The empire of phone sex

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Photo: Wonderful

The 90s were a transitional decade, squarely between two technological eras. The internet was becoming just widespread enough to evoke the excitement of having the world at your fingertips. We were just moments away from the ease of full access to just about anything – especially, frankly, pornography. There are some among us who cannot imagine life before texting; The same goes for life before Pornhub. But in the 90s there was still room for something more analog: namely, the rise of telephone hotlines.

You might find sex helplines today if you looked enough, much like you can always find the latest Blockbuster in Bend, Oregon. But just like Blockbuster, most of them have become historical relics. For a while, however, phone sex was an empire. Back in the days when business was booming, one of its most important suppliers was American TelNet (ATN) – now the subject of Operator, an eight-part podcast series from Wondery.

OperatorThe premise of is eye-catching, for obvious reasons, but the concept also feels like a perfect match between form and subject. An audio series about an empire of phone sex just makes sense, and the show is well positioned to get into the weeds of tele-erotica: its allure, its artistry, its nuances. It’s also not unprecedented for podcasts. Show as The heart and the collected works of her co-creator, Kaitlin Perst, have long explored the territory of sex, sexuality and intimacy using this medium.

Sadly, Operator is not that kind of production. Despite the spicy subject matter, the podcast – created by Mike Connors and Daryl Freimark – proves more interested in telling a fairly conventional business story. ATN was designed by Mike Pardes, a successful businessman with a colorful past involving nightclubs and some jail time. He took the concept of combining the sexual fantasy with the growing craze around 1-900 numbers – the phone lines people called to access all kinds of audio entertainment, which they were billed for by the minute – and answered at the behest of horny dads all over the world. country in a billion dollar business. (This ATN is not linked to the Fox type network on Succession, obviously, but the evocation seems appropriate.) Pardes’ journey leads the story into Operator, which, to be fair, commits on its own, if not somewhat predictable, terms.

You get some novelty at the start, when the show recalls the birth of the telephone sex trade as a whole. According to tradition, it all started in the 1980s when a guy, identified on the show by the pseudonym “Richard”, concocted a plan to offer talk therapy over the phone and advertised the service on the pages of this same magazine. The experience led to the discovery that, surprise, surprise, the men who called the number were often looking for more than someone to share their problems with. “They wanted a girl with big breasts,” said Richard, in a neutral tone. “So, hey, they want a girl. Go get them a girl.

Pardes founded ATN in 1990 and quickly built up the competition. Its rapid rise and eventual fall give Operator his bow. We follow Pardes as he assembles a group of executives, all male, including a tech genius named Michael Self who would become Pardes’ surrogate son of sorts; together, they expand the company’s physical infrastructure, hiring a platoon of sex workers, known as “operators,” to take care of the phones. Years of untold wealth and debauchery passed until a mixture of government pressure and internal strife dragged the company into the heart of the crisis. There are betrayals, a legal war and a coup, which severely weaken ATN, before the looming Internet threat ends it all. A parable and a legend, Operator is a quintessential capitalist story about the lifecycle of an empire, which existed just outside of polite society.

If you like this sort of thing, you will have a great time. Pardes is what the show calls “a real character,” and his memories, along with those of other executives – most of whom were interviewed for the show – are rich with the sleazeball-storytelling texture you’d want from a background like this one. . In this way and a few others, Operator goes well with Welcome to your fantasy, the crime-filled Chippendales podcast from Gimlet and Pineapple Street Studios that roams similar territory.

Operator Usually tries to balance the corporate intrigue bro-fest by layering the voices and experiences of the women who have worked upstairs in the phone operations at ATN. The series revolves around an intriguing tension that emerges from the arrangement: Operators worked long, grueling hours in a refurbished warehouse, away from the lavish offices of executives, but we’re told they also benefited from a autonomy and relative comfort in their work. There was also a security, away from the physical risks that can accompany sex work. Operator dances the line of arguing that operators were, up to a point, empowered – even if they were excluded from the massive profits reaped by ATN management and ultimately treated as throwaway. OperatorEfforts to gain a complete and humanistic picture of ATN’s workforce are often undermined by the show’s clearer interest in the corporate intrigue. Even though it strives to bring women in, the podcast remains primarily focused on Pardes and men, ultimately aligning the lion’s share of its sympathies with their debacles.

The corporate drama of it all never seems as interesting or special as ATN’s core product idea. Worse yet, when grappling with sex and sexuality on the phone, the show rarely goes beyond superficiality, often treating the popularity of its subject matter with little more than aloof fun. “You wouldn’t believe fetishes! There was a guy there, he just wanted to hear me laugh, ”one operator recounts at one point in the series. And?

The podcast also makes inefficient use of Tina Horn, who serves as a narrator and co-writer. Horn is normally found in the audio world as a host of Why are people in it? !, an independent podcast exploring issues and other forms of sexual intimacy that draws heavily on her history as a sex educator. Other than a brief anecdote in the first episode, Horn’s point of view does not appear in Operator many; most of the time, it only guides the story. It sounds like a missed opportunity.

All of these reviews are not to deny the pleasures that exist within Operator. If you’re in the mood for the thrills of conventional commercial drama, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here. You can even expand its value and observe the similarities between ATN’s power dynamics as described in Operator and today’s digital sex work environment: whether it’s phone sex or OnlyFans, there is always a platform for mediation that consolidates power and value, typically leaving workers real more or less in the same state of uncertainty. But if you are looking for something more than just Barbarians at the door – something that’s really grappling with the sticky intersection of capitalism and private desire – adjust your expectations. For a show about something so subversive, Operator can be remarkably vanilla.


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