Dialing for Dollars was a popular American radio and television program during the mid-20th century. A local on-air host would advise viewers of the day’s code word and then dial a randomly selected telephone number. If the person answering the phone knew the code word, he or she won a cash award; otherwise, the amount of the award increased until a winner was found. The show had a significant impact on American popular culture, and similar contests are held in modern times.
Dialing for Dollars originated as a radio show in the late 1930s. Like many popular radio shows, it launched a TV version as televisions became widely available in the 1940s. At the time, national networks originated only a small percentage of available programming; local affiliates filled the rest of the broadcast day with original or franchised programs. Dialing for Dollars was an example of the latter. Local versions appeared on stations from Baltimore to San Francisco until the late 1970s.
Sometimes the show would fill its own one-hour time slot. Other versions appeared during commercial breaks for the day’s movie broadcast. The host revealed the day’s code phrase and the prize amount, usually between $100 and $500 US Dollars (USD). The host or a sidekick then selected a local telephone number at random, sometimes with pages clipped from a phone book. The person called had to answer the phone with the code phrase and then give the prize amount when prompted to win that amount. If no one answered or the respondent didn’t know the code phrase, the prize amount increased and another number was dialed.
Dialing for Dollars became an inexpensive and popular way for local stations to increase ratings and market share, especially during midday when viewership was low. Some hosts referred to the combination of winning phrases as the count and the amount, which became a popular catchphrase in those areas of the country. In the late 1970s, television programming saw an increase in nationally syndicated programs, especially talk shows. At the same time, the rise in two-income families meant fewer homes had an adult at home during the day to answer the phone. By the 1980s, Dialing for Dollars had become a memory.
This show left a lasting impression on the American pop-culture landscape. It may be best remembered for its mention in the song “Mercedes Benz” by rock singer Janis Joplin; it was Joplin’s last recorded work. Popular media figure Oprah Winfrey was a Dialing for Dollars host while working for a Baltimore TV station in 1978. In the 21st century, local radio stations use similar contests to reward listeners with cash or prizes. The phrase “dialing for dollars” itself has returned to popular use as a way to describe telemarketing scams.