It may be the most famous single sentence to emerge from the final decade of the 20th century.
“You’ve got mail!”
The Internet was exploding in popularity, and most people’s ticket to ride was America Online, later shortened to AOL.
Even if you were a computer ignoramus — and most folks were in the mid-1990s — you could navigate your way through the simple AOL interface to send and receive email and, in the new vernacular, “surf the Web.”
At AOL’s peak, “You’ve got mail” emanated from computer speakers more than 11,000 times per minute.
Did you ever wonder about the guy who recorded that greeting?
Well, he lives in Orrville — and used to work in Akron.
These days, Elwood Edwards commutes from his Wayne County burg to downtown Cleveland, where he is a producer and technician for the NBC affiliate, WKYC (Channel 3).
Edwards grew up in eastern North Carolina and was living in the Washington, D.C., area when he met his future spouse — appropriately enough, online.
“My wife, Karen, worked at Quantum Computer Services, which was the company that became AOL,” he says during a break from taping a show. “And in early 1989, she overheard [founder] Steve Case saying he was toying with the idea of adding a voice.
“So she volunteered me, and on a cassette deck in my living room, I recorded, ‘Welcome,’ ‘You’ve got mail,’ ‘File’s done,’ ‘Goodbye.’
“And what started off as a test has kept going to this day.”
Some test. It has lasted a quarter of a century.
AOL thought about booting Edwards’ voice in 1994, but was hooted down in focus groups. Customers were adamant about keeping the original recording.
Although AOL has become a shadow of its former self, it still has 2½ million paying customers, and Edwards’ voice remains the aural centerpiece.
His legendary utterance reached its apex in late 1998, when Hollywood released a movie called (good guess) You’ve Got Mail, featuring megastars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. The heartwarming chick flick became a box-office smash, grossing $251 million worldwide.
So by now, Edward’s royalties must have really piled up, eh?
“I wish,” he says with a smile. “The lady who made the Nike checkmark got $36 — and that’s $36 more than I did.”
Upon further review, the woman who designed Nike’s “swoosh” in 1971, Carolyn Davidson, then a graphic-design student at Portland State University, actually billed Nike founder Phil Knight only $35 for the task.
But 12 years later, Knight — perhaps wracked with guilt — tracked her down and gave her a surprise luncheon at which she received a gold-and-diamond swoosh ring and, even better, an envelope containing a stock certificate for an undisclosed number of Nike shares.
In other words, the Swoosh Lady made out a whole lot better than the You’ve Got Mail Guy.
For a time, Edwards, 64, tried to parlay his Internet success into a voiceover career. He built a home studio and won representation from the prestigious William Morris Agency. “But if you don’t live in New York City or Los Angeles,” he says, “you’re not going to get the work, no matter how nice your studio is.”
Edwards doesn’t seem bitter, though. He’s an upbeat guy who appears to adore his job and his life.
At Channel 3, he runs cameras, handles news graphics, edits news stories and promotions and seems to have a hand in just about everything behind the lens except sales and equipment repair.
A tall man with gray hair and a thin gray mustache, he joined the station in 2001, shortly after it moved into its current building, a gorgeous facility with a commanding view of Lake Erie.
“This is the best place I’ve worked, and I love it,” he says. “Hopefully, this will be the last place I’ll work.”
During the mid-1990s, a television job brought him to Akron, which — gather ’round, children; you’re not going to believe this — once had its very own television station.
The late WAKC (Channel 23) was an ABC affiliate that struggled for ratings in the massive shadow of Cleveland’s ABC affiliate, WEWS (Channel 5), a mere 30 miles up the road.
From 1994 to 1996, Edwards served as operations manager for Channel 23. But then Paxson Communications, purveyor of wall-to-wall infomercials, bought the station and, as Edwards puts it, “invited all of us to work someplace else.”
For the man known to friends as “El,” that meant Houston, where he was hired at a small station as the general manager. Those 2½ years were “the longest 10 years of my life,” he jokes. He discovered he hates being a manager.
“I’m a technical guy.”
Today his AOL connection seems like a lifetime ago. Karen Edwards, who was a customer service rep, left the company in 1992.
But Elwood’s magical phrase — grammatically faulty though it may be — is likely to last longer than any of us.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.