From a farmhouse in the cornfields of Spring Grove, Minn., Audio Computer Information cofounder John Stewart produces and markets his weekly radio program about computers and sells spots on it. He's been able to place the program with some 40 stations so far, but he wants to pick up the pace -- and thus allow an increase in his advertising rates. The problem: within a tight budget, getting station managers and media buyers to notice that his little enterprise even exists. "No one looks at unsolicited faxes," Stewart says, "and Priority Mail isn't noticed that much, either."

Now he's trying a new attention grabber: the seemingly old-fashioned telegram. The sense of urgency traditionally associated with telegraphic messages that wear the familiar Western Union logo is so ingrained, an independent survey recently determined, that 93% of those who get one can't resist opening and reading it. That's two times the rate of regular mail, including first class.

Exploiting the predictable reaction its century-old imprint still triggers, Western Union has developed two products for business. Talking Telegrams, a collection service for big companies, tantalizes a company's deadbeat debtors by phoning them that they have a telegram; when the delinquents ask what it says (about 80% do), they're told to pay up. Western Union requires a minimum of 1,000 uncollected accounts for that ploy. (It may lower the minimum to 200, bringing the service within range for small companies.) But a small operation can gain a similar effect via DeskMail, a modemized link through which a message is typed on a PC and transmitted directly to Western Union, where it's formatted and dispatched as a Western Union-labeled missive.

Stewart fires off one-page "wires" through DeskMail for a basic $3.90 each for overnight delivery (compared with $15 for a conventional telegram), or $1.59 for second-day delivery. The pricing for each letter (charged monthly to his credit card) works out to be even lower, Stewart says, "considering you don't use your own stationery, don't have to print the letters, and don't have to take them to the post office."

Once recipients peer inside the curiosity-inducing envelope, they're impressed. "It delivers the perception that you really mean business, because recipients assume you've gone to a lot of extra effort" -- which, Stewart concedes, he hasn't. If the prospects sign on, Stewart dispatches another wire to thank them. "Even if you're working out in the country on a single laptop," he concludes, "you come off looking like a major corporation from downtown." And if that technique eventually becomes as commonplace as a fax, there's always the alternative that sly public-relations pros use to entice a recipient to open an envelope: put something lumpy in it.

DeskMail is from Western Union Priority Services. The software is $30; it requires an IBM-type PC, plus modem. Connection charge: 35¢ per modem session (over Western Union's dedicated 800 line). There's a $4.95 monthly subscription fee after the second month. For information call 800-624-5472. -- Robert A. Mamis