The Return of Dial-a-Disc

In which The Author loses some money

I heard a fascinating documentary on BBC Radio 4 a few months ago, about an experimental service launched in New York during the late 1960s. The Beat Generation may have come of age by this point, but the anarchic creativity and relentless imagination of the movement remained undimmed. Not content with publishing their work in small magazines and limited editions, or reading to cosy like-minded groups in Greenwich Village bookshops, they decided to try and reach a wider audience. Looking back, it was an inspired idea.
John Giorno leased a telephone line, connected it to a tape recorder, and thus Dial-a-Poem was born (Boxer, 2005.) People could dial the number and hear Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Ann Waldman, John Cage, or a score of other luminaries, reading their work. The recordings changed regularly, and grew to include political speeches and countercultural manifestos.
The scheme was initially condemned by the phone companies, because it was tying up the lines. However, after a while it became apparent that it could be a nice little money-spinner. Callers were paying to listen to recordings, and the companies could make their profits. Like many radical ideas, it soon went mainstream, with a host of subscriber services arising from this original seed. According to the New York Times, Mr Giorno claims to be the first person to realize the potential of the telephone system for spreading information to a wide audience:
He credits Dial-A-Poem with inspiring “dial-for-stock-market-info and dial-for-sports-info services, the explosion of 1-900 telephone promotions, not to mention the delivery of the Internet over phone lines.
(Boxer, 2005.)
Dial-a-Poem survived until 1971, but that wasn’t the end of the story. The original recordings have been made available online. If you want to hear the voices of the counterculture for yourself, you can, by checking out the archives at UbuWeb.
When I was young, the General Post Office was responsible for the telephone service throughout the United Kingdom. At the front of the residential directory, you’d have found a list of ‘useful numbers’, a very long list of area codes (see Predictions (Part 2)), instructions on how to call 999 (the emergency number) in the dark – this was still the age of dial telephones, remember – and a page of numbers which were the direct descendants of Mr Giorno’s original brainwave. These would give you access to the Speaking Clock, the weather forecast, the football results, or (the one I’ve got in mind) let you hear one of the current chart hits.
Dial-a-Disc survived into the 1980s, and I remember seeing small ads for the service in Sounds when I first started buying it in 1983. In the era of Spotify, when you can listen to a vast body of recorded music via the Internet, no doubt it seems like a very quaint idea.
I’d assumed that, as with most of these recorded services, Dial-a-Disc had been obliterated by privatisation and the onward march of technology. As usual, I was wrong…
This afternoon I had occasion to phone the Jobcentre Plus helpline. I’d already decided not to use my mobile; I know from previous experience how expensive calling an 0845 number from a mobile phone can be. Instead, I walked to the BT payphone at the end of my street and spread my change on the little shelf next to the coinbox. The minimum charge for a call is now a whopping sixty pence! To complicate matters, you can insert only up to four coins at a time. Luckily I had a 50p and a 10p piece, so I was good to go. Or so I thought.
I dialled the number and was greeted by a recorded message advising me that calls were charged at standard rate from BT landlines, but that calls from mobiles and other operators ‘may be higher.’ Okay – I was using a BT payphone, so technically I was calling from a BT landline. In theory, that 60p should have been good for twenty minutes, which is the ‘standard’ call duration from a payphone.
You can imagine my surprise when the little screen prompted me for more money even before I’d heard half of the automated menu options. The only other change I had was a pound coin, so that went into the slot as well. I selected the correct option, and got a recorded message telling me that I was being held in a queue. Then the bloody music started.
I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn that it was the first movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Isn’t it always? Has any music ever been as overplayed as this particular piece of baroque tedium? It seems that every single ‘hold’ music I’ve ever heard is the fucking Spring string section. You hear it whenever you try and call a shop, a utility company, a helpdesk, an information line, or a public office. It used to be the ‘hold’ music in Dillons, it followed us to Waterstone’s, and now it’s at the end of the fucking Department for Work and Pensions phone line as well.
What is it about this piece of crap that makes it so irresistible to the providers of automated switchboards? Does it come packaged with the technology itself, pre-installed (like the default Windows sounds) by the manufacturers themselves? Is it so difficult to reprogram the machine that nobody every bothers to try, preferring to inflict the same bloody music on everyone who has the misfortune to ring during a busy period (which in the DWP’s case means any time of the day)? Or is everyone just too lazy to make the effort to literally change the record.
Of course, all this time my on-screen credit was ticking down at the rate of approximately a penny per second. By the time the ‘your call is important to us’ message started for the third time, I had a little more than my original 60p left. I decided to cut my losses and hung up. I’d paid very nearly a whole quid to listen to a piece of music, which I could quite happily spend the rest of my life without ever hearing again.
So now you know: Dial-a-Disc is alive and well, and is now an official function of the Department for Work and Pensions. Unlike the old days, you don’t even get a choice of the music you can listen to. It’s fucking Vivaldi or nothing. And nowadays it costs a hell of a lot more than 10p to hear the whole thing – always assuming that you haven’t killed the call or killed yourself after the first minute or so.
As for the ‘importance’ of the call: if the calls are really that important to the DWP, wouldn’t it make economic sense to employ more staff to fucking well answer them? Personally, I’d take these recorded messages a lot more seriously if there was the remotest prospect of speaking to a human being before the money ran out.

REFERENCES

BOXER, S. (2005) Dial-a-Poem enters the Internet age, New York Times, 30 April 2005.
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