When a new Seattle Weekly hire from out of town got his phone hooked up in December, he was more amused than annoyed when one of his first callers was a telemarketer, trying to sign him up for daily and Sunday service for The Seattle Times. (Naturally, he wasn't interested.) He was less amused by the second, third, fourth, and fifth calls from the same source over the next couple months—particularly when he had made a point of telling the first caller to remove his name from the Times' telemarketing list.
Having an unlisted number used to be some protection from the minions of the Times and P-I circulation department (under the newspapers' Joint Operating Agreement, the Times is in charge of all promotions). No more: Times consumer marketing manager Alan Fisco acknowledges that the paper now owns an auto-dialer which relieves his sales force of the tedium of keying in phone numbers. The machine works its way through a pre-set sequence of numbers and notifies a live operator only when it's got a live one on the other end of the line.
But isn't auto-dialing illegal in the state of Washington? Only certain kinds of automated phone solicitations are: among them, the kind in which a recorded voice makes the pitch or invites you to push star-pound to speak to a live operator. (Though even that ban extends only to calls originating in Washington.) Random, blind, in-state auto-dial calls are perfectly legal as long as a live operator is there to talk to you when you pick up the receiver.
The Times' vice president for circulation, Mei Mai Chan, says that people who've asked to be spared solicitations are supposed to be filtered out of the telemarketing database in a once-a-week computerized update. But, as the Weekly staffer's experience indicates, that system appears to be less than foolproof.
Even when the Times does manage to respect the callee's wishes, it does so only for a period of one year. "If they really never ever want to be called again," Chan says, "we'll take them off permanently." But since most people think saying "no" should be enough, few are likely to be that emphatic.
Still, doesn't making half a dozen calls to the same number in as many weeks seem a bit much? "We feel we have the right to be as aggressive as we can be in pursuit of business, consistent with our duty to serve the public," says Chan.
Last week the Weekly staffer got a call at 8am. It was a representative of The Seattle Times, asking if he . . . "Why are you calling me," the victim stormed. "What do I have to do to get off your list?" "We don't use a list," the solicitor replied. "The machine just dials a number and when someone picks up we answer." Back to square one.