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Radio Shack’s pre-recorded musical answering machine messages have to be heard to be believed
12:41 pm
Radio Shack’s pre-recorded musical answering machine messages have to be heard to be believed

In the 1980s answering machines first entered the consumer market in a big way—and everyone who owned one was obliged to record some kind of outgoing message to let callers know they had reached a machine. Some people (a small minority) were fond of rigging up high-production-value messages. The video at the bottom of the page represents Seinfeld‘s amusing take on this concept—that episode first aired in 1997, so if nothing else it indicates what smart folks from the 1990s thought of this oh-so-very-1980s concept.

In 2010 an WFMU employee purchased an incredible cassette at a library sale (for a dime) and posted it on their great blog. The cassette dates from 1985, and (for younger readers) the convoluted full title, “Radio Shack Telephone Answering Machine Outgoing Messages,” vaguely gestures at the idea that even then, it wasn’t super clear to all consumers what this product was actually offering. Basically, this amazing cassette offers Radio Shack’s version of George’s “Greatest American Hero” outgoing message. They cut ten 20-second (or so) songs, each with and without lyrics, and put them on this cassette for “whimsical” answering machine owners.

Let’s take a gander at the track listing to see what we’re in for:

1. Jamaican
2. 21st Century Funk
3. 50’s Rock & Roll
4. Rappin
5. Soft Contemporary
6. Vaudeville
7. Country
8. Jazz
9. Up-tempo Contemporary
10. Orchestral Pops

Oh, boy. I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I say that “Rappin” and “21st Century Funk” and “Country” represent three singular, er, “highlights” from this execrable collection of “music.” The “21st Century Funk” track sounds like some debased version of Kraftwerk, and the “Rappin” one is so bad that it took me a moment or two to realize that I was in fact listening to the rap one. Meanwhile, the main thing that makes the “Country” one so bad is that it was entirely done on some Casio (or Tandy!) product.

The “lyrics” of each song, of course, are about how the caller has missed the recipient with a request to record some contact info on the machine. Here’s a representative example, from the “Jamaican” track:

I’m sorry that I missed your call
But you don’t have to worry!
Just leave your name and number
And a message at the tone
And I’ll be back to you in a hurry!

Here’s Side A (with lyrics) and Side B (without lyrics). Note that they also made a production error—on Side A tracks 1 and 9 (“Jamaican” and “Up-tempo Contemporary”) are the same track—when you switch to side B, the two tracks are not the same, so you can get some approximation of what the “Up-tempo Contemporary” was supposed to be.

The quality of the WFMU recording is, regrettably, not very good, but thanks to a blog called Tape Findings, we have versions of some of the tracks in considerably better shape:

With lyrics:
21st Century Funk
Soft Contemporary

Without lyrics:
21st Century Funk
Soft Contemporary


Note that this cassette was the “Music Edition”; Radio Shack had other editions on the market as well, including the following: “Office/Home Edition,” “Professional Edition,” “Comedy Edition,” and even the “Rich Little Comedy Edition.” If you want to listen to Little’s shitty impression of Rod Serling dealing with your missed call, all you had to do was ask. The other “comedy edition” is also available to listen to.

George Costanza’s outgoing answering machine message:


Posted by Martin Schneider
12:41 pm



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