We ran into Scott Jacobs in the usual place, loping along the broad path that meanders between plans and dreams.
"Here's the premise," Jacobs was saying. "I went to a conference about a year ago and heard a fellow say that when TV came in, the average family watched television about eight minutes a day."
Unbelievable, we said. Folks we remember spent more time than that just gaping at test patterns.
The average household, Jacobs explained. And most households didn't have television.
"Today," he went on, "they watch television about eight hours a day. And the premise is the same explosion of use will take place in telephone information services. Today the average household uses the phone 20 minutes a day.
"There's tremendous room for growth to access information, games, anything you want. The telephone is the world's most ubiquitous computer."
We have always admired Jacobs's way with an enthusiasm. We had a part in one of them, helping him bang out a four-hour TV movie on the life of Ben Hecht in Chicago, a spectacle that fetched neither of us fame or fortune. His other forays have all carried him farther.
"I found out a year ago a million people in Chicago call the time every month," said Jacobs. "About a million people call the weather every month. They pay 25 cents for every call. That's the two most popular lines people call 976 for. So we came up with a system to give them both--time and weather from the CBS newsroom, for 35 cents.
"We're in the wonderful position of selling a good product. Now I just have to get eight million people to remember the phone number."
"We" is Jacobs and his partners in this caper, Norman Langill of Seattle and John McGowan, a Chicago marketing whiz. Dial 976-8080 and you'll hear the time, and the weather, and a plug for Channel Two--which hasn't invested its own money but did give Jacobs a space to set up shop. From 5 AM to midnight his people are in there, reading the weather wire and scripting and taping a new 30-second forecast each hour.
This they feed by phone to a computer at 600 S. Federal run by Telephone Announcement Systems Inc., a 976-number wholesaler (Illinois Bell would do this itself but is forbidden to by law), which mixes the hourly weather with the ever-changing time and the unchanging WBBM plug and pumps the product out to Illinois Bell's subcenters--which pass it on to whoever dials.
The technology that makes this mixing possible sounded pretty ingenious to us. It doesn't really impress Jacobs. What does is Bell's system--its Illinois Public Announcement System (IPAS)--which Jacobs tells us is state of the art. "In Milwaukee," he said (naming his hometown), "I'd buy a little box with nine or ten lines running into it and I'd record in the box." That's how Chicago's old 976 numbers are set up.
But in Chicago now, the boxes are part of IPAS, which is growing as fast as Bell can add boxes in its subcenters. The number of 976 lines has already jumped from 18 to about 60, and Jacobs has some nifty ideas about what to do next.
"This is a benchmark," he said about 976-8080. "You're really looking at the telephone becoming a computer terminal. That's five years down the road. That's not possible now so we wanted to start with what is possible now and this was the most advanced thing we can think of."
What's held Bell back hasn't been technology, but law. "When they put this system in, some very forward-looking engineers put in the capacity to be interactive," Jacobs said. But Illinois Bell must move cautiously. By order of Harold H. Greene, the federal judge who ordered AT&T broken into pieces back in 1982, Illinois Bell can neither store information nor retrieve it; Greene measures each advance in technology against that order. "Can they provide computer services or can they not provide computer services?" says Jacobs. "There have been rooms in Washington filled with arguments as to what constitutes computer services."
Apparently, Bell's IPAS is OK. But until the utility works out a tariff structure with the Illinois Commerce Commission, it can't show what it's really capable of.
"In the next six months it'll go from passive to interactive--where you access through touch-tone phones and play games," Jacobs predicted. "What I'm starting to work on is a mystery adventure story. According to what you punch, you go through the story and there are different clues and mysteries."
Jacobs manages TeleGames, his newest outfit, and his old ones from his home, more precisely the two floors immediately below it. IPA, the video postproduction house he established about ten years ago, is so busy now he can't pad down the stairs at midnight for a beer anymore without running into clients hard at work. On the other hand, Subtle Communications, purveyor of political advertising, is pretty nearly moribund. Jacobs got his start in that field shooting Jane Byrne's standing-in-six-feet-of-snow commercials back in 1979.
"We're running this a little like a radio station," Jacobs was saying about 976-8080. "You can wake up to Dan Lee, whom we refer to as our morning anchor. Dan Lee is a calm, steady, reassuring view of the weather ahead, unflappable, which you have to be if you're giving weather at five in the morning. Lynette Lewis, whom we refer to as our afternoon drive-time anchor, I'd say is the world's most optimistic forecaster."
We tracked Lewis down in her shoebox studio at WBBM just after she'd modem-ed overnight snow flurries into the Federal Street computer. "It's service I'm really positive about," she told us. "I think people like having the time and weather combo." A commercial voice-over specialist who can be seen late at night on TV stations you may not know exist--"I'm the queen of double-digit TV," she said--Lewis was pleased to hear that Jacobs had hailed her for putting zip in her reports.
"I do that," she acknowledged. "Not a whole lot. I'm a professional; it's not a chat line. I think a lot of it has to do with our intonation, sounding friendly."
"They're pretty good," Jacobs said about his talent. "They've got personalities, and--who knows!--maybe as we go along they'll establish a little bit of a following.
"You got to dream!"
Further Adventures of Chuck Ashman
At the risk of flogging a dead horse, we want to tell you one more Chuck Ashman story.
We introduced Ashman to you three weeks ago. A genius at self-promotion, Ashman popped up in the Sun-Times last autumn as the paper's "UN correspondent," wrote several long articles on Kurt Waldheim, and disappeared. The Sun-Times dropped him like a hot potato after finding out a few things about Ashman's highly erratic personal and professional history.
This story's about Ashman and the New York Times.
Late in 1973, famous attorney Melvin Belli contacted the New York Times Book Review and said he wanted to review a book. It was The Finest Judges Money Can Buy, by Charles Ashman (who was already in print with a book on the Angela Davis trial, which he apparently didn't attend, and a profile of Henry Kissinger, whom he later admitted he'd never interviewed). The book warranted notice, Belli said, and in the course of discussing it he'd tell some of his own stories about judges. Editor John Leonard didn't normally assign critics in this manner, but Belli had a big name and Leonard told him to go ahead.
The review Leonard ultimately published was a rave. "Vital, persuasive, and important," Belli wrote. "A brilliant model for sparking social criticism." And "Ashman weaves scholastic excellence and engaging stories into a popular tapestry of difficult design."
Within days, Leonard felt like a prize fool.
From Riverside, California, came word of a long article the local paper had run on Ashman in 1971, when Ashman was dean of an unaccredited law school there and his crony Melvin Belli, who had never taught at the school, much less retired from it, was "dean emeritus." Belli had gone to court with Ashman to try to block publication of this profile (which drove Ashman out of town).
The publisher of the Nashville Tennessean pointed out that a section of Ashman's book apparently was lifted, some of it almost word for word, from a 1962 book, The Corrupt Judge.
And anyone who actually picked up Ashman's volume could see Belli on the jacket plugging Ashman as "the most effective communicator and constitutional scholar I know." The jacket identified Ashman as past "director of the Belli Foundation."
Ashman and Belli were appearing on television talk shows together touting the book.
The executive editor of the Riverside Press-Enter- prise wrote the publisher of the New York Times and asked: "Why not just let Mr. Ashman's wife review his book and have done with it?"
John Leonard laid out the facts and apologized for the fiasco in a subsequent issue of the Book Review. His column was titled "Suckered."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.