In 57 seconds, Rickey Henderson can circle the bases a couple of times and Howard Cosell can just about get through half a sentence. Fifty-seven seconds is roughly the time unit into which two telephone sports information services sausage the entire major league baseball scoreboard, the results of a couple of tennis matches, the latest on who George Steinbrenner got from whom and occasional micro-mini-interviews. Fifty-seven seconds is what you get when you call from home or put a dime into a pay phone and dial one of three regional Sports Phone franchises. For half a buck you can call Dial-It, the only national service, from anywhere in the country and get a 59-second slice of sports.
Sports Phone and Dial-It have boiled the sports world down into 57 and 59 seconds because the FCC measures message units in 60-second intervals. Both services lop off a few seconds to give the caller time to hang up. And though compressed, the format has been a tremendous success, for both Ma Bell and the two services. New York's Sports Phone received 40 million calls last year. The Pennsylvania-based Dial-It draws about 350,000 calls a week from across the nation. On one football Sunday last October, Dial-It got about 130,000 calls.
This isn't just home-team angst. Bettors want to know the scores, and on Dial-It they get odds and point spreads, too. In addition, both services provide quick information on the big stories in sports. The more play a sport gets in print, the more it gets over the phone. Both services update their messages every 15 minutes when football or baseball games are on. In order to stay as current as possible, both services have data banks from which they can retrieve relevant statistics, WATS lines for getting updates on scores and wire service feeds for keeping up with breaking stories—injuries, retirements and the like.
New York Sports Phone has been spouting scores off and on since 1973 out of the 15th floor of a 57-story Manhattan skyscraper occupied mostly by rug merchants. Sports Phone is a subsidiary of Phone Programs, Inc. and employs 50 people in its Chicago and Detroit franchises, in addition to New York City.
Phone Programs also puts out Children's Story, a condensation service that has produced a miraculous squeezing of Moby Dick's more than 550 pages into 57 seconds, barely enough time to identify the beast, let alone call anybody Ishmael. Dial-It offers six non-sports programs—including news on soap operas and the Dow Jones Report—locally in Philadelphia, and will soon expand to nine other cities.
But condensing Moby Dick is nothing for an outfit that has produced an all-star chatterer like New York's King Wally, n� Mike Walczewski, the first sports telephone announcer to stuff 30 college football scores into 57 seconds. He has developed something of a following for his rapid-fire delivery. (Other Sports Phone announcers sound like LPs played at 45 rpm; King Wally sounds like 78.)
Sports Phone gets most of its scores from stringers, runs them through a computer in New York and feeds them to its two other outlets. Dial-It began as a cottage industry about three years ago in a two-car garage in Huntington Valley, Pa. Mickey Charles runs Dial-It as something between an athletic dorm and a summer camp. "We're total sports degenerates," he says. He calls his 35 operators, all of whom have journalism degrees, his "boys," provides them with showers and a basketball court and lets them bunk overnight during the height of any sport's season.
They've evolved their own kind of phone journalism. "The average interview lasts about 15 seconds," says Garry Sklut, co-program director at Dial-It. "If a guy is telling us a story that's really unbelievable, we give him 30 seconds, max." Fifteen seconds isn't exactly Red Smith, and 30 seconds isn't Herman Melville.
As popular as the sports information services are, they're basically a phone company marketing device to sell more message units. New York Sports Phone achieves a kind of triple play with its late-morning trivia quiz. You have to use a second message unit to answer the question and then a third to find out if you were right. A prize—tickets, books or an autographed basketball—goes to the winner.