Man's phone number is his link to show biz

January 23, 1995|By MIKE ROYKO

When Steve moved to the Near North Side of Chicago a few months ago, he got a new phone number. He didn't know that it would give him a fast education in the world of TV show biz.

Almost immediately after it was installed, the phone rang and the voice said: "Oprah?"


"Is Oprah there?"

"You must have the wrong number."

Then it rang again, and someone said: "I'm calling about the show."

"What show?"

"Oprah's. I got the exact same kind of problem she's talking about."


"Oprah. Is she there? Can I talk to her?"

"This is not Oprah's show. You have the wrong. . . ."

"Tell her it's real important."

"You have the wrong number."


It rang again. And again and again and again.

Steve discovered that his new number was only a clumsy finger away from the number people call to volunteer for Oprah's show.

So he joined a select group of people whose phones attract swarms of wrong numbers.

I'm one of them. If people call AT&T's problem number and dial 1-800 first, as instructed, they get AT&T.

But for some reason, many people skip the 1-800 prefix. Maybe they mistakenly believe they will save a long-distance charge.

Then they get my phone. If they are fortunate, my assistant answers and politely explains their error. I'm less forgiving of dumb dialing, and I usually say that AT&T has been bought by oil-rich Arab sheiks and only those who embrace Islam will be given phone service.

Steve, who runs a consulting business from his home, is more fortunate because he gets a more interesting mix of phone bumblers.

"You would not believe the calls," he says. "People are so naive and so needy. I'll tell you, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Most of the time it is 50-50.

"Recently she must have had a show about finding lost loves or lost children or lost parents or dogs or somebody that's lost. I don't know for sure because I never watch those shows.

"But when I got home from an out-of-town trip my answering machine was overflowing with desperate people looking for someone. The calls came from all over -- Chicago, Montreal, Georgia, Florida, New Jersey. Everyone looking for someone."

Then why not put a message on your machine telling callers that it isn't Oprah's show and if they call again an electronic worm will slither from the phone into their ear and burrow into their head and eat their brain? That'll give them something to think about.

"Of course I leave a message. Nothing like that, but I say quite clearly: 'This is not Oprah. This is a private residence. Do not leave a message because Oprah won't call you back. If you think this is Oprah, you have misdialed.'

"But it doesn't matter. People don't listen. I communicate for a living and speak clearly and slowly. What more can I say? They pay no attention to the message and start talking anyway.

"As I said, sometimes it is funny, and earlier this week the calls were unbelievable.

"They must have been looking for guests for a show about kids who want to become singers because I had all these incredible messages from kids who couldn't have been more than 8 or 9 years old.

"And they were all singing these great old torch songs. There were all these little kids' voices on my machine belting out these I'm-looking-for-my-man-who-got-away type of songs.

"It was like an audition. I could see all of those parents putting their little kids on the line to sing, 'Set 'em up, Joe, it's one for my baby, and one more for the road.'

"The thing is, I never know what kind of show she'll be planning next and the kind of weird calls I'll be getting."

So I called Oprah's correct number and a cheerful recorded voice said: "Turn in your debt-ridden relatives."

When I passed that along, Steve said: "I'll probably hear from half the country's unhappy ex-wives."

You can always get a new phone number.

"What, and give up show biz?"

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