by Tiziana Rinaldi
TalkBox is an old pay phone that New York Public Radio (WNYC) retrofitted as a neighborhood listening station. It launched in 2015, one year after Eric Garner died in the chokehold of a NYPD officer on Staten Island, New York. WNYC placed TalkBox inside the St. George Ferry Terminal on Staten Island and invited the community to share thoughts about Garner’s death. In 2016, TalkBox was taken to the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, one of the oldest African-American communities in the country, to explore issues of segregation. Participants either recorded their thoughts or listened to the audio already gathered from other community members. Afterwards, WNYC shared the audio on social media and in its programming.
Project Goals: As a public media outlet in New York City, WNYC (New York Public Radio) “is always looking to find new ways to connect with people in our listening area,” said Patricia Willens, the Enterprise Editor at WNYC who oversaw the project. TalkBox had both an “internal goal of trying to reach beyond our listener base in new ways,” she said, “and an external goal of collecting tape for reporting projects from people all over the city.” Some reasons for doing this engagement project were reaching underrepresented communities and expanding the spectrum of stories being reported, Willens said.
Tools & Technology: TalkBox used a Google Voice mail system to collect recordings via a pay phone designed with an easy interface by [SH0P Architects] (http://www.shoparc.com/projects/talkbox/). The choice of a familiar, low-tech tool was made to encourage community participation and maximize the appeal of the project.
SHoP describes TalkBox this way (edited for length and clarity): “The idea was to create an easily reproducible system that could be adopted by other public radio stations. The actual TalkBox is placed within a standard aluminum pay phone enclosure that can be easily installed either on city streets or elsewhere. By simply lifting the handset, participants are invited to contribute to important civic conversations that otherwise take place only on-air. The designer worked directly with the editorial and technical teams at WNYC to create an appealing and inviting look, as well as integrate back-end technologies that made the tool accessible for the user.”
Impact: While there are no statistical measures of TalkBox’s impact, Willens estimates that a few hundred people participated in the project between 2015 and 2016, which successfully met its goals of both reaching underrepresented audiences and collecting contributions that would have otherwise not been included. The listening station helped get on the air more voices from [lower-income] communities and people of color than WNYC otherwise would have, according to Willens.
She adds that in the short period of four to five weeks, when TalkBox was placed inside the St. George terminal of the Staten Island Ferry on Staten Island, “We got the most incredible range of use — more than one reporter running around trying to get [tape] might have done.”
Willens noted that TalkBox granted participants a sense of privacy and the opportunity to be candid about their feelings. She feels that the authenticity of those voices might have been dimmed or even lost if the same people had been asked for comments by a reporter with a traditional person -on-the-street approach.
For example, a young girl named Amaya shared this on the TalkBox: “There are people who don’t appreciate dark color skin. And, I really don’t why, but it’s not my fault,” she said. “ And I’m dark colored skin and I’m sometimes afraid to go outside!”
Organization Background: New York Public Radio (NYPR) is the largest public radio station group in the U.S. It produces [award-winning journalism and podcasts] (https://fy16annualreport.nypublicradio.org/awards/) that reach well beyond New York City. Over 20 million listeners receive its programming every month, including residents of Westchester County, parts of Orange County, Long Island, and large areas of both northern and central New Jersey.
In 2016, NYPR reported total revenue of $82,364,071.
Project Resources: TalkBox was funded by a $35,000 grant awarded by the Knight Foundation specifically for this project in 2014. The initiative originated from Caitlin Thompson, a former employee of WNYC, who successfully wrote and applied for the grant, and Lee Hill, WNYC’s senior digital editor.
Here’s What Worked
1. Choosing an easy-to-use interactive tool.
The TalkBox was an analog, low-tech approach which made it simple to use, said Willens. In one of the earlier designs it resembled more of an old-fashioned telephone booth. “It was a physical, familiar, non-threatening sort of tool that people could see and touch and talk into,” she said.
2. Staffing the area to point folks toward Talkbox.
Early on, Willens observed that when they left the TalkBox by itself at the ferry terminal, people didn’t engage with it much. “New Yorkers keep walking,” she said. “There wasn’t a clear call-to-action on the TalkBox itself.” The box was identified with branding from WNYC, but it didn’t have a big neon light pointing out what it was for. The team realized they needed a staffer to engage people. “We just took turns, basically, trying to pull people towards the TalkBox,” she said. “And, again, once they agreed and lifted up that receiver they were completely capable of doing the rest on their own.”
3. Understanding the power of privacy.
Willens firmly believes that the privacy community residents enjoyed once they picked up the receiver inside the TalkBox opened them up to sharing much more intimate thoughts than they would have with an actual reporter. “We had people who were police officers, firefighters and people who said they knew Eric Garner and his family,” she said. They all talked into the same receiver and there’s something about the quality of their comments that is very intimate. “ I can’t measure that,” she said. “The quality of the comments and the breadth of the voices were better.”
Here’s What Could Have Worked Better
1. Assign a team to the project.
WNYC didn’t designate a team to manage the TalkBox. Operating it involved a lot of logistics, said Willens: finding community partners, transporting the box, running it on-site and collecting the tape. This labor-intensive project would have benefitted from dedicated staff. “It was never our intention to stop using [Talkbox after 2016],” said Willens. “We just didn’t have the people to keep it going.”
2. Identify key roles from the start.
Putting the TalkBox in high-traffic pedestrian areas wasn’t enough to engage people. WNYC had to staff the listening station to engage passers-by, ask them to share their thoughts, and explain how TalkBox worked. Someone also needed to manage the collected tape and get it on air.
Finally, someone needed to be responsible for Talkbox’s transport and maintenance.
3. More internal coordination at WNYC.
The TalkBox staffers could have done more internal engagement around Talkbox, said Willens, such as continuing to market Talkbox as an outreach tool, letting people at the station or at other shows know the box existed, and so on.
4. Be intentional about tracking the outcomes of the projects.
“I think I should have been more explicit about tracking the data from the very beginning,” Willens said. “That way you can improve your project in real-time.”
Here’s What Else You Should Know
- Open-ended questions: For the Eric Garner case, WNYC used the prompt: What does Eric Garner mean to you? Listen to some examples of the recordings that were collected.
To learn more about this project, email Patricia Willens at email@example.com, or say hi on Twitter at @pwillens.