Future Tense

Dial “C” for Cicada

How I found peace and happiness calling Kentucky’s cicada hotline.

A cicada sits on a smartphone dialed to "Cicada Hotline." Red circles indicating song ripple out from the cicada.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by AnbachPhotography/iStock/Getty Images and NatalyaBurova/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Half my life ago, I experienced my first cicada emergence, and I hated them with a fiery passion. They were like giant flies and had absolutely no instinct against predators; they flew around lazily, getting stuck in my hair. And the incessant screaming! An absolute nightmare.

This year, before Brood X cicadas were set to emerge again across the eastern U.S., I started reading about them. At first, I was relieved that I now live on the West Coast and would miss the emergence. (And much to cicada haters’ glee, their emergence is now mostly complete; they’ll be underground for another 17 years.) But I quickly got obsessed with their weird lifecycles and the handful of researchers who have devoted their careers to studying them. I ended up flying to the Ohio Valley to see the cicadas, and after I came home, I actually missed them. Then, I learned there’s a new way to get my cicada fix: the Wet Hot Cicada Buzzline. Just dial 855-883-8663 and you, too, can listen to a minute’s worth of cicada calls.

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When I first dialed the number, I realized it was already in my phone as “Kentucky Homesickness Hotline.” Years ago, I’d saved it when I learned I could call it to hear “My Old Kentucky Home,” a song that makes me miss the humid spring afternoons of my childhood. Though I have complicated feelings about the history and ethics of the Kentucky Derby, I still cry every single time that song is played before the race. (It’s so reliable that one year, my husband’s family secretly took bets on how many seconds into the song I’d start tearing up.) The company behind this miraculous hotline is called Kentucky for Kentucky, and it’s known around the state for selling sweatshirts that say “Y’ALL” and trying to change the state’s motto from the milquetoast “Unbridled Spirit” to the much more straightforward “Kentucky Kicks Ass.” According to Louisville NPR affiliate WFPL, more than 36,000 people called to hear My Old Kentucky Home in the first three months after the first hotline launched in 2018, totaling nearly 1000 hours of listening.

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Kentucky for Kentucky obviously knows its audience; its hotline offerings are designed to appeal to Kentuckians’ nostalgia for their home state. (An oft-quoted quip from former Kentucky Gov. and U.S. Sen. Happy Chandler: “I never met a Kentuckian who wasn’t either thinking about going home or actually going home.”) But for me, part of the charm of these hotlines lies in the medium itself. Picking up my phone and dialing a number takes me back not only to the place where I grew up, but to the era. It scratches an itch that my other homesickness habits—browsing Google Maps’ Street View or watching the local transit authority’s amazing YouTube video on how to use city buses’ bike racks—just can’t satisfy.

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In the time B.C. (Before Cable Internet), hotlines were how we got the movie times (RIP Moviefone), how we won concert tickets through the local pop radio station, how we ordered Pure Moods and other CD compilations of new age-y music, how we voted for KoRn’s “Freak on a Leash” to be the No. 1 song on Carson Daly’s Total Request Live. And before internet memes to entertain us, there were novelty hotlines like Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff’s rap-a-day hotline, or 900-number polls about who would win the Super Bowl, and, of course, a million sex hotlines. (A history lesson for the youths: Generally speaking, 800 numbers were free; 900 numbers charged per minute, which could get really expensive.)

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The 1980s and 1990s were the heyday for these numbers. But after our internet speeds increased and we began carrying tiny computers in our pockets, hotlines were no longer the easiest or most profitable way to reach consumers, and the phone hotlines that held on mostly did so out of necessity. These days, hotlines still exist for insurance claims, mental health crises, and other important social services. For a while, the novelty hotline tried to hold on; there was a U.S. Homesickness Hotline, a Santa hotline, a hotline that tells the caller they have bad breath, and multiple rejection hotlines. I tried calling them recently, but none were still up besides Callin’ Oats (719-266-2837), an “emergency Hall and Oates hotline.” (Butterball has a Turkey Talk Line for all your holiday food prep needs in November and December, but the rest of the year, it’s just the company’s customer service number.)

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I’ve given out Callin’ Oats’ number dozens of times—it’s a fun party trick, and a great way to reject strangers who are persistent about getting your number. I’ve also called dozens of times myself—I always dial 2, which plays “Rich Girl.” (The other choices are “One on One,” “Maneater, and “Private Eyes.”) The sound quality is awful, of course; the vocals are crackly with static, the bass nonexistent, the volume fluctuates wildly. It’s the same quality as the hold music you hear waiting for the next available representative to address your fraud claim or rebook your flight, but with a completely different feel. This time, you have chosen to call in, to take a couple of minutes of your day to hear some Hall and Oates, or “My Old Kentucky Home,” or a tinny recording of chorusing cicadas. And unlike hold music, these sounds were lovingly curated; someone thought you might enjoy it, so they went through the trouble of maintaining a phone number we can all dial for a moment of joy.

After I returned home from my cicada vacation, my parents and friends continued to send me footage of the cicadas in their yards, knowing it was my new love language—so discovering the cicada hotline felt like a little gift from a stranger. On one unseasonably warm Seattle evening, I was reminded of humid Kentucky nights, so I dialed Kentucky for Kentucky’s hotline—and for 57 seconds, I could imagine I was home.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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