Tuesday, 7 December 2021

Bird News - Part 5: Birdline

Some time in 1986, the recently-privatised BT (or British Telecom as it was then) introduced premium rate telephone services. Prior to this, the money you paid for a phone call went to BT*. A premium rate number was different. A percentage went to BT, but most of the revenue went to whomever the number was registered to, i.e., the service provider. The technology required to turn bird news into money was finally here.

Birdline was an early premium rate service. Its original number is etched indelibly in a dusty corner of my brain...

0898 700222

How did Birdline begin? Inevitably there is a story here, but it's not mine to tell. So, for the moment at least, I'm planning to concentrate on the fact that it did begin, rather than how. Having said that, there is one documented version I can offer...

You can find it in the Independant newspaper of 27th January 1993. A piece entitled 'Twitcher devotes his life to an obsessive flight of fancy' features the activities of one Mr Lee Evans, 32, of Little Chalfont, Bucks. The article reports that Mr Evans spent 11 years searching for a way to fund his passion for twitching, and then finally...

Inspiration came in 1986 when he quit his job as a design stylist at Vauxhall Motors to open an 0891** 'Birdline', recording up-to-the-minute sightings.

Obviously the usual caveats apply regarding what you read in newspapers.

Anyway, by early 1991 Birdline was in its fifth year, and milking me dry. I really wasn't a full-on twitcher, but even now I can hear Richard Millington's leaden drawl as he confirms that yes, I have reached Birdline, and that this is the mid-morning update of the exact day I think it is, before plodding laboriously through the rare bird news. Rare birds that are of no interest to me, or too far away, or have been present for a month already. A small fortune later, I can rest easy that I don't need to rush to Kent this afternoon. Still, it is September, and there's loads of stuff about, so probably I ought to check again in a couple of hours...

How much did it cost to phone the 'line?

In 1991 it was 33p/min cheap rate, and 44p/min peak/standard rate. Very roughly that's the equivalent of 75p/min and £1.00/min respectively in 2021.  The following year saw an increase to 36p/min and 48p/min. But that was fine, because you were paying for 'news you can trust, from the team you know', as the service's tagline put it.

In 1992 the 'team you know' apparently included six of the top twelve British life-list holders, three BBRC members and nine county recorders and committee members. Which demonstrates just how deeply the whole twitching, listing, rarity-centred ethos was embedded into the British birding establishment.

So, one minute we were just ringing our mates for bird news, or Nancy's, or accosting random birders with a cheery 'Anything about, mate?' and the next, paying through the nose for it. Looking back, there was little if any resistance to the switch. As someone commented on the previous post, it could be argued that Birdline brought order to chaos. Maybe. But it did other things too.

But that's for another post...


*  BT lost its monopoly in 1982, so theoretically your phone call might have been generating revenue for another telecomms provider from that point on.

**  Premium rate numbers changed from 0898 prefix to 0891 in the early 1990s.

12 comments:

  1. Gavin would this eventually tie in at some point with the publication Birding World magazine?

    Thanks Tony

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    1. Essentially, yes, Tony. 'Birding World' started life as 'Twitching' mag in 1987, under the Bird Information Service umbrella.

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  2. I remember a scam for getting the headlines for free by calling from a pay phone and not putting any money in. Some payphones gave you more time than others before the pips and getting cut off. Certainly a useful way to find out if it had been updated.

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    1. I think that dodge must have passed me by. Unfortunately.

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  3. There was also National Bird News 0898-884-500 & then the regional birdlines, before Rare Bird Alert joined in

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    1. Thanks, yes, you're right of course. In no time at all there were many others on the bandwagon. 😊

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  4. "Mr Evans travels by private jet, at pounds 1,000 an hour, or by road." - more by the latter I suspect!

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    1. Yep, that article was definitely worth a read. 😊

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  5. Gav you are me just 3 years ahead and closer to Cley. Living in Northumberland those heady fleshpots of birding might as well have been on the moon, but we still had a crap grapevine...

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    1. Even in those far-off days of dodgy landlines I doubt if there were many places the grapevine didn't reach Stew, even Northumberland! 😉

      As an aside, I guess Cley etc could once have been described as 'where it's all happening' in UK birding. Probably not any more. I suspect the action nowadays is somewhat further north.

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  6. Once bird information became a commodity, twitching lost it's soul.

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  7. Everything was fine until the company |I worked for blocked the number!

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