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Blast Voice Mail Called ‘Phone Spam’

October 8, 1999

NEW YORK (AP) _ It used to be that Michael Kagan would empty his voice mailbox before leaving work, and it would stay that way until the following morning. But times _ and technology _ have changed.

Now, when the portfolio manager for the $1.8 billion Salomon Brothers Fund arrives at the office, he has to spend a half-hour catching up on the deluge of prerecorded messages sent to his voice mail overnight.

Known in the industry as ``voice blasts,″ these automated calls are intended to stand out from the 3-foot-high stack of mail, 70 telephone calls, 150 e-mails and ``staggering″ number of faxes Kagan receives on a daily basis. In reality, ``it simply adds to the information overload that I already had,″ Kagan says.

``Voice blast,″ or blast voice mail, has become the favored technology among research analysts in the past two years because it allows them to send recorded messages about company earnings or undervalued stocks _ simultaneously _ to an unlimited number of people.

Widely used in the 1980s by debt collection agencies as a way to remind people about late payments, recorded telephone messages today are being used for a variety of purposes. Professional sports organizations are calling thousands of season ticket holders at once, schools are improving communication with parents and disaster-prone regions are planning emergency warning systems. But some consider blast voice mail a nuisance and, when it arrives unsolicited, an invasion of privacy.

``It’s just, like, phone spam,″ says Jason Catlett, president of the Green Brook, N.J.-based Junkbusters Corp., using the slang word to describe unwanted e-mail. A former database analyst for AT&T, Catlett started Junkbusters in 1996 to help consumers defend themselves against telephone marketing.

On Wall Street, blast voice mails are typically sent during the middle of the night, when nobody is around to answer the call and say ``no thanks″ or hang up upon hearing the familiar pause that precedes a recorded message. In fact, some blast voice mail systems will disconnect if a live person answers and try again later.

Blast voice mail is a huge time saver for Ed Spehar, a vice president of equity research at Merrill Lynch & Co. in New York who regularly uses it. But Spehar conceded there is an intrusive element to this new tool and that there is a potential for abuse if relied on too frequently. He says he tries to use it ``very judiciously″ and limits his recordings to 30 seconds.

Still, fund managers say poorly developed blast voice mails that ramble on are just as common.

``If somebody is calling me about a small company that I don’t have in my portfolio, then it’s a waste of my time,″ Kagan says. On the other hand, he adds, if the message is relevant _ and concise _ ``I actually prefer voice mails to taking telephone calls because it’s more efficient.″

It’s that efficiency that has blast voice mails echoing far beyond Wall Street.

Educators at Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas, Va., say it is the cornerstone of their ``Bridge Project,″ which aims to improve communication with parents. Principal Steve Constantino, for instance, uses blast voice mail to congratulate the parents of students whose grade-point averages have improved.

Likewise, Stonewall science teachers use it to inform parents about television programs related to class discussions that children should be encouraged to watch.

``A lot of the kids hate it,″ Constantino says. ``That’s how I know it’s working.″

In Boulder, Colo., two companies are developing an early-warning voice mail system for Boulder County that would alert residents should Boulder Creek experience a major flood. The $60,000 software should be able to isolate lists of telephone numbers for specific geographical boundaries and send detailed evacuation instructions.

The companies involved in the project believes blast voice mail will be especially effective if disaster strikes in the middle of the night. ``People don’t have the TV on, they don’t have the radio on, and if we could just call them and say ‘Hey, take shelter,’ I think lives could be saved,″ said Steven Crane, chief executive of Indianapolis-based Hanover Communications.

Using blast voice mails to help children at school or save people from disaster is one thing, but when used for unsolicited advertising, it is often considered intrusive, not to mention illegal.

In January, when Dick Clark left messages on the answering machines of residents in Washington, D.C. and Detroit to promote the American Music Awards on ABC, a front-page story in The Washington Post described the entertainer’s pitch as a ``telephonic assault″ on the public’s ear.

``It didn’t have the impact we were hoping,″ said Paul Shefrin, a publicist for Dick Clark Productions, who admits he would like to block such calls on his own telephone.

The Telephone Consumers Protection Act, passed by Congress in 1991, prohibits recorded advertisements from being sent to residential phones without prior consent, while allowing blast voice mail of the variety used by institutional investors, schools and emergency services.

Despite being abused by some, blast voice mail has far-reaching potential for non-intrusive commercial uses, says Richard Lamme, CEO of Wayne, N.J.-based Client Instant Access, which provides blast voice mail services to Wall Street firms for about $2 per call. From realtors wishing to reach clients in a timely way to manufacturers needing to deliver the same message to a long list of distributors, Lamme insists blast voice mail can be effective if the sender and receiver are partners.

Such a relationship seems to exist in Fairbanks, Alaska, where the Lily of the Valley Church of God in Christ uses an inexpensive voice mail system to call its 120 members about upcoming events.

``When you get a message notifying you of a special meeting,″ Deacon Don Thomas says, ``I think that makes people feel pretty good, that they are important enough that somebody would take the time to leave them a message.″

Thomas says he has had to resist the temptation to overuse the system.

``Yeah, we want to compel people to come to Christ, but at the same time we don’t want to intrude on people. I think there’s a big difference,″ he says.

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