All Rings Considered

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

James T. Greene:
Oooh, that’s my phone. Sorry, let me just dismiss that.

Roman Mars:
Producer James T. Green.

James T. Greene:
Sorry. Honestly, it’s just rare that I even keep my phone on vibrate or anything other than silent. It’s kind of rare that I get calls at all.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, because millennials are killing phone calls,

James T. Greene:
I mean, well, kind of, but I can still remember a time rich with phone calls, like specifically when I was younger, probably around 15 years old. I remember family parties at my great grandmother’s house. The smells were that of pound cake and baked macaroni and cheese. The sounds were of gossip and complaints and bravado, but there’s one noise that was constant and it came from my Uncle Scooter, or rather, from his phone.

Uncle Scooter:
See, family functions in my mother’s house back then, everybody left their cell phones on, even before they blessed the food.

James T. Greene:
See, Scooter was the definition of a cool uncle. I remember him wearing a lot of white, even though our meals were pretty messy. He was the sunglasses indoors kind of guy, sitting at the head of the table as he leaned back, the sunlight through the screen door would shine on his link bracelet, and his flip phone was always clipped to his belt because Scooter got a lot of calls.

Uncle Scooter:
It may have been rude of me, but I wanted to hear my phone. I wanted it to ring.

James T. Greene:
Scooter was always getting up from the table to go to the corner of the room and whisper on the phone or step out on the porch. Sometimes he took the call right there in front of everyone and we all remember the song his phone would play. It’s seared into my brain.

Uncle Scooter:
My ringtone is “This Woman’s Work” by Maxwell. (song plays)

James T. Greene:
Uncle Scooter had a lot of girlfriends and so his phone, a hollow, mono speaker blessing Maxwell’s smooth neo-soul sound rang all the time. It never went beyond the first few seconds, so you just hear the … (first seconds of song plays) before he flips open his clamshell phone.

Uncle Scooter:
The song starts out, he starts to scream (Scooter sings first note), so when this ringtone goes off around people, it grabs their attention, especially by me being a single man, it caught a lot of girls’ eyes, and their ears too.

James T. Greene:
And this is the time when everyone had ringtones, when the song your phone played really said something about you.

Roman Mars:
I never had a ringtone myself, maybe for the same reason I never got a tattoo. I never wanted to commit to something so personal and so public.

James T. Greene:
Yeah, ringtones were really meaningful and they could be different for all of your friends. I remember I’d scroll through my 15 contacts, figuring out what was the best ringtone to assign for folks in my phone. Like what song would play when my best friend calls? (Usher ringtone plays) Or my mom. (Another Usher ringtone plays) And my crush. (And yet another Usher ringtone plays)

Roman Mars:
That’s a whole lot of Usher.

James T. Greene:
I mean, who wasn’t listening to Usher at that time? But it wasn’t just Usher. You could go vintage with a timeless track or you could grab a new single and change it up with the newest, hottest song. These little 15-second melodies were these disposable yet highly personal trinkets and it was all thanks to this guy.

Vesa-Matti Paananen (“Vesku”):
My name is Vesa-Matti Paananen, but everybody calls me Vesku.

James T. Greene:
Vesku is the father of the custom ringtone, which was conceived at a party in Finland in 1997.

Vesa-Matti Paananen (“Vesku”):
At that time I was 27 years old and I was living in downtown Helsinki and Wednesday was really that night to go out, hang around with your friends and it was a gloomy November evening.

James T. Greene:
Finland was in the midst of its Nokia-inspired tech boom, and a lot of Vesku’s drinking buddies worked in tech.

Vesa-Matti Paananen (“Vesku”):
And during these discussions, everybody was having their phones with them. Whatever is the coolest phone and showing the new stuff that you can do with that.

James T. Greene:
You were sitting around the table, showing off…

Vesa-Matti Paananen (“Vesku”):
Showing off. Of course, of course. “Hey, what’s the latest thing? Have you seen this that you can really do?” That kind of thing. Yeah, we were nerds. To be honest, we were nerds.

James T. Greene:
But they were nerds that knew how to party.

Vesa-Matti Paananen (“Vesku”):
So we were drunk, yeah, but the party wasn’t really the thing. The whole inspiration, enlightenment came the day after, next morning, when you are in this kind of very a bit fragile mood.

James T. Greene:
In other words, Vesku woke up hung over.

Vesa-Matti Paananen (“Vesku”):
You have to find a way to survive the coming day. Gloomy morning, windy, really windy morning and I was walking from my home and to the office. That’s about two miles. It was cold and dark and my phone rang and it was this Nokia tune. (sings classic Nokia ringtone)

James T. Greene:
Vesku was just barely hanging on. The last thing he needed was this annoying sound going off. (classic Nokia ringtone plays)

Vesa-Matti Paananen (“Vesku”):
And then I decided, now is enough. We got to do something with this thing.

James T. Greene:
If Vesku’s phone was going to ring, it was going to make the sound he wanted, on his terms.

Vesa-Matti Paananen (“Vesku”):
I really wanted to hear Van Halen’s Jump. (“Jump” plays)

James T. Greene:
Or at least the Nokia cell phone version of Van Halen’s Jump. (ringtone version of “Jump” plays)

Vesa-Matti Paananen (“Vesku”):
It’s a power song. It would have been so much better to hear that. (sings notes to “Jump”) All that stuff, it’s a positive song for me, and Eddie Van Halen, he’s a legend with his guitar.

Roman Mars:
So Vesku got to work trying to get Eddie Van Halen into his cell phone. The Nokia phones Vesku and his friends were using had this early text messaging function called “smart messaging” that let Nokia users send messages to each other.

James T. Greene:
Vesku and his squad realized that they could compose ringtones in a program Vesku created called Harmonium and then use that smart messaging platform to transfer bits of song as code to a cell phone.

Vesa-Matti Paananen (“Vesku”):
Let’s put it this way that the guys that I was working with, they were capable of doing all kind of cracking and hacking.

James T. Greene:
Vesku started fooling around on Harmonium and came up with the stripped down monophonic version of his favorite pump-up jam. Vesku loaded the ringtone on his phone and he really wanted someone to give him a call when he was out in public, and his big moment came on the way to a meeting on a packed rush-hour train. Someone called his phone and “Jump” screamed from his pocket. (“Jump” ringtone plays) Everyone in the train was staring at him and he loved it.

Roman Mars:
The custom ringtone was born, but not everyone was going to be able to hack their flip phone the way that Vesku and his friends did. So he decided that he wanted to find a way to make custom ringtones easily accessible to the masses.

Vesa-Matti Paananen (“Vesku”):
Now we know that we can do that and we have to spread the gospel. We have to provide this opportunity to everyone and provide some kind of a service or application for anybody to be able to customize their ringtone.

James T. Greene:
Vesku wanted everyone to be able to hear exactly the melody they wanted so they could show off their phones and be the coolest nerd at the nerd party, and so he started pitching telephone companies on the idea of an application that would allow people to create, share and download custom ringtones. And then one day this Finnish wireless provider called Radiolinja said yes. They took Vesku’s idea and scaled it up.

Vesa-Matti Paananen (“Vesku”):
The whole thing, the phenomenon, started to spread. It’s like a meme. You’re in a bus or a train commuting or whatever and you hear a custom ringtone. The first idea is that, “That’s not the Nokia ringtone. Where’d the guy got it?”

James T. Greene:
Vesku’s software allowed anyone with time on their hands to make their own musical ringtone creations, but most people didn’t have time on their hands.

Vesa-Matti Paananen (“Vesku”):
I would say that the 99.9% of the people just want to have the ringtone in their phone.

Roman Mars:
Which meant they needed a massive library of everyone’s favorite songs in ringtone form, and to build that library they needed ringtone composers.

James T. Greene:
Composers like Mike Levine.

Mike Levine:
One thing that would take a lot of my time during the day was to think, “How do I boil down a song with a lot of voices down to just one simple melody line?”

James T. Greene:
Mike worked for a ringtone company called Zingy while he was studying technology at NYU. He found the job listing on Craigslist and he says that being a ringtone composer was kind of like being a translator. Each tune was a little puzzle.

Mike Levine:
This is something you have to think of like if you’re doing the song, “Hey Ya” by Outkast, you’d have to think of just that melody line (sings notes to “Hey Ya”) and do it in such a way where it would still communicate what the song was to folks. (“Hey Ya ringtone plays)

Roman Mars:
By 2004, Zingy was one of the biggest ringtone producers in the world. The company says it was selling 2.5 million ringtones a month and these were basic monophonic ringtones, simple bleeps and bloops like this. (“The Final Countdown” ringtone plays)

Roman Mars:
Getting cell phones around the world to play a super stripped-down version of “The Final Countdown” might not seem that impressive today, but at the time it required a huge amount of work, especially because each different brand of phone required its own custom sound file.

James T. Greene:
And so Mike and the composers at Zingy had to program different ringtones for each phone manufacturer

Mike Levine:
And so we would have to create the same monophonic ringtone 20 different times. It was enormously tedious. We had a whole bank of phones that we would use for testing these to, and all these were like bricks, like huge phones.

Roman Mars:
But phones eventually got smaller and cheaper and the business model began to change. Phone companies started giving away phones for very little money with the idea that they would make their profits on the contract and other services like ringtones.

James T. Greene:
And that created a demand for better, more musically complex ringtones.

Mike Levine:
Polyphonic ringtones started entering the market and it was like, “Hallelujah. We can create four different channels of audio. Amazing!” And I was so just overjoyed to be able to create like actual kick drums and snare drums.

Roman Mars:
Polyphonic ringtones meant that instead of one note at a time, you could get four notes at one time.

James T. Greene:
And so the classic Nokia ringtone (classic Nokia ringtone plays) came alive in a blaze of polyphonic glory (polyphonic Nokia ringtone plays). With polyphonic ringtones, composers were able to move beyond code and they didn’t have to completely reprogram the song for every phone manufacturer. Now they can actually start using keyboards to map out their creations.

Mike Levine:
If you’re doing a rock and roll track, you have to decide how many of those four tracks you’re going to give to the drums, how many you’re going to give to, let’s say, a guitar baseline and how many you’re going to give to the voice.

James T. Greene:
This was the golden age of the ringtone, when composers like Mike Levine were cranking out their greatest works of ringtone art. Mike was actually responsible for one of my favorite ringtones ever. Back in high school, I was a huge Kanye West fan. I grew up outside of Chicago around the time that Kanye and ringtones were both blowing up. Kanye’s second album, “Late Registration”, had recently been released. Aside from the big singles like “Gold Digger” and “Heard ‘Em Say”, my absolute favorite song was a small cut towards the end of the album, track number 17. It’s a slow-moving track with a dense orchestral build, almost like the falling action of the album. The song is called “Celebration”. I loved the production of this track. I felt like I was onscreen starring in a movie of my life whenever I listened to it. It gave me confidence. Kanye’s “Celebration” was like the perfect musical representation of myself, which made it the perfect ringtone. (“Celebration” ringtone plays followed by James singing the ringtone)

Mike Levine:
(Mike sings “Celebration” ringtone and laughs) “You know what time it is? It’s a celebration of b*tches.” Sorry, I couldn’t not end that.

James T. Greene:
Yeah, no, I’m highly certain that your version was probably the one I downloaded.

Mike Levine:
Stop it. No way.

James T. Greene:
Yeah. I’m pretty sure your…

Mike Levine:
Oh my God.

James T. Greene:
… work was the soundtrack of my late high school years.

Mike Levine:
This is amazing, James, like that’s probably the coolest thing I could imagine.

James T. Greene:

Mike Levine:
Oh my God. I love it. I love it. Oh, fan of my work here.

Roman Mars:
In a short period of time, ringtones became a booming business, but using all these popular songs meant companies like Zingy needed to get the rights to them.

Stacey Abiraj:
So a lot of my recollection of my time there was working in a very fast pace like we need to be the first to get this out. Let’s do it. Let’s figure out who has the rights. Let’s go get them.

James T. Greene:
That’s Stacey Abiraj. She handled the licensing over at Zingy. There was a content team that identified all the hot songs that were coming out. They gave folks like Stacey a heads up and then she went into action.

Stacey Abiraj:
Say, hey, this new song is going to drop by X artist and we need to make sure that we have the ringtone rights, the day the song drops. And so oftentimes our job was feverishly trying within the space of hours to figure out which publishers and labels owned rights to certain songs, how did we get those rights…

Roman Mars:
All these forces, the licensing, tech, and the business came together to usher in the final, fully-evolved form of the ringtone. The Real Tone.

James T. Greene:
Real Tones were basically just snippets of the song cut down to size, like Uncle Scooter’s ringtone. It was just that Maxwell song. It was the closest thing to listening to music on our phones in the mid-2000s, and as cool as it was to finally hear music on your phone in high fidelity, for composers like Mike, it was hard not to see the rise of the Real Tone as something of a loss.

Mike Levine:
Once we got the rights to the actual songs and once the technology got savvy enough, we became much more editors at that point than anything else. We missed getting to actually get into the nitty-gritty and create the audio ourselves.

Roman Mars:
And that bleepy, bloopy ringtone aesthetic was gone forever. Ringtones were just music now, even the classic Nokia ringtone. (Nokia Real Tone plays)

James T. Greene:
And once you could put any sound on a phone, why limit yourself to music?

Mike Levine:
Our largest market were younger, mostly boys, based on a lot of polling data that we had. And so I created ringtones called “burping cow”, “farting donkey”… (“Burping Cow” and “Farting Donkey” sound clips play)

Roman Mars:
That’s some classy stuff.

Mike Levine:
I used to bring home just myself like three, four K a month just selling this stuff. I joke around that it’s the opposite of Edison’s formula. This is like 99% inspiration, 1% perspiration because these take like a matter of minutes to create. I would just find samples of a donkey and farting noises. It’s about as dumb as it sounds.

Roman Mars:
With millions of cell phone users buying Real Tone pop songs and donkey farts, ringtones became a cash cow and not just for the cell phone companies, also for the music industry, which was struggling in the early 2000s.

Sumanth S. Gopinath:
The early 2000s was the rise of file sharing, both of legal and illegal kinds, and this helped to cause a major decrease in music recording industry revenue. And so the ringtone was seen as a way of kind of making up for that.

James T. Greene:
This is Sumanth S. Gopinath. He’s a professor of music theory and he wrote a whole book about the ringtone industry. Gopinath says that Real Tones became an increasingly valuable piece of intellectual property for music publishing companies.

Sumanth S. Gopinath:
Who owns the song is the publishing company. And so it’s the publishing company that gives you permission to essentially use the material of the song.

James T. Greene:
The Real Tones, which were actual snippets of the songs, allowed the music industry to have more control, so they were able to charge a higher price and get a bigger cut.

Roman Mars:
The Real Tone may have helped the music companies, but it ended up being the beginning of the end for the ringtone industry.

James T. Greene:
The custom ringtone met its demise, according to Sumanth, for a few reasons. As smartphones improved, people just started using their own MP3s as ringtones.

Sumanth S. Gopinath:
It became much easier to just copy them and get them on your phone.

Roman Mars:
Also, scammers got into the ringtone business and started scaring off the customers.

James T. Greene:
But the biggest reason was that it just became too much. If everyone had their own cell phone with their own little cute ringtone, public spaces got really noisy. (a cacophony of ringtones)

Roman Mars:
And so everyone just started putting their phones on vibrate. (sound of cellphone vibrating)

Sumanth S. Gopinath:
There was a kind of social policing that really has also taken place to reduce public phone communication practices and the ringtone’s decline is a part of that.

James T. Greene:
Phones became more functional. Texting got better and faster and more convenient. Our phones became full-on pocket computers and entertainment devices with headphones.

Sumanth S. Gopinath:
People are using their phones as part of creating kind of private auditory bubbles for themselves.

James T. Greene:
And this spelled the end for ringtone companies like Zingy and ringtone makers like Mike.

Mike Levine:
I’ll be honest. By like mid-’07, it became an almost daily expectation, be like we knew this ax was going to fall at any time. We just didn’t know when it was going to come. Everybody was just thinking, “We’re all making good money here. Let’s just enjoy it while it lasts.”

James T. Greene:
Unfortunately for Mike, the ax fell just as swiftly as he feared.

Mike Levine:
I believe it was of September or October of ’07, it happened. Our new CEO at that time came around and basically fired our whole content group. It was about 35 to 40 people let go at once.

Roman Mars:
The day the music died.

Mike Levine:
Yeah, it was not a happy day.

Roman Mars:
Over a decade later, our phones are touch-screened mini-computers that never leave our sides. They are our music players, our televisions, our portal to the world, and in a way, it all kind of started with Vesku and his need to have Van Halen on his flip phone.

Vesa-Matti Paananen (“Vesku”):
We proved that there is such thing as a mobile entertainment. There’s a business there and it will change the whole world.

James T. Greene:
Vesku remembers his little place in history every time his phone rings.

Vesa-Matti Paananen (“Vesku”):
Let me see, it’s … I’ll switch my phone on here. (“Surfin’ USA” plays)

James T. Greene:
It’s not a polyphonic ringtone. It’s just an MP3 file that plays when Vesku gets a call, but it’s still something he holds onto as a form of self expression.

Vesa-Matti Paananen (“Vesku”):
I think it’s been there at least 15 years. I’m a couch surfer myself, so for me, “Surfin’ USA” is also a statement that I’m a surfer.

James T. Greene:
Vesku isn’t the only one still using custom rings. Mike, the former ringtone maker, is now a student of musicology at the University of North Carolina, and his ringtone screams student of musicology who still thinks about ringtones.

Mike Levine:
I have been using Radiohead’s “Idioteque”, actually, for a while, which I think makes a really good ringtone. (“Idioteque” plays)

James T. Greene:
And don’t forget about my Uncle Scooter. His ringtone 16 years later is still that Maxwell song.

Uncle Scooter:
In my day, when you got something, you held on to it because it was hard to come by. So when you got something, you learned to take care of it and treasure that and I guess it carried over into my adulthood, especially with something that you like. I love this ringtone and I held onto it for dear life and I’ll probably have this ringtone until I die. (“This Woman’s Work” plays)

James T. Greene:
I may not have a Maxwell ringtone on my deathbed, but after reporting this story, I decided I’m not going to keep my phone on silent anymore. I’m using ringtones again and I think a lot about which ringtone to use on a given day. My default is one of my favorite “Yeah Yeah Yeah” songs, one that represented a pivotal moment of my life and it brings me joy every time a telemarketer calls. If I travel, I’ll switch it up to match wherever I’m going, kind of like how someone reads a book about the place that they’re visiting. If I’m in the DC area, I may switch out my ringtone to a “GoldLink” song. The week that NPR’s morning edition changed their theme song – RIP – I made my ringtone the original theme. I think of ringtones kind of like enamel pins or tote bags or baseball caps. They’re a simple way for me to show off my tastes in an increasingly templatized world.

James T. Greene:
So, a modest suggestion here for the next time you go out in public. Take your phone off vibrate, load up your favorite song, something that says something about you, turn the volume up, and wait for a robot scammer to call.



Reporter James T. Green spoke with Arthur Roberts, aka, Uncle Scooter; Vesku-Matti Paananen, Mobile Business Group Lead at Microsoft, and maker of Harmonium, the world’s first ringtone composer; Mike Levine: PH.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina College of Arts and Science, and early ringtone composer at the company, Zingy; Stacey Abiraj, Senior Counsel at HBO, and content licensor at Zingy; Sumanth S. Gopinath, Associate Professor of Music Theory at the University of Minnesota, and author of The Ringtone Dialectic: Economy and Cultural Form. This episode was edited by Emmett Fitzgerald.

  1. Kay Gilbert

    You’re crowdsourcing responses to the dorm lounge situation, and I confess to being baffled. I’m sorry he found this so memorably awful, but I can’t see why he felt the situation was complicated. If people were looking at him because a nearby phone was ringing, why didn’t he say, “Don’t look at me, it’s not my phone”? And when he did pick it up, and the owner got pissed, why didn’t he say, “You left your phone, and your ringtone was annoying all of us, so I turned it off”? The woman with the phone was entirely at fault, so I don’t know why he felt either responsible or embarrassed, or that anything required a complicated explanation.

    1. Helena

      I agree with your comment. I don’t understand why he couldn’t have just spoke up and said that it’s not his phone. Simple as that. The situation need not escalate greater than it should be. I felt frustrated at the guy more than pity.

      If anything, I thought this segment was the weakest in the entire episode and made the episode longer than it should be without adding substance.

    2. Fm

      I completely agree. What was the big deal? I found this anecdote perplexing and rather annoying. I wanted to yell, “Use your words!” as if he was a toddler. Really this is a moment he keeps coming back to in his mind over & over, and he STILL can’t figure out what to say? This does not seem like a complex social situation.

    3. The comeback is: (*imitating the ringtone voice*) “Well your phone was ringing and it was really annoying that nobody was answering it”

      Then repeat as much of the ringtone as you can until she gets it.

  2. Helge Frisenette

    That was quite a weak episode. I’m a big fan of the show and wouldn’t normally complain about one episode that don’t exactly fit my tastes, but if you don’t object, people will never know.

    It seemed to cater to people with nostalgic feelings for a minor bad taste fad that ended ten years ago. You’re putting on a pedestal something that is at best mundane. I know, that is what the show is about, the mundane and unseen design in life, right? But somehow you’re always able to find an interesting angle.
    This was just a boring retelling of a boring, short-lived little piece of prol history.

    Not to speak of the toe-curling “dichotomy” story at the end. Just tell her, that her phone was bothering everyone and you had to do something to stop it. That’s it. Her fault. There’s no story.

    The aesthetic of the sound, as shortly alluded to in the episode, is just the aesthetic of FM synthesis which is what the non-bleepy, non-sample based tones use.

    It’s the sound of 80s synths and early sound chips for home computers.

    There is a huge and continuing scene for that sound and its variants. So nothing lost.

  3. Lori

    This episode was, for me, the most heart-string-tugging nostalgia fest. Every two minutes I had to pinch myself out of a visceral reverie of my college days…high school even, the moment in biology when the first place crashed into the world trade towers, even before that…the moment in 9th grade where we had to turn off tanning salon parking lots MTV’s TRL to watch coverage of Colombine, retail mall jobs and waiting for the bus on a -15* Minnesota morning at 5am worrying if my push-up bra would freeze… the most trying and beautiful times of my life, maybe the last times I felt really amazed and awed by life. Incredible that a few chords of lo-fi were all it really took to power the time machine after all the searching. Thanks for this.

  4. The utterly perplexed, young woman says, “Excuse me. What are you doing? Why are you holding my phone?” In an awkward and somewhat, Hugh Grant charming way, Joe Rosenberg replies, “Oh I’m sorry. I had to ah. I had to reject the call.”

    “You did what?”

    “Excuse me?” replied Joe in a tinny, Alicia Silverstone, impersonation. “Your phone? It’s ringing. Excuse me. I still don’t know why you’re not picking up the phone because it’s really annoying. Excuse me…” and he continued, repeating the twelve minute meta-monologue in the middle of the student lounge.

    Not more than one minute in, the young woman had taken her phone and left the room. The rest of the room began to chuckle. By the five minute mark everyone had joined in, pausing to laugh and guffaw at every “Excuse me.”

    1. Paul Taylor

      Exactly the right answer. No need to explain complicated struggles. Just make her feel them for herself. Excellent!

      P.s. great episode

  5. Sontaron

    For the ringtone comment I think I would have replied in a nice but sarcastic maner:
    OH I’m sorry your phone was ringing and getting annoying. It told me so its self.

    1. Jack

      My stairs-wit comeback would be to do this in the voice of the ringtone itself! “Um. ExcUse me. But. Your ~phone~. Was RINGING. And it was VeRy. AnnoYing!!”

    2. AmyRenee

      The only way to fight Clueless/ Valley Girl is with Clueless quotes. My choice would be “Way harsh, Tai” – but other options would include:
      “Whatever!” (complete with W hand sign)
      “Ugh, as if!”
      “You’re a virgin who can’t drive!”
      Did I miss any other classics?

  6. Simon Roffey

    Since 2005 I’ve had the first 15 seconds of “Don’t Get me Started” by Rodney Crowell as my ringtone, on countless phones. If you listen to that track, you’ll hear why it makes a great ringtone.

    Also, you mentioned the ringtone that was ‘talking’. A few years ago, I worked with a guy who’s son had recorded ‘Dad, your phone is ringing. Answer your phone Dad’ as a ringtone.

    Keep up the good work!

    (Oxfordshire, England)

  7. Jen

    Ringtone Comment: “Well, maybe you shouldn’t have abandoned your phone on the loudest volume setting, with the most annoying ringtone, in a designated quiet zone.”

  8. Kyle Tripp

    For the comeback he should say in his best impersonation of the ring tone, “I just hung up your phone because it was SOOOOO ANNOYING AND PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO SLEEP!” Then walk off with a Hugh Grant Smirk and your hands in the air.

  9. Kyle Tripp

    For the comeback he should have said in his best impersonation of that ringtone voice, “I hung up your phone because it was SOOOOO ANNOYING AND PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO SLEEP! Then he should put the phone down, get up, and walk away with a Hugh Grant smirk and his hands in the air.

  10. jwlarocque

    I’d love a download of some of the ringtones featured in the episode (Van Halen’s Jump in particular). I suppose rights issues prevent that though.

  11. Kenneth Ryckeley

    I would have held up my own phone and said, “Not it!” This would deflect the derision of the room toward the phone’s true owner.

  12. Kyra

    The ringtone comeback I would probably do is repeat the ringtone to her in the most annoying voice possible.

  13. Ellie

    That’s what I was thinking, too!

    Such a compelling episode. Thanks for this hard work, 99% Invisible!

  14. JB Segal

    I can’t believe that you did a whole story on ringtones – which I enjoyed, to be clear – without mentioning Thomas Dolby once.
    (Which is sourced off of )

    See twitter in a moment or 2 for the even more important thing. :)

    (And your comment form doesn’t accept the entirely legal “+” in the left side of email addresses!)

  15. He was way way too polite about that library situation.

    That sounds infuriating being yelled at because of no fault of your own, it was entirely her fault.

    Well handled.

  16. MC

    My ringtone is the Paul Simon song “You Can Call Me Al” and as a teacher I would always leave it on in case parents called or there was an emergency.A few months into each school year, my 4th graders hear the opening bum bum bum BUM and start swaying and continue even after I silence the call or answer. I hope when they get older they hear the song and instantly want to simplify fractions.

  17. Linda Kuzma

    Let your mortification go! I believe you were the victim of a practical joke, or possibly some psychology 101 unethical “social experiment” since the woman waited until you touched the phone to declare herself the owner.
    And if it helps to replay the moment with a comeback: “your phone was disturbing the study atmosphere. Please be more considerate next time.”

  18. Peter

    No, you have to really return fire. No sarcastic wit, no jokes, just “Your ringtone is really annoying and it had to be stopped.”

  19. Frank Lee

    I have never yelled at a podcast before nor paused one to write the creators but that story about the clueless ringtone was so infuriating. All you had to do was stand up for yourself and ask why she left her phone alone and how she didn’t hear it as she approached. Poor pin cushion

  20. Frank Lee

    I kind of question all parties intelligence on this call for comebacks as there’s no need for it lol it’s nuts

  21. Tom Colmer

    I think my response would have been too repeat the ringtone back at her until, 15 years later, she was agonizing over her own lack of stair-wit. My opinion was that you took too much credit for her social faux-par. It was a pretty sureal moment, why not make it weirder?

  22. Matthew Boreen

    I think the only way to reply to the women with the unattended annoying ringtone would be to say in the same tone and cadence “Excuse me! Pick up your phone! It is so annoying”. And….. repeat ad nauseam.

    1. Adam Reab

      The history and evolution of the ring tone was interesting and I found that part of the program enjoyable. Unfortunately, the stories about other people’s ring tones and their interactions with them were tough to get through. The reaction I had to the recommendation to start using a custom ring tone again sums it up pretty well, “Nobody but you cares about your ring tone. For everyone else it’s an annoyance, please keep your phone quiet.”

  23. Bjarne J S

    I expected this article to mention BomfunkMCs who in an interview claimed that their hit “Freestyler” actually made more from ringtones than cd-singles. To be fair, it was a brilliant ringtone, at a time before polyphonic was a thing.

    When mp3s came around, I used Twisted Nerve by Bernard Herrmann (the whistling track from Kill Bill) for several years. A massive earworm, and my gift to those around me.

  24. Adrian

    “This woman’s work” By Maxwell, had me ROFLMAO at the gym. The funniest and most wonderful thing I have heard all year. Brilliant!! !! !

  25. Cheryl

    Another option for stairwit: “What!? This is YOUR phone!?? I’m so embarrassed! I thought it was MY phone. You know, I have the EXACT SAME ring tone!!”

  26. Clayton

    The utterly perplexed, young woman says, “Excuse me. What are you doing? Why are you holding my phone?”

    “Your phone told me to”. Hand it to her and walk away.

    This has the benefit that it’ll perplex her and later on she’ll realize what she did.

  27. Allison

    I loved this episode, I am a huge fan of 99pi and this episode was great. My response would be:
    “I am invading YOUR privacy! You are invading our peace and quiet with your annoying ringtone, so I decided to turn it off, and if you didn’t want me to then you shouldn’t have left it unattended in a place where students are studying.

  28. Ness Blackbird

    For better or worse, I have encountered situations such as this many times, and I have well-honed responses which work for me. In this situation I would have said (and I really would have, this is a 1/4 second response for me), “But it said I had to answer it, over and over. And all the people were looking at me. Look at them — they still are!”

    For me, the correct tone is not a dominant one, it’s vulnerable. You were in a vulnerable state for various reasons (perhaps especially because you had just been woken up), and it would not have been possible for me in that state to be dominant. So in this situation I prefer to be open and vulnerable.

  29. Joseph Yap

    Regarding a comeback to the woman who left her phone, it’s simple: repeat what the phone said in the way the phone said it while handing the phone back.

    “Excuse me, I don’t understand why you’re NOT picking up the phone because it’s REALLY annoying!”

    *hand over the phone*

    You end up mocking the phone by trying to imitate it, make it clear to the owner why you answered the phone, and make it clear that she is the owner.

  30. Clark Dungaree

    I think we’ve hit a low point. From the narrator’s high school freshman essay-level writing, to the waxing nostalgic about the most irritating trend in recent memory, I just can’t imagine how this made the cut.

    Especially the “call to action” at the end. As this dude is telling us to take our phones off silent and blast our own mp3 snippets, I’m in my car just saying, “no, no, no, no” out loud.

  31. Nathan

    Here are my submissions for a snappy comeback:

    “Your ringtone is only half as annoying as you are, but both of you need to shut the hell up while people here are trying to get some rest”

    “I’m sorry, but I was doing everyone here a favor by shutting up your phone. You can augment that favor for everyone by shutting up your face.”

    “I invaded your privacy because your phone was invading our peace and quiet”

    “I rejected your call because your pimp shouldn’t be calling you here.”

  32. David

    Comeback, I would have said “hold on one minute”.
    Used her phone to call my phone. Then I would have placed her phone on the table and called it from my phone. Then I would have said “no no no, you need to sit here and listen to this, everybody can look at you and wonder why you aren’t picking up the phone this time.”

  33. Drake

    The response depends a lot on what your goal is – to be justified or witty. I’d be tempted to say, “Aw, shucks, I guess I’m not getting the secretary job, eh?” Or go with Spock: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

    That said, as other commenters have mentioned, this was likely a prank. In fact, it might have been calculated to get you off of the sofa near the roaring hearth so that she could take the spot. As such, the best response might be to grin and say “nice try”, then go back to sleep. After you silence her phone.

  34. JH

    You were punk’d. If this had happened a year or two later, we could all view it on YouTube today instead of listening to your whiny re-telling.

  35. Mark

    I would have gone with: “Sorry, but your phone has a really annoying personality and I had to shut it up.”
    And if you’re still feeling bold enough for the follow up: “You know you can change that right?”.

  36. Doug

    Comeback: The jerkstore called and they’re running out of you.

    Ok, real reason I’m writing is because this episode made me recall an extremely funny (at least to me) experience. I love satire on pop culture, so when I found out I could make a voice memo my ring tone, I played with a few ideas. The one that stuck was me shrieking like I was losing my mind and wailing and crying saying: “Doug! Doug! Why don’t you pick up the phoooone??? Waaawaaa waaa. Pleeeeease! Pick up the phone!! [sobbing and crying]. It of course was extremely annoying, but that was the point and it was hilarious to me. In fact, if you want a sound byte, I recreated it from memory quite well in my car when I was listening to this episode. So anyhow, my favorite occurrence of getting me at a bad time was when I was at work, in a meeting, and I left my phone on my desk (which was not too far away from the meeting room). And my phone goes off and it’s just shrieking and even my colleagues in the meeting were wondering if there were kids wondering around our office making this noise. I of course didn’t fess up. Ah, those were the good ol’ days. Back then I became the “beautiful pooper” on myspace to satirize the sheer vanity of everyone, which involved me taking classy themed pictures of me on the toilet, like “baseball pooper”, and “guitar pooper”. One my faves was “hardcore extreme pooper” where I set my mountain bike up in a wheelie in front of the can. Oh, and I of course used a timer on my camera to take the photos myself, which basically made me prepare the toilet area with all the props, set the 10 second timer, run over, pull my pants down and grab the props, and turn toward the camera. Hence the mountain bike preparation took some skill and multiple takes. Alright…thanks for an entertaining trip down memory lane.

  37. Special_Tea

    Woman: “Touching someone else’s phone is such a violation”
    Joe: “That’s nothing compared with how your phone was violating our ears.” *Thrusts phone into woman’s hand and walk out in disgust*

  38. Marty Levine

    Love the show. I think just reciting that ringtone back at her — every second of it — would have shown her how annoying it was to listen to, and made her realize she’d subjected everyone to its entirety.

    P.S. Does Maxwell’s publishing company get the money for such ringtones, or does the publishing company of the song’s author, Kate Bush, get the funds? If I had that ringtone, it would be ruined now by appearing as the season two opener to The Handmaid’s Tale anyway … I could only picture a mass execution.

  39. Danilo

    Great first part, very unnecessary second part, with you guys trying to build pathos on a story that didn’t have any and was a bit boring.

  40. Josie

    “This Woman’s Work” is a song by Kate Bush that was covered by Maxwell in 1997. I think it’s actually a very complex song about childbirth. Misdirected credit aside, I think it would have been really interesting to note that in the process of distillation, ring tones were kind of brutal in the way they stripped music of meaning.

    1. Adam

      I don’t mind people covering songs, or sampling music, but please give credit to the original writer and producer of the song “This Woman’s Work.” Kate Bush is a genius and deserves to be acknowledged for writing such a profound and amazing song. At least a mention would be appreciated.

  41. Damien Riehl

    The woman was a Psych 101 or Sociology 101 student, emboldened by reading about other social experiments. So she made her own. Perhaps for an assignment. Perhaps for fun. Either way, no reason that the experiment’s subject/victim needs to worry about it 15 years later.

  42. Yossi

    He should have answered in the same annoying valley girl voice “Why didn’t you answer your phone. Ech, your ring tones so annoying!”

  43. Ethan

    “Yeah well I just got to talk about you and your ringtone for 11 minutes on an incredibly popular podcast.”

  44. If we wanted to bring back this kind of personalization to contemporary cell phones, it wouldn’t be ringtones. It would be emoji sets. Imagine a world where the OS lets you choose whatever emoji set you want to use, similar to changing your system font. Imagine looking over someone’s shoulder and seeing a completely different style of emoji than you expected.

  45. Claire

    My ringtone for many years was a chicken. When I replaced that phone, I couldn’t figure out how to switch over the file, so my husband made a chicken noise into my phone’s mic. I laughed everytime it rang, knowing that it was him pretending to be a chicken just to make me happy.

  46. Salahori

    This brought back memories! I should probably be dead by now but in 1998, I got my first (and only 9th to date) cell phone which was a bright blue Eriksson pre-paid flip phone, the screen for which was a single line of scrolling information. Even this bare-bones artifact actually allowed you to program a ring tone *note for note*, which it played in an invariable staccato rhythm. I programmed in “Fur Elise.”

    Now my phone is just perpetually on vibrate, but it warms my heart to know my ring is the “Knight Rider” theme on a friend’s phone.

    Great episode!

  47. Mark

    “Excuse me! Your phone was ringing. Were you going to answer it?”

    After she continues expressing her disillusionment you touched her phone, repeat next line with the same spin. Keep repeating until her irritation rises.


  48. The perfect response is “Why did I pick up your phone? Why did you leave your phone here?! We’re all trying to relax here and your annoying ass ringtone is going off! You don’t want your phone picked up by random people? Don’t leave it around!”

  49. Samantha

    Snappy Comeback for the dorm lounge question Why did you answer my phone?

    Answer: “Because it told me to.”

    Not 100% true, but true enough that I don’t think she would’ve argued.

  50. Xander

    I love the ringtones at the bottom of the article. As I listened I realized that you have made an unintentional soundboard. If you scrub back and forth between songs you can make some very cool techno sounds.

    My favorite combo is “Nerds that Party” and “The Custom Ringtone”

  51. Russ

    I have the BEST ringtone. It is the ringtone used by detective Wallandar in the PBS series.
    I claim it is best because it really stands out, even in a noisy environment. It’s not a musical snippet like everyone else uses, it’s a repeating series of sharp tones that grab your attention. There’s actually two versions, I use the ‘Wallandar 09’ one.

  52. Katherine

    The awkward common room situation comeback to “you answered my phone?!” is, “it told me to!” 🤓😝

  53. Paul Martin

    Sorry, I’m late with these comments — I just heard the episode during my morning commute. I think the most perfect comeback would be to tilt your head to the right, look her straight in the eye and imitate the ringtone as close as you can – in a high pitch voice, “Excuse me, your phone is ringing. I don’t understand why your not picking it up.” As she tries to response – interrupt her with “Excuse me, your phone is ringing and it’s really annoying.” — No need to explain because her own ring tone explains it all.

  54. EMH

    Good episode but the story at the end is perplexing. An uninteresting anecdote dragged out to a 5 minute monologue full of unnecessary filler. I’m not sure why this had to be a part of the episode.

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