On Staten Island, you might see people talking into a kitted-out pay phone, but you won’t hear an ordinary conversation. It’s part of New York City’s public radio station WNYC‘s new on-the-ground reporting tool, the TalkBox. Its inaugural post coincides with death of Eric Garner, a Staten Island resident who was killed in police custody one year ago today.
Designed in collaboration with SHoP Architects, the TalkBox encourages people to candidly share their reactions to news stories and local matters that have escalated into national conversations. Case in point: the issues of race, discrimination, and police brutality that Garner’s death magnified. The idea is to use this device as a 24-hour, on-the-ground reporting tool to gather intel from underrepresented communities and give them a voice.
“We can’t have reporters out all the time,” Paula Szuchman, WNYC’s vice president of digital, says. “A pay phone feels iconic and is soon to be extinct in New York City. We’re used to seeing them all the time, and we thought, what if it could be a direct connection to the newsroom?”
The phone is portable and connects to WNYC’s Google Voice account. As soon as callers pick up the receiver, they’re greeted with a recorded question from one of the radio station’s journalists. The prompt asks people about what Garner’s death means to them. On July 17, 2014 Eric Garner was arrested on Staten Island for allegedly selling cigarettes illegally. He argued with police officers about feeling unduly targeted, which was captured on film by a bystander. Officers tackled him and placed him in a chokehold—a dangerous move that was banned 20 years ago. Garner was later pronounced dead.
On June 15, of this year, the first day the phone was installed, 30 people left messages. “There’s something intimate about someone picking up an old-fashioned landline and not having a microphone in their face,” she says. “It takes away a barrier for those who are reluctant to talk.” The messages people have left so far have proven TalkBox’s hypothesis—give people a platform to share their story and they will. You can see their recollections and thoughts in the video below.
As for the phone’s design: It needed to be familiar, but different enough to spark curiosity and attract passersby. SHoP riffed on the look of a sound studio and lined the inside of the aluminum housing with textured wood that looks like soundproofing foam.
“We like to think of ourselves as urban architects, and we want to participate in the discourse of the city,” Vishaan Chakrabarti, a principal at SHoP, says. The social message behind the project resonated with him. “What we try to find out what’s great in the cities where we work, and we amplify that through architecture, material, and forms. We also do it by creating discursive space. When we think of public space, it’s not usually as an amenity, it’s ‘Are we creating a space where a protest can occur?’ Cities and their public spaces—Tiananmen Square, Tahrir Square—are really what drive change in countries because if you’re going to stage a protest, you’re not going to do it in a corn field.”
While WNYC has no immediate plans to build more TalkBoxes, the project has the potential to be scalable and could in theory be installed anywhere in the country. It’s a clever way to recast “obsolete” technology and infrastructure. If more cities had TalkBoxes, they could have a direct line into communities that don’t receive regular media coverage. If reporters had more access to those stories and could disseminate more personal accounts, imagine the possibilities. “In a fantasy world all pay phones could be TalkBoxes,” Szuchman says.
Today, the TalkBox moves to Every Thing Goes Book Café and Neighborhood Stage at 208 Bay Street, on Staten island. Follow @WNYCTalkBox on Twitter to find out where it will be.