TEXT OF INTERVIEW
BILL RADKE: We know the Internet has hurt newspapers,
the postal service, flea markets. You would think you could add to that list the telephone directory. Why do we need this gigantic, tree-killing printed compendium? Yet, the telephone directory hangs on. I’m joined by the author of a new book called: “The Phone Book –
The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses but No One Reads.” Ammon Shea, welcome to Marketplace.
AMMON SHEA: Hi. Thanks for having me.
RADKE: If no one uses it, why does the phone book still land with a thud on my driveway?
SHEA: Well, there are several reasons for that. The first is that everybody likes to say that they don’t want the phone book, but when you try to take it away from them, there’s a good amount of protestation on their parts — particularly people who are not necessarily conversant with the Internet, say people of a certain age, the elderly — they tend to become a little discomforted when you tell them you’re going to take their telephone books away.
RADKE: And what’s the next reason the phone book survives?
SHEA: Well for Yellow Pages particularly, because they’re great business. It’s a wonderful profit machine. And in 1996, Congress passed the telecommunications bill, which was ostensibly aimed at fostering competition and there was a little tiny bit of it that said, basically, anybody that wants to can now print a yellow pages. They just need to get the telephone numbers and you can go ahead.
RADKE: That explains why there are so many more now than when I was a kid.
SHEA: They’ve exploded.
RADKE: It sounds like you love the phone book, Ammon, but it is doomed, right?
SHEA: Well, one would think it’s doomed. However, I think innate human laziness has more to do with its survival than anything else. For instance, in Norway, which is considerably more environmentally conscious than we are here [in the U.S.], they’ve had an opt-out in policy in place for years, meaning if you don’t want a telephone book just call us and we won’t send you one. And approximately 7 percent of the population takes the time to pick up the phone and say, “Don’t send me a telephone book.” Conversely, if you have an opt-in policy, saying you only get a telephone book if you ask for one, in the United States the polls have phone that approximately 2 percent of the population will say, “Yes, I want a telephone book.” So until they get around to changing the laws saying you don’t need to have a telephone and decide whether to do an opt-in or an opt-out, I think the book is pretty much going to stick with us.
RADKE: It’s called “The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads.” Ammon Shea, thank you.
SHEA: Thanks very much.
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