Radio Replay: Payphone Radio

By Peter Skiera

Radio Replay is a random “pop-up” series that looks back at a Recommended or Hitchhiker Station from the past. For my first Radio Replay, I re-established a connection with one of my early favorite Hitchhiker Stations, The Payphone Radio Network.


That stealthy supermarket payphone. Photo by Peter Skiera.




A local supermarket I frequent opened up their second entrance after having closed it for over a year due to the pandemic. As I headed toward the newly re-opened ingress, I noticed something I had never noticed before. I was upset with myself for being oblivious to it. It was an actual, in-tact, public payphone! I had not seen such a rare sight in I do not know how long. My heart started beating faster as quickened my pace toward this unexpected relic. As I approached, desperately fumbling in my pocket for some spare change and racking my brain over whom I would call, my excitement quickly turned to disappointment as I realized the phone was out of service. The sign at the top had been hastily covered up with black paint and there was an abundance of rust on the coin box. I felt like a total idiot for assuming this dinosaur was still alive. Evidently, some payphones are not even worth the effort of removal. This one had obviously been abandoned on the brick wall to dry up and fall off like an ugly old scab.

Say what?

It occurred to me that with the advent of the personal cell phone, we have lost an entire telephone vocabulary…busy signal, reverse the charges, collect call, out of order, party line, operator, long distance, person-to-person, phone book, yellow pages, off the hook, cut off, directory assistance, switchboard, unlisted, and dial tone. Although we have retained the terms “dial” and “hang up” when we use our smartphones, we do not physically “dial” or “hang up” anything.

God Save The Call Box

Here is a bit of good news from our friends across the pond. Ofcom is proposing to preserve 5,000 of the iconic, red call boxes, but not because the UK’s telecommunications regulator has a soft spot for payphones. There are still areas in Britain with poor cell phone coverage, and for many, payphones are the only alternative. Areas with high accident or suicide rates will also retain their payphones. The new rules would prevent these call boxes from being repurposed into mini-libraries or storage facilities like thousands already have.

Do You Remember?

Like your first girl, they say you never forget the last time you used a payphone, or something like that. There was a payphone on the wall in the hallway opposite the door to my college dorm room. It accepted incoming calls and I’d occasionally get calls from relatives, mostly my father. Someone on my floor would answer the phone and knock on the door if it was for me or my roommate, Dan. There was no privacy, but people weren’t usually lingering in the hall unless they were waiting for the antique elevator which was out of service more than not. I don’t specifically remember making calls from that phone but I must have since this was before cell phones existed and we didn’t have a phone in the room (it cost too much to have a line installed). Besides, I really enjoyed the communal experience of using that payphone.


When phones were phones: My classic Western Electric Model 302 from the 1950s. Photo by Peter Skiera.

“This one had obviously been abandoned on the brick wall to dry up and fall off like an ugly old scab. “

Drop A Dime

One good thing that came out of my disheartening supermarket payphone experience was it reminded me of one of my early favorite Hitchhiker Stations, The Payphone Radio Network out of New York. I brought that Internet radio station to light two years ago this month, calling it a “one-man telephone reality show”. As a brief refresher, speaking in a Bill Belichick-like monotone, dropping an occasional, unexpected F bomb, Mark Thomas called into a recording apparatus and left personal reflections on all manner of topics which he later streamed over this Internet station. He called in using public payphones exclusively, thus the name of his station. He estimated he made over 1,600 payphone calls since he started streaming his station 11 years ago. Thomas must have been Ma Bell’s best customer. Ah, Ma Bell. I remember her well. The Payphone Radio Network is still on the air, but Thomas stopped calling it in just about a year ago due to – what else – the pandemic.

A payphone in San Diego, CA. Photo licensed from depositphotos.com



In addition to broadcasting his personal thoughts pertaining to whatever was weighing on his mind at the time, Thomas occasionally used a payphone’s handset as a hand-held microphone to record subway buskers. The sound quality was archival at best, but it was fascinating to hear those New York subway performances captured as they happened. Whenever I heard those primitive recordings on Payphone Radio, I was tempted to look around for an open guitar case to toss some spare change into. As it has been 2 years since I wrote about Payphone Radio, I decided to make it the subject of my first Station Replay to see what Thomas and his station have been up to. Normally I rely on email to conduct my interviews, but in this case, I very much wanted to ask Thomas my questions over a payphone. Unfortunately, for several reasons, that wasn’t possible, so, I present my written Q&A with Thomas:


Peter: Will you resume your payphone activity after COVID or are there just too few payphones to carry on?

Mark: I don’t think so. Ten years is a long run for something like this and I have nothing to prove by doing it for the rest of my life. I don’t know if the paucity of phones is necessarily a show-stopper, though. I’ve felt good about redirecting my energies to YouTube, where a loyal cadre of viewers seemingly cannot wait for me to do another emotional overshare or a payphone tour of another New Jersey city.

Peter: Do you miss making your payphone calls?

Mark: I do, but time marches on. Quarantine and lock down do not seem to have slowed the pace of the payphone apocalypse, which presently leaves just a couple dozen working public and semi-public phones in the 5 boroughs. I’ve also canvassed several New Jersey towns and found pitifully few working phones. It’s never been lost on me that the end is nigh for access to reliable public communications structures. If you are in a bind you had better hope your cell phone works.

Peter: When was the last time you used a payphone and where?


Mark: I check in on what has come to be known as the “Doomsday Payphone,” so-called because I cannot believe the thing actually still works but also because I like to imagine a future where some kind of neutron bomb destroys all the cell phones, leaving this stubbornly surviving telephone as the last possible link connecting humanity to itself. I frequently dial up my Payphone Radio number from that phone, or else try a random toll-free number.
I also dial *10 whenever I find a PTS payphone. *10 connects to a free daily prayer. I’m not religious but I find it enchanting, and sometimes funny. It also makes the owner of the payphone about 50¢ per call at no cost to me, this on account of FCC-mandated dial around compensation fees for calls to toll-free numbers made from payphones. That *10 shortcut only works from PTS-owned phones.

Peter: Do you recall the first time you used a payphone?


Mark: I don’t think so but I will never forget the payphone at my high school. That thing was legend in my youth. Having regular access to that phone felt empowering, like I’d made a huge step toward adulthood. I guess it’s not unlike the sense of achievement young people have today when they get
their first cell phones. I practically lived by that phone.
That may well have been the first payphone in my life. There was also a phone booth outside the University of Tampa, where I took piano lessons. The area was known to be a hot spot of hookers and prostitutes. Even though I probably didn’t even know what [a] hooker was I was intrigued, and would call in to that phone booth and play back cassette recordings of myself at the piano for whoever answered. I guess I thought I was bringing some class and elegance to skid row.

Peter: What’s the strangest thing that happened while you were on a payphone?


Mark: There used to be a spot on Northern Boulevard where you’d see a bunch of people strung out on K2 (synthetic marijuana) lying flat on their faces on the sidewalk and even on the roadway. I was making a call once from a phone across the street from that scene, just idly looking in their direction, when suddenly two of them sprang to life and started pounding the snot out of each other. They looked absolutely possessed. It was scary, even from the safety of being across the street, but [especially] when the brawl spilled into the street. Northern Boulevard is practically Interstate type traffic at that spot so those guys were at great risk of getting plowed down by a 70mph truck. One of the less drug-addled people nearby was able to corral them off the roadway but that could have ended very badly. Just as suddenly as the fistfight started those two K2 dudes laid back down on the sidewalk and passed out again.
I also can never forget the moment, in the middle of a call, when a stroke of sunlight hit the inside of a Madison Avenue payphone enclosure so the words “GO TO CHURCH READ BIBLE”, scratched into the metal surface, became clear to me. It was like a small miracle because I had been on the hunt for PRAY for months, years even, coming up almost entirely empty handed. “GO TO CHURCH READ BIBLE” is one of the messages of PRAY, the legendary scratchiti (markings etched into hard surfaces) artist of the 1970s and ’80s who scratched messages like “PRAY” “LOVE GOD” “GO TO CHURCH” etc., onto, as the legend goes, every single payphone in New York. Statistics on how many payphones there used to be in NYC vary considerably, I suspect because indoor and outdoor phones were treated differently. But in her day PRAY would have scratched her messages onto well over 35,000 payphones, as well as other surfaces like fences, park benches, mailboxes, etc. That’s a lot of scratching. She was described as elderly, vagrant, and probably disturbed. Still, it was amazing to me that these messages she sent out all those years ago were still being received. Ever since that subtle, even subliminal message became clear to me I suddenly started seeing her everywhere. I simply did not have the eyes to see until then.

Peter: Did you ever have an extended conversation with an operator while on a payphone?

Mark: I remember pleasant back-and-forth chitchat with operators when I was in college but can’t recall any substantive conversation. Except for trying to make operator-assisted collect calls to payphones I seem to have [steered] clear of bothering the operators, though. I haven’t dialed 0 from a payphone in a long time but I seem to remember it leading to a pretty murky world these days.

Peter: Did you ever record a famous/semi-famous busker using a payphone handset?


Mark: Probably the best-known and most enduring subway performer I’ve captured is Natalia Paruz, better known as The Saw Lady. I’ve captured her sounds a number of times. She’s quite a versatile musician not just with the saw but hand bells and carillon, though I’ve never seen her do hand bells in the subways, only the saw.

Peter: Do you use a landline and an answering machine at home?

Mark: It’s interesting how the definition of “landline” has changed. Fios phone, which I have, is considered landline, and unless you request otherwise, the number they give you is listed in the phone directories, along with your home address. Just like the old days of the phone book. I do not have a copper landline. I don’t remember when I finally cancelled that but I remember making the cancellation call to Verizon from one of the phone booths at the NYPL. I do have an old Panasonic telephone/answering machine I think I bought in the early 1990s. I also have a payphone given to me by the guy who owns the Doomsday Payphone. I plugged it in to Fios phone briefly but just use it as a conversation piece.

Peter: Why have you started posting select payphone calls on your station’s Facebook page?

Mark: I’d been meaning to do this for a while. The Shoutcast stream is, with over 1600 calls and over 63 hours of content, an awful lot to unpack. Breaking them down into single or short series of calls is intended to give people an idea of what the whole project is about without demanding too much of their time. With Shoutcast, as you know, most people would not be able to back up and replay something that was interesting to them. That is both its blessing and its curse, as I feel strongly that radio should be ephemeral but I also know that all these hours of content can feel like an ocean.
I also have enjoyed messing with Adobe After Effects in making visualizations and audio wave forms. I also intend to transcribe some of them.



Peter: Did you learn anything profound from doing payphone radio or did it alter any views you had of something?

Mark: I don’t think I’m getting to the bottom of life’s mysteries with any of this stuff, but I guess I’ve learned a few things about myself. There is so much I do not say, so much I leave out. Almost none the women I’ve been involved with since I started doing this get even a mention, at least not specifically and never while we were together.

Peter: For the benefit of those reading this who’ve never had the pleasure, what was the appeal of using payphones?

Mark: One of my original intents was to capture the rugged, monochrome, earthy sound texture of the copper landline before it disappears altogether. Most of NYC’s payphones were retrofitted with cellular routers in the years after I started doing this but almost all the payphones that remain today are landline and calls from those suckers sound awesome.
It’s also aesthetic at work about having both feet flat on the ground and being in a singular place. You can keep shoveling coins in to keep calls going indefinitely, of course, but at a public pay telephone your time is essentially limited. You have to think about what you’re going to say before dropping a coin and saying your piece. That’s how we used to connect before cell phones and mobile telephony caused the pace of communication to hyperventilate. I’ve never warmed to walking-and-talking on a cell phone. To me a phone call remains something important enough that you stop, plan, schedule, and take the experience seriously.

Peter: Did you ever hear Lou Reed’s song, “New York Telephone Conversation”?

Mark: Amazingly, no. I thought I knew all the payphone-related songs in the canon, having researched the matter quite a bit. Thanks for linking to that one, it’s good fun.
The greatest payphones song ever, IMO, is “Sylvia’s Mother.” It’s nowhere near as great a song as Jim Croce’s “Operator” but *as a payphone song* it sets the pace, making you feel like you are in the phone booth shoveling coins in the slot to keep the connection alive. The song was actually a parody, meant as a joke, but on the basis of depicting the experience of making that kind of call I think it hits a bullseye.

Peter: Which Internet radio station(s) do you personally listen to (besides your own)?

Mark: Isn’t all radio Internet radio these days? 🙂 BBC Radio 4 Extra, their radio dramas slay me. Freakonomics. I also binge on older stuff I have recorded: Danny Stiles, Joe Frank, Gene Scott, Paul Harvey, Joey Reynolds, other radio heroes. I find Joe Piscopo to be strangely engaging and I can’t explain why. Joe Walsh (not of the Eagles) was also a lot of fun until he screwed things up by running for President. I used to tune in to Hacker Radio on WBAI, and until I started getting to bed earlier, I’d make a point of hearing out Joe Frank’s 11pm spots on WNYC. I think they finally quit airing that. One obscurity is the Reverend Gary Beeler, who I heard when driving through central Tennessee in (I think) 2002. He delivered a sermon that made me pull the car over to the side of the road, it was so powerful. When I got back home, I wrote him a letter asking if he could send a cassette of the sermon from that day’s broadcast. He did. I play it back often.
I wish I could find copies of the Matt Drudge Radio Show. That was a favorite but I somehow never thought to record it, and evidently neither did anybody else. One abbreviated show on YT and that’s it.



PS: What are you up to these days, Mark?

Mark: I continue doing phone projects, relying on an Asterisk PBX that I finally got around to setting up and configuring. You can reach my IVR, for instance, at this number: 917-259-1163. I am also going to be connecting my piano practice room radio to a dedicated inbound phone number in the 917 area code.
I acquired 212-255-2748, a coveted phone number which used to be the primary number for the old Apology Line, and connected it to Payphone Radio.


Call To Hear The Calls

As Thomas mentioned, besides an Internet radio and his website, you can also listen to his payphone calls by using…wait for it…a telephone! Call 1-212-255-2748 and you’ll immediately be connected to the stream. Listening to phone calls from a phone…brilliant!

A vision in white. Photo from Ceci’s Instagram page.



Two Person Party Line

An interesting Payphone Radio phone number “bug” was revealed last month. If someone calls the number while another person is already connected and listening, the Payphone Radio stream ceases at once and the two people can talk to each other for up to an hour (if anyone else calls in during this time they will hear a busy signal)! This would make for a fascinating Internet radio station in itself…recorded conversations of random strangers talking on the phone. Thomas himself called in and ended up speaking with numerous Payphone Radio fans (mostly). He also had several prolonged conversations with a local gal named “Ceci” that led to a date and a potential lasting friendship. But wait, it gets better. It turned out Ceci was a burlesque stripper! Where did Thomas take her on their date? “I gave her the grand tour of midtown’s payphones”, he wrote on his YouTube posting, “handing her a stack of Payphone Radio cards [printed cards advertising the Payphone Radio phone number] for her to stuff into payphones on 5th Ave., at Grand Central, Macy’s, and the Port Authority/Times Square subway station. We also stuck cards into a number of LinkNYC kiosks.” And they say romance is dead. This all reminds me of the Bandits On The Run’s (a NY band, by the way) beautiful song, Love In The Underground.

Anticipating an adventure of my own, I gave the number repeated tries over the course of several days and hung on for about 10 minutes each time, but I didn’t get lucky. Perhaps if I had pulled the handle enough times on the payphone slot machine, I eventually would’ve gotten 3 cherries in a row.

Calling Andy Warhol

Thomas’ payphone-project.com website is worth a browse for interesting payphone-related information. On it I found a phone number to a working payphone inside the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh that accepts incoming calls, a rarity for payphones. I tried calling the number numerous times on different days and times hoping someone, anyone, would pick up, but no one ever answered. I also sent them a few emails but never received any response. Obviously, they must be very busy over there at the museum.

Disappointed with my experiences, but not yet ready to hoist the white flag, I decided to try something else…calling the phone number to the Pawtucket, R.I. apartment I grew up in when I was a child. I remember we had an ugly, army green-colored rotary dial telephone in the living room, and a black one in my parent’s bedroom (I didn’t have my own phone until I was 22!). When I called the number, I got no answer. The phone just rang and rang. That made me think it must have been a land line because there was no voicemail greeting or a message that said the voicemail had not been setup. A Google search indicated the number was associated with a different Pawtucket address than the one I grew up at. They say you can never go home again. I guess the same is true when phoning home again. The white flag is now flying.

COVID has driven the last nail into the payphone’s coffin. You won’t find free, disposable antiseptic wipes at payphones, assuming you can even find a working payphone. It makes me all feel warm and fuzzy knowing payphones still flourish on The Payphone Radio Network, no antiseptic wipes or coins necessary. I suppose it’s about time I stop carrying around spare change in hopes of discovering a working payphone.



Trivia: The first public coin telephone was installed by inventor William Gray at a bank in Hartford, Conn in 1889.

Trivia: Artist Elizabeth Hellstern set up rotary dial phone booths in 4 different US cities. When you call one of the numbers listed in the directory in the booth, you’re connected to a recording of a poet reading one of their works.

PS: Check out my payphone pictures on the Recommended Stations/stationsguy Instagram page, and if you happen to know of any working payphones on MA’s south shore, please let me know where. I’ve got some spare change I’m dying to use.

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Links:

Thomas & Ceci on YouTube

Payphone-Project website

Payphone Radio Network’s Facebook page

Bandits On The Run

Lou Reed’s New York Telephone Conversation

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