Before the space probe Voyager I was sent hurtling off into the cosmos, NASA officials loaded it with a few select audio recordings: a Bach partita, some bird calls, a whale song, a Jimmy Carter speech -- sonic synecdoches meant to explain our civilization to an alien intelligence. While none of the sound bites advised listeners to buckle up or reminded them to collect their personal belongings, they laid the groundwork for a similar project now entering its third phase on our city streets.
As of July 26, all 12,187 of New York City's taxicabs will have officially switched over to their newest wave of microchip-borne public-service announcements. Like the Voyager's sonic mosaic, these ten-second bursts of celebrity advice offer a strange but specific vision of our society. (Or at least a glimpse into the marketing strategies of its city-funded P.R. team.)
Nicole Miller, Dennis Franz, Vinny Testaverde, Beverly Sills, Isaac Hayes, Al Franken, Joe Franklin, Jackie Mason. One searches for a paradigm, some clear organizing principle. Audio engineers call the compressed sound of electronic media "presence," recognizing that acoustic profile often trumps semantic content. But while earlier casts adhered to this rule -- with the eerie frisson of Mr. Moviephone and the glottal wonder of Eartha Kitt -- the new group is less acoustically compelling. Nicole Miller, flat and monochromatic, could be anyone. Dennis Franz -- NYPD Blue, sure, but isn't that a Chicago accent? Isaac Hayes is a merry, basso exception -- and, like Paul Sorvino, he's an actor, singer, and (thanks to South Park) chef. But Hayes is an emissary of Memphis soul, hardly quintessential New York.
It's the other voices that are most illuminating. Testaverde, Sills, "Mr. Nostalgia," and the encoring Jackie Mason -- all somehow bespeak the stratum of New York society that actually takes taxis. This demographic is sub-Town Car and supra-subway. It skews to 45-and-older. Its allegiances run to Broadway, AM radio, pro sports, network TV. Above all, it is midtown -- Don Imus, not Terry Gross; Dan Ingram, not Jerry Springer. With light traffic and a Merlot buzz, these voices may evoke the warm glow of Radio City and the Public Library. With gridlock and a migraine, they can conjure the fluorescent mobs outside the Today show.
Final judgment rests with the cabbies themselves, the only ones in a position to give these cultural artifacts the careful, repetitive study they deserve. We'll see if, as in the first two rounds, the message devices still turn up at inspections disabled.