Voice of TheBus

Meet the man calling the stops.

Even if they’ve never met him, TheBus riders know Puakea Nogelmeier’s voice.

Photo: Elyse Butler

Anyone who’s spent time riding TheBus can probably do a decent impression of the recorded announcements that have, for more than a decade, called out upcoming stops, landmarks and public-service announcements.

Aloha, and welcome to the Bus. Kapiolani … and … Isenberg. Stop requested. The sonorous pronouncements are so precise, so mannered, that many passengers assume they’re generated by a robot.

In truth, the disembodied voice of TheBus is Puakea Nogelmeier, an associate professor at the University of Hawaii’s Kawaihuelani Center for Hawaiian Language. Nogelmeier’s expertise with Hawaiian—he’s renowned as a composer and translator of Hawaiian-language poetry and lyrics—made him a natural pick for pronouncing Oahu’s often-idiosyncratic street names.

Jon Nouchi, the company’s director of planning and service development, said when they first hired Nogelmeier in 1999, getting the Hawaiian names right was a priority. Previous bus recordings had been less than authentic; the ones by a radio announcer from Plano, Texas, in particular, became the butt of jokes. “We had to phonetically spell out all the destinations for him, so he could pronounce them,” Nouchi recalls. “People complained.”

Before entering the studio to record more than 5,000 individual phrases (a process that took more than 48 hours of studio time), Nogelmeier researched each Hawaiian place name to ensure the most accurate pronunciation. Kinau, not Ki-now. Kapiolani, not CAPiolani.

Today, his take on Honolulu’s streets has helped to standardize how people speak them. “The announcements have had a giant impact, I think, because they are consistent,” Nogelmeier says. “It’s a reference, which is valuable. Watching local television, you might hear four or five different pronunciations of ‘Waianae’ in a half-hour.”

Potato PoTahto

Gulick Street was named for Charles Gulick, Liliuokalani’s minister of the interior. His descendents pronounce their family name Guh-lick, but are OK with the popular Goo-lick pronounciation of the street.

Ena Road got its name from a local Chinese merchant named John Ena, whose last name was adapted from his father’s name Ing. Traditionally pronounced as Eena, the addition of an okina led TheBus to switch to Eh-na.

Even the employees of TheBus have taken pointers from Nogelmeier. When referring to their Alapai Transit Center, Nouchi says, “We always called it Ala-pie, but now, people are much more apt to say Alapai, with the glottal stop.”

Certain street names on TheBus’s announcements, though, are purposely mangled, to match residents’ expectations. “Beretania should really be Berah-ta-NEEyah,” says Nouchi. “But if we said it like that, people would think we were idiots. It might be technically incorrect, but that’s how local people pronounce it.”

The initial recording sessions have led to a long-lasting collaboration. Nogelmeier goes into the studio once or twice a year to record new street names for route expansions or changes, and update the public-service announcements. He says the gig has given him an odd sort of celebrity, completely separate from his day job as a Hawaiian-language teacher and composer. “I was at a craft fair at Thomas Square, and I asked a vendor about the prices of the items he was selling. A guy two people behind him turns around and says, are you the guy on TheBus!? At first I thought he had mistaken me for someone he had ridden the bus with, but it was the voice.”

“At least it’s a good thing that people know me for,” Nogelmeier says. “I could do a lot worse.”