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Let Your Voice Do the Walking : 2 Immigrants Now Living in Orange County Enter the New Field of Talking Yellow Pages

Times Staff Writer

When Vladimir Berelson and Boris Kushnir left the Soviet Union a decade ago, that nation’s telephones were outmoded, computers were virtually non-existent, and the telephone book was still a dream.

Today, the two men live in Orange County, and they have combined all three elements in a state-of-the-art referral service known as talking yellow pages.

Berelson and Kushnir launched On-Line Yellow Pages last Saturday and made 20 to 30 referrals a day from a computer data base that includes telephone numbers, addresses and short descriptions of more than 1,500 businesses in south Orange County.

So far, 40 advertisers have paid $200 or more to be listed with Kushnir’s and Berelson’s Lake Forest-based business. Consumers in search of a service or a store can call their toll-free 800 number and are referred to one of the companies that has bought a listing.

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If no company has sponsored an ad in a given category, the caller is referred to a non-paying company.

Kushnir and Berelson, brothers-in-law who left their native Odessa in 1979, believe that their service will succeed because Americans have too much of a good thing.

“There are so many telephone books in the area that you never have the right book available when you need it,” Kushnir said. “And even if you do, it’s bulky and inaccessible, so we think our service will be very useful.”

After moving to the United States, Kushnir worked for several local companies. In 1984, he opened a design business with his wife, Alla. Berelson worked as a quality-control expert at several local companies.

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The men started discussing the idea of a talking yellow pages 2 1/2 years ago and have been researching local businesses and competitors ever since.

Five operators will work around the clock from their Lake Forest headquarters to answer calls from consumers.

‘We call it high tech with a personalized touch,” Berelson said.

Talking yellow pages first appeared about four years ago in the United States and Canada. Presently, there are 15 to 20 in general service, according to Dan Maitland, president of BDR AudioTex, a Toronto-based company that provides talking yellow pages services.

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Two companies have failed in attempts to begin similar yellow page services in Orange County. A third, Los Angeles-based Primex Talking Yellow Pages, has functioned throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties since late 1987.

Michael Amin, President of Primex, said his company’s switchboard attracts 15,000 calls a day from across the metropolitan area and its advertising budget has swelled from $10,000 per month to $100,000 per month over the last four years. He said the company is presently making a profit but declined to elaborate.

Primex has specialized in providing information on professionals such as doctors and lawyers, and its advertising prices, which begin at $350, are higher than those of Kushnir and Berelson.

“It’s very hard to beat the Yellow Pages at what they do,” Maitland said. “It’s difficult to make this work unless you’re backed up by the telephone company.”

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The telephone companies are prohibited from entering the audio-referral market until 1992. Maitland said he believes that talking yellow pages cannot succeed on a large scale until the telephone companies bring their massive resources to the market.

Mark McCourt, owner of Freeline Inc., a Mission Viejo-based company that recently dropped out of the business, said the high cost of advertising was his downfall. He said his service attracted up to 300 calls a day, but he didn’t have the money to adequately advertise the business and increase demand.

He still maintains that talking yellow pages will eventually dominate the telephone-directory business because it is easier for consumers to call a referral company than locate one in the many ungainly phone books.

“Talking yellow pages are a vastly superior way of doing business, but to make people change the way they have always done things will take a multimillion-dollar advertising effort,” McCourt suggested.

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To beat the marketing problem, Berelson and Kushnir have focused on just a portion of Orange County. They plan to spend about $100,000 over the next four months to advertise their service on cable television, radio and in neighborhood newspapers.

Of the 40 customers they have attracted so far, most also advertise in the more expensive Yellow Pages, Kushnir said.

Kimberly Seiver, co-owner of Five Star Limousine in El Toro, said the On-Line Yellow Pages costs $300 per month for a full-service contract, compared to $600 for the Yellow Pages. She also said it has more potential for attracting customers.

“They made us an offer we couldn’t refuse,,” Seiver said. “We advertise in the Yellow Pages, but they don’t have people around 24 hours a day with our business listed first.”

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Kushnir and Berelson said they hope to cover the entire county by October and attract 2,000 to 3,000 calls a day by the end of the year.

“Some day, we are planning to expand to the Soviet Union,” Kushnir said. “That would be a real step toward perestroika.


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