Saturday, November 24, 2007


I've come to the realization that the 800 number is dead. Of course, this extends to its offspring as well-888 and 866, which I never really warmed up to anyway. The 800 number won't literally be going anywhere anytime soon, and will always exist in some form as a customer service outlet, but the days when the 800 number was the cultural equivalent of the free grocery store sample are no more. In the days before the information superhighway was in more or less every home, in the days when cell phone calling plans made the savings of such a number moot, the 800 prefix meant something. It was a way to get information when information was not otherwise ripe for the plucking. It was a way to connect to a network of unpredictable randomness before networks of unpredictable randomness became passe. It was a way to be empowered--to feel like one could take without having to give. In honor of its passing, here are some of my 800-number related memories, along with what happens when I call the number now, if I happen to remember it:

1: 1-800-ESCAPES, followed by 1-800-432-TRIP: The former may have been the first toll-free number I called, at about age 10. I listened to a lot of Milwaukee Brewer games on the radio, and I was exposed to numerous ads from the Wisconsin Tourism industry, imploring me to call this number to get a "Free Wisconsin Guide Book," with travel options. I was thrilled when my full color brochure came in the mail, though I was rather limited economically and logistically in how much I could contribute to the Wisconsin tourism industry. The reason for the name change is that Wisconsin changed their tourism slogan from "Escape to Wisconsin" to "Wisconsin--You're Among Friends." Don't ask me why the latter number didn't incorporate the name change.

Contemporary Results: Unbelievably, 1-800-ESCAPES still directs to the Wisconsin tourism industry, even though they changed the slogan about 20 years ago. I called after hours, so I didn't get much direction, but they gave the 432-TRIP number, as well as their web address. They didn't say anything about a free guidebook.

2. 1-800-BOBSLED: This number was publicized at the 1992 Winter Olympics opening ceremony for the Jamaican bobsled team. Apparently, you could call and leave a message for the Jamaican bobsledders. I called, but when I got a live person, I got a bit tongue tied, and I refused the offer of leaving a recording message. The dispatcher said to me "Thank you ma'am," reminding me that I hadn't hit puberty yet. Still, I made sure to tell everyone in school that I called the number for the Jamaican bobsled team. Years later, I would finally talk to one of the original Jamaican bobsledders when I worked in sports radio. He was a super nice guy.

Contemporary Results: It actually goes through to the U.S. Bobsled team! Again, I called after hours, and got their main menu. When I didn't enter an option, I was routed to an intern's voicemail. I was too scared to leave a message.

3. 1-800-??????? I wish I could remember this one, but I only remember that it was in the classified section of Baseball Weekly magazine in the early 90s. It advertised "free sports analysis and information." I called and asked who was going to be the closer for the Toronto Blue Jays, since I had Tom Henke on my fantasy team and I saw some boxscores that Duane Ward was getting saves (I was way ahead of the fantasy curve). The guy on the other end told me that both guys were closing games, but that I should keep Henke on my team. Later, I had a friend call that number to find out who won the Kentucky Derby a few hours after it was run. The guy who answered didn't know, but yelled out to another guy in their mysterious office, who told the first guy that it was Lil E. Tee. The next time I tried the number it was disconnected. I have no idea what their original business plan was.

4. 1-800-?????? Another one I don't recall the number, but I called to get free sports scores, rather than wait until the news. I had to sit through a bunch of gambling lines before I got the scores, and for the next several years my dad received random sports gambling solicitations in the mail.

5. 1-800-MUSIC-NO: It was actually "Music Now," but the "w" was superfluous. When I was in high school, my brothers and I called this one so much that my mom was worried that we would get a huge bill. I assured her that it was all toll free. It played 20-second song clips, and you would buy the ones you like (or at least the CD that contained the song, as this was way before itunes). I never bought a single CD, but spent a lot of time listening to the 20-second clips, as well as learning my favorite artist's discographies. Obviously, this was pre-Internet. One day when I called, I was told that I had to register an account before listening to any clips. This was the last time I called.

Contemporary Result: A voice tells me that I have reached "Mass Market's Reserve 800 Hotline," before hanging up on me. Sidenote: There is actually a Wiki page about this number.

6. 1-800...: I'm sure at some point most young people have attempted to call random 800 numbers. On my college radio show, my co-host and I, not getting anyone to call us, started to dial randomly. We landed on a few, but didn't really know what to say when we got someone. My co-host told one, "I got in trouble with my mom, and she is punishing me by making me call 800 numbers." The poor woman had no idea how to respond to that one.

7. 1-800-555-TELL: I still call this occasionally this number for scores when I'm not near a computer, but it is not as great as it once was. In the late 90s and early 2000s, you could use this service to do a number of things, including getting wake-up calls, getting news, sports, and weather, playing blackjack (though not for real money), getting directions to businesses, and shopping for various items (which is probably how they make their revenue, since they didn't even have ads otherwise). However, their best feature was that it would connect you for free to almost any bar and restaurant in America, as well as almost any taxi company, and let you talk on their dime for 20 to 30 minutes before disconnecting you. This was a source of tremendous amusement on my aforementioned college radio show. The last time I used this service was in 2003, when I felt like calling a cab company in Wyoming to see what life was like there. I chatted with a nice lady for about five minutes. I suppose one could use free weekend minutes to do the same today, but it's just not the same as making an 800 number pay for it.

Footnote: I decided to call 1-800-ARCHAIC to see what would happen. I got the voicemail of a guy named Chris at a trucking company. I wonder if he knows that 800 numbers are obsolete.


Blogger Stacy said...

Funny, I never attemted to call a 1-800 number, but I did try to request a song on 99Q (the old Waupun radio station)which I quess may have been a 1-800. Anyway, they never did play my request. Also I voted one time for Kelly Clarkson on the final night of the first American Idol. For the most part, I'm usually with Sayeed Payesteh "There's no such thing as a free lunch". So,I don't even bother.

8:02 PM  
Blogger Heidi said...

I remember when me and other people who were equally as immature as me at the time would phone random 1 800's at a pay phone. especially at the lake, their was a pay phone right by the park. now that i think about it, there was really shady people around that pay phone....hrmmm...

1:33 PM  
Anonymous Sara said...

Don't forget about The Shop's 1-877 toll-free line! I use it all the time.

1:31 PM  

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