900 Numbers of the Past

Today, a 900 number quite often conjures up images of phone sex operators, but during the 1980s and 1990s, 900 numbers were used for all sorts of things. The very earliest 900 numbers weren’t built around exorbitant per-minute charges, but only set callers back for the normal long-distance charges. In March 1977, callers could dial a special 900 number and ask President Jimmy Carter a question for a national radio broadcast moderated by Walter Cronkite. Here are some of the other things that could be accomplished by dialing a 900 number:


People who were curious about what was going on during a space shuttle mission in the 1980s could call a 900 number provided by NASA and for $2 for the first minute and 45¢ per additional minute listen in on mission status reports.

Kill Off Robin
DC Comics found itself in an awkward spot in 1988 when Batman fans became truly sick of Jason Todd, the second character to fill of the roll of Robin. DC didn’t know what to do with the character, so the writers let the fans decide by calling a 900 number that gave voters a 36-hour window to vote on whether the Boy Wonder should live or die. In case you’re curious, fans killed off Robin by a thin margin of 5,343 to 5,271.

Save Larry the Lobster
In 1983, Saturday Night Live ran a sketch in which Eddie Murphy held up “Larry the Lobster” and let viewers call a 900 number to decide whether or not he would boil the tasty crustacean. The voters had a soft spot for Larry and narrowly voted to save him from the pot.

Pick Your President
During the 1980 presidential debate, NBC allowed viewers to call a 900 number to log their preference for Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan. The results were the same as the actual election — the audience preferred Reagan.

Listen To the Indy 500 Pit Crew
In the early 1990s, open-wheel racing fans could listen in on the banter between Indy 500 drivers and their pit crews for $1.50 a minute. Since most of the discussion was full of highly technical jargon, the line also had a commentator who translated the lingo for the average fan.