Callin' Oates: The Hotline You Don't Need (But Might Call Anyway)

Dec 21, 2011
Originally published on December 29, 2011 6:08 pm

Is it pure whimsy that makes something like "Callin' Oates" appealing?

If you pick up your phone and call 719-26-OATES — at least as of this writing — you'll get a computerized woman's voice telling you what numbers to press to hear one of four Hall & Oates songs.

The question, of course, is ... why?

In the age of Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, why would you pick up your phone to listen to a tinny rendition of "Private Eyes," like you're on hold with customer service? It's hard to imagine why this would be an appealing way to listen to anything, unless you were trapped at the bottom of a well. And you had access to a phone. And despite being trapped at the bottom of a well, your biggest priority was listening to "Private Eyes." Let's agree that valuing this hotline for its sheer utility requires a fairly elaborate scenario to be devised.

So obviously, it's not the music. It's the idea. It's the idea that if you pick up your phone and dial a number, a robot lady plays Hall & Oates music on command. People like making things happen and the weirder, the better. It's a Jack-In-The-Box for adults (and semi-adults). You press the button and something happens that you don't need to happen at all. A recent Wired article about a game called Cow Clicker might be instructive: the makers of that game managed to make a success out of what was originally meant to be a satire of social media trifles — it involved clicking on a cow for the pure sake of clicking on a cow.

As the hotline's developer told the Atlantic Wire, Callin' Oates started as a demonstration project for his communications job at Twilio, a company that ... basically makes applications that do things like this, although presumably, it can make ones that are somewhat more utilitarian. The guy created it, he got it retweeted by a New York Times tech columnist, and there you go. Presumably, Callin' Oates doesn't have an extraordinarily long shelf life (though it does have its own Twitter account), since there's only so much time you can spend on the phone listening to "Rich Girl."

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Finally, this hour, there are help lines...


SIEGEL: ...and then there are help lines.


SIEGEL: The one we're going to share with you now is only for calling in case of a musical emergency.


To reach it, you dial 719-26-O-A-T-E-S. That's Oates, as in the musical duo Hall & Oates, who achieved their greatest fame in the late '70s and early '80s for their infections tunes.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Welcome to Callin' Oates, your emergency Hall & Oates help line.

SIEGEL: That's right. Callin' Oates, the telephonic remedy to all your pop rock needs.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: To hear "One on One," please press one.


NEARY: Michael Selvidge and Reid Butler are the brains behind Callin' Oates. Selvidge works at Twilio, a cloud communications start-up base in San Francisco. He says every company employee must create an app as a rite of passage. He built his to honor Hall & Oates.

MICHAEL SELVIDGE: I said what kind of Hall & Oates app could I make? And then I thought of the pun, and the rest took care of itself.

SIEGEL: So for an emergency dose of the duo's greatest hits, just call and then take your pick.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: To hear "Rich Girl," please press two.


SIEGEL: In a mood for "Maneater?"

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Please press three.


NEARY: Or maybe you set your sight on "Private Eyes." That's number four.


NEARY: Selvidge says in just the past 24 hours, this app has received more than 120,000 calls.

SELVIDGE: And that's one of the great lessons that's been gratifying to me, is how much people love Hall & Oates.

SIEGEL: And now, they're just a phone call away.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU MAKE MY DREAMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.