EMMANUEL DZOTSI: Today’s episode is brought to you by the massive bunch of cilantro you just bought at your grocery store. You know you’re not going to use it all in a week. Your grocery store really should offer smaller bunches. But at least you’re seasoning your food. Good for you. Ok, let’s hear some real ads.
From Gimlet, this is Reply All, I’m Emmanuel Dzotsi.
So today, we’re re-airing a story that we first ran almost 2 years ago. In fact, when I first started reporting this story in April of 2020, Covid was just starting to hit the US.
And back then I got a tip from a reporter friend of mine down in Mississippi. She told me about this one really weird event that took place that she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about.
EMMANUEL: So say your full name for me and what you do.
ALISSA ZHU: I’m Alissa Zhu and I’m a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger. It’s the newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi.
At the time, Alissa was a pretty big investigative reporter, like she did stories on political stuff that happened down there, but also like Missississpi’s prisons.
But one day, her editor was just kind of like, “Hey, you know, it’s a weekend shift, there’s a couple of like sort of feel-goody news stories buzzing around today, why don’t you just sort of like write one of those fluffy news pieces up?”
ALISSA: They were looking for some levity during this time.
ALISSA: We had been writing about only very serious sad coronavirus news for I don't know, like two months now.
All the Covid stuff was feeling like a bit of a bummer. And as luck would have it, that day a story broke on Twitter that was the perfect antidote for the depressing news cycle.
What had happened was this: the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, nicknamed MEMA - like Mississippi’s version of FEMA - and the Mississippi Department of Health sent out like, this big email to all these different regional emergency management directors around the state, just offering information about coronavirus and how they were going to deal with it.
And that email pointed to this one toll-free number. People were supposed to call to get COVID info, or get help, but when they called that number, here’s what they got instead:
AHT via PHONE: Welcome to America's Hottest Talkline.
AHT via PHONE: Guys, hot ladies are waiting to talk to you. Press one now. Ladies, to talk to interesting and exciting guys free, press two to connect free now.
It sounded a lot like a phone sex line, albeit a very heteronormative one.
And my friend Alissa who was reporting the story was kinda like, “Ok, this is weird.” And so of course, she does her job, contacts the state of Mississippi to be like, “What is this? Why did this happen? How did this happen?” And MEMA, the Mississippi Department of Emergency Management, they get back and are just like, “Hey, so sorry. It was like a god-honest mistake.”
But they didn’t say what the mistake had been. Had they given a number that was one digit off? Nobody knew. The department just said that like, the email was quote “incorrect” and that they’d directed callers to an inappropriate phone number. And that was kind of all they were offering. End of story. But that wasn’t enough for Alissa, she googled America’s Hottest Talkline…
ALISSA: Just to see if I could find like the company that was behind it basically.
ALISSA: But instead of finding a company website, I just found like dozens and dozens of news stories…
ALISSA: …from all over the country of other agencies or businesses making the same exact mistake.
Again and again, all of these organizations were sending out phone numbers that were sending people to America’s Hottest Talkline.
ALISSA: So, you know, I- I found an article about how after Hurricane Irma, FEMA put out a flyer for people that were looking for um, help after the hurricane. And when they called the number it led to America's Hottest Talkline.
In Maine a couple years ago, the state of Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services released like, a new EBT card, for like, food stamps and stuff. And you know how like, on the back of a credit card or something like that, there’ll be like, a toll free number you can call?
Well, there was such a number on the back of this EBT card, and if you called that number, you’d get America’s Hottest Talk line.
This was a different number than the one in Mississippi - in fact, whenever America’s Hottest Talk Line popped up, it did so on different numbers.
There were headlines that said numbers for the Yankees, the Baltimore police, Marvel - like, all had at one point led to America's Hottest Talkline.
This phone sex line, it seemed like this sort of parasite that had latched onto all these different parts of the world that have no relation to each other at all.
And it was having big consequences. There was a sheriff’s office down in Florida that promoted a hotline directing victims of domestic abuse or sexual assault to a service run by a non-profit, and it actually led people to America’s Hottest Talk Line.
Alissa kept looking into all of this. And she came across a video from when another reporter had called the Mississippi number and gotten America's Hottest Talkline, and in the video there was this one little detail in it that jumped out at her.
ALISSA: if you watch the video, it- it plays this message…
AHT via PHONE: Welcome to America's Hottest Talkline….
ALISSA: …and then it'll automatically hang up as soon as the message is over.
AHT via PHONE: Ladies press 2 now…[hang up sound]
EMMANUEL: Which felt like a clue to her.
ALISSA: To me, like you would think they would sort of wait, or like, repeat the menu a few times—
ALISSA: Because they want customers instead of just hanging up on you.
ALISSA: So I’m not even convinced that this is a real phone sex line.
EMMANUEL: Alissa wondered if like, this was just a recording and nothing more, so she decided that she was going to call up the number Mississippi had sent out and find out for herself.
ALISSA: I tried to call that number and it led to some sort of message that said, like, "this is a non working number in your area."
EMMANUEL: Wow, that's like, that’s so bizarre.
ALISSA: Yeah I've tried a couple more times just to see like what is this bizarre glitch in the matrix is doing now.
But America's Hottest Talkline was gone.
When Alissa told me this, it filled me with so many questions. Like, whoever’s behind this, how were they making America's Hottest Talkline show up on all of these different phone lines? And if this wasn’t actually a working phone sex line, what was the point of it?
So I told Alissa that I'd try to figure it out.
And what I found .shook my Catholic, vanilla ice cream-loving self to the core in a pretty major way.
Which we’ll get to after the break.
EMMANUEL: Welcome back to the show. So the first thing I did after Alissa told me about America's Hottest Talkline was call the number the state of Mississippi sent out.
And it wasn’t dead anymore.
Thank you for calling...are you or someone in your household 50 years or older? Press 1 for yes..2 for no…
This wasn’t America's Hottest Talkline. The number the Mississippi government had given out was now something completely different.
EMMANUEL: Maybe I should press...alright I’ll press [dial tone]
JESSICA: Thank you for calling the Medical Alert Center. This is Jessica on a recorded line. Can you hear me okay?
EMMANUEL: Yeah. Hi, Jessica. I just wanted to say, so my name is Emmanuel.
JESSICA: Great. So with our promotion today you actually have the opportunity to receive a free medical alert device. So, congratulations.
EMMANUEL: Wait, hang on, hang on, hang on. Sorry. Hello?
JESSICA: You know it's that little button you wear around your neck that you press in case of an emergency—And–
EMMANUEL: Hello? Hello? Hello? Jessica, I just want to say I'm a reporter, and I'm- this is a recorded message. [simultaneously]
JESSICA: [simultaneously] or even a fall. Now when you're participating in our monitoring program um, you can actually get your medical alert—
EMMANUEL: [simultaneously] Oh my god.
EMMANUEL: I’d reached a service called medical alert.
Which from what I could tell was basically a knock off of Life Alert, you know, the, “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” company.
Which made me even more confused than I was before because like, how had a COVID hotline been taken over by a phone sex line, only to be taken over again by a weird knockoff medical device company?
So I tried another phone number from one of the other instances where America's Hottest Talkline had appeared, and I got another recorded message.
TONYA: Thank you for calling the Auto Saving Center. This is Tonya on a recorded line. You hear me, okay?
This recording was from a company called Protect My Car, which sounded very similar to the recorded message from Medical Alert. So the next number I tried, I decided to just wait on the line, see if they would give me an option to talk to a real person.
MAN: Thank you for holding with our promotion today you’ve qualified for a free medical alert system.
EMMANUEL: Hi I’m sorry can you hear me?
MAN: Yes I can hear you.
EMMANUEL: I’m calling because I was trying to reach another service, America's Hottest Talkline...but I guess it’s not.
MAN: Alright alright sir.. Sometime the phone number changes or the wrong button gets pressed, but in the meantime you have the opportunity to receive a free medical alert system [call dips]
EMMANUEL: I’d reach a real person..but this guy was on a major “always be closing” kick. No matter what I asked him, he would just try to sell me stuff. So I just called the numbers over and over and over again, trying to get information.
MEDICAL ALERT OPERATOR: Thank you for holding. With our promotion today you have been selected to receive a free medical alert system. So congratulations.
EMMANUEL: Thank you. Uh hi, sorry, sorry. I just want to interrupt. My name's Emmanuel Dzotsi, and I'm a reporter I'm calling because I'm actually working on a story, and I was trying to get um, in touch with, like, America's Hottest Talkline, um, uh… are you guys owned by the same company?
MEDICAL ALERT OPERATOR: I'm sure if you hang up and call back, because, you know, sometimes phone numbers do change, or the wrong button gets pressed.
EMMANUEL: Yeah, but that's the thing. I know I didn't press the wrong number, though. So that- that's I'm-
MEDICAL ALERT OPERATOR: Mr. Dootzi.
EMMANUEL: Dzotsi, sorry. But that's okay. I know it's a weird name.
MEDICAL ALERT OPERATOR: Dootzi.
MEDICAL ALERT OPERATOR: Dootzi. It's okay Dootzi.
EMMANUEL: Eventually, I got another customer service rep who gave me information that seemed actually helpful. They told me that there was a directory I could call, where I should be able to find America’s Hottest Talkline.
WOMAN: What toll free listing would you like?
EMMANUEL: America's Hottest Talkline.
WOMAN: I think you said "plan." If that's not correct, press nine. [beep] Please repeat your request.
EMMANUEL: America's Hottest Talk line.
WOMAN: I think you said "American concrete." If that's not correct, press nine. Otherwise, I’ll check.
EMMANUEL: No! [laughs)]
EMMANUEL: I tried calling these lines for several days and didn’t get anywhere. I couldn’t track down America’s Hottest Talkline. But then I got my first real breakthrough, when my colleague Damiano suggested I talk to a guy he'd interviewed once named Bruno Tabbi, whose job is helping companies get 1-800 numbers.
BRUNO TABBI: Hello?
EMMANUEL: HI Bruno, can you hear me?
BRUNO: Yeah, I can.
EMMANUEL: So I called him...and told him about America’s Hottest Talkline…
EMMANUEL: Have you ever heard of like, this thing? This phenomenon? America’s Hottest Talkline?
EMMANUEL: Oh, you have?
EMMANUEL: Bruno hadn’t specifically heard of America’s Hottest Talkline, but he thought it sounded a lot like the work of a company he knew.
BRUNO: It probably goes by a lot of different names. But this is a company that owns a lot of very well-known phone numbers.
EMMANUEL: Bruno said the company mostly worked in toll-free numbers; that this company also seemed to be somehow connected to phone sex.
[Bruno: started off in the adult chat...]
EMMANUEL: That this company now seemed to be dabbling in other businesses as well, all without actually mentioning the name of this company. Finally I just asked him.
EMMANUEL: What's the name of the company?
BRUNO: Ah, I guess it doesn't matter because it's public info. But they go by Primetel.
My initial assumption was that whoever was behind America’s Talk Line was some fly by night operator. Some nerd somewhere having way too much fun with phone tech.
But Bruno was like, “No no, you’re thinking about this all wrong. If the culprit is Primetel, this is no joke, Primetel does not mess around.”
I would soon come to think of Primetel as a fortress. A fortress that I needed to get inside of to understand how America’s Hottest Talkline had taken over so many phone numbers. And I would spend the next 4 months talking to the people who cowered in its shadow, the people who studied it, the people who guarded it, and the people who’d built it.
But to start off, here’s what Bruno told me about Primetel.
Both Bruno and Primetel are in the Toll-Free number industry, otherwise known as the 1-800 business.
1-800 numbers, especially numbers like 1-800 lawyer—numbers that spell things—are incredibly valuable for any business to have. And so they pay companies like Bruno’s business, to go to incredible lengths to get certain numbers for them.
BRUNO: Any numbers that are really valuable, they're not just like low hanging fruit where you just maybe get them. Like we’ve bought businesses just because we wanted the phone number.
And yet somehow, in this industry where 1800 numbers are so, so hard to get, Bruno told me that Primetel had a crazy number of them. They’re a behemoth.
BRUNO: It owns, I believe the number is about 25% of the 800 numbers.
EMMANUEL: Oh my God! How much is that? Like what are we talking about?
BRUNO: Millions. Millions.
EMMANUEL: Millions of phone numbers?
EMMANUEL: That fact, that Primetel controls millions of toll-free numbers, that’s all I could learn from Bruno. So I started to call other people in the toll free industry. And they told me Primetel is a really secretive company.
PAUL: The nickname they have is The Black Hole, 'cause it's like where things went to disappear, like, you don't know what's in The Black Hole. It's like this mystery, and I think that's just the way they operate.
EMMANUEL: Encounters with the so-called black hole were rare and brief.
BILL: I met two of the programmers one time at a conference, and they're as tight-lipped as the whole company is.
BILL: You don't, you don’t get their names, you don't get any information. You're not gonna find somebody inside that wants to tell you about it all.
EMMANUEL: This same guy would go on to compare Primetel, without irony, to Keyser Soze. And the little information that people did know, they were super hesitant to tell me. Like I called this one guy, Greg Fernandez, who went on and on about how much he respected the person who ran Primetel.
GREG: I would just love like, just to take her out for a cup of coffee just to see how she ticks. You know?
EMMANUEL: Take who out?
GREG: Oh, the person behind uh, behind the, the conglomerates.
EMMANUEL: Oh, who is that? Who is she, it sounds like?
GREG: Yeah, it is a she. Yeah. And I don't want to—if you don't know, I don't know, Emmanuel. I don't know if I want to out her.
EMMANUEL: I mean—
GREG: I've been saying very kind things about them. And it's everything I've said about them is true. Uh, they're very powerful people.
GREG: They're very, very, very powerful.
EMMANUEL: Like, just, I don't know, I guess I want to—I don't want to make you—I don't want to like—Am I putting your business—your business at risk by asking you to go on the record about this is like that kind of power thing?
GREG: I don't want to, you know—umm, yeah, I don’t want to rock the boat. How’s that?
Who was this mystery genius woman?
And if she was behind America’s Hottest Talk line, taking over all of these toll free numbers, how exactly were she and her company doing it?
I kept having visions of some nondescript office building somewhere, like far from prying eyes, filled with the sort of employees you meet at D.C. happy hours whose answer to “what do you do” is to vaguely say that they work in consulting, even though you know and they know that there is a lot more to their job and they have a lot of power over your life.
I searched online for any scrap of information about Primetel. They have no website, no Facebook page. There was one red herring: a company based in Cyprus called Primetel...it was not them.
But then after digging through some legal documents I realized that my Primetel seemed to have a whole network of different aliases and partner companies, all with very generic names like National A-1, Mayfair, or Zipline. I began searching for people who worked for those companies.
That’s how I found a woman I’m going to call Evelyn…
EVELYN: Hello. Hi.
EMMANUEL: Where am I talking to you?
EVELYN: I am in beautiful Philadelphia, East Falls neighborhood, and this is my office.
EVELYN: Where the magic does not happen, ever.
Like Bruno, Evelyn told me she’d never heard of America’s Hottest Talkline specifically. But it sounded like the sort of service Primetel might run.
And Evelyn knows this because she’s worked for National A-1 and Primetel in a range of capacities for more than 25 years. In fact she says she helped create it.
Although when she joined, she had no idea what she was getting into.
The year was 1992. Evelyn was living in Philadelphia, and she’d just graduated college.
EVELYN: I'm working as a librarian making bank, obviously. So I'm looking for shit to do. And I see this ad in the paper, in the city paper, and it says, I remember back page. It was really kind of...you remember. But so it said, um, “we're needing romantic fantasies.”
EMMANUEL: Romantic fantasies?
EVELYN: Romantic fantasies. This is just this ad asking for romantic fantasies.
EMMANUEL: The people who’d posted the ad needed at least 10 fantasies, and were offering to pay 10 bucks for each one. Which to Evelyn felt like easy money, especially since her grand plan was to plagiarize from a book of 1970s romance fantasies.
But by the time Evelyn got around to calling the number in the ad with her stolen fantasies, they were no longer looking for people to write them. They were looking for people to read them...which to Evelyn felt like even easier money.
So Evelyn scheduled a time to go in and read at this company’s offices. Only when she went in for her audition, she realized it wasn’t your typical workplace.
EMMANUEL: So describe to me, like the day you walked in, like what it looked like and stuff.
EVELYN: Oh, my gosh.
EVELYN: So you pretty much walk in and they have to buzz you in, because it's like killer thick glass. This place was like a little door. The window that you see from the street is just cluttered with watches and jewelry and buttons, just junk.
EMMANUEL: Oh, so you went into like a pawn shop?
EMMANUEL: Were you surprised when you walked up and you're like, oh this is just like a watch shop?’
EVELYN: I was fascinated. And it was it was just...and then here's the funniest part is that, there's this old man, like super old man, on a elevated stool. Like slumped over, like drooling into his chest, essentially. Just this sweet, adorable like, like, he looked like a shrunken mushroom of a man just sort of collapsed on himself.
And I walked in and I thought maybe he was the guy I supposed to talk to because I'm an idiot and he's the first one. So I just sort of walked up staring at him. And then someone's like, “Yo, yo!” And they're talking to me, from behind me. And I'm like, "Where? Who am I talking to?" So then I turn around and the next thing I know, I'm walking down this, this dingy stair and I'm in this weird office that's like very low ceilings. And, and there's these pinups and teddy bears everywhere.
EMMANUEL: What? So you come in and she's just like, in a basement filled with pinups and teddy bears?
EMMANUEL: It was here in the diamond district of Philadelphia, in the strangely decorated basement of a pawn shop called the National Watch Exchange—that is, pawn spelled P-A-W-N—that an empire would eventually be born.
The owner of National Watch Exchange...was a man named Richard Cohen. Years later he would become the co-owner of Primetel.
But back when she met him, Evelyn said Richard was just a guy looking for the next big way to make money.
She said Richard looked like George Thorogood, which according to my favorite editor and resident expert on white guys from the ‘70s, Tim Howard, means Richard Cohen looks like the dude who sang “Bad to the Bone.”
EVELYN: He's got like wings like 70s kind of hair, you know.
EMMANUEL: Oh, OK.
EVELYN: But his eyes are—I always thought that's one thing I'll always think of him. They're his eyes. They're very...a lot of people who will immediately be like, oh that guy's creepy.
EMMANUEL: What about his eyes seem creepy?
EVELYN: Have you ever been into a jewelry store, a pawnshop, and the guy watching behind the counter? And he's like, "Hey, what do you got?"
EMMANUEL: Yes. (laughs)
EVELYN: That's kind of Richard.
Richard, says Evelyn, was constantly on the hunt for things of value. He was a collector. And those teddy bears that lined the basement? Those were the crown jewels of his collection.
EVELYN: They're his babies. They're his children. He loves his bears.
EMMANUEL: And these are just like teddy bears?
EVELYN: They're Steiff.
EMMANUEL: What is a Steiff Bear?
EVELYN: It's the Rolex of teddy bears, my friend. You look it up, they're expensive. People pay, like it's ridiculous. They've been making bears in Germany for like over 100 years.
EMMANUEL: Oh my god.
EVELYN: They're a very famous bear. Look that up.
EMMANUEL: Did he have names for them?
EVELYN: Yes. And and, and lives and everything. I didn't realize this at the time, I've learned this since. But yes. It’s real. It’s hardcore, he loves his bears. He loves his bears.
EMMANUEL: In addition to loving his bears, Evelyn described Richard as bit of a recluse. “You’ll never get him to talk to you,” she told me, and she was right. Richard didn’t respond to my letters, calls or emails. He didn’t talk to me for this story. No one officially representing Primetel did either.
Anyways, according to Evelyn, back in the early 90’s, Richard’s was firmly in his pawn shop business, running it with his brother, when he realized that there was another way he could make money off the customers who frequented the store.
EVELYN: One of the problems with being a person who didn't have a whole lot of money back in the day is that you couldn't get a phone because phone companies needed you to have an address. They needed you to have a bank account and all sorts of other stuff.
EMMANUEL: Evelyn says Richard saw these folks who needed phone lines and came up with an idea.
He bought a voicemail system and had it installed in his basement. And how it worked is that Richard could rent phone numbers out to his clients. Only they couldn’t make calls on those lines. Instead people would call them at their number and leave a message.
EVELYN: So if you—a lot of people who are kind of shady or a lot of people...like this is what they did, is that they had a block of different numbers. And, "Oh, that's the number where I’m an insurance adjuster and that's the number where I deal out of." And so they had a system like that, and it was very cheap. It was like 10 bucks a month for a mailbox.
EVELYN: So people would just come in with their dollars and whatever.
EMMANUEL: Richard had found a back door into the phone industry.
More and more people were paying Richard so that they could receive voicemail messages — and it was around this moment Evelyn figures, Richard might’ve had another one of his "there’s a way to make more money” moments.
EVELYN: This is just me, but I think he—he's nosy, as all get out. So I would imagine he was probably listening to the messages and realized that a lot of people were meeting and that probably getting the idea like, “Ahhh this is kind of computer dating.” So he bastardized a voicemail system and tinkered with it and got it to work as a personals system. Instead of–
EMMANUEL: That’s kind of smart.
EVELYN: It is. It really is.
EMMANUEL: Once Richard created this new personals service, he asked Evelyn to be the new voice of his fledgling phone system. It would be her job to record all the prompts and menus for Richard’s different phone services, which were constantly changing.
EMMANUEL: I'm curious, like right off the bat, like have you ever heard, have you like—yeah, I'm curious. What did you used to say on these messages?
EVELYN: Oh well, it would be something like...prrrrdada.. Let's get my voice.. So it's pretty much like...hold on.
EMMANUEL: Oh, you’re ok.
EVELYN: Welcome to Talk To Me. Cute talkers program, you'll be set in our chat line while waiting for a caller to make a direct connection with you.
EMMANUEL: That's awesome.
EVELYN: Horrible! No, don't encourage me.
EMMANUEL: Richard took his personals system and created a service called Philadelphia’s Number One Dateline. People would pay to leave each other voicemail messages. I talked to a woman who helped moderate this dateline. She told me that it was popular with people looking for partners with like minded fetishes and fantasies.
I wondered if maybe this was a really early incarnation of what would become America's Hottest Talkline, except without the phone sex.
Evelyn told me Richard expanded the dateline beyond Philadelphia, went regional, and then, went national, via 900 numbers..which is where a lot of adult content was back in the 90s.
Using 900 numbers..though..was becoming a bigger and bigger problem.
Parents were freaking out because they didn’t want little Johnny calling up weird datelines, fetish lines or phone sex services.
REP. DAN COATS: Let’s send one single clear message: to the industry, to the parents of America and the people of America,
EMMANUEL: So lawmakers started introducing bills…
REP. DAN COATS: We do not want, we will not allow, we will not tolerate dial-a-porn in this country.
EMMANUEL: Bills designed to crack down on 900 numbers. It was clear the end for 900 #s was nigh, and Richard needed to find another way to make money. So he got a business partner who would help him do just that. That partner was a woman named Sandra Kessler.
She was the so-called genius I'd heard rumors about from industry insiders.
EVELYN: Oh she is such an interesting character. Oh my god! She's a demon. She could get whatever she wants.
EMMANUEL: From what Evelyn told me, Sandra had big hair, like Fran Drescher, and talked in a sort of frenetic kind of way that might give a person an anxiety attack. And if Richard's great love was teddy bears, Evelyn said Sandra’s was somehow even more unexpected.
EVELYN: She's a robot collector. That's how she got started.
EMMANUEL : A robot collector?
EVELYN: A robot collector. She would go to, um, flea markets and things like that and she would just know what to pick that would be worthwhile. And she made like gobs of money just knowing what to grab.
EMMANUEL: Richard trusted Sandra’s business savvy unconditionally. And Sandra, confronted with Richard’s 900 number woes, had an idea.
Sandra wanted to start a new company. And it was actually a type of company that had only just been invented, called a responsible organization, or RespOrg. Which...of course is the most generic boring name. Anyways these RespOrgs, they were a special kind of phone company that managed and distributed toll free numbers.
You see, a few years earlier the FCC had tasked a small group of people with overhauling the entire toll free system. It took years to get every detail right.
AELEA: I was fortunate enough to be in that whole design. And one of the things we designed is what became RespOrgs.
EMMANUEL : Wow. So, you’re one of the, like, designers of this current system, basically.
AELEA: Yes. Yeah.
EMMANUEL: Wow. Okay.
AELEA: There were about 10 of us around the country that designed the whole system.
EMMANUEL: Whoa. Okay, so I have so many questions for you about the system… [laughing]
This is Aelea Christofferson...toll-free industry legend.
EMMANUEL: So I'm curious, just, in this system you designed, if I came to you in 1993 or 1994 and was like ok “I would like to get hooked up with a toll free number,” what would the pathway have been?
AELEA: It’s the same today.
AELEA: You contact your RespOrg and say “I want, 800 Lawyer,”
AELEA: A number like that. The RespOrg determines whether it’s available. If it’s spare, which is what they call available, then the RespOrg reserves the number right then and then nobody else can have the number.
EMMANUEL: So, let’s say,I dunno, a taqueria wants 1800 BURRITO. They have to go to one of these RespOrgs—maybe a big phone company like Verizon, maybe a smaller outfit. And if the number’s available, the RespOrg will get it for them from a big pool of numbers. All the taqueria has to do is keep paying their monthly phone bill to the RespOrg.
To be in the phone business in the mid ‘90’s was to be in a bonafide 1800 number feeding frenzy. Everybody wanted a number that spelled something, and RespOrgs were only too happy to oblige. Each 800 number was incredibly cheap for them to grab, but businesses were so desperate, they’d pay good money just to get them.
So RespOrgs were popping up left and right. And even though Aelea and her colleagues had tried to hammer out every last detail of how RespOrgs would work, there was one major flaw in their design.
AELEA: We thought the only people who were gonna be RespOrgs would be the big, long distance and local companies. So, at most, we’d maybe have 30 RespOrgs. Well, you know, there’s over 300 RespOrgs.
EMMANUEL: Wow. Over 300.
AELEA: Yeah and that was never the way we visualized it.
EMMANUEL: I don’t know, on the one hand, it feels like you guys were so meticulous in designing the system. But the thing you didn’t account for seems so shocking to me, that like, people would find a way to make money off of this.
AELEA: We didn’t really design to that. We talked about it kind of on the fringes. And somebody says, “I don’t know what kind of money-grubbing little company would become an independent RespOrg.”
EMMANUEL: Turns out. A money grubbing company headed by a robot collector and teddy bear lover. Back in the diamond district of Philadelphia, Sandra and Richard decided, “Ok. We want in on this. We’re gonna make our own RespOrg, grab some of these 800 numbers, and use them all for our chat lines. And then, we’ll have people pay by credit card to use them. We’ll make a killing.”
EVELYN: Richard realized that all those numbers are worth something if it spells anything dirty, that if you look at the traffic at the time, there are men that just sat around spelling out dirty words on their phone, wondering if it was going to be somebody saying something dirty.
EMMANUEL: That RespOrg, the phone company they created was Primetel.
Primetel was run by Sandra, and as she got more and more numbers for Richard’s date lines, Richard realized he could be making even more money.
And a few years later, in 2000 he expanded his business into phone sex. Opened a new call center and moved his entire business to a whole new building. Which was a weird move at the time because the few surviving phone sex companies were actually downsizing, asking phone sex workers to work remotely.
But Richard’s gamble paid off—all over the country people were typing dirty words into their phone, landing on one of Richard's phone sex lines, and forking over their credit card information for the chance to talk to quote “sexy young girls.” Which is funny because of course the new phone sex operators sitting on the other end of the line were in the most unsexy place imaginable.
EMMANUEL: What did the space- what did the office look like? I’m just so intrigued to know what was the setup?
THELMA: It was very much like a call center. Walking in where there's like a scrolling LED sign of the top bonuses of the month. There's seasonal decorations up. I started in July.
THELMA: So there were like palm trees and leis and like beach balls in there. You know? It's like furnishing hell to make it look like it's not as hot of a place.
EMMANUEL: That’s a woman I’m going to call Thelma. She worked for Richard in his phone sex call center for a year and a half, and she said she found the job challenging from the very beginning.
THELMA: It is so difficult to keep a horny man who is masturbating on the phone for $3 a minute so that you can get your minute quota in.
EMMANUEL: Oh was that kind of the main aim of it, was just like, keep these guys on the phone?
THELMA: Keep them on the phone. The calls would max out at certain lengths depending on what they paid for and whether they were a preferred customer or not. But your calls could max out at 15 minutes, 35 minutes or 45 minutes.
EMMANUEL: 45 minutes?
EMMANUEL: Thelma’s trick to slow these guys down and keep them on the phone was to tell a lot of jokes. Men seemed to find it hard to stay turned on and laugh at something at the same time.
But maybe the worst part about the job was something I’d never even considered. When customers reached the phone sex line they could choose the race of the woman they wanted to talk to. And so phone sex operators pretended to be women of different races. They actually got a list of stereotypical characters they could play for each one, but if the customer didn’t request an ethnicity, the default was a white woman.
DAN’IEL: My initial name they gave me, was…first it was Angel and then they changed it to Savannah. And Savannah was 5’3”, 120 lbs, blonde like just the stereotype that even other white women are like, “Seriously?” Just some little bubble head from National Lampoon cheerleader type movies, you know what I'm saying?
EMMANUEL: This is Dan’iel, another one of Richard’s phone sex operators. Dan’iel’s a self described BBW – or Big Black Woman – and like most of the people working in the call center were black women and having to play Savannah really bothered Dan’iel.
DAN’IEL: Especially at that point in my life, I was so, I had to do like a lot of you know, therapy and things like that because um, being an African-American woman, you're already bombarded with “you’re not pretty enough, you're not good enough, you’re lesser than everyone else,” you know, there’s that gradient scale, starts out with white women, and then it’s Asian, and Hispanic, and then Black is at the end, you get what I’m saying?
EMMANUEL: Yeah, I get what you're saying.
DAN’IEL: So it was really bad for my self-esteem. And I was like… I just … I can’t.
EMMANUEL: So Dan’iel broke the rules. Just a little. Made her default character a Greek white woman.
Her managers tolerated it, but only because Dan’iel was arguably the best phone sex operator they had. She says she was so good that people from around the company used to eavesdrop on her calls...they thought she had to be doing something shady to be that good at her job.
In fact, it was pretty clear to Dan’iel and Thelma that Richard and the rest of management didn’t really trust the phone operators.
As a rule, they were purposely kept away from the rest of the company. Thelma says the manager who ran the call center was extremely intense about it.
THELMA: We were encouraged not to talk to anyone in the elevators, not to like, interact or bother people. I mean, we were treated like...ve- I wouldn't even say second-class citizens. It was like we were like rats in the building that other people had to tolerate.
EMMANUEL: Oh my god.
THELMA: Um, we weren't supposed to know about anything. We weren't supposed to know about open enrollment when the health insurance changed.
EMMANUEL: Oh, what?
THELMA: It was very, very isolating to work there. Like they did not want you to have knowledge about anything else that went on in that building.
Which is why — when I asked Thelma and Dan’iel, “Were the calls you were taking for America’s Hottest Talkline?” They were like, “Weirdly we don't know. All we did was pick up the phone. The company had a lot of different sex hotlines — but we didn’t really have any idea what service the callers were coming to us through.”
Which meant, it's totally possible that Thelma and Daniel could’ve answered calls for America’s Hottest Talkline and never even known.
But Dan’iel told me something else that felt like a clue.
Every now and then she would get a call from someone who didn’t know they were in for some phone sex.
DAN’IEL: Some people oh god bless them, you—every once in a while you’d get an elderly person…
EMMANUEL: Oh really?
DAN’IEL: How did you get this number grandma? [laughs] This is awkward for both of us now.
EMMANUEL: Were people like honestly very confused?
DAN’IEL: Uh, yeah. Yeah, and often embarrassed, especially if you had to tell them what number they called. Like “No this is a phone sex line ma’am...sir.” “The what?” “Yeah I can’t help you with your washer or dryer. I dunno, maybe, what model do you have? Let’s talk.”
EMMANUEL: According to Aelea Christofferson—the woman who’d helped create the toll-free system—confused people ending up on the phone sex line was a direct result of a move Richard and Sandra made to take their business beyond just grabbing the "sexy numbers" and move into the next stage of their toll free empire.
AELEA: They were the first place where I heard about misdials, which is now a big industry.
She told me that when, like, a shoe company announced their new toll free number 1800-SLIPPER, Primetel would be watching.
AELEA: Primetel knows, you know, thousands and thousands of people are gonna call that number. So, they get the number maybe right below it. You know, they get one that’s really easily misdialed.
AELEA: And they probably get – you know, they get the numbers, all of ‘em that are around a number. You know, anything that- that can cause somebody to easily misdial it.
EMMANUEL: In the past, Primetel has denied that they have a misdial strategy. But multiple experts in the industry told me otherwise.
What these experts told me is that back then, most RespOrgs assumed that out of the millions of toll free numbers out there, only a small percentage—the ones that spelled things—were truly valuable. The others...well, they were a dime-a-dozen.
It’s almost as if Sandra and Richard realized, “Oh no, those ordinary looking, unremarkable numbers ARE actually super valuable…because of misdials!”
Now, of course, maybe only 1 out of 1000 people who call your number by accident will stay on the line, but if you have say millions of phone numbers, [MUSIC] you’re looking at a small fortune.
What I know for sure is that Sandra dedicated a whole floor of Richard’s building to Primetel, and filled it with computers.
A woman who used to work as an assistant to Richard, who I’m gonna call Shelley, she hated going down there.
EMMANUEL: What did it look like, their floor?
SHELLEY: Oh my god, it was lots of computer equipment. I don't know the tech at the time but it was probably one of the reasons why was so fucking cold down there, because some big computer servers are probably down there. It was like the offices were like, purposely Voldemort creepy. It was bizarre. Like it gave this overall ambiance of, of trolls digging in mines.
EMMANUEL: As Voldemort creepy as Primetel’s setup was, their technology gave them a real advantage over the competition. While other RespOrgs had employees dutifully requesting numbers one at a time, Primetel had computer programs grabbing numbers in bulk.
And these phone numbers they were grabbing, they weren’t only brand new numbers that had never existed before. They were also phone lines people thought were still theirs — that they’d lost because they’d forgotten to pay their phone bill at some point.
Eventually though, these people realized they’d lost their phone lines and were very confused. And Evelyn and Shelley—both employees of National A-1—had the weird experience of seeing this phenomenon happening in the world in front of them all the time, and knowing exactly why so many people were pissed off.
SHELLY: I had a pulmonary director at Penn call me to complain, ”why is my private office number a fucking porn number?”
EVELYN: American Idol, all the numbers for the finalists were like 800-da-da-da-da-da. So when people were trying to vote, 888-da-da-da for their idol they were coming to me.
SHELLEY: I got calls from people who had numbers in other countries in other places—people who could barely speak English.
EVELYN: I was married at the time to a podiatrist in Augusta, Georgia. And their main office number got swiped. So people were calling the doctor’s office and it would go, “Thank you for calling Philadelphia’s number one dateline.”
EMMANUEL: [laughs] Wait so your own husband–
EVELYN: My own husband–
EMMANUEL: His phone number gets taken—
EVELYN: His own phone number—
EMMANUEL: And when people are calling him they’re hearing you?
EVELYN: But they didn’t know it was me, thank God.
EMMANUEL: All of this of course, sounds exactly like what was happening with America’s Hottest Talkline.
Tons of people, very confused as to how a phone sex line had taken their number.
And I think it sounds exactly like what was happening with America’s Hottest Talkline...because it is what’s been happening with America’s Hottest Talkline.
I am now confident that when Mississippi put out their COVID Line, one of two things could have happened, both totally legal. Some poor soul I’m gonna make up in the Health and Human Services office, I’m gonna call them...Zach, might’ve misprinted the number by like 1 digit when they wrote that email.
And Primetel, because they have so many millions of toll-free numbers, they just happened to control the number that our man Zach inadvertently emailed to tons of important people.
Or Zach, bless him, actually didn’t make a typo. He published the correct phone number, but he did so without realizing that a month earlier, Earl in accounting hadn’t paid the bill for it. And in the meantime, Primetel, ever seeking new numbers to make its strategy work, snapped it up without anybody realizing it.
I know Primetel did at least one of those things, because with the help of my new RespOrg friends, I was able to search the database of toll free numbers, find out which RespOrg controls the number Mississippi sent out, and lo and behold, that RespOrg is one of Primetel’s partner companies. And is registered under Richard Cohen and Sandra Kessler.
Primetel was the reason that number and so many others led to America's Hottest Talkline.
But there was this thing that didn’t make sense. It’s 2020. Phone sex is not what the libidinous young people of America are turning to. Thelma told me that National A-1, Richard’s company, was hit really hard by free internet porn. And in 2015, she and tons of other people got laid off. It was really hard.
EMMANUEL: Do you know how Richard felt about the layoffs? Or like upper management in general?
THELMA: They really did not like to take people's jobs. Um.
EMMANUEL: Oh, why?
THELMA: I don't know. But I mean,I don't think they wanted to get rid of people until it came down to like, “We're just not making the money that we used to make. So we can't sustain more people, [EMMANUEL: Mmhmm.] um, than is beneficial.” But you know, that was the thing is we weren't competing against competitors who did—had similar products. We were competing against free.
From what I can tell, this glut of free online porn sites meant Primetel, yet again, had to find a new way to make money with their millions of phone numbers.
Which explained the different services I’d found when I’d tried to reach America’s Hottest Talkline.
JESSICA: Thank you for calling the medical alert center.
TONYA: Thank you for calling the Auto Saving Center. This is Tonya…
EMMANUEL: I think Primetel’s alleged misdial strategy is still going on. The crucial difference is that now, they’re renting out phone numbers to businesses like Medical Alert and Protect My Car.
So why is it that every once in a while, a dinosaur of a phone sex line like America’s Hottest Talkline pops up?
It bothered me that after months of reporting, I didn’t know. I’d still never actually even found it, or talked to anyone who’d tell me definitively that they’d heard of it. America's Hottest Talkline seemed to appear and just as quickly vanish, like some kind of ghost.
The closest I’d come to finding it was the one recording Alissa, the reporter who’d told me about the service, had shown me. A recording that contained a clue that had really puzzled both of us.
AHT: Guys, hot ladies are waiting to talk to you … press 1 now… ladies press 2 now! [beep beep beep]
EMMANUEL: The fact that America's Hottest Talkline didn’t seem to actually go to a phone sex line, that the service hung up on you after playing a short recording. I eventually came up with a theory about that.
According to an industry insider, if you’re a RespOrg like Primetel, you can’t just grab numbers and hoard them. A service needs to be on each and every toll-free number you have, or else eventually you could lose it.
So I thought it would make sense that if Primetel wanted to cover their bases and make it look like they were really using numbers they didn’t have services on yet, they’d have to put something, some sort of placeholder on the line. And in this case, they’d used a recording.
But my producer Anna—thank god for Anna—she wouldn't rest until we knew for sure that America’s Hottest Talkline was a fake. So she came up with a brilliant idea. To find an antiquated, possibly fake business, we needed to use antiquated methods.
Her plan was to call as many toll-free numbers we could that included the numbers 739...otherwise known as S-E-X.
AHT: Welcome to America’s Hottest Talkline…
EMMANUEL: Oh my god…
AHT: Guys, hot ladies are waiting to talk to you. Press 1 now. Ladies, to talk to interesting and exciting guys free, press 2 to connect free now...
EMMANUEL: After all this time, I’d finally found America’s Hottest Talk line and the first thing I noticed was that it wasn’t just a recording.
I pressed 1 to talk to “hot ladies,” and it immediately prompted me to record a message describing myself.
AHT: Please record your message. Hit any key when you’re done!
EMMANUEL: Hi there, my name’s Emmanuel Dzotsi…
I said I was a reporter, that I was recording, and that I was hoping to interview someone for a story about America’s Hottest Talkline.
EMMANUEL: Find folks and talk to them about their experience…
EMMANUEL: Pretty quickly I heard short descriptive recordings of women I could choose to talk to - a woman from Michigan who described herself as a “UPer girl,” which apparently means she’s a lifelong resident of the upper peninsula. Another woman who was looking for a sexy white dude who looked like Bret Michaels.
It dawned on me, maybe these women weren’t phone sex operators. These were women looking for white guys with questionable music taste.
someone messaged me.
AHT: This message was sent with priority delivery.
JEAN: I love your accent, where are you from?
AHT: To connect live with this caller, press 1. Reply with a message or-
[Emmanuel presses 1]
AHT: Please record your invitation for this caller to join you in a private conversation. Record after the tone. Hit any key when you’re done.
EMMANUEL: Hi, yeah so I’m actually from England. But a lot of people I feel like have trouble knowing where my accent’s from because I’ve lived in a lot of places. I was born in England, moved to Belgium as a kid, uh, spent time in Ohio. Um, yeah. Anyways, looking forward to chatting with you.
AHT: Please hold while that caller listens to your connection request.
[SURPRISINGLY GOOD HOLD MUSIC]
AHT: They liked what they heard, and they’re ready to connect with you.
AHT: You’re connected. Say hi!
EMMANUEL: Hi there, how are you?
JEAN: Fine, how are you?
EMMANUEL: I’m doing well, I’m doing well.
EMMANUEL: Um, would it be okay if I recorded our conversation, uh, for broadcast on my show?
JEAN: I don’t care. Yeah.
EMMANUEL: Okay, cool, cool. Awesome.
JEAN: I love your accent.
EMMANUEL: Oh thank you so much! Where are you from?
EMMANUEL: Oh Tennessee. Where in Tennessee are you from?
EMMANUEL: Chattanooga, oh ok.
JEAN: Chattanooga, right down on the Georgia line.
EMMANUEL: Wow. I actually um, I actually drove through Chattanooga earlier on in the summer. It’s a really beautiful town.
JEAN: Yeah it is. I’m in Indiana now. People say, “why did you move to Indiana?” I say, “I got stupid.”
EMMANUEL: You got stupid? [laughs]
JEAN: I got—got crazy. [laughs]
EMMANUEL: This is Jean. She’s 77. She told me she heard about America's Hottest Talkline through one of her friends. And she, very clearly, is not a phone sex operator.
EMMANUEL: Can you just tell me about this service like what is this line about, like is it, is it like a date line?
JEAN: Well kind of. You can. You talk to some nice people. You talk to some filthy mouth guys. They’re all the time wanting to know if it’s true what they say about redheads.
JEAN: This guy sent me a message wanting to know if the carpet matched the drapes. I went back to him and said “no, the carpet’s green.”
EMMANUEL: [laughs] Did he respond?
JEAN: He didn’t say a word. There’s married men on here. There’s some guys looking for a female to be with him and his wife. I thought, “You’re crazy, bud.”
EMMANUEL: You’re not here for that.
EMMANUEL: And what are you here for? What are you looking for?
JEAN: Just see if I can find a friend to talk to.
JEAN: Somebody that doesn’t have a filthy mouth.
Jean is not who I expected to find on America’s Hottest Talkline. She lives in a nursing home…suffers from a condition that is making her slowly lose her sight. And about a year ago she started calling up the hotline and became a regular.
JEAN: I don’t know sometimes I’ll get on it every day and just listen. Don’t talk to anybody just listen. Just see who’s on there.
EMMANUEL: Do you have like, a lot of visitors who come see you?
JEAN: No we’re not allowed to have visitors right now.
EMMANUEL: Oh, because of COVID.
JEAN: Yes. They stick you in a room and you can’t go anywhere.
EMMANUEL: Oh so you guys can't even socialize amongst each other in the nursing home right now.
JEAN: Well they have finally started letting us go down for either breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
JEAN: But they have to sit so far apart from people that I can’t see who they are. And you don’t really get to meet them when you’re at one end of the table and they’re six feet away at the other end.
EMMANUEL: Ah. That really sucks.
JEAN: And of course with my eyesight it’s hard—I tell people they’re just fuzzy blobs.
EMMANUEL: I’m sorry.
JEAN: Don’t be. I’ve got what I’ve got.
EMMANUEL: Talking to Jean reminded me of my granny. She’s in her 80’s, lives alone in England. She actually has one of those medical alert devices—refuses to wear it though, which is a major problem because she falls from time to time.
I spoke to her the other day, and at first I didn’t get through because she was on another call. She always seems to be on another call talking to some friend or family member.
I think it’s what’s made these last few months of being unable to leave her house bearable – talking to people.
And chatting with Jean, I realized she didn’t have a lot of that at the moment.
I’d been sort of half right about America’s Hottest Talkline. It wasn’t a phone sex line, or even a dead-end recording. Maybe it was a placeholder, a near zero-overhead, unstaffed callback to Richard’s first innovation, that Primetel only brought out when they needed to call dibs on a line.
But it was performing a service. It kept people like Jean company. It was a tonic for the lonely.
EMMANUEL: Well, I hope that I have like uh, like provided some form of, of entertainment to break up some of the monotony today.
JEAN: You did. And like I say, I still love your voice.
EMMANUEL: Oh thank you, well it was a pleasure talking to you, Jean.
JEAN: You too. Ok you have a good day.
EMMANUEL: Will do, same with you. Bye bye now.
JEAN: Ok. Bye bye.
A couple updates on this story. Since we first aired it, America’s Hottest Talk Line has continued to pop up in different places; just earlier this year a fictional crisis phone number used in the movie Don’t Look Up apparently led to America’s Hottest Talk Line when viewers decided to call it.
I caught up with Jean, the woman in the nursing home, just last week. She’s doing ok. Her eyesight is still getting worse and she’s still in the nursing home, but she uses the hotline a lot less nowadays because she met a good friend on there and they’ve been talking a lot.
Jean also told me that she gets to see her family members a lot more now - in fact, this summer, her son is getting married, and Jean told me that she’s so excited to go party it up with her family at the wedding reception.
Reply All is hosted by Alex Goldman, and me, Emmanuel Dzotsi. This episode of our show was produced back in 2020 by Phia Bennin, and Anna Foley, with additional production help from Lisa Wang and Mohini Madgavkar. It was edited by Tim Howard with additional editing from Bethel Habte. Today’s episode was mixed by Rick Kwan and Haley Shaw. Shout out to the rest of the team who make this show a reality every week: intern Sam Gebauer, producers Sanya Dosani, and Kim Nederveen Pieterse, and editor Damiano Marchetti. Theme song and original music by Breakmaster Cylinder. Fact checking on this episode was done by Michelle Harris. Additional music production by Marianna Romano, and original music by Luke Williams.
Special thanks to Therese Apel, Joel Bernstein, Paul Faust, James Brown, Mike Connors, Reyhan Harmanci, Moe Tkacik, and Lina Misitzis.
You can listen to our show on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you so incredibly much for listening folks. We’ll see you in two weeks.