By Michael E. Miller
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The calls first started coming in about a year ago, taking a confused Dayle Jacobs by surprise. "People would call us and say, `I'd like to make a comment,'" says Jacobs, a manager at Miami's Sylvan Nursery Farms. "And I'd say, `Go ahead,' figuring they were calling about our business. And then they'd tell me what they thought about Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. I kept thinking to myself, `Hey, why are you telling me?'"
Then there were the callers who would ask to speak to Phil. Particularly strange was the fact that most of the calls were made from New York or New Jersey, and all of them seemed to occur between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m.
They're not sure exactly when they realized their 800 number was just one digit away from Phil Donahue's -- perhaps it was around the time people started calling in asking about transvestite schoolteachers, or strippers who dance for their fathers. But for the past year now, Dayle Jacobs and Dan De Lange have had to contend with the incessant ringing of thousands of misdialed calls. "I'd answer and they'd think they were talking to Phil," says De Lange. "And I'd say, `I'm not Phil!' And they would insist I was. And they would keep calling out, `Am I on the air?' Sometimes we'd get so frustrated we would say, `Yes, go ahead.'"
Unfortunately for the nursery workers, there appears to be little relief in sight. De Lange refuses to change his 800 number because he's had it for years. And Eric Weinberger, assistant to the executive producer for Donahue, says the show has no intention of changing its toll-free number simply because it wouldn't do any good.
De Lange isn't the first to complain. Others have found themselves in a situation similar to his, but every time Donahue has changed its telephone number to accommodate an annoyed subscriber, the new number inevitably ends up only a digit or two away from yet another 800 number. "It's not our fault people are dialing wrong," says Weinberger, during a break from the show. And the idea of eliminating the phone-in segment is out of the question. "Phil loves a live show," Weinberger says. "There's no way around it."
About a month ago, Donahue featured a series of special "Bash Phil" episodes during which disgruntled viewers could air any complaints they might have with the mop-topped gabfly and his program. De Lange was invited to appear because the nursery manager had written several letters to the producers pleading with them to change Donahue's number. "Since we've had a recurring problem with our 800 number," Weinberger says, "we thought we should acknowledge it on the air and encourage people to dial carefully."
On July 13, the Donahue show flew De Lange to New York, sent a limo to pick him up at the airport, and ushered him into make-up just in time for the 4:00 p.m. taping, which is broadcast the following day in Miami from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. "They would ask if I was having a good time, and I kept trying to tell them that I wasn't up there to have fun and that I was still disappointed he wouldn't change his phone number," De Lange says. "And they said, `Great! Great! Just bash Phil good.'"
When the time came to discuss the 800 number, Donahue jogged up the aisle toward two audience members -- De Lange, and a woman from New York whose phone number was 1-212-FON-PHIL (Donahue's number is 1-800-FON-PHIL). De Lange and the woman explained their predicaments, after which Donahue gushed apologies and admonished his audience to dial carefully. Then Phil, obviously eager to make amends, tried to be helpful. First he let it be known that the woman from New York was a singer in a band, and said that anyone interested in hiring her group should punch up 212-FON-PHIL. (Phil even promised to have her back on the show with her band.) Next he announced that anyone who wanted to buy a tree should call De Lange, after which he repeated De Lange's toll-free number.
De Lange and Jacob say that, since that fateful day, they have received at least 2000 crank phone calls. "It's been hectic," says De Lange. "The day we were on we had about 400 phone calls, and the next day another 200 -- every day there have been some. Sometimes they'd say, `Is it really true your 800 number is close to Phil Donahue's?' And we'd say yes, and then they'd hang up." Along with the inconvenience comes the expense -- each call costs De Lange a minimum of 30 cents. He claims he's sending the bill to Donahue. "Phil said on the show he would pay for the calls," co-worker Jacobs affirms.
"If Mr. De Lange sends us the bills, and they are legitimate, we'll pay them," assures Weinberger, who, like his boss, seemed troubled that Phil's good intentions backfired. "We were really hoping just the opposite would happen and that Mr. De Lange would get business," Weinberger says. "Oh, well. The woman with the band is doing great. She's become, like, a superstar.