Hanging up the phone

payphone.jpgOn Monday, AT&T announced it would get out of the “shrinking payphone business” in 2008.

Shrinking? That’s charitable.

Payphones, in an age of cellphones, are virtually non-existent. Its death is also a testament to the inability to revive a dying industry through government action. In 1996, the Federal Communications Commission deregulated payphone rates, hoping it would encourage a little action with more competition. That didn’t work; an estimated 40 percent of remaining payphones were removed last year, and with them the opportunity for many of us to talk to strangers, just because we can.

I wanted to survey the use of payphones by Minnesotans today, to find out how often people who answer payphones, use payphones.

I needn’t have bothered.

The Luverne Laundry, The Standard station in Monticello, Hoffman’s Oak Lake Camp in Kerrick, the Choo Char Bar in Maple Plain, the Trucker’s Inn in Faribault, Albatross in Mankato, Bemidji State College, Marion’s Cafe in Parkers Prairie, Econowash in Moorhead and WalMart in Mankato came up as disconnected, mostly because payphones don’t take incoming calls anymore.

Back in the day, it wasn’t always so. A social phenomenon, calling payphones at random just to see who answered, depended on it. The Payphone Project, started by Mark Thomas of New York and inspired by a David Letterman bit, encouraged random contacts among strangers.

“It has been largely moot for some time,” Thomas said Tuesday. “I’ve found that many payphones that do actually take incoming calls, ring so faintly that no one would ever hear it.”

I talked to Mark on my dime. All of these are in RealAudio format.

  • People called payphones just to see who would answer. (Listen)
  • It all started by reading the White Pages for fun. (Listen)
  • Shameless attempt to get him to say something nice about the Upper Midwest ends with smackdown of bloggers (Listen).
  • Vanishing serendipity: Checking a payphone for change left behind, and finding it. (Listen)
  • One last project before payphones go: the conference call. (Listen)
    • tom scheck

      This makes me sad because every time I see a payphone I think of the time when I was in New York City just a month after the 9/11 attacks.

      I was covering then Gov. Jesse Ventura when he visited the World Trade Center site. My cell wouldn’t work so I had to run around NYC trying to find a payphone. I found one and got my debrief done. I always wonder what would have happened if there wasn’t a payphone that day.

    • Cee

      Calling pay phone around town used to be after school entertainment for many small town folk. Always enjoyed finding out who answered and why.

      I guess now you get to do that on line with fake pictures and assumed identities