Western Union Tries to Resuscitate the Singing Telegram

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A Western Union messenger, circa 1930s, announces a telegram

In a throwback to the days of yore — before email, Twitter, and Facebook put us in a state of perennial communication overload – Western Union is bringing back the singing telegram.  But this time around, it’s being given a modern twist with the introduction of electronic delivery.

On Thursday the company will launch the microsite wu-singingtelegram.com, which will facilitate sending the audio messages via email.  In the past, a singing telegram would be delivered by a Western Union operator, but now the sender can utilize their own voice, or choose one from a lineup of artists who have signed on with the company, including Snoop Dogg, Timbaland, and K’Naan.  Thus, the 2011 version will provide a more user-generated experience. The singing telegrams will be free through the rest of 2011, though the company will begin charging a fee at the start of the new year.

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Located in 200 countries, Western Union was founded in 1851 as a telegraphy company, and twenty years later began to offer money transfers, which is where the bulk of its business comes from today. Though it had been transmitting messages since the 19th century, Western Union’s first singing telegram was sent in 1933. The company continued to offer a telegram service until 2006, when it acknowledged the fading of the medium and sent its last telegram.  Several smaller companies still send messages via telegraphy, though none has the clout or power of Western Union.

Various niche media have attempted to fill the void left by the demise of the singing telegram, with ideas like candygrams, gorillagrams, and even strip-o-grams. None has had the same impact as the original. By and large, society gave a collective shrug and moved on to newer technologies.

So the question remains: does anyone today even know – or more importantly, care — what a singing telegram is?  Obviously no one is clamoring for telegrams to replace email.  But when you can, with relative ease, independently create and send a webcam video of yourself singing a message, will consumers be interested in paying for this service?  Western Union is about to find out.

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