conductor saying it. But someone remembered that there was this one conductor that, at each stop, they would say what good restaurants were there and the rental rates for the apartments in the area.
LC: That’s the first time I’ve heard that!
NH: Yeah, that this person went above and beyond. And that sometimes they would even throw the weather forecast in there. So at each stop, they’d say, what restaurants were there to eat. And then they would say the rental rates, which I think is a lot to fit in, right?
LC: That’s a lot to fit in. And I may have to talk to the CTA about that. We can add some restaurants, and I don’t know about rental rates, but I like that!
NH: Okay, we’re getting ideas here!
NH: And a funny thing is that, when you first went in to do the drops for the CTA, is it true they had you count from one to 1,000?
LC: They did, yes. Because every run every train run has a number. So it would say, “This is Red Line train…” And then you would – the conductor, when they get in, they’d punch in, you know, “372.” And so the computer will automatically add the “372” to the “This is Red Line train number 372,” or “Run 372.” So I had to go, “372, 373, 374,” ad nauseam.
NH: How do you power through that, mentally? That must be more of a mental thing, right?
LC: It was shut my eyes, and every 50 to 100 we stopped. We kind of listened back to the beginning, because my pitch would drift and my energy would lag, and kind of had to bring it back up and try to keep it the same. And so it took about an hour and a half.
NH: I was gonna say, doing the voice for 25 years, your voice changes through life. Because even, I go back to some of my college demos. My voice’s pitch is higher.
NH: Right? I talked way faster than I do now. How do you deal with those voice changes, or even protecting your voice?
LC: It’s really hard. It’s been 25 years, and I’m trying to match things I did 25 years ago to sound like the same person. I’ve read things that people have said, “Yeah, his voice has changed. It’s not the same. You can tell it’s the same guy, but he’s a little bit older.” And that’s just life. I do try to hydrate regularly, I practice as regularly as I can. I was warming up in the car on the way down here!
NH: I was wondering that, yeah!
LC: Oh, yeah, I spent about an hour singing and doing voice exercises and breathing exercises just because I knew I was going to be on the air!
NH: I love that, and we’re gonna get to a song. We’re going to come back, and we’re gonna have you read, not mean Tweets, we’re gonna have you read nice comments from people. Because there was his video that Block Club did of you in 2015. It almost has 200,000 views, by the way, that video.
LC: Wow. Yeah, I had no idea.
NH: They have this video of you, sitting on the trains, talking to people, doing the announcements.
LC: Oh, I knew that video, I just didn’t know it had 200,000. Wow.
NH: I went to it the other day, it had almost 200,000 views, has almost 200 comments. I was looking through, and I was like, he needs to know that if he’s ever having a bad day, he needs to come to this comment section. There was not one mean comment, out of all these comments. I saw them, I was like, “You know what? He needs to see these.” So we’re gonna have you read these beautiful comments people left about you being the voice of the CTA. And we’re gonna have you close us off this break with our first drop.
NH: We’ll let you take the wheel.
LC: This is the last stop, Navy Pier to Vocalo Radio, 91.1 FM. This is what Chicago sounds like. Doors closing.
NH: So we’ve been talking, we’ve been chatting. If you missed the last talk break where we left off, I was saying this video Block Club Chicago did of you in 2015 almost has 200,000 views. And it’s just you on the CTA train. And I looked at the comments section and I was like, I’ve never seen a corner of the internet this supportive of someone. So we’re gonna have you read some of these comments that people left about you. And you could just chime in on what you think about them!
LC: Alright. Okay, this is the first time I’m seeing these.
NH: Yeah, we kept them a secret from you!
LC: Let’s see, “Love that guy. He helped so many people … and bring positive impression of the city.” You let me say the…?
NH: Yeah, no, you don’t need to say the name. But if you want to comment on something, you can.
LC: Thank you! “He became a symbol to us Chicagoans.” I’ve heard that! I’ve heard that a few times. And it’s sort of hard for me to wrap my head around.
NH: Does it make you a little nervous, or how does that make you feel?
LC: Yeah, there’s a responsibility there! Oh, I like this one. “He should get free rides for life.” Which I don’t!
NH: I was gonna say, can you clear the record about you riding the CTA?
LC: The truth is, I live in Milwaukee. So I don’t — I know this is scandalous, but I don’t really ride the CTA that much, because I have to drive in from Milwaukee, which is Amtrak.
LC: “He is to the CTA what Jim Cornelison,” am I saying that right? “Is to the national anthem.”
NH: Which is the Bears, right? He did the Bears national anthem.
NH: Or something.
LC: Yeah, that is a compliment. “This is the voice of my childhood. I loved hearing, ‘Pulaski.'” And, what’s the other one? Well, okay, “What a legend.” And, “Chicago, Portland and Boston are my three favorite transit voices.”
NH: Do you know any of the other transit voices?
LC: I don’t.
NH: You guys don’t have group chat or anything?
LC: You would think! We would have like a little club that we have, a bar that we would get together, you know? But no, we don’t have anything like that. There’s another, there’s a woman in Chicago who does some, I think, suburban New York trains. I don’t know if I can mention her name, but she is the only one I’ve met. And she’s not the main voice of New York, it’s more of a, I think it’s suburban or maybe cities outside of New York. But that’s the only one I’ve met, I haven’t met my LA version or the DC version or the New York version.
NH: This is one that I wrote down. Someone said, “Lord, these video clips make me homesick.” So a lot of people saying that they that your voice makes them homesick. It makes them miss Chicago.
LC: That’s really kind.
NH: That’s kind of crazy to hear, right?
LC: It’s really crazy to hear, but I’m honored.
NH: And that’s why I said, if you’re ever having a bad day, head to the comment section on that video, and you will feel like a brand new person.
LC: I think I will do that.
NH: Being the voice of the CTA, how much longer do you think you will be the voice?
LC: I will be the voice as long as they have me!
NH: You’re gonna ride it out.
LC: I’m gonna ride it out, yeah. I’ll be doing it 100, going, “This is State and Lake.” But yeah, as long as they’ll have me, I will be happy to do it.
NH: We love to hear it. Thank you again, Lee Crooks, so much for stopping by the studio. It’s been a complete blast. And we have one more drop for you to leave us off with.
LC: This is Lee Crooks, the voice of the CTA and you’re listening to Vocal Radi — see, I can’t! Take two.
NH: Take two! Yeah, it happens.
LC: This is Lee Crooks, the voice of the CTA, and you’re listening to Vocalo Radio. This is State and Lake.
Interview and audio production by Nudia Hernandez
Video shot by Rakim Winfert, edited by Abigail Harrison
Written introduction by Blake Hall and Morgan Ciocca
Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca
In-studio photography by Morgan Ciocca
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