Time's up for free 'POPCORN' By ROBIN HINDERY/Democrat staff Writer Article Created: 09/18/2007 07:16:59 AM PDT
She was always there, just a phone call away, ever-trustworthy, never late - or early, for that matter. She was the Popcorn Lady, a soothing voice that for decades offered Northern Californians the correct time for no cost when they dialed 767-2676, or P-O-P-C-O-R-N.
"Good morning (or afternoon, or evening)," she greeted callers. "At the tone, Pacific Daylight Time will be..."
After Wednesday, the voice will intone no more as AT&T discontinues the time service statewide - something it has done already in nearly all of its other markets. The service will still be available to callers in Nevada, but even there its future is uncertain as computers and portable gadgets such as cell phones offer GPS-set time readings with no dialing required.
When free time service was initiated in California in 1929, an operator would read callers the time off of a wall clock, said AT&T spokesman John Britton. In the late 1940s, AT&T began using equipment manufactured by the Atlanta-based company Audichron that automatically answered calls and played a pre-recorded time announcement.
California's current equipment is about 40 years old and has "outlived its life span," Britton said, citing maintenance difficulties as one of the reasons behind the company's decision to discontinue the service. In addition, he said, calls to the service have steadily decreased.
"In 1929, this was a cutting-edge new service," Britton said. "Today, it's been rendered obsolete."
Though "POPCORN" became the most widely used means of accessing the service in the northern half of the state, it worked after any seven-digit phone number beginning with "767," Britton said. Southern Californians could access it by dialing the less catchy prefix "853," or "ULF."
For the past quarter-century, the voice behind Popcorn belonged to Atlanta resident Joanne Daniels, a speech instructor and actress who snagged the AT&T gig in the 1970s and recorded greetings for every U.S. time zone. Before Daniels came a string of other melodious, mostly female voices, according to AT&T historians.
For a year following its demise, California callers will hear a recorded announcement saying the service is no longer available. After that, AT&T will gain 300,000 new phone numbers that it previously reserved for the time-telling service, Britton said.
Some customers might mourn Popcorn's passing, but Britton predicted most people would recognize the company's need to keep up with the rapidly changing technological landscape.
"The time service was innovative in its day," he said. "But now we have things like phones that send streaming video. They don't really compare."