Beyond the dial tone

Logos, messages, tones and, yes, even commercials are pushing their way into 'phonespace.'


Suzanne Ciani's most famous piece of music lasts approximately one second, and is heard about 280 million times every day. In 1988, she created what may be the world's best-known audio signature: the miniature chordal flourish that introduces every AT&T call. Known within the company as the sparkle tone, the brief chime was the first concerted foray into sonic branding in "phonespace."

Now, driven by the competition, the wires are clogged with audio logos and announcements. If a line is busy in the Bell Atlantic calling area, a voice will intrude for a moment to offer the company's new call-back service. If you use AT&T to call another time zone from your home phone, you may hear their new time-of-day announcement.

On pay phones in the New York subway, you hear: "Thank you for riding New York Transit." Similar messages accost during calls at Marriott or Hilton hotels. AT&T injects messages about discounts and frequent flier miles at the beginning of some overseas calls.

Sound designers at AT&T are quick to point out that their chimes and stamps won't cause delays. Because they occur during the few seconds it takes to connect a call, it is really a sort of found promotional space.

David Shenk, author of "Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut," sees parallels between telephone branding and the digital overload he decried in his 1997 book. More information, he points out, always comes at a cost.

But he is hopeful that the once pristine phonescape can be reclaimed. "Generally speaking, the people who make this mess can be counted on to clean it up."

Those people include Jim Farber and his team of sound designers at AT&T Labs in Florham Park, N.J. One of their current projects is to improve the audio cues that callers encounter as they navigate through modern communication's least loved bramble: automated answering services.

The team has recently developed a set of 12 two-note tones that could be used to identify specific "locations" in a complex system. "To make it good and attractive requires the kind of production skills that a small radio drama would," Farber says.

Thoughtful design, though, is unlikely to make the commercials go away. Consider the Free for All Phone Club, a service that takes phone advertising to its logical conclusion: free long-distance calls in exchange for interruptions from sponsors every few minutes.

Pub Date: 05/16/99

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