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The Internet Before the Internet: The Bizarre Heyday of the 1-900 Number

Wanna find out why this man is crying? Wanna tell Eddie Murphy to kill a lobster? All you gotta do is call

In the mid-20th century, with a new millennium looming, some science-fiction writers and human-interest reporters began speculating wildly about what humanity’s future might look like. They extrapolated from a combination of research, trend-spotting and fervent hope. Their consensus? By the early 21st century — now, in other words — we’d all be using our telephones for everything from reading great literature to ordering a sausage pizza.

This was an uncannily accurate prediction… to a point. What was hard for many of these seers to anticipate was that our phones would eventually connect to a cellular network and access a wireless information stream. The internet was in common use at universities, government agencies and tech companies by the 1970s, but web browsers didn’t become a staple of home laptops and work computers until about the mid-1990s, before becoming effectively handheld once smartphone design improved in the mid-2000s.

So here we are, in 2018: making dates, listening to music, checking sports scores and playing games, all via the miracle of cellular telephony. Some people, though, didn’t wait for their phones to become net-capable to start using them for more than just two-way communication.

In the 1980s, AT&T and the other long-distance carriers opened up their networks to special “1-900” numbers (and 1-976 numbers), which allowed callers to be billed at a higher rate, with a hefty chunk of that fee going to the company they were calling. Users paid extra for all kinds of services: to get weather forecasts, to vote in public opinion surveys, and — most infamously — to listen to audio porn.

This medium died out around 2002, for reasons laid out well by reporter Shaun Raviv in a Priceonomics article called “The Rise and Fall of the 1-900 Number.” In short: A confluence of high-profile 1-900 scams (targeting children and the elderly in particular) and the public’s widespread migration to web surfing snuffed out a phenomenon that in the 1990s had practically become an entirely new form of popular culture.

For those of us who lived through that era, looking back at the popularity of 1-900 numbers can be a little embarrassing. It makes us look like rubes that we ever spent five or 10 bucks or more to call up and listen to a recording — especially when these days we complain if we have to pay more than dollar for a song or an app.

But looked at a different way, there’s something fascinating and even charming about the 1-900 era. It speaks to our wants, in the same way those special magazine sections about “The World of the Future!” once did. What did we hope that one day technology would do for us — and what were we willing to accept as a kludgy alternative, until software and hardware engineers figured out how out a better way?

We can learn a lot about ourselves just from looking back at some of the most popular uses of 1-900 numbers. Such as…

Registering an Opinion

One of the earliest examples of a 1-900 number appeared in 1977, when Walter Cronkite hosted a nationwide “town hall meeting” in which ordinary citizens called in to talk to President Jimmy Carter. The experiment wasn’t repeated, but once 1-900s became a revenue generator, many media outlets — from radio to TV to magazines — started encouraging their audience to pay for the privilege of having their voices heard. The most common way to do this was via simple polls: about everything from public policy to whether Eddie Murphy should kill and eat a lobster on Saturday Night Live. As the creators of social media networks would learn decades later: People are almost over-eager to let everyone know what they think.

The weirdest example: In 1988, reportedly inspired by SNL’s “Larry the Lobster” stunt, DC Comics created a phone poll about whether or not they should kill off the character Jason Todd, the second person to adopt the persona of Batman’s sidekick Robin. What did they learn from this? That comics fans are some bloodthirsty bastards.

Sexual Fantasies

What’s that old saying? Something about how no technology really comes of age until somebody figures out how to get porn on it? One of the reasons why the 1-900 number became so successful — and then was so easy to kill off — is that it developed a stigma as something sleazy. Late-night TV ads with cooing ladies in lingerie touted sexy recordings and racy conversations, all for a few bucks a minute. Some services even promised to set lonely people up on dates with each other, suggesting they could have the kind of adult fun in person they were used to having long-distance. Although sexually oriented businesses were only one segment of the 1-900 market, the numbers became so identified with phone sex that even if an innocuous one showed up on the monthly long-distance bill, a spouse would have some explaining to do.

The weirdest example: After church secretary Jessica Hahn exposed televangelist Jim Bakker’s sexual proclivities, she went on to become an actress and Playboy model. Then she set up a 1-900 number where callers could hear her talk about what really happened between her and Bakker.

Checking In on Celebrities

How much would you pay for an audio-only version of Instagram? For some reason, fans across America were willing to pony up quite a bit to listen to regularly updated messages from pro-wrestling superstar Hulk Hogan, cartoon character He-Man or even former Munsters comic Al Lewis. Whether they were really fascinated by the private thoughts of the rock band Warrant or just wanted to confirm their fandom, people sent lots of money to famous folks… without getting much in return.

The Simpsons satirized this whole concept in an episode where Lisa Simpson became addicted to calling “the Corey hotline,” to hear the latest from her favorite teen heartthrobs. This service actually existed, during the years when Corey Haim and Corey Feldman were stars. Lisa Simpson’s huge phone bill was based on several other true stories, too. One of the big controversies that helped bring down the 1-900 industry involved a company that ran ads urging kids to call Santa Claus.

The weirdest example: Scandal-plagued Oakland A’s slugger Jose Canseco had a 1-900 number in which he promised to set the record straight on all the rumors swirling around him… including whether he used steroids.

Sports News

Speaking of baseball, it’s hard to recall that there was a time — in the days before the constant “crawl” at the bottom of ESPN and the like — when the only way to find out the score of a game that wasn’t on TV right was to wait for the announcers to bring it up, or to hold out for the nightly news. Multiple companies saw a need to fill, and did it via 1-900 numbers, selling the kind of up-to-the-minute score updates and sports headlines that previously only reporters with teletype machines in their offices saw.

Some university athletic departments and pro teams got even more creative with how to make some extra money off of fans: selling live broadcasts, coaches’ commentary and inside scoops about their future plans. What the sports business learned from the 1-900 fad was that audiences were tired of letting the TV networks decide when they should get certain information — and how much time they should spend on it.

The weirdest example: NASCAR set up the “Winston Cup hotline,” which basically compiled exclusive soundbites from top drivers after the weekend’s races.

Gaming

A big reason why the iPhone sold so well so quickly was that Apple launched the device only after assuring that a healthy number of software designers had developed plenty of cool apps for users to download right away. The game apps in particular helped show off what the device could do, mitigating the outrageous expense of a fancy new telephone by essentially turning it into a GameBoy.

The 1-900 versions of gaming weren’t nearly as impressive, though many companies did try to connect with gamers (and gamblers) by offering hints and tips about things like how to beat a Nintendo level, how to solve an especially tough crossword or which football team to bet on. And there were some actual 1-900 games too, including some that promised an opportunity to win money.

The weirdest example: Never one to pass up a chance to make a buck, game show impresario Monty Hall turned his venerable franchise Let’s Make a Deal into what was basically a national telephone sweepstakes.

Music

Scammers aside, most companies that had 1-900 numbers as part of their business model didn’t try to take advantage of their customers or to run up their charges. They charged per minute, and tried to keep their recorded messages short enough that their audience might call again the following week (or day, or hour). Granted, this did limit the range of entertainment available by phone. But you know what kind of popular culture can usually be consumed in five minutes or less? Songs! Both Spin and Vibe magazines (among others) turned their 1-900 numbers into listening stations, letting readers push a few buttons, and hear some of the music their critics were writing about. The fidelity was poor and the cost was exorbitant, and yet music lovers still called.

The weirdest example: Okay, this wasn’t actually a 1-900 number; but it’s hard to write about any dial-a-song service and not mention They Might Be Giants, who pioneered the concept in the 1980s before anyone really knew anything about them and before 1-900s became a huge deal.

Time-Killing Novelty

Just as with the internet today, in the 1-900 era entrepreneurs tried out all kinds of offbeat ideas, never knowing which one would click. Thirty years ago, telephoners could call in to hear a joke, or to listen to somebody sleeping, or to tune their guitars. This was the “weird web,” the pre-viral days. (Hey, don’t judge. Who would’ve guessed a decade or so ago that YouTube videos of people whispering would be a thing?)

The weirdest example: Part mystery and part promise of emotional catharsis, one 1-900 commercial just showed actors sobbing uncontrollably. It invited viewers to dial up and find out why.

Psychic Readings

Next to porn, probably the most famous and least reputable of the 1-900 services invited callers to find out what their futures held. Psychic hotlines have also been (again, next to porn) the telephone-based service that has best-weathered the end of the 1-900 era. When the pay calls ended, the commercials for our “psychic friends” stuck around, only now with 1-800 numbers and a reminder to have a credit card ready.

It’s hard to explain exactly why psychic readings have endured as something people prefer getting via telephone. Maybe it’s the illusion of personal connection that users like, or just having someone to talk to who seems interested in hearing about their lives. If so, this goes back to one of the pre-1-900 uses for the phone: to connect to callers to “party lines,” to make friends semi-anonymously.

Perhaps more than anything, this has been what newer and newer technologies provide that even the most insightful prognosticators haven’t been able articulate or to predict that people want: a sense of belonging, and a connection to something bigger.

The weirdest example: Forget about using a psychic hotline to chat with some down-to-earth, intuitive souls. This freaky-as-hell service went full occultist, promising to connect callers with forces beyond human understanding.