BILL McCUE : Time to Face Fax, ‘Guru’ Says : He Insists Lawmakers Should Stay Out of ‘Junk’ Issue

Times staff writer

Bill McCue’s one burning ambition--to sing the songs he has written about facsimile machines on the Johnny Carson show--has been foiled by NBC’s arbiters of taste. So he also wrote a song about his rejection, one verse of which contains NBC’s response to his desire:

“Mr. Carson must maintain his highest standards

And through the years we’ve never seen

A guest succeed in drawing laughter

Discussing an office machine.”

Even if he couldn’t sing for Johnny, McCue has made a mark as a self-proclaimed “fax evangelist,” “fax guru” and front man for the facsimile industry. His motto is: Fax unto others as you would have them fax unto you.

His fellow faxers should take heed of that motto because their use of the latest technological darling for business has caused a flurry of legislation across the country.


The laws, one of which was enacted in Connecticut last week, are aimed at prohibiting so-called “junk fax,” the mechanical version of junk mail. More elaborate fax machines with computer memory can dial into countless fax machines, dropping off advertisements and other material.

As head of Public FAX Inc. in Orange, McCue pushes for more so-called “public stations,” typically photocopying centers where individuals and businesses can send and receive documents by a facsimile machine. He also lobbies on behalf of facsimile users and is widely quoted as an industry expert.

McCue, 43, edits a periodic trade journal called A Matter of Fax and publishes a national directory of public fax stations. Before jumping on the fax bandwagon in 1986, he was a professional political campaign manager and worked in advertising, publishing and public relations. He also was a director of the county Fair Housing Council.

McCue recently sang the praises--figuratively--of the facsimile machine and discussed with Times staff writer Maria L. La Ganga the rise of fax in the 1980s and the efforts to curb its use.

Q. You say junk fax doesn’t exist. But many others disagree, especially those with fax machines in their homes. What are lawmakers saying about it?

A. They say often that this is a problem that’s going to occur in the future. They may bring in one or two witnesses to say that they have been “junked.” And that’s it.


Q. How do they define junk fax?

A. This is how they define the problem: Why should I get an advertisement from somebody I don’t know--about a product I don’t want--on paper that I have to pay for?

Q. Isn’t it a little like being forced to accept the charges on a collect call when you have a telemarketer calling to sell you something?

A. It’s more like having a telemarketer call you on your 800 number. You’re paying for the 800 number. There’s your comparison. We have an 800 number. And we get those kinds of solicitations on our 800 number. The receptionist says: “We don’t take solicitations on our 800 number. Our regular number is (714) 532-5330. Thank you.” That’s just the policy. The person calling, if he’s smart, would take the name off his list because he doesn’t want to waste his time. It’s self-controlling. That’s what we think the case is in the fax market. Junk fax is a non-existent problem. No lawmaker has been able to document the problem beyond isolated horror stories.

Q. You’ve had a horror story yourself. Doesn’t that prove anything to you?

A. But I took care of it. It was Jan. 6, I was working here late. It was 10 o’clock, 10:30 at night, and my fax went off. I kept doing what I was doing, and then a few minutes later the fax went off again. I still didn’t react. Then a couple minutes later the fax went off again, and I said: Boy there’s a lot of action tonight. So I was curious. Three faxes this late at night? So I went and checked. And there were three fax paper advertisements from The Fax Guy in Florida. I thought: Gee, that’s really strange.

Q. Not just strange, but intrusive.

A. Well, there was an 800 number listed, so I called the 800 number. Nobody answered. I sit down and it rings again. I got up and there was another one. A few minutes later, it rings again. Another message comes through. They’re 9 minutes apart. Well, this guy is broadcasting, he’s using a computer or a special fax, and it’s jammed on me. There’s nothing I can do except turn my machine off. But I can’t turn my machine off because I need it for business. Every 9 minutes for as long as I was in the office, dingalingaling. It goes off and a message comes in. So I go home. By 8:30 a.m. when the troops came in, there were 56 pages in the receiving bin amid some other things that came in during the night. So we immediately called up, and by this time there was somebody back there. They corrected the problem and we told them to send us a roll of paper, which they said they would do.

Q. Did they?

A. No, that’s why I keep telling the story and referring to The Fax Guy in Florida. This is where I don’t appreciate what the lawmakers are doing, because in this business you can take care of yourself. I’m still working on The Fax Guy. I’ll keep telling my story until I get my roll of paper, get my pound of flesh. That’s how I can take care of myself. But these people are so quick to run to the lawmakers over something that they can control themselves.


Q. Are advertisers in Southern California picking up on the prospects of faxing?

A. Mr. Fax in Irvine sells low-cost fax paper, and he probably pumps out 5,000 advertisements a day over his fax machines.

Q. How many states are enacting legislation to battle junk fax?

A. Sixteen states have discussed the issue. Four have rejected it. Two have passed it through their equivalent of the House and the Senate, and it’s on the governors’ desks of Connecticut and Maryland right now. It still sits in 10 states. (California State Sen.) Quentin Kopp’s bill has made it to the Commerce and Utilities Committee, so I’m not sure the status.

Q. What does the California bill say?

A. All of them have a general trend that says you can’t send an unsolicited fax advertisement that promotes products or services. The problem with it is that it doesn’t define what an advertisement is. There’s an assumption that it is designed to stop the half-page ad from a Mr. Fax or the menu from a local deli. The reality is that an advertisement or a document that promotes products and services can be a follow-up to a sales call. It can be an agenda sent before a sales call. It can be anything that promotes the sale. What they really focus on is the initiative taken by a marketer to send the word to somebody via a fax machine. And they think that that’s an easy thing to legislate. It’s not. They don’t understand how many of those documents there are floating around and how few people find those to be offensive.

Q. On Tuesday, the governor of Connecticut signed into law the nation’s first law prohibiting junk fax. One reason he signed it was because a fax-users group decided to lobby him via fax and jammed his machine. Isn’t that proof that junk fax is a problem?

A. No. If people had phoned in and tied up his phone lines in opposition to a bill, or brought truckloads of letters on another bill or had stormed the Capitol with thousands of people protesting a bill, he wouldn’t have been outraged. He would have responded, realized people were upset with the bill. It was not appropriate for the opponents of anti-fax legislation to attack his machine and demonstrate how a machine could be tied up. But what was coming in wasn’t junk. It was the voice of the people.

Q. What does it cost the receiver to get an unsolicited fax letter?

A. It costs me less than any other form of solicitation.

Q. How much?

A. Three cents. Three cents and about 10 seconds of my time. If I got an unsolicited message, which I don’t get, I can look at it and resolve it in seconds, because it comes through without a lot of hype. It’s black and white. There’s not a lot of enclosures. There’s no nothing. You can look at it, yes, no, boom, done. If I get a direct mail piece, it’s got all sorts of stuff. It’s got charts, graphs, it’s more complicated, takes longer. If I get a phone call, I’ve got to talk to some guy for 5 to 10 minutes until I can get rid of him. So, in terms of real costs, the fax is the least expensive way of dealing with solicitations.


Q. What about the penalties for illicit faxing, if the laws pass?

A. In Florida they will give you a $10,000 fine and 90 days in jail for a 3-cent intrusion. It’s a stiffer penalty than if you’re a first-time offender on drugs. There’s something wrong with that.

Q. How far along is the law in Florida?

A. It’s still going through committees in the Legislature.

Q. What would happen if the California law passed?

A. If Kopp’s law passes and you can’t send an unsolicited promotion for the sale of products and services, that means that you have to get permission. That seems to be logical. But there’s no provision for how you do that. Do you get it from the receptionist? Or do you have to get it from the person you’re sending it to? Does the permission extend from company to company or between the parties? Is it for the day? Is it for a month? Is it for a year? There’s 10 billion transmissions a year in the United States, and 80% of those transmissions are unsolicited. You’re going to have to have 8 billion telephone calls? And then 8 billion letters. None of it makes sense.

Q. Lots of fax proponents say this is a First Amendment issue. Do you think so?

A. Hell yes. If somebody wants to control what I say, one way to do it is to control what you hear. I can’t talk to you unless I have permission to talk to you? I have to get permission from a group to be able to speak to them? You can’t do that. I can only send you a letter if I have written permission to send you a letter? Hmmm? I can only phone you if I have written permission to phone you? No. But suddenly, I can only fax you if I have permission to fax you. It’s a public utility. Public. As a lawmaker, you’re protecting me from advertising and promotion. But one man’s junk is another man’s opportunity. There isn’t a lawmaker in the country that can evaluate an incoming fax before it comes to me to say whether or not I wanted to get it.

Q. What do you think is going to happen if the proposed federal law passes?

A. It’s going to be like Prohibition. Nobody’s going to stop me from doing that. If you’re dealing with an infringement of the First Amendment, people tend not to say, OK, it’s an infringement, but I’ll stop doing it. They tend to say, go to hell. If I think that I have the right under the First Amendment to send a fax to somebody, I’m going to do it.

Q. When did the first fax machines come out, what were they like and how much did they cost?

A. The first patent on fax was filed in 1843 by a Scottish clockmaker. Gradually the technology evolved through the early 1900s. In 1922, it finally got to a point where they could fax a photograph of Pope Pius XI from Rome to New York. A couple of years later, they were able to fax photographs from London to New York. The technology was early 1900s, and then it was predominately limited to weather maps and military usages from that point on until 1968 and a decision by the FCC. Up to that point, private ownership of fax machines was prohibited. The FCC decision allowed people to buy fax machines and hook them up directly to the telephone lines.


Q. But facsimile use didn’t really catch on until the 1980s. What happened during this decade to make it take off?

A. In 1980, a fax machine cost $15,000. In ‘81, it dropped down to $10,000. That’s a pretty hefty drop. But then it took 3 more years for it to drop another $5,000. And in 1986, it finally broke the $2,500 mark. And it was also when Zap Mail failed. In September of 1986, a Federal Express program in facsimile died. They had initiated it with a $20-million investment to have an alternative to overnight delivery themselves for their big customers. But it was a terrible program. It was too expensive, and they ended up with losses and write-offs of $350 million.

Q. Why didn’t that kill facsimile use from the beginning?

A. It was one of those disasters that got so much media attention that people became aware of fax as an alternative to overnight delivery. The demise of Federal Express Zap Mail elevated the awareness of the business public in terms of fax as an alternative to overnight delivery. And the established base of fax machines had surpassed 300,000. I’m not sure what the actual number was for critical mass of the fax industry, but I would say that by the end of 1986, everything was in place: a low-cost machine, awareness in the marketplace, enough fax machines out there so that there were enough people to communicate with. And we also had the beginnings of the public fax industry. It was just born.

Q. How many fax machines have been sold, and how has that changed over time?

A. In the period of 1984, 1985 and 1986, 433,000 fax machines were sold. In 1987, 424,000 were sold. Nearly the same number was sold in 1 year that had been sold in the previous 3 years. In 1988, it was 864,000, doubled again. This year it will be maybe 1.6 million; it will double one more time.

Q. Many businesses feel they can’t work without computers. How soon do you think we’re going to embrace fax as new technology that’s equally important in our business lives?

A. Within a year or two. The only thing that’s going to slow it down is the ability to manufacture fax machines. They’re nearly all manufactured in Japan. There’s only so many that they can pump out over there.


Q. How much do they cost now?

A. There are three different types of fax machines. You’ve got the low-end fax machines that are under $1,000: No frills, manual paper cutter, small roll of paper. You can get it at Adray’s here in Orange County for less than $600. A business fax, one that’s got a 328-foot roll of paper, automatic paper cutter and a few features like auto dialing goes from $1,500 to maybe $2,200. And then you’ve got the more expensive fax machines that might be in the $3,000 to $5,000 category, which tend to be tied in with computer memory.

Q. When did you get your first machine?

A. In my first exposure to fax, I was director of communications for Congressman John Heinz when he ran for U.S. Senate in 1976. We had a fax machine tied in with his Pittsburgh office and his Washington, D.C., office, and we would send speeches back and forth so that he could approve the speeches. That was the old 6-minute routine. I didn’t get a fax machine until I started this Public FAX project back in 1986. That’s been 3 years now, and even my use of fax has changed.

Q. How?

A. I used to think of fax as being for urgent documents. In fact, back then, I used to have slogans like: When tomorrow’s too late, fax it today. Today, I use the fax as an alternative to the phone. I use it as an alternative to a stamp. I no longer think in terms of urgency. I don’t even think about using my fax. I just automatically use my fax as my first way of communicating.

Q. You bought your first one for business in 1986, but you have one in your home, too. What do you with a fax in your home and how long have you had it there?

A. That’s been there for about a year. I use it to deal with the East Coast in the morning. At 6 in the morning, the world’s awake on the East Coast. That’s the purpose of a home fax. People always ask, “What’s it going to take for the fax to get into the home?” The fax is going to get into the home not because of the personal use of the fax, but because it’s an extension of your business life. So the husband or wife who has a fax at the office invariably is going to communicate with business associates when they’re at home. If you use your telephone a lot, you need a telephone at home to be able to communicate with people in your off hours. But if you’re depending on your fax as a mode of communication, it’s just as likely that you’re going to want to fax at your home.

Q. How many faxes do you need?

A. You don’t need a lot of fax machines in a company unless you’re doing certain things. There’s a company here in Orange County, Restaurant Enterprises Group, that has seven fax machines on line, but they do all the ordering for the Coco’s and Carrows and Reuben’s. There are other companies that might need to have one for incoming and one for outgoing. You can tell. As soon as you start getting complaints that people can’t get to you because your fax machine is always busy, you know you need more.