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An Earpiece for Music

Looking for Some Patriot Tunes or Country Ballads? Just Know Whom to Hold For

In a professional atmosphere that is sometimes best characterized by the phrase “hurry up and wait,” being put on hold when calling a Capitol Hill office is one of those everyday occurrences that no one really thinks that much about.

And with the mind-boggling size of the Hill phone system , being asked to hold (do you really have a choice in the matter?) has become quite simply, a necessary evil in the Capitol Hill work environment.

Yet what most people don’t realize is that the hold music can actually tell callers quite a bit about the offices they are trying to reach. Indeed, someone well-versed in the rules of Congressional hold music might be able to pick out a specific office just by listening to its song choices. (For example, if you were to call a random Capitol Hill number and get country music while you wait, you could only have one of four Senate offices.)

But of course this is Congress, where there’s a rule for everything. And with guidelines that separately govern House and Senate phone lines, offices don’t have all that many options to install on their systems.

On the House side, offices can choose to either have no hold music or to pipe in a patriotic medley mix that includes well-known John Phillip Sousa works and other spirited classics.

Across the Capitol, Senators and leadership offices who choose to play hold music can select one of four types (the system was set up in 1990 with a single choice and has gradually added the other three over the years). Senators today can select from lite classical, country, environmental (a mix of contemporary instrumentals), or the standard patriotic mix.

According to Brian Walsh, communications director for Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who as chairman of the House Administration Committee oversees such matters as office setup, the House telephone system has the ability to play other types of music but “the decision has been made to not do it.”

“It would cost a few thousand dollars and it was decided that it’s not worth the cost,” said Walsh.

In general, the use of hold music is much more prevalent on the Senate side than the House side. While it bears noting that no House leadership office — Republican or Democratic — chooses to play the patriotic mix, all but two Senate personal and leadership offices play one of the four options of hold music.

“I think they just get more calls over there,” said one House-side front desk operator. “I know you have to wait a lot longer when you call over there.”

Sen. Trent Lott’s (R-Miss.) office is one that plays the patriotic mix, and according to press secretary Susan Irby it seems to go over well.

“When we first did it I had a few people say they were standing up [out of respect] while they were on hold.”

The Senate-side phone system is run through the Sergeant-at-Arms Office and, more specifically, by Kimball Winn, the director of IT support services for the Senate. Winn said the hold music is provided through the “audio architecture” music company Muzak.

Of all the Senate personal and leadership offices, 76 play lite classical music which is described as a “passionately intimate mix of classical styles with contemporary interpretations of vocal arias” with “mellow” energy that targets “upscale urban lifestyles,” according to the Muzak Web site. Twenty-one offices play the patriotic mix, a special CD put together by Muzak for the Senate’s use. Four offices play country music, a “moderate” energy mix which targets males and females 25 to 55 years old with “casual country lifestyles”; three offices play environmental music, a “moderate” energy mix for males and females 35-plus in “traditional business environments”; and two offices choose not to play any hold music — one of which is Sen. Jim Jeffords’ (I-Vt.) office.

“It’s a rare moment of silence on the Hill,” said Jeffords’ press secretary, Diane Derby. “We like being able to let people gather their thoughts.

“Actually, there had been some discussion a number of years back about whether folks wanted to have music and there wasn’t a strong inclination for any of the four choices, so we went without,” she said.

But for Sen. George Allen’s (R-Va.) office, there really was only one choice when it came to picking office music.

“We say that Senator Allen was country before country was cool,” said John Reid, Allen’s press secretary. “It would be fake if he was playing classical music.

“There’s nothing generic about Senator Allen and there’s nothing generic about the way he does things so the music should match the man,” Reid said.

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