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Carols and carolers just a phone call away at the University of Illinois


Melissa Mitchell, News Editor

seven student volunteers showing a phone and a laptop
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Student volunteers for 2008 Dial-A-Carol: back row, from left: Mark Vargo, junior in industrial design; Kyle Branyik, junior in accountancy; George Carrera III, senior in marketing; Anna Zorn, sophomore in creative writing and cinema studies; and Kyle McKay, junior in molecular and cellular biology. Front row, from left: Danny Rogers, junior in civil engineering; and Rick Moy, junior in molecular and cellular biology.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Nearly a half century after it started, a holiday/finals week tradition at a University of Illinois residence hall is still hitting the high notes with the public.

Students who live in Snyder Hall once again this year will be spreading musical joy to the world with the weeklong, free Dial-A-Carol service, which begins at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 13 and continues through midnight on Dec. 19.

The Dial-A-Carol number is 217-332-1882.

“This is our 48th year, and last year we took in 1,200 calls,” said George Carrera III, a residence hall adviser at Snyder Hall and coordinator of this year’s program.

For 47 of those years, not much had changed with Dial-A-Carol since it was initiated by a former hall secretary, Betty Gordon, in 1960. Students and others – no matter where in the world they’re located – are invited to call in to request a carol or holiday song, and student volunteers sing the song into the phone or play a recorded song.

Callers also can request that volunteers call someone else to deliver the song, with the stipulation that recipients must have a local phone number.

Of Dial-A-Carol’s origin, Carrera said: “The story goes that she (Gordon) was speaking with a friend on the phone and her friend mentioned she could hear Betty’s radio playing carols as they were talking. Betty was inspired and thought it would be a neat idea to play carols over the phone to friends. She started Dial-A-Carol with the help of Snyder Hall residents, and the rest is history.”

Now, this year’s crop of cheer-bringers is making its own history – transforming a decidedly low-tech operation into one with a little high-tech help.

Instead of stopping to flip through a book of available recordings, pulling a CD, inserting it into a player and hitting a switch on the phones, student volunteers will be able to access an automated song-delivery system. With technical assistance from Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services, songs have been uploaded to a computer in advance, enabling volunteers to pull up requested songs in an instant.

“It’s going to be phenomenal,” Carrera said.

As in the past, some callers will be able to hear a live version of their requested song. Carrera said last year about one caller in 100 was treated to a live performance.

“We just can’t sing all the tunes,” he said. “Last year, people were losing their voices.”

Still, this year’s ratio of live to recorded songs will be much higher than in 2007. Volunteers will sing to every caller from 7 p.m. to midnight and every fifth caller the rest of the time.

In the past, the most requested songs have been Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late),” by Alvin and the Chipmunks.

“We have a ‘Mariah meter’ to track how many times people request the song as a running joke in the office,” Carrera said.

While the volunteers field their share of requests from practical jokers and gagsters, the calls also include serious – and sometimes sentimental – callers who say Dial-A-Carol has become a tradition for them as well.

“One nice story I just heard was from a university building service worker who calls every year to request that we play ‘The Chipmunk Song’ for his wife,” Carrera said. “The song is very important to her. He said it warms her heart when she hears it.”

To prepare for round-the-clock shifts on the phone lines, Carrera and other volunteers are working with Snyder Hall resident director Indria Clay to decorate Dial-A-Carol central, stock the room with snacks and promote the service to the campus and beyond.

“Last year we got a bunch of calls from England all night long after a radio station in the London area mentioned Dial-A-Carol on air,” Carrera said. “The calls never stopped.  The Brits love making fun of us … but don’t seem to know that we know they’re making fun of us.”

And fun is what it’s all about, he said. That and stress relief – something students can’t get enough of during finals week.

While not playing or singing requests, the students just hang out, play games and eat.

“It’s a lighthearted escape and release outside of the academic stress of finals week,” Carrera said.