Big Red, an ex-felon with “sinner” tattooed on his neck, is politely explaining to a woman from Louisiana that the American Farrier’s Journal will quintuple her profits. She hangs up on him because she realizes that he is a telemarketer and that he does not actually know what a farrier does. Big Red gently disentangles himself from his headset, which has left small centipedeshaped indentations in his shaved and inked skull. He goes outside to the camper van that he lives in, parallel-parked at a meter. He rolls himself a cigarette that is not too large, because he has exactly seven minutes to smoke it. Afterwards, he goes back inside, and spends the next four hours calling approximately 430 businesses around the country, offering them each magazines tailored to their trade: Mortuary Management, Advances in Advanced Pathology, Scroll Saw Woodworking & Crafts. He sells three magazine subscriptions and leaves the office.
Big Red is a magazine telemarketer, and three years ago he was on the verge of unemployment. Magazine telemarketing is a dying industry because print media is a dying industry. Today, fewer national newspapers are being sold than at any point in the past 60 years. Just last year, print advertising revenue and daily circulation fell 14 percent and 8 percent, respectively. Profiles in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Guardian are quick to point out that this doesn’t mean the death of the newspaper or the magazine itself—just those medias in their print form. But this says nothing of the industries and companies that depend on those magazines in their print form. Industries like magazine telemarketing, and companies like Cascade Subscription services, where I worked for a summer in 2010.
Bobby, senior manager at cascade Subscription Services, snarls when he talks, even when he’s asking you a straightforward question. He’s about 6’2’’, 35 years old, with thinning black hair that’s slicked behind his head. You hear him before you see him—he’s a massive, powerful man, and the collection of silver chains around his neck jangles loudly—but you smell him before you hear him. He walks in an acrid cloud of Dolce and Gabana “Light Blue,” which he reapplies every time he smokes a cigarette—and he smokes exactly four cigarettes an hour. I would later learn that he used to be in charge of collections for Seattle’s largest Key Bank, until he robbed it at gunpoint.
“Are you, or aren’t you, about makin’ a fuckin’ dollar?” he asks me in our interview, before offering me a job as a “telephone sales representative.”
Bobby shakes my hand and looks over the suit that I’ve put on for the interview. Dress for the job you want, not the job you’ve got.
“Nice suit, by the way. Don’t wear it to work.” Leaving his office, I hear him mutter under his breath: “…fruitcake.”
Phones have been used as a marketing tool since the early 1900s. But magazine telemarketing emerged only in the ‘30s and ‘40s, as a more cost-efficient means of acquiring new subscribers than going door-to-door. Rubber and gas were in short supply then, making travel expensive, and a travelling salesman could only make four to six contacts a day. A telemarketer sitting at a desk, by contrast, could make two hundred contacts before lunch. The introduction of the Wide Area Telephone Services lines in 1960 made high-volume outbound calling incredibly cheap, which paved the way for national or regional call centers like Cascade.
The first telemarketing success story, though, was Reuben H. Donnelley. Back in 1955, Donnelley launched a telemarketing program that offered advertising space in the Yellow Page directories. By 1985, the Yellow Pages were the most profitable publications in California, with a third of its revenue generated through telemarketing sales.
Donnelley’s success mirrored the continued rise in telemarketing sales. In 1996, sales totaled $63.1 billion dollars. By 2002, those sales had skyrocketed to $100.3 billion dollars. But as telemarketing profits increased, so did high-profile telemarketing scams, as well as general animosity towards telemarketers. This led to the creation of the National Do Not Call Registry in 2003, which allows individuals to forbid telemarketers from contacting them. By 2007, over 77 percent of Americans had registered their numbers, and telemarketing, for the first time, began to decline in profitability.
No sector has been hit quite as hard as magazine telemarketing. The profitability of telemarketing depends on what’s being sold, and the profitability of print media has been on a downward spiral. When Cascade began selling subscriptions over the phone in 1986, there was an unprecedented demand for its product; newspaper-advertising revenue was at an all-time high of $60 billion dollars. In 2000, that revenue was down to below $50 billion dollars. When I began at Cascade in 2010, the total revenue was down to an all-time low of $20 billion dollars.
Today, telemarketing companies are struggling to find ways to cut costs and increase profitability. Cascade already employs a number of practices to make it more efficient economically. Its employees make a base wage—Washington state minimum wage, or about $9.19 an hour—but the company increases that wage based on an employee’s sales. Each magazine has a “credit” in dollars, which means that even if you sell a three-year subscription to Mortuary Management for the “preferred customer” (or, more accurately, for the specially inflated) rate of $148.99, your credit would only be around $30 dollars. Rather than working off commission, these credits get averaged over the course of a two-week pay cycle. If your combined credits are enough, you get paid an adjusted hourly wage. For people like Dwayne, an ex-Microsoft employee turned identity thief, this works out well; he claimed that he regularly made close to $30 dollars an hour. But for almost everyone else, who had only one or two exceptional days per pay cycle, this meant the same wage you’d receive for working at a grocery or convenience store, with more rejection.
Cascade also works hard to hire ex-felons for similar cost reductions. The relationship is symbiotic: for Cascade, ex-felon employment offers a substantial federal tax break. For the ex-felons, telemarketing offers one of few options for employment with a criminal record (though, crucially, not the best one—according to one list, telemarketing is just the seventh most desirable job for ex-felons, after medical test subject, second, or joining the army, fourth). As a result, nearly everyone in the office had a serious criminal past. Bobby robbed a bank. Jason in the cubical next to me nearly drowned a police officer. Trixy, an unassuming blond, and Tracy, a short, busty brunette with a 24-inch multi-colored weave, both used to turn tricks on Aurora. Nobody knew what Big Red had done, but everyone assumed it was something serious. In rare moments of community, the office would gather during breaks:
“Which do you think has better food: prison or jail?”
“Prison, no doubt; you get those little fruit cups. I love those little fruit cups.”
“You’re a fool; in jail, you get Wonderbread. You don’t get no Wonderbread in prison.”
“You want to know the difference between prison food and jail food? Nothing. They both fuckin’ suck.”
There were the employees who stuck out for other reasons—Louanne, overweight and in her mid-thirties, worked eight-hour shifts when the rest of us worked four or six. Every morning, she’d hang a sign above her cubical, which read in rainbow-colored bubble letters, “It Will Never Get Any Worse Than This.” But for every Louanne, there were five other employees who would come in every day, do their shift, and leave without speaking a word to anyone. I heard rumors of what had brought them to Cascade. Home foreclosure. Mounting medical bills. Terminally ill children. Always on time, and always the last to leave.
Just as much of a motivating factor is a sustainable drug habit. Almost everyone in the office was a habitual pot smoker, but others had graduated to harder drugs. Dwayne confided in me that he smoked meth on his lunch breaks, and that he made the most sales when he was on the drug. He described one morning where he had been trying to sell a Parent and Child subscription to a woman who had recently lost her triplets in a late-term miscarriage. Normally, in the face of a personal revelation like this, he would have expressed his condolences and move on to the next call. But this morning, he was so high that he hounded her until she bought a three-year subscription to Ebony and Jet. Bobby, I learned, sat in his office popping Oxycontin and Vicodin. When he heard midway through the summer that I had strained my back and was briefly on painkillers, he made me an offer: “Three dollars a pill. Way more fuckin’ money than you’ll get on the street.”
And then there were the sales tactics themselves. Everyone was supposed to use a script, which worked as a kind of choose-your-own-adventure book. If a customer responded that they were not interested, the script told you to ask why, and then provided a number of responses to whatever their answer might be. If they weren’t finding the magazine useful anymore, you’d agree that (for example) Food & Wine’s coverage of (whatever aspect of the magazine that was pertinent to the customer) had been lacking in the past few months, but that the magazine had actually undergone a dramatic transformation, and if they re-subscribed, you were sure that they would once again find it useful. None of the magazines had, in fact, undergone dramatic transformations within the last decade. But once you had their credit card number and thanked them for the sale, their satisfaction was no longer your problem. The most successful people in the office, though, use the script in conjunction with their own tricks. Thomas was pushy and to the point, which worked well with male business owners and the rare CEO he could get on the phone. Dwayne was almost flirty with customers, getting them to divulge personal information, which he would then use to clinch the sale:
“You mentioned your daughter—how old is she? Seven? That’s a wonderful age. I remember when my daughter was that young. But—and I don’t mean to impose—but don’t you think she wants to see her mother succeed as a small business owner? Of course? Well, that’s just what Elle Décor helps you do: succeed. And I can actually get that started for you at a special introductory rate of….”
But, try as it might, Cascade couldn’t stem the financial tide. Doors would open, leaking shouts into the call-room, and then be slammed shut. Pep talks would be given, threats would be made about productivity and about keeping the company afloat. The more senior members in the office would try to rev everyone up, but we would stare back blankly. And then it was back to the phones.
“Hi, I need to speak with the person that handles the subscription to…”
“No problem, I’ll call back another time.”
Often when we discuss the decline of print media, we yearn for its physical presence. The crease of a newspaper, the gloss of a magazine, the snap of a spine. Print media is beloved because it is tangible, and its tangibility suspends its temporality. But even as we’re holding onto today’s paper, but tomorrow’s is on its way. We love the tangibility of something that is ultimately disposable. We value the apparent permanence of print when, in fact, print media is an industry that has always been about what comes next.
From inside a cubicle at Cascade Subscription Services, it became clear to me that the industry of telemarketing has been built around this transience. It has always relied on—and profited from—the consumer’s anxiety that the next issue would be better than the one before it. The irony, though, is that telemarketing is itself transient. This is an industry that consistently has one of the highest turnover rates of any profession in the country. And Cascade was no different. After three months, nearly three-quarters of the office had either left or been replaced. Bobby had stopped showing up to work, and everyone assumed that he had either gone back to jail or had overdosed on pills. Tracy had begun to show up to work more infrequently, and there were rumors that she had gone back to Aurora Avenue, where the money was better and the customers more appreciative. There was even a new manager—Michael, a former junior-college baseball star who had been expelled for assaulting another student.
I look around the office for the last time; Big Red is on the phone with an automotive engineer from Houston, Dwayne is flirting with an interior decorator in Albuquerque, and another college-aged kid is sitting outside the main office waiting for an interview. As I’m about to leave, I hear Dwayne about to clinch a sale:
“Now, for quicker processing and delivery, we do accept all major forms of credit and debit…”
He frowns, hits pause on his phone, and waits for the next call.
Josh schenkkan B’14 accepts all major forms of credit and debit.