From Her Lips to a Thousand Ears: A Voice-Mail Tale
The Wall Street Journal
FRIDAY, JUNE 2, 1995

From Her Lips to a Thousand Ears: A Voice-Mail Tale

By: Lisa Bannon

The hottest tip on Wall Street in the past two weeks isn't about the next takeover or corporate coup - it's about The Message.

It comes from an unknown New York woman who had the misfortune to reach the answering machine of her lawyer friend Stephen - or Steven - instead of him. Her recorded message is a startlingly graphic, ribald review of the wild date she had the night before.

Whether her kiss-and-tell-all is real or well-crafted hoax, it has triggered a kind of chain letter meets gossip mill meets urban myth, an inevitable outcome when phone sex meets phone mail in the Digital Age. Stephen somehow copied The Message to his voice mail at work and forwarded it to a friend, who forwarded it to someone else, who forwarded it to still more users of ever more voice-mail systems. Those with voice mail who received it could copy it and send it to as many people as they chose.

In a matter of days, the woman's tawdry tale had circulated to hundreds of eager eavesdroppers - traders at Goldman, Sachs & Co., Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette and other Wall Street firms; lawyers at white-shoe law firms; producers at CBS News and CBS Sports; executives at the Showtime and Comedy Central cable channels; entertainment types in Hollywood; and Beltway types in Washington.

It's easy to circulate a message within a company; but most rival brands of voice mail are incompatible with one another. To send The Message intercompany, people call up a friend's mailbox, then "conference in" to their second line to tap their own mailbox and play the message. And the beat goes on.

'Forwarders' are mostly men

Most of the "forwarders" are, of course, men. On Wall Street, it seems, boys will always be boys. And because voice-mail systems let a sender tack a note to the start of a forwarded item, The Message often arrives with its own telltale litany of voyeuristic senders.

By the time one version reached The Wall Street Journal, 21 people had attached their personal introductions. The first person who passed it along opened with, "Hey Mike, it's Crazy, I thought you'd get a kick out of this," and wound its way past Bruce to Greg to Jim ("Hey Jim, I always knew you were a creative guy, but I never expected this from your girlfriend") to Roger to Frank to Scott: "Scott, I just really wanted you to hear this message. It's pretty nasty, somebody sent it to me, and I feel like it's my duty to pass it along." And thence to Walter to Emil ("Hey Emil, I met one of those crazy girls that you've been going out with, and this is what she had to say") to Mario, and onward.

Therein lies the digital moral: Your private gossip can belong to everyone, anyone, when it can be digitized and diced and copied and forwarded, all in seconds with the press of a few Touch-Tone buttons. Of course, most messages aren't nearly so juicy. This one contained so much salacious talk it's almost impossible to quote from. Here are the very few parts that can be printed:

Beep. "Hiiii Stephennnnnnn, it's me. You are gonna bug when you hear this story." Her date picks her up at "like, uh, like nine-ish, and, whatever, we went to a movie." All of a sudden, he "grabs" her. "We start making out, OK?"

What follows is a graphic recapitulation of their ensuing encounters in a nearby restroom and in "some cheesy motel, mirrors on the ceiling, red light." At the end of her two-minute dissertation, which is liberally sprinkled with the word "whatever," she signs off. "OK? Fine. Anyway, I'll tell you details later. Call me back."

The Message is 'just so classic'

Like, what details could be left? The title of the movie she went to see?

Those who have heard The Message can't get enough. "It's great, it's just so classic. It's changed my life. It gets richer and richer every time I listen to it," says a female fan.

At CBS, the voice-mail system deletes "archived," or saved, messages at the end of each week, so staff members keep resending it to one another so it doesn't get wiped out. One CBS person has made an audio dub, titling it "Whatever." A New York entertainment industry executive zapped it to a pal at Universal Pictures. He has learned how to delete all the intros so that recipients think the woman is talking to them.

Fans debate their favorite passages and try to divine where the whole thing originated. There are clues: Supposedly Stephen works at a New York law firm, and he has a friend named Mindy (we know this because the Mystery Woman, after revealing her breathless saga, suddenly worries his new girlfriend - "what was her name? Mindy or something?" - may hear it). But unraveling this riddle may turn out to be as difficult as tracing the source of any urban myth: Everyone claims to know someone who knows someone who was involved, but no one seems to know the original source.

And many debate whether the woman's tale is simply too Penthouse Forum-ish to be true. Most men firmly believe it's real; some women think it's simply voice-mail porn and question why any real woman would talk like that to a man. Other listeners don't much care.

"I love her. Who cares whether it's true or not?" says a trader affiliated with Wasserstein Perella & Co. "Any woman who could leave a message like that, I've gotta meet."