April 18, 2015

Some Things Went Better With Ma Bell

Los Angeles Times -- Thursday, July 18, 1985
Art Buchwald

Garfinkel called me up. "I would like you to become a member of the 'Sons of Ma Bell Telephone Users Assn.' "

"What's your story?"

"After all the hype about launching a new improved drink, Coca-Cola was willing to salvage the original Coke. We hope to persuade the telephone company to bring back the old Ma Bell system. After all, telephone consumers have taste too. The reason Coca -Cola folded to the public was that they couldn't take the flak from their customers about their 'new improved product.' If the Coke company can't take the pressure, we figure the telephone company is vulnerable as well."

"Do you want everyone to go back to the old phone system?"

"No, we're following the Coke marketing philosophy. We don't want them to drop the new way of providing phone service. All we're asking is that everyone in the United States be given a choice between the old Ma Bell, and what they have inflicted on all of us since. We're not ones to tell a user what to choose. If you like the present telephone system with its fancy prices, high-tech recorded voices and unintelligible computer-coded itemized bills, then we say stick with the new. If you prefer constant breakdowns and service technicians who deny jurisdiction over your phone problem, you're probably satisfied with the improved product."

"But if you long for the days when your bills were low , a friendly human voice gave you information, and the repairman was at your house before you hung up, then you should have a right to opt for the old system. The 'Sons of Ma Bell' believe in free choice."

"I admire your goals, but it seems to me that it's easier to bring back a soft drink than it is to resurrect an entire communications system."

"I don't agree with you," Garfinkel said. "The coca-Cola Co. is the most powerful institution in the world. If they can admit they've made a mistake, surely a piddling telephone system can do the same thing. It's no big deal for the people who run our telephone companies to go on television and say, 'We've been listening to what you're saying. Maybe the breakup of Ma Bell wasn't such a good idea after all. So now we're giving you the choice of the new phone system or the "classic" one you were attached to in the past. Our only concern is satisfying our customers. Like Coca-Cola, we blew it, and want to make it up to you.' "

"Telephone executives hate to admit they make mistakes," I said. "I doubt if you'll get them to go on the air."

Garfinkel said, "If the old Coke lovers can bring Atlanta to its knees, the 'Sons of Ma Bell' should be able to make the phone people cry 'uncle.' "

"There is one thing wrong with your crusade," I told him. "Coca-Cola was able to bring back the old Coke because it still exists as a company. The telephone system has been broken up by the government, and even if the phone execs wanted to replicate the old system the Justice Department wouldn't let them do it. Washington doesn't give a hoot about the consumers."

"The 'Sons of Ma Bell' intend to change all that. We're asking each member of our organization to send every congressman and senator 10 six-packs of empty Coca-Cola cans. Our message to Washington is the telephone is almost as important as a soft drink, and if Coke drinkers now have a choice between the old and the new, the telephone consumer has a right to the same thing."

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