Operator: Fascinating…but not for the fainted hearted

Wondery

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If I were doling out awards for documentary podcasts, Operator would win outright — indisputably — in at least two categories. The award for the catchiest ear-worm of a theme tune, and the award for the raunchiest, most blush-inducing content.

Hosted by the fabulously named Tina Horn (a former dominatrix and renowned kink expert) this is a story about back-stabbing, labor, greed, the dawning of the age of the internet and sexy sexy phone calls.

And if you don’t want to hear all the naughty details then listener, don’t tune in. For the rest of us, this is fantastic romp — in every sense of the word!

This podcast does what the very best ones do. It gives you precisely what you came for while keeping a few surprises up its satin sleeves. Want to hear about the demography, fetishes, and quirks of the average sex hotline caller? You’ll get that in spades, alongside the tricks and tactics used by the operators to increase a caller’s “hang time” and drive them wild.

But really, this is a very appropriately named documentary.

It’s about the operators themselves, as well as those who built the business of America’s biggest sex line — American TelNet (ATN) — into a multi-million dollar enterprise. And then watched as it crashed from underneath them at as the new era of internet descended upon us with its bounty visual sexual delights.

The characters are all delightfully well drawn. There are heroes and villains, as well as the smart, the flashy, the industrious and the hilarious. Similarly, the anecdotes are well selected and Horn manages to speak with a wide range of folks from the heyday of ATN who speak candidly and intelligently about their experiences.

The girl with the sugary voice is here (now a respectable soccer mom). So is the manager who whipped the office of sexy talkers into shape. The ahead-his-time tech guy who worked on early versions of voice recognition, but ultimately betrays the wonderfully eccentric, Mike Pardes — ATN’s founder, who accidentally invented phone sex lines after setting up a therapy service.

The only thing this exploration of a very particular time and place is missing is the confessions of some habitual sex line users. Granted, they might be slow in declaring themselves but I would have been curious to get a glimpse into life on the other end of the line.

If you don’t take yourself too seriously, and appreciate stories of tenacity in what ultimately comes off as a much more innocent time, dial up the Operator — but maybe make sure you turn those headphones down a notch as you do.

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