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865 "VOL" area code assignment was clever keypad kiss-up

Putting area code 865 "VOL" in Knoxville was a clever keypad kiss-up to abate anger in East TN over another new number.
865 Since 423 shirt references the 1999 area code change in Knoxville.

ID=19222207(WBIR - Knoxville) For those looking to shop local in Knoxville, there is possibly nothing more local than the shop "Nothing Too Fancy" on Union Avenue near Market Square.

"We love Knoxville. Our focus is really on local. We use local designers and printers to make pretty much anything East Tennesseans are nostalgic or prideful about," said Lisa Burnett, who owns Nothing Too Fancy with her husband. "Anything you find here, you're really not going to find many other places."

There are t-shirts featuring the Sunsphere, the Great Smoky Mountains, and the tri-star design from the official Tennessee state flag. Burnett says one of the products that routinely rings up at the register calls attention to the hometown digits.

"Eight Six Five was one of the very first designs we did. It just says our area code, it's super-simple, but people really love it. We do everything from pint glasses, coffee mugs, t-shirts, any kind of apparel you can imagine."

The area code products really connect with customers when Burnett spells it out for them.

"A lot of people don't realize 865 spells 'VOL.' We have people check their phones all the time when we tell them that," said Burnett. "People all over the country already like to represent their hometowns with their area code. A few years ago there was an 865 rap song by Mr. Mack that really kind of took off, so people around here get a kick out of it. But with 865, it's especially cool when they figure out it actually spells something that is specific to the area."

One t-shirt in the store reads "865 since 423." That's a reference to the area code change that took place in Knox and surrounding counties in 1999. Let your fingers do the walking through the history of area code changes in Tennessee, and you'll see 865 was a government keypad kiss-up to tone down potential anger among East Tennesseans.

When area codes were first assigned in North America in 1947, the entire state of Tennessee was designated 901. Then in 1954, Middle and East Tennessee became area code 615.

From Nashville to Chattanooga to the Tri-Cities, 615 was the only area code used for more than 41 years. The digits rang with such pride in the home of country music, several talented musicians formed a "super group" in 1969 and named the band "Area Code 615."

After more than four decades of tranquility in the land of 615, the advent of cell phones and pagers finally dialed up the need for new numbers in 1995. The portion of Tennessee in the Eastern Time Zone made the painful transition to 423. Changing area codes meant the whole region had to re-print everything from letterhead to personal checks with the new area code by the February 1996 deadline.

Almost before the ink on 423 finished drying, East Tennessee's supposed long-term solution for dialing long-distance was already approaching another hang-up. The continued explosion of modems and mobile devices devoured digits in the late 1990s. Just three years after the creation of 423, the state was told the new area code would soon be exhausted.

The Tennessee Regulatory Authority had to crack a new code. But where would it put the dividing line in the current 423 area? And how would it patch things up with telephone users who just recently made the expensive switch to 423?

Rather than split the 423 area code in a conventional half, the TRA found some middle ground. It put the new area code in Knox County and the eight surrounding counties, thereby sandwiching it between two disconnected regions of 423. This made 423 one of the few non-contiguous area codes in the nation.

The TRA targeted Knoxville because it believed a clever combination of digits could disarm any inevitable anger. In a clever bit of telemarketing by the government, it decided to assign 865 to the new area code in order to spell out school spirit with "VOL."

The official press release announcing the new area code in April 1999 immediately attempted to appeal to supporters of the University of Tennessee. It began with, "Round-up Smoky [sic] and the Pride of the Southland Band! The wait is over! The home of "VOL Country" has its new and very special area code."

The press release was up front in explaining 865 was chosen "to make the transition more palatable." The announcement ended with the statement, "Cue up Rocky Top!"

"I think it was smart for the state to smooth things over," said Burnett. "It got people excited. They weren't rolling their eyes about updating their Rolodexes again. Instead they were excited that their phone number was going to start with VOL."

This not only made the area code change more "palatable" for residents, but also the University of Tennessee. After all, making the largest public school in the state change its area code is an arduous and expensive task.

The government not only prevented a backlash in Big Orange Country by selling people on 865. It conjured up a code that businesses can still capitalize on in East Tennessee.

"A plain grey t-shirt with 'eight six five' on it means more because it spells 'VOL.' It is just something different. Not every area code spells something, so it's special. And it looks good on a t-shirt," said Burnett.

In 1999, many new area codes were created across the nation to deal with the deluge of mobile phones. East Tennessee's 865 "VOL" was not the only keypad combination that tried to make locals happy about a new number. In in Cape Canaveral, Florida, the new area code became 321 in reference to the countdown at the local NASA launch site.