Dialing For Dollars

July 28, 1991|By Arlene Ehrlich

Henny Youngman, call your office. They've taken your April Fool's stunt and turned it into a national obsession. Or did you know, when you started Dial-a-Joke in New York City on April 1, 1974, that you were giving birth to a billion-dollar industry?

It's called audiotex or pay-per-call or dial-it, and if you watch enough late-night TV, you already know something about it. ("Hi, I'm Rhonda. Let me be your friend on the other end. Just dial 1 (900)-NAUGHTY.")

Admittedly, dial-a-porn just puts a new twist on a very old theme. Ever since sex was invented, entrepreneurs have turned a profit from it. And if some guy wants to pay $30 to hear a bored bimbo talk dirty, when he could get the same service for free on many a street corner in Baltimore, that's his business.

But phone sex lines are only a part of audiotex. Three years ago, there were perhaps 300 audiotex services; today, most analysts estimate that more than 10,000 such programs operate nationally, complemented by an untold number of local services.

In fact, at a cost ranging anywhere from 50 cents a minute to $50 and up, you can dial a 900 line for sports scores, crossword

puzzle hints, rapper fan club news, soap opera plots, ski conditions, loan applications, legal advice, horoscopes, or earthquake predictions. There are even audiotex lines that offer advice on how to set up your own pay-per-call business.

Charities like the March of Dimes and the American Red Cross have used 900 numbers to raise donations. Public television and radio stations, including WJHU-FM locally, have installed 900 lines. You dial the number and a $25 tax-deductible contribution is charged to your phone bill.

How effective is 900 number fund-raising? It depends whom you ask. WGBH-TV, Boston's public television station, raised $50,000 using a 900 number for its annual auction. But according to the magazine Nonprofit Times, the American Red Cross grossed only $66,000 in donations for disaster relief following Hurricane Hugo and the San Francisco earthquake. And from that sum, the Red Cross still had to deduct $27,000 for its 900 number. Yet during the same period, the organization collected more than $9 million in donations on its toll-free 800 line, at a cost of $600,000.

Washington's National Abortion Rights Action League installed a line during the Supreme Court debate over Webster vs. Missouri. It served its purpose -- to frustrate abortion opponents who would otherwise have jammed the league's free 800 number to prevent it from disseminating information. And organizations as diverse as the National Rifle Association and Handgun Control Inc. are using 900 numbers to generate letters to Congress. Callers leave their names and addresses with the 900 line, and up to four letters are sent in their name to congressional representatives.

During the Gulf War, Cable News Network installed a 900 hot line for instant updates. Even the staid news magazine New Republic has opened a 900 line for its subscribers to sound off on political and social issues.

Computer software companies in particular have opted for audiotex in providing customer support. Dee Dee Walsh, marketing communications manager for ButtonWare, a software developer in Bellevue, Wash., explains. "We're a tiny company. We produce mostly shareware, and our products are priced very low. We just couldn't afford to install a technical support department, without substantially increasing the price of the software. We went with a 900 number so we could provide the service to those who needed it without increasing the price of the software for everyone else."

Still, corporate providers account for only about 4 percent of all audiotex services. "The medium is still devoted mostly to entertainment," says Kevin Rafferty, product marketing manager for American Telephone & Telegraph Co. "But the real growth is in business applications, and these should eventually catch up with or even surpass entertainment applications in terms of revenue."

And it's to the corporate market that the major long-distance carriers, AT&T, Sprint Gateway, MCI and Telesphere, are pitching their services. All 900 numbers are disseminated through long-distance carriers, with local phone companies like Chesapeake & Potomac providing billing for the services. Audiotex programs with 976 prefixes are local numbers only, as are 915 numbers, which are reserved for live conversation.

Basically, there are three kinds of 900 numbers: interactive, live and recorded, also known as passive. The cheapest to operate, passive services merely offer recorded information, which callers are unable to interrupt or redirect. A good example is (900) 999-GENE, which offers a recording, updated hourly, of financial analyst Gene Inger's stock and bond market quotes and projections.

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