Audio tour of MKT benches memorialize past, allude future

Saturday, April 17, 2010 | 4:34 p.m. CDT

One of the benches along the MKT Trail is dedicated to Al and Marjo Price. Passersby can use their cell phones to call and hear the story of whom the benches are dedicated to. Listen to the audio clip as an example of the story behind bench.

COLUMBIA — The benches along the MKT Trail have stories to tell, and Clyde Bentley, an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, has found a way to bring them to life.

“Voices From the Past" is a cell phone-guided tour Bentley initiated to honor those who have benches dedicated to them along the trail.

A phone number posted on the bench gives a link to an audio file that reveals the stories behind the names on the plaques. Eight benches are currently set up with audio memorials, with hopes of having 15 total completed this year.

Instructions are listed on small blue-and-white signs, and listeners can leave comments by pressing “0#” when they call.

One bench was donated by the Columbia chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, for example, to a couple who became active in the organization after the woman lost her sight at age 55. The audio story talks about her life and her positive attitude.

“This is part of my yearlong fellowship on developing ways to use mobile phones for newspapers,” said Bentley, a fellow this year with the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism.

He said he was inspired to create his project after seeing one of the benches in a snowstorm.

"I came across a bench that had a fresh flower on it and a note that said, ‘I still miss you,’" Bentley said. "Suddenly that bench became a real person to me."

Three journalism students — Ryan Huber, Rachel Moten and Jashin Lin — helped Bentley with the project. They researched the names on the plaques and created the audio stories.

Some people were willing to talk to them, and others were not, Moten wrote in an e-mail.

The interviews were relatively short, she said, but they were still able to create stories "packed with so much information about the person or couple and their impact on Columbia's community."

Students with the MU College of Engineering also helped with the signs, and Bentley worked with Guide by Cell, a San Francisco company that creates similar tours for museums.

Bentley has been working on the project through a fellowship to develop media applications for mobile phones.

“My job was to see how I could engage more than 80 percent of cell phone owners for whom it is difficult to use applications," Bentley said. "That meant it had to be text or voice.”

The system could be used for events such as the Roots 'N Blues 'N BBQ Festival; audio links could be provided to explain food or music venues. Likewise, restaurants could use a cell phone application to explain daily specials, he said.

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