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Time for a new kind of phone booth

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 4:25 PM EDT, Thu March 29, 2012
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.

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

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