< Smooth Operator


Friday, March 10, 2006

BROOKE GLADSTONE: For years, even when it was a near monopoly, AT&T managed to do the impossible with a surprising degree of success. It managed to convince us that a huge corporation could be our friend. [COMMERCIAL CLIP – "REACH OUT AND TOUCH SOMEONE] As I said, over the years they managed this PR coup with a surprising degree of success, but not complete success. There was no denying the control that company had over our lives, which is why Ernestine, the telephone operator embodied by Lily Tomlin on the 1960's TV "Laugh-In," was so beloved. [FILM CLIP]

ERNESTINE: Stay [LAUGHS] with me again. [LAUGHS] We seem to be disconnected. Now, Mr. Beadle, I want you to understand something. We are not subject to city, state or federal regulations. We are omnipotent. [LAUGHTER] Omnipotent. That's, that's potent with an "omni" in front of it. [LAUGHTER] [END FILM CLIP]

CLAUDE FISCHER: She captured a theme that had been around for about a century, of resistance or irritation with the telephone company.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Claude Fischer is a sociology professor at the University of California-Berkeley and author of A Social History of the Telephone. He says that AT&T has long contended with two views of itself – Ernestine's and the cozier one it wants to project. But he says if you go back a century, you find that reaching out and touching someone was the last thing on AT&T's mind. In fact, it actively opposed what it called "idle chatter."

CLAUDE FISCHER: They would put notices in telephone directories about what the proper use of the telephone was, which was functional and quick and get off. That was the message for about the first half century of the history of the telephone, and it starts to change during the 1920s, when AT&T decides that they could actually make money by getting people to put in telephones and subscribe, by making it a social device.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: They just came to the conclusion that if people bought the phone and used it more that they would make money?

CLAUDE FISCHER: The change in attitude, I think, occurs in a couple of ways. One is the realization that the automobile and other technologies, but notably the automobile, was making a far greater advance in the United States in the 1920s than the telephone. And one feature of the automobile in its early years – we don't think about it so much this way – is it was a leisure device. It was a device mostly for going out and having a good time. They always knew that customers tended to behave in this undesirable way of calling up friends and just sort of chatting away and gossiping and so forth on the phone, but they started to think that maybe this was something to encourage. And I think the major change was actually a changeover in the personnel that headed AT&T. The old-line telephone people had come out of the telegraph business. The new leaders of AT&T came from places like marketing or journalism. One of the new leaders of AT&T made a speech at a private conference saying that they'd been wrong all these years trying to suppress social conversation on the phone. He said it's as if the automobile industry had tried to tell customers don't drive your car on Sundays.


CLAUDE FISCHER: Only use it to go to work.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you write in your book that AT&T led the development of public relations in America, and part of the reason why is because it had to survive or overcome the image of being a huge monopoly with great tentacles – the Bell octopus, so to speak.

CLAUDE FISCHER: That's right, because they really pioneered public relations. One way they did it in an early part of the century was to use an outfit of Boston, called a Publicity Bureau, whose job it was to plant newspaper stories around the country casting the telephone company in a good light. These stories included items on how operators had saved lives or how repairmen had worked through blizzards or how churches were finding new ways to use the telephone. Later on, in 1907 on, they engaged in large-scale advertising campaigns. They would put ads in prominent places with a message that the telephone industry was a service to the public, particularly AT&T, because it was so universal. It covered so much of the country. The kind of Lily Tomlin message always was in the background and always created some kind of tension, but over the years, the phone company did try very much to use what we now take for granted, P.R., just creating good feelings about the company. That, and making some concessions to public demand for telephones and to public regulation, enabled the company to last for very long into the 20th century.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But now that there is another company – it's not the same company, but another company with the same name, AT&T - will we see a resurgence of the same sort of widespread suspicion as that company gets bigger and bigger?

CLAUDE FISCHER: Well, I wouldn't be surprised. The environment is different, of course, with Internet communications, e-mail, cable and so forth, and the proponents of the AT&T merger can argue that it no longer has quite the free hand it did. But I suspect that the larger the company gets, the more this is going to be a tension they have to deal with, dealing with politicians and dealing with voters, and I suspect we'll see more and more advertisements on television and so forth dedicated to the proposition that the larger AT&T works for the greater good of the greatest number.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Claude Fischer, thank you very much.

CLAUDE FISCHER: My pleasure.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Claude Fischer is a sociology professor at the University of California-Berkeley and author of A Social History of the Telephone. [FILM CLIP]

ERNESTINE: Oh, Mr. Beadle, I'm afraid we're going to have to discontinue your outgoing service. [LAUGHTER] And if we do not receive payment within 10 days, we will send a large, burly serviceman to your home – [OVERTALK] [LAUGHTER] - to rip it out of the wall. [LAUGHTER] I'd advise you to lock up the liquor. He's a mean drunk. [LAUGHTER] Now, then – Mr., Mr. Beadle, Mr. Beadle, wouldn't you really rather pay than lose your service and possibly the use of one eye? [LAUGHTER] Mr. Beadle? Mr. Bea – Mr. – [LAUGHTER] [END FILM CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BOB GARFIELD: Up next, they write dead people – reporters on the obit beat – and The Da Vinci Code's day in court.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from NPR.