By Michael Small
January 18, 1988 12:00 PM

Time was when the most irritating thing a kid could do with a telephone was to play hoary jokes on unwary victims. (“Is this the woman who washes? No? You filthy thing!”) But that age of innocence is past; the latest parental nightmare is the party line. Not the old-fashioned kind used by rural families who weren’t individually wired, these party lines are big business. Kids—and adults too—are frequently paying more than the cost of a long-winded call to Tibet just to chat with up to nine strangers in their local area. Across the country, the conversational options include Gab Line, Phone-A-Friend, Teen Line, Date Line, Sports Talk, Rock and Roll Line, Santa Claus Line and Tele-Friend, to name a few. (In Washington, D.C., there is even Bitch Line, affording callers a place to vent their complaints about teachers, bosses, spouses and other provocateurs.)

In many cases, party lines have replaced malls as a way for kids to hang out. “I’m not that popular at school,” says Paula, 15, who places four or five calls per day (at $3 for three minutes) to a New Orleans chat line. “But I’ve made a lot of friends on the line. I met Eddie, who plays guitar for me, and Brett, who is in a drug rehab center and calls to say, ‘Don’t use drugs.’ But my mother won’t let me give out my address because I’m too young to have a boyfriend.”

Some parents have learned the hard way that party-line talk isn’t cheap. Though rates vary, a single minute can cost from 20 to 95 cents. In 1987 a 15-year-old Oakland, Calif., boy racked up a $4,168.39 bill in only one month. His outraged parents, like dozens of other customers hit with big party-line bills nationwide, threatened not to pay. Eventually Pacific Bell forgave the bill, and telephone companies in some states now drop first-time charges if parents are unaware of their children’s party-line activities. Still, money isn’t the only problem. Parents have also objected to adult-oriented lines offering taped porn messages and to soft-core party lines on which callers are invited to share sexual fantasies.

Party-line defenders maintain that most teen lines are kept busy by kids talking about nothing raunchier than their schools and their favorite rock bands, but some parents aren’t convinced. “I listened in once, and I can’t even begin to tell you what they were talking about—with strangers!” says a mother of three from Wellesley, Mass. “These lines are designed specifically to get kids to exploit their parents,” says Ernie Bilodeau of Waltham, Mass., father of five, whose introduction to party lines came in the form of a $408 bill. “Sure, they tell them how much it costs, but a kid doesn’t know costs. That’s why we call them minors.”

In response to such complaints, several adult gab lines have hired monitors who cut off obscene callers and redirect recognizably adolescent voices to teen lines. Many lines intended for kids now feature a gong every three minutes to remind kids how much money they’re spending. In some parts of the country, customers can have party lines kept off their phones, a service that is provided free in some locations, but costs $5 a month elsewhere.

The whole problem started in 1980 when an enterprising Brazilian businessman named Luis Bravo developed a process to link telephone lines called “bridging”. Bravo merely wanted to please customers of his Dial-a-Joke service in Natal, who told him they enjoyed it when their lines were accidentally crossed with those of other callers. In 1984, when Bravo’s technique was brought to the U.S., the first American party line was introduced on Long Island. Telephone companies followed suit, setting rates and collecting a share of the enormous profits earned by party-line entrepreneurs. In San Francisco, 10,000 to 15,000 people dial party lines every day. Pacific Bell, which provides phone service throughout California, earned nearly $24 million in party-line revenues over a 12-month period that ended in June.

Unquestionably, the phone companies depend for much of their money on the need of their customers to hear human voices. Says Jo Chryczyk, manager of Detroit’s Phone Medium: “One woman couldn’t get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom without giving us a call.” Others maintain that party lines provide an antiseptic social outlet ideal for the AIDS-fearing ’80s. “They have become an answer to the problem of meeting people,” says Betsy Superfon, who operates chat lines in 53 cities. “You can’t catch anything over the phone.”

—Written by Michael Small from bureau reports