Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Answering machine messages getting more personal

By Larry Muhammad
The Courier-Journal

"What you say has energy," says Zambia Nkrumah, who uses her answering machine greeting as part of her therapy as she recovers from cancer.

Amanda Oliver likes attention. She has vanity license plates, lives on the 28th floor of a high-rise apartment building and is the very first Oliver listed in the Louisville telephone book.

And phone calls to her home that aren't answered personally don't trigger the routine recorded instructions to leave a message. Instead, callers hear an elaborate linguistic construct that even a grammarian would have to listen to twice.

"The cumbersomeness of this juncture makes it an imposition to communicate with you verbally," it says. "Impart on this apparatus the desired data and a response will be given most expeditiously. May the Paraclete, our comforter, dwell on and in you."

"I've had that on my phone at least seven years," Oliver says. "I do things on a grand level and don't believe in throwing them together. People who know me expect nothing less."

Callers trying to reach Gina Williams hear a lovable recorded phone greeting that's sealed with a kiss:

"Mmmmmmm-Wah! I can't get to the phone right now, so leave me a message, and I will call you back. Mmmm-mmmm-mmm-mmm - Wah!"

"If you don't love your friends and people that are calling you, why do you have a phone?" asks Williams, an interior designer. "I do not want to be that person that everybody hangs up on."

With cell phones in universal use, seminars on telephone etiquette and push-button, automated greetings that answer calls even when you're talking on the phone, it's no wonder that voice mail announcements often have a personal, creative touch.

Specialty Web sites such as www.answeringmachine.co.uk have recorded messages to download with voices pretending to be everyone from Lorena Bobbitt to Fred Flintstone. Some include exuberant sound effects, like this one from www.ahajokes.com:

"(Automatic gunfire, explosions, rockets, jets, agitated voice:) I'm pinned down and can't come to the phone right now, and Bob's handling supporting fire! Leave your name and number, and a message! We'll be back to you as soon ... FIRE IN THE HOLE! (sound of explosion). We'll be back to you soon as air cover napalms the place!"

National Public Radio personality Carl Kasell might be the king of celebrity voice mail. He records greetings for the home phones of winners on his quiz show, Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!

One says, "Mona won my voice on her answering machine from my new radio quiz program. Imagine a man of my stature being given away as a prize. You don't see Bob Edwards giving his voice away, or Terry Gross, or even Daniel Shorr. I feel so cheap. Oh, well, leave a message after the beep."

Ordinary people sometimes find themselves unable to erase the recorded phone messages of ex-spouses and dead family members long after they're gone.

In an age of technological wonders, the human voice as recorded with elementary devices never ceases to amaze.

The first consumer answering machine was the 10-pound, reel-to-reel Casio Phonemate Model 400 that burst on the telecommunications scene in 1971.

Now in the Smithsonian, it originally was considered to have poor sales potential because not answering your home phone in person was considered rude.

'Rockford' breakthrough

In 1974, voice recordings got a marketing jolt and went mainstream overnight when a message unit was featured in the opening scene of the popular TV show The Rockford Files.

"(Ring) This is Jim Rockford. At the tone leave your name and message. I'll get back to you."

Six seasons of the machine's one-sided repartee are listed for posterity on www.thesandbox.net/arm/rockford - including "Bummer! I call up with some good vibes and some positive energies, and I talk to a robot? Forget you, man!"

Scholars recognized early that these verbal snippets designed for constant electronic repetition were much more than the social chatter of an advanced culture.

At the Sound of the Beep, a 2,000-word analysis published in Folklore & Mythology Studies, a journal of the Folklore Graduate Studies Association at the University of California, Los Angeles, got pretty deep:

"While answering machine announcements are devoid of the interactional drama which fascinates scholars of conversational analysis, a formal examination of the structure and content of these greetings may be of use in providing insights into the organization of speech styles, preferred types of verbal expressions, the distinctions between interactive and noninteractive speech, and the aesthetic, expressive and ludic dimensions of speaking."

The analysis was done in 1985, when real people still answered telephones and recorded greetings were emerging as a national phenomenon. It found that 40 percent of callers were hanging up and 70 percent of recordings apologized for nobody being available.

Cleverness was still deemed aberrant in a 1996 Miami Herald survey of the most annoying recorded phone greetings, headlined "Mouthy Machines."

Included were recordings by preschoolers; the sound of someone urinating and flushing a toilet; the song "The Lady in Red" played in its entirety before the beep.

Positive messages

Today, voice mail can get serious.

Nkrumah, a Jefferson County, Ky., public school teacher recovering from breast cancer, uses her phone greeting as part of her therapy.

It says, "Healing is a process of many mountains, valleys and smooth plains. I am moving through this process. I need your assistance. See me - visualize Zambia strong. See Zambia healthy, Zambia dancing. Your prayers, concerns, cards and gifts have made this miracle happen thus far. Let's together be children of God and express His body temple in great health, in mind, body and spirit."

"My family and friends call, and I just wanted to put something on there that was positive and uplifting," Nkrumah says. "People like it. They call back and tell me, 'I do see you dancing. I see you strong.' "

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