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Telephone Wasn't Meant for Music If Only There Were More Sounds of Silence

November 10, 1986|JOHN TAGG | Tagg is a San Marcos, Calif., free-lance writer and former speech and writing instructor at Cal State Northridge and UC Berkeley. and

From our perspective in history it is surprising to learn that Alexander Graham Bell at first thought his new invention would be primarily a medium of entertainment rather than personal communication. Within a year after the first successful voice transmission, Bell used the telephone to transmit music. The first transmission of stereophonic sound was demonstrated at the Paris Electrical Exposition of 1881 using the telephone.

Several opera companies in Europe subsequently experimented with using telephone lines to transmit live performances to remote locations. The city of Budapest, until the 1920s, made available news, music, and theater performances through its municipal telephone network.

I recount these rather obscure historical oddities to make two points. First, the experiment of using the telephone to transmit music has been tried. Second, it failed. If you want to know why it failed, call my local cable TV company. Or for that matter, any of a dozen other organizations I could name, including airline travel agencies, government offices and even telephone companies.

I mention the cable company because it is an extreme case of the two-tiered approach to customer relations. If you call for the express purpose of spending money, the customer is always right. If you call about a service or billing problem, the customer must always wait. (I put this to the test not long ago. When I called this company and asked for the billing office I waited for five minutes and 17 seconds and listened to the "We're sorry but all our lines are busy right now . . . but don't hang up or you'll lose your place in line" message repeated four times. After concluding my business, I immediately called back and asked for the department in charge of new service: "Hello, this is Doris, may I help you?")

The matter at issue here is what they do to you while you're waiting. In the case of this company, as the others I mentioned, you are forced to listen to someone else's favorite radio station over the telephone. In the "We're sorry but all our lines are busy . . . " message, they tell you not to hang up because you'll lose your place in line.

But in between the periodic doses of that message they try to drive you away with frightening noises. You can almost see the face behind the mellifluous voice, smirking with sadistic glee while she intones "We're sorry . . . " and thinks: "Hang on if you can take it, sucker!"

What you hear between the increasingly disingenuous messages is bad, but the precise quality of the badness is hard to define. If we sought to duplicate it, we might record an asthmatic parrot on an Edison cylinder, taking care to cover the recording horn with cheesecloth soaked in olive oil, then sprinkled with iron filings. It is a nasty, ugly sound and I don't believe for a minute that anybody could enjoy it. When you finally realize that what you have been listening to is the voice of Lionel Richie, then you understand why the telephone never became the instrument of choice for the transmission of music.

It is enough to force customers to put their lives on hold for an indeterminate amount of time while pressing silent telephones to their ears, the silence relieved by the thinly veiled sarcasm of the recorded message. (Face it: If they were really sorry, they'd hire enough people to answer the phone when you call.) That, in my book, counts for both insult and injury. To compound the damage by compelling us to listen to ugly noises we never asked to hear is cruel and unusual punishment.

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