Background & Context

On Tuesday, September 21, 2010, the latest chapter was written in the moving history of media messaging within New York City’s subway transit system. As of that date, passengers along the 42nd Street shuttle line between Times Square and Grand Central will be immersed in what marketing executives call a “brand experience” when they enter train cars that are wrapped (on both the exterior and interior surfaces) in advertisements for a single company (the TBS cable network) and are able to watch video highlights from the Major League Baseball playoffs on installed ten-inch screens. This is the first time that the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has sanctioned the use of video advertisements within the train cars, but as the organization seeks new ways to attract revenue during its current budget crisis, it will almost certainly not be the last. Since the campaign’s launch, passenger reactions have ranged from strong opposition and claims of unbridled corporate encroachment to some claims of not noticing the changes at all. Even with such diversity of opinions, the fact remains that in the 106 years of the New York City subway, various entities have sought the opportunity to grasp the attention of this captive (or captured?) audience and as the universe of media platforms and technologies has expanded, these entities have become more present in the train environment’s physical space. With this project, I plan to examine the history of media messaging within the New York City subway system in an effort to explore what may be on the horizon in the endeavor for passenger attention.


A project of this scope requires strict definitions of what will qualify as “media.” I am specifically interested in the following three categories: advertisements, announcements, and art.

Advertisements have been in place since the subway’s inception. I am interested in researching the history of print advertisement placement within the system to understand how it has been coordinated, where the ads have been placed, and whether the system has always been understood as a commercial environment. I will also give attention to print advertisements that have been placed without the MTA’s permission (including, but not limited to, items such as classifieds, flyers, and religious tracts).

Announcements specifically those in print, on behalf of the transit system have been in place since the early days of the subway. Today they exist in the form of the “SubTalk” series of placards within the cars, alongside advertisements. Through the 1910’s until the onset of the Great Depression, they were published in The Subway Sun and The Elevated Express, broadsides that were initiated by Public Relations legend Ivy Lee to promote the benefits of riding the subway and posted to interior train car windows. I have not determined whether I will include audio announcements (like today’s intercom system and what may have preceded it) in my research.

Art was also an early consideration at the inception of the subway, with each station given its own creative flair in construction. More recently, the MTA has supported the Arts for Transit program, which allows for the creation of permanent installations at stations throughout the city. I would like to investigate the chronology of these works, in addition to similar works created prior to the establishment of the Arts for Transit program in 1985. I also believe that unsanctioned subway art deserves significant consideration. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, graffiti had a literally overwhelming presence on the subways and performance artists used the system as their stage. The linkages between the graffiti writers and performers of that time and the ad manipulators and the underpantsed improvsters today truly beg to be explored.

As important is it is to define what will be included, so it is to define what will not. Unless my what I find in my research convinces me otherwise, I do not plan to give significant consideration to ‘human media’ in the form of beggars, evangelists, or peddlers. These are indeed authentic features of subway life and media, but I want to bound my focus in the realms of media forms that have been officially sanctioned and reactions thereto.

Current Relevance & Arguments

Even while exploring the historical proliferation of media messaging, it is necessary to remember that subway ridership is increasing (1.45 billion in 2005, 1.58 billion in 2009) and passengers increasingly have media of their own to engage with, making the ‘captured’ audience more distracted and elusive for those seeking to message them. With the recent announcement that stations (not tunnels…not yet, at least) will soon be equipped for cellular phone and wireless internet, I argue that the physical space of the subway will become much more saturated with media messaging and that this will be an important development for the passengers who have ever sought respite or an escape in their trips, for the history New York City transit, and for the future of public transit everywhere. Will a society that is ‘always on’ and always ‘on the go’ inevitably become one that is ‘always messaged’?

Collecting & Mapping

From combing library archives and online references, I anticipate being able to collect items that would be in print, photograph, audio, and video forms. I will also gather items along my current subway travels through photographs, video, audio, or collecting physical items.

In the same way that the subway creates a common thread for all parts of the city, I believe the findings of my research will provide an important subtext to the URT map. The subway system is one of the most important technological innovations in the history of this city and it has served as a very literal means of communication for its entire existence, not only in communicating to its passengers, but allowing for individuals to traverse the city and get in touch with one another more readily.

The following are important considerations for the mapping of my findings: communicating chronology, allowing users to filter subjects according to their interests (i.e., looking only at Art; or looking at Announcements & Advertisements together), and identifying major individual milestone moments an flows of trends/movements.

Trends and movements would include the following: change in subway ad regulations allowing ‘whole side’ ads for one company, the beginning of NYC graffiti to the removal of graffiti covered trains, the publishing history of The Subway Sun & The Elevated Express, the onset of ‘wrapped’ advertisement cars, TVs in subway cars, and the chronology of Arts For Transit sites since 1985.