When WRC.AM (980) retired part of its news staff last week, no one ever imagined that Washingtonians would lose sleep over it.
As it turned out, however, hundreds of people had their eyes opened by the episode -- in the middle of the night.
The staffer, an automatic telephone-dialing machine called Metro Pulse, was hired by WRC eight months ago to spend one day each week dialing local numbers in computerized sequence, asking a survey question (usually on a controversial current topic), and recording the answers.
WRC would compile the survey results and make them into a news story aired later. But since hiring Metro Pulse, WRC has altered its all-news format to news-talk.
"We had decided that this programming feature, which we've been running for quite a while now, just needed a rest," said station chief Frank Scott.
Metro Pulse did not take it like a gentlemachine. At 8:30 on the night of the programming discussions, when Metro Pulse traditionally turned itself off until morning, the machine decided to go on on all-nighter.
Metro Pulse, which is capable of calling 60 numbers per hour, ran for nine hours.
"Hello," said the recording, "this is Dave Bartlett from WRC News/Talk 98 Radio, speaking to you by recording. You've been selected to take part in this week's Metro Pulse survey. You can hear the results of the survey this Monday between 5 and 9 a.m. on WRC News/Talk 98.
"This week's question is: Should the U.S. have gasoline rationing now? At the tone, you can give your opinion: yes, no, or no opinion. Thank you."
And good night.
Had its recording device been working (which it wasn't), WRC estimates it would've had a fairly good idea by dawn of how Washingtonians feel about gasoline rationing at night (as opposed to how they feel about it during the day).
As it turned out, however, all WRC got was a dozen phone calls the mext morning from people who wanted the station to know how they felt about being asked how they felt about gasoline rationing in the middle of the night.
One Bethesda resident, who listened sleepily to Metro Pulse's spiel while lying in bed that morning, said he answered yes, he favors gasoline rationing. But when he noticed the time (5:11 a.m.), he wanted to change his answer.
Bartlett, the NBC-owned station's news manager, said he knows the feeling: As part of his job, he often is awakened by his staff in the middle of the night. "So I know what it's like to be roused from a good slumber," he said. "It isn't a whole lot of fun."
Metro Pulse, incidently, has called Bartlett's own home twice in the past year. ("David!" his wife cried once, "Pick up the phone! You're calling yourself!" "I'm calling myself?" he asked, softly.)
"The biggest mystery is how it happened," said Scott. "We've looked at the machine and we can't figure it out. We may never know."
Metro Pulse was last reported slouching in the hall outside its former office, "unplugged and forlorn," as one staffer put it, "and extremely out of work."