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Long before half of the world’s podcasts and basic cable channels were devoted to true crime and UFOs, there was Unsolved Mysteries. If you’re wondering what it was like to have to answer the thousands of calls that poured in, well, here’s some good news: We talked to Delilah, who worked as a phone operator for the show. In any given episode, the title of Unsolved Mysteries could refer to a dangerous sex offender who was still at large or a giant bat-monster which the citizens of one small town believed might be an alien. So when they’d flash the phone number on screen to solicit tips, a very large number of calls were from bored trolls or conspiracy nuts.

And Delilah would have to patiently listen to them all. She would get the callers insisting they knew who was really behind the Oklahoma City bombing, or asking for a segment on the conspiracy behind water fluoridation. He was from around there as a kid, and had been told by a passing soldier that it was a secret satellite that fell. It seemed legit, and I began taking the info down.

But he slowly began adding a detail here and there. About the certain project it might have been. About what it was there for. When my supervisor came around, I was writing about how it was a program to destroy aliens.

He said, ‘Why are you writing this down? But then in 2002, they did an episode about the Phoenix UFOs. Among all of the many calls declaring it the beginning of an alien invasion, Delilah got one from a guy claiming, in a rather convincing way, that it was a secret military project. It turned out that he was telling the truth. The mysterious lights were flares attached to balloons. It turns out it was an amazing tip, because it completely debunked the UFO, but we couldn’t use it.

Because the military had made no announcement to that effect, that caller got lumped in with the cranks. That’s an example of the kind of signal-to-noise ratio you get with a show like this. But we should be clear: When it came to the actual criminals, they were way more effective than you’d think. You once had such promise for positive social change. While the phone lines were there to take tips about real cases, lots of times, it was just viewers who needed someone to talk to.

This meant that operators like Delilah had to field calls from freaked-out viewers after the Mothman episode, worried that they would get mothed to death by a monster with a 15-foot wingspan and glowing red eyes. We needed to comfort them about it. It was just as much a problem with the real cases, such as one in which police suspected the KKK was behind the crime. I got a call from a five-year-old boy, who was white, who was now deathly afraid of them.

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