Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Time for a new kind of phone booth

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
March 29, 2012 -- Updated 2025 GMT (0425 HKT)
Cell phone talking in public is common, obnoxious. Bob Greene says cell phone booths would give everyone a break from noise.
Cell phone talking in public is common, obnoxious. Bob Greene says cell phone booths would give everyone a break from noise.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: Bring back the once ubiquitous phone booth -- but for cell phone users
  • He says it's common for people to talk in public on cell phones; a phone booth would offer quiet
  • He says: Talkers could have privacy, advertisers a captive audience; demand would grow
  • Greene: Only problem would be pedestrians would use them to flee the yakkers out on the street

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

(CNN) -- Here's a free idea that will make some businessperson millions of dollars.

Go ahead and take it -- it's yours.

You'll be doing a service to humankind.

In addition to all the money you'll make, you may very well end up with the Nobel Peace Prize, with the thanks of a grateful world.

This is no joke. The idea?

Bring back phone booths.

You're already saying: What? Phone booths? Who uses pay phones anymore?

No one said anything about pay phones. The idea is to put up phone booths -- all right, technically, phoneless booths -- in public places around the country.

The old-style phone booths, with doors that close, and ventilator fans in the ceilings. Either the ones made out of metal and glass that were seen on street corners for generations, or the elegant ones made out of dark wood and glass that were seen in the lobbies of office buildings and in the backs of drugstores.

Phone booths were a wonderfully democratic invention, intended to shut out the noise of the immediate outside world so the person in the booth could privately, in silence, talk with someone miles away.

Are you starting to see where we're going with this?

The new phone booths wouldn't have pay telephones inside. But they would be the solution to one of society's most constantly irritating problems.

You can't escape the yammering all around you -- the people walking down the street blabbing at high volume into their cell phones. The cell phones, of course, are the primary reason that pay telephones are increasingly hard to find. With so many people carrying their own phones, telephone companies have been deciding that it was uneconomical to maintain pay phones.

And here is where the idea comes in.

If there were clean, convenient, phone(less) booths readily available, don't you think that people would step into them to make their cell phone calls? Who wouldn't opt for privacy and quiet if it was there for them to take?

A savvy entrepreneur could finance the project by selling advertising space both outside and -- especially -- inside the new phone booths, whether on the streets, in malls, restaurants -- anywhere that people gather. National advertisers would literally have a captive audience. The person in the booth would have no choice but to stare at the advertising.

Cities and municipalities would love it, too. They could negotiate the rights to a percentage of the advertising fees for the booths on the streets, perhaps in exchange for having city workers help keep the booths clean.

There is a business precedent for this: In some cities, private firms have erected shelters at bus stops, with advertising displayed on the walls. The bus riders don't object to seeing the ads while they wait -- they're just glad to be able to get out of the storm.

The storm from which the new phone booths would provide relief is the storm of words that has overtaken public places. Advertisers face a vexing set of decisions these days because with so many media outlets -- hundreds of cable channels, millions of websites, consumers thumbing through screen after screen on their handheld devices -- it can be difficult to determine how best to reach potential customers.

The new phone booths would be goldmines -- places guaranteed to deliver the advertising message to a person willingly enclosed inside. Sort of like the isolation booths on the old quiz shows.

There would be challenges: The phone booths would have to be absolutely transparent on all four sides; otherwise people could set up housekeeping inside, could use the booths as private dining rooms, could have quick romantic encounters.

But technology could make a virtue of that necessity. While people on the outside could look in, the person on the inside could be surrounded by advertising messages electronically delivered onto only one side -- the interior side -- of the window-walls.

The trick would be to manufacture enough of the new booths. Once the first ones went up, people would want more. It's hard to even remember the days when phone booths were ubiquitous in America; well before the advent of cell phones, the four-walls-and-a-ceiling booths had largely been replaced by bolted-to-a-wall units that just featured pay phones without the benefit of much privacy.

But that was in a different world, one in which people did not walk through life jabbering loudly into tiny phones. The one drawback to the new phone booths might be that the people who use them the most could turn out to be not cell phone callers trying to be courteous to their fellow pedestrians, but those beleaguered fellow pedestrians themselves, seeking to escape the rude babblers.

Clark Kent used to duck into phone booths to change into his Superman uniform. Today, Superman himself might be tempted to duck into the new phone booths just to flee in abject annoyance from all the relentlessly loud yakkers outside. Even the Man of Steel has his breaking point.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT