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February 20, 2003

Broadcast messages: love 'em or hate 'em

Different strokes for different folks sums up the University community’s feelings about the Pittsburgh campus broadcast message service.

According to Jinx Walton, director of Computing Services and Systems Development (CSSD), “The truth is we get mixed reviews about these messages. I’ve never been in a group where discussion of the system came up, that for all the people who said they don’t like it, there aren’t an equal number of people who said that they prefer to have it and find it useful.”

First introduced at Pitt in 1994 as an integral part of the Audix voicemail system, the broadcast messages service was intended originally to provide an additional mechanism to alert the campus community to emergencies and other important announcements that came up suddenly, such as power outage notifications or event cancellations.

“But it evolved into a weekly message service,” Walton said, “because there were so many people who wanted to get a message out, for example to announce University-wide events.”

As a result of the increased popularity of the system, CSSD has developed a set of guidelines for the service.

Last year there were a total of 360 messages, or an average of seven per week, she said. The biggest single user is Pitt athletics, Walton said.

According to E.J. Borghetti, of athletics media relations, “We are frequent users of the broadcast messages system. We use it particularly for our season ticket initiatives in football and basketball, and occasionally for special events like the Pitt-UConn women’s basketball game promotion, because we feel it is an efficient way to communicate with faculty and staff.”

Jim Earle, associate director of athletics, concurred. “We typically supplement these messages with advertising and fliers, but we do appreciate using the broadcast messages to provide a somewhat more personal appeal. I know they’ve let us use Coach Walt Harris and [Coach] Ben Howland to deliver the messages directly to the faculty and staff, and it’s a chance for them to communicate and even to say thank you for the support of the Pitt community.”

Earle said that the athletics department didn’t track the effectiveness of broadcast messages per se. “But we do feel it’s a very efficient, and certainly cost-effective, way to get to our fans and supporters,” he said.

Normally, broadcast messages are recorded by CSSD telecommunications staff each Monday and posted on voicemail Tuesday morning. The weekly broadcast messages remain available through Saturday, unless they are deleted by the individual voicemail user. Under special circumstances, such as emergencies, messages are posted at other times, Walton said.

Having the Audix voicemail service activated is optional for employees, Walton said. The service is automatically activated in the residence halls as part of the students’ flat fee for phone service.

Cost of the service for other members of the University community is $3 per month, per phone.

Of the 23,230 campus phones currently in operation, 15,488 have active voicemail boxes, including 6,262 student/residence halls accounts, according to CSSD.

Those numbers alone indicate the limitations of broadcast messages for reaching the entire community, Walton said. “It’s important that people look at broadcast messages only as a way to augment their advertising, and not as the only way to reach the community,” she said.

Walton added that some people with the service complain it’s a waste of their time weeding through unsolicited weekly messages, and others simply delete the messages before listening to them (by pushing the star+D keys on their phones). In other words, not all who have the broadcast message service avail themselves of it, she said.

Broadcast messages are one feature of the Audix voicemail system that many employees use as an answering machine to record messages when they are not at their desk or to alert callers as to their whereabouts, Walton said.

Recorded messages, including broadcast messages, also are accessible remotely with the user’s password.

Calls into a system-activated phone will offer the caller the option to leave a message. If a message is recorded, a flashing red light is activated on the phone.

Broadcast messages alone do not activate the light, Walton said. “We used to do that, but so many people complained that they wanted their lights activated only when they received a direct call,” she said.

One potential problem is that undeleted broadcast messages accumulate against the maximum allotted time of the voicemail recording system, Walton said. Students’ and most employees’ voicemail boxes are set at 13 minutes of maximum recording time, although the message time can be configured to 20 or 40 minutes maximum.

A user checking messages is alerted by recorded voice when the recordings exceed more than half the maximum time. The user is asked to delete unwanted messages to free up recording time.

“Really, the whole voicemail system is a remnant of the contract we have with Avaya, a telecom company we purchased the Audix equipment from and that maintains our system,” Walton said. Pitt’s contract with Avaya has about two more years to run, she said. In spring 2004, Pitt plans to send out requests for proposals to upgrade the system.

She said CSSD will seek input from across the University, especially if there are system-wide “all or nothing” choices. “If we can get a replacement system and charge incrementally, so that your department could decide if they want it or not, or for a set fee we could implement it [selectively], that would be preferable,” she said.

“One of the things we will be looking at when we go to look at a replacement system is what’s called integrated mail, where you could get your voice messages by e-mail and, vice versa, through your phone system, you’ll be able to get your e-mail. It’s just one of the new technologies available, and I’m sure by the time we look at a new system there will be others on the market.”

—Peter Hart

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