I don’t remember how my best friend found it, but we became addicts. Every day for over a year we’d call and stay on the phone, just listening, for a half-hour at a time. In the summer between 7th and 8th grade, I began every morning on the phone while my parents were at work. I found community, in all places, at a recorded message called Dial-A-Spazz.
Dial-A-Spazz was like a daily, 30 minute, audio zine. It changed every day, filled with messages callers left at a specific number and supplemented by sound effects, short musical selections and rants by the producer, Mark Spazz. If you left a message with any thought at all behind it, you’d be on the tape the next day. Then someone might react to your comment by leaving one of their own.
You never knew exactly what you’d get. Callers often had pseudonyms and developed their own personas. Some told jokes, some wrote songs, some described the oppression of junior high, and some flirted for whoever may have been listening. Censorship, the Nicaraguan Revolution, hatred of the Phone Company, metaphysics, and the stupidity of people in power were often major themes. Mark Spazz had his own issues that he played up whenever he could: Pacific Bell refusing to list "Dial-A-Spazz" in the phone book though they did list "Dial-A-Prayer", how bad commercial radio was, and how influenced he was by the "Seth Speaks" * series of books. Some days the recording might be full of Dr. Demento songs and on other days there might have been just one long political argument recorded off the Comment Line when Mark Spazz would pick up the phone because someone he disagreed with left a message.
Growing up in a fairly conservative family, I loved that Mark Spazz was a fierce civil libertarian and liberal.** Between Mark Spazz and a couple of friend’s parents I could start seeing ideas beyond the ones I was growing up with. . In retrospect, I also truly appreciate the early inoculation to crackpot metaphysics.
It was funded completely by Mark Spazz through a settlement he received from MUNI after getting hit by a bus.*** He had dreams of being a radio producer or a DJ and decided that since he was too young to get a job doing that yet, he’d run Dial-A-Spazz as a project while learning the basics on his own.
It was a complicated system, but just the kind of thing that kids can obsess on and master. There were three public phone numbers: the Comment Line, the Spazz Line, and the Conference Line. Obviously the Comment Line was where you left messages, and the Spazz line was where you heard the recording. At the Conference Line you could hear the recording during certain times, but at others, and at night, it became a conference call with the four or five kids lucky enough to call in at the right moment. After three minutes everyone would get dumped and have to call back in. Having a rotary phone unfortunately made this part next to impossible for me to access.
What strikes me upon looking back is how it paralleled a lot of aspects of the internet. Since I started this week’s "phone series" by talking about how internet rudeness is little different from anonymous phone calls, I guess that shouldn’t surprise me. But the grasping at community by a group of strangers with only limited mutual interests seems to be a recurring need for some people over the last 30 years. Especially among people who feel outcast, for one reason or another, from their geographic communities.
Dial-A-Spazz created a whole community similar to the way that sites like LiveJournal and certain message boards do these days. Dial-A-Spazz was a little less anonymous because it was pretty much limited to people who could call toll-free,**** That was actually a small geographic area but, since most of couldn’t yet drive, still too far apart for most of us to meet in person. The few meetings I actually had were awkward and strained, our relationships defined in a completely different way than face to face interaction. And if we’d been good at face to face interaction we probably wouldn’t have been on the phone all day.
Meeting in person wasn’t really what it was about either. In fact, when many of us ended up going to high school together a couple years later, we rarely acknowledged that we knew each other previously. I don’t even remember when exactly I stopped calling. I do remember checking it out after I hadn’t called for a couple of months and the outgoing message was weeks old. A few months later I called and the conference line was disconnected. Whether Mark ran out of money or got frustrated at people getting old enough for high school and abandoning him, I don’t know. I don’t think he got that DJ job he wanted.
Though I’ve already mentioned his publicly-stated reason for devoting such a huge amount of time to this project, I’ve always wondered about it. Mark was an adult to us. While most of the callers were between 11-15, Mark was 19 or 20 and already attending the local community college. To be honest I didn’t think much about this at the time. But I wonder in retrospect, if it bothered him to have his audience be so much younger than he was. Or if there were creepy intentions that I didn’t pick up on.
I actually don’t think so. I think that Mark just pre-dated the whole we’re-geeky-and-we-don’t-care attitude that the internet (and cuddle-punk, riot grrrl, and the zine explosion) helped inspire And that the people who that appealed to most at the time were us misfit early-teens. Dial-A-Spazz was a strange, semi-secret place with lots of discussion I’d be embarrassed or annoyed at now. But weirdly enough, it was also a place that helped me start developing a voice of my own.
*"Seth Speaks" books were "transcribed" by Jane Roberts while channeling the spirit being Seth, a very old and wise soul who had much to say about philosophy and the way one should live one’s life.
**Yes, it was embarrassing to type that.
***Some things never change. . .
**** Actually there were a number of "Phone Phreaks" who’d call using stolen calling card numbers. They brought an element of danger and mystery with them, mentioning similar communities in other cities and (I’m really gonna sound old here) talking about these new computer bulletin boards that people were starting.