He may be the biggest celebrity you've never heard of - even though, if you use America Online, you've probably heard him thousands of times. More than 27 million times a day (which comes to more than 18,000 times a minute), AOL subscribers hear a familiar greeting when they log on: "Welcome!" And almost as often, they hear another message: "You've got mail!" Elwood Edwards is the man behind those messages - the voice of a generation raised on email, Web surfing, and real-time chat.
"Some people call this my Andy Warhol time," jokes Edwards, 48, a self-proclaimed "clown," who doesn't look the part of cyber-icon. "But this has been going on for more than 15 minutes." In fact, it's been going on for nearly a decade. Back in 1989, Edwards's wife, Karen, was working in customer service for a little-known outfit in Vienna, Virginia called Quantum Computer Services. Quantum had an online service called Q-Link. Karen overheard the company's CEO, a young guy by the name of Steve Case, describe how he wanted to add a voice to its user interface. Her advice: "I said, 'Hey, you ought to try Elwood.'"
And why not? Her husband had spent his entire career in local radio and TV. (He recently left his post as general manager at KVVV-TV, in Houston, to return to Ohio.) "I'd been a director and a producer," Edwards says. "If I had a commercial or a promo that I wanted to do, I was able to write copy for it, run to the booth, cut it, and then come back and put it together."
Edwards agreed to record four simple phrases on a run-of-the-mill cassette player: "Welcome!"; "File's done"; "Goodbye"; and, of course, "You've got mail!" The rest, as they say, is history. Quantum changed its name to AOL; Edwards's voice debuted on AOL 1.0 in October 1989; millions of people signed up - and before long, his voice had become The Voice.
What's the secret of his success? He's not sure - although he thinks it has something to do with the strange relationship between people and machines. "People like to give a computer its own persona," he says. "They want it to sound human - which I think has been one of the endearing features of America Online. Despite all of the changes that the software has gone through, my voice has been a consistent part of it."
Indeed, "You've Got Mail!" has become such a touchstone of the times that Warner Bros. plans to release a movie by that name in December. The film, which features Sleepless in Seattle costars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, is about two people who fall in love over the Internet. There's something delightfully apt about that story line: Karen and Elwood, longtime cyber-enthusiasts, met in a Q-Link chat room in 1987; and before their actual wedding, they exchanged vows in a "virtual wedding."
Elwood Edwards is no Tom Hanks - yet - but he's got a growing fan club. Karen, in particular, seems to relish her husband's prominence. "A lady from our bowling league wanted an autographed picture," she reports. "She said that one of her relatives was madly in love with his voice." Karen also likes to poke around online chat rooms, where her husband's voice occasionally becomes a topic of conversation: "Some woman will say, 'Oh, I love that voice.' Or she'll talk about 'the little man in my computer.' I'll pop up and say, 'Well, that little man is six foot six.'"
Edwards himself is less vocal about his celebrity. But he does enjoy the stares he gets from strangers - stares based not on what he looks like but on what he sounds like. "People say, 'Where have I heard that voice before?' I'll say, 'You've got mail!'"
One thing about being on top, though - there's always someone trying to knock you down. Early on, AOL conducted beta tests of greetings delivered by a female voice. Edwards thought that his 15 minutes were up: "But when the final version of the software came out, my voice was still on it. I said, 'All right!'" Last year, AOL began offering subscribers the option of hearing the voices of "real" celebrities - including David Letterman, Dennis Rodman, and Rosie O'Donnell - in place of the "default" voice. In terms of popularity, those voices can't touch Edwards's .
Edwards has taken a few tentative steps toward leveraging his popularity. He's created personalized greetings ("You've got mail, Tom") for friends. ("It was just a fun thing," he says.) He's also recorded a few parodies of his ubiquitous messages. (One Chicago TV station persuaded him to say, "You've got no mail, loser.") But he's turned down more offers than he's accepted. "America Online is a great company," he says. "I won't do anything that could be viewed as a put-down. I find it sad that so many people ask me to do off-color things."
Recently Edwards created a Web site (http://members.aol.com/voicepro) to extend his reach beyond AOL. Companies that want to use his voice for their messages can learn more about who he is, what he's done, and how they can work with him. The voice-overs are a great deal: $50 for one 30-second spot, or $75 for two.
An obvious question: Does Edwards like the sound of his own voice? Not particularly, he says. "I've heard my voice coming out of radios and TV sets for 31 years. It's no big thing." And sometimes, admits Karen, the voice can be a downright nuisance. "A few times, when he's been taking a nap, I've logged onto AOL - and he's woken himself up!" she says. "I've learned to keep the sound down on the computer when he's asleep."
A version of this article appeared in the October 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.