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Serial Podcast: The Mysterious Best Buy Payphone

This post from Nov. 7 was updated Nov. 23, 2014, for clarity, and to make a handful of new observations.

A few weeks ago I had a chance to back up the folks producing Serial, a multipart podcast from the creators of This American Life, in their research into whether or not a payphone once existed in 1999 at a specific location in Baltimore, Maryland.

You might be surprised how often I get contacted by individuals seeking to verify if a payphone once existed at a certain spot. I have not fielded many such calls lately, but I think this is the first time I’ve been asked to help determine if a payphone did not exist.

I had not heard of “Serial” until the show’s producer contacted me, and to be honest from our conversation I did not get much of a sense about what it was. I have not had time to listen to the entire series — the programs vary in length from about a half hour to almost an hour — but I was happy to offer whatever I could to back up research already done and to offer other advice. My tips:

  • In 1999 Bell Atlantic was the largest payphone service provider in Maryland. Odds are that if a payphone actually existed at the Best Buy it was owned by them. Bell Atlantic is now Verizon. Contacting that company’s payphone department is certainly worth a try, but I would be amazed if that company had records of this type going back 15 years.
  • Going to the Best Buy itself and inspecting the sidewalk outside the building for indications that a payphone had been removed should also be done, though there seems to be some debate as to whether the payphone was alleged to have been inside the building or outside. Click here for a photo gallery showing the many different ways a payphone leaves its mark behind after removal.
  • Contacting the American Public Communications Council would probably be a long shot as far as getting any precise information, but they might have insights into who else was in the payphone business back then, and who might still be around.
  • Contacting long-time locally run payphone service providers might open some window into the history of payphones in Baltimore (I suggested Robin Technologies).

At about the 8:15 point of episode 5 Sarah Koenig says:

“I just want to pause here and talk about this phone booth for a minute. Weirdly, we have not been able to confirm its existence. The Best Buy employees I talked to did not remember a payphone back then. We spoke to the landlord at the time and to the property manager, they had no record of a payphone. They dug up a photo of the store, from 2001, no phone booth or payphone, though lots of public phones did come down between ‘99 and 2001. They looked up the blueprints for the store when it was built in 1995, nothing. The manager also said there is no record of a service agreement between Best Buy and any payphone company at that store. We checked with the Maryland public service commission. We checked with Verizon. Neither could track down records from that far back.”

The above transcript is borrowed from this Reddit thread, which cites the Payphone Project a number of times.

After episode 5 was published I received a surprising quantity of e-mails from “Serial” listeners inquiring about the accuracy and provenance of the Payphone Project’s information.

The quality of the historical payphone information varies from place to place, but it turns out the data for payphone locations that used to exist in Baltimore is actually pretty good. Most of the phones are gone today but members of the “Serial” staff verified that a few still exist, and further concluded that most of the payphone locations listed on the Baltimore payphones page were pretty plausible.

The Best Buy in question is located at 1701 Belmont Avenue in Baltimore. The Payphone Project has a listing for a payphone located at that address, but the location is described as a “RAMADA HOTEL”, not a Best Buy.

As Reddit sleuths revealed, that Ramada Inn was torn down and replaced by the Best Buy in 1995. It seems unlikely that a payphone would survive the demolition unless it was situated outside the building and far enough away that the wrecking ball couldn’t swing.

There is no need to prove that a payphone actually existed at the Ramada Inn, though memories from anyone who worked there as to what became of it (and who owned it) might be revealing. Did the owner of the payphone approach Best Buy to ask if they were interested in continuing to offer payphone service at that address, and if so was that payphone owner rebuffed?

The producer I spoke with made a comment that I didn’t think to disagree with until later. She suggested that payphones were already in decline in 1999, and that wholesale routing of public pay telephones had already begun.

In fact 1999 was something of a “last gasp” for the payphone industry, which statistics show saw a nationwide increase of about 35,000 phones between 1997 and 1999.

Statistic: Total number of payphones in the United States from 1997 to 2009 | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

If this offers any support for the Best Buy payphone’s existence then it may be subsequently offset by other factors — particularly the stigma many businesses have long associated with payphones located directly outside their property. It’s quite likely that Best Buy’s management may simply have not wanted to host an instrument commonly associated with crime and drugs.

Lack of documentation absolutely proving the Best Buy payphone’s existence does not necessarily mean anything. But evidence weighs pretty heavily toward the payphone’s disappearance when the Ramada Inn was razed, and a new one was probably never installed when the Best Buy opened.

Having not found time to listen to the series I do not have an appreciation for how crucial this bit of information is. The folks at Reddit seem to think it’s pretty relevant:

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Subway Buskers, Heard Through a Nearby Payphone

Listen in as a drummer and electric violinist (or possibly violist) perform a cover of Led Zepplin’s “Kashmir”, with an interlude of what sounds like a rhapsody on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”. This was recorded through a nearby payphone underground at the Grand Central Terminal subway station.

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Radio Interference, Payphone Style

Even if you actually wanted to make a call from this payphone it would be very difficult to communicate with another human. Audio coming through the earpiece of this landline payphone (718-424-2798) at 82nd Place & 63rd Avenue in Queens was completely subsumed by the sound of Radio Disney. These unintended analogue overlaps, reminiscent of the difficulties sometimes encountered when trying to pinpoint a particular shortwave or AM radio station, are not so common in the digital age. The gray, monochrome sound of the landline places an extra layer of ruggedness over the already tinny sound of Radio Disney’s AM radio signal. I find a certain enchantment in the experience of sound transformed by its transmission through the raspy, low-quality medium of landline public telephones.

Other “Heard Through A Payphone” Links

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Chinatown, San Francisco. Photo by Fred Lyon.

1950s-era photo of a pagoda-topped payphone in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Photo by Fred Lyon, via Slate.com.

Fred Lyon: 1950s Chinatown Pagoda Payphone

Fred Lyon: 1950s Chinatown Pagoda Payphone

1950s-era photo of a pagoda-topped payphone in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Photo by Fred Lyon, via Slate.com.

Originally posted in June, 2013, herewith follows a select list of links to photos of other pagoda styled payphones from around the Intertubes:

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