MUMBAI - As with over two million others in India, I got a shock on Tuesday
morning when I opened my daily newspaper and heard a voice from within its
pages. I dropped the newspaper in surprise, and the voice stopped. On opening
it again, a male voice bleated about German engineering.
It was my eerie moment of history, the era of speaking newspapers had dawned,
with no advance warning, and I had become part of all its attendant wonderful
and nightmarish possibilities.
Using a small, ingenious, light-sensor activated, voice-recorded device glued
to the newspaper page, the Times of India and The Hindu carried an audio
advertisement launching a new Volkswagen car model on September 21. The two
dailies, both over 100 years old, became the world's first multimedia
newspapers of a kind perhaps never imagined by Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of
the printing press in around 1441.
The talking paper launched the Vento, a premium entry-level sedan and the
latest offering from top-selling Volkswagen India Group that markets the Audi,
Skoda and Volkswagen brands. Volkswagen India reported growth of 120.7% in its
latest sales figures for January to July 2010.
The newspaper audio continued Volkswagen India's reputation for innovative
marketing - such as "Roadblocked" last November, when it took over the entire
advertising space in all of the 16 Times of India editions across India, for
its Polo hatchback model.
Volkswagen releasing the first-ever audio page in print media opened up a
Pandora's box of ideas: will the next James Bond movie have newspapers singing
out the theme? Will cash-rich political parties be demanding votes through
talking newspapers next elections? Worse, imagine sitting inside a train or an
aircraft with a babble of audio papers.
Given the responses the next day, on September 22, there may be a hundred other
duplicate ideas of yakkety-yak magazines and newspapers. But now that it is
known that paper can be made to speak, that first pristine moment of utter
astonishment has passed. Memorable, though, is the inaugural experience of what
I had never thought of before: a newspaper talking.
For a few seconds, I had rarely been more bewildered than on hearing a voice
coming from the newspaper in the early morning. My first confused thought was
that somehow a cell phone had found its way into the pages by mistake - but
then, even cell phones can't start talking by themselves, and I don't own a
cell phone. When I saw what the voice was, I couldn't help smiling: a full-page
car advertisement on a back page, with a two-inch black rectangular box glued
to it doing the talking.
The astonishment was more because there were no advance warnings or teaser
advertisements in days leading up to the caper. The edition with the voice
carried a small note to "Our Readers: The Times of India and Volkswagen have
created four pages of content as a sort of a special media innovation. Don't
miss reading and listening to this 'speaking newspaper'!"
But I found this message only after looking for it.
"Best in class German engineering is here," announces the male voice. "The new
Volkswagen Vento. Built with great care and highly innovative features, perhaps
that's why it breaks the hearts of our engineers to watch it drive away. The
new Volkswagen Vento, crafted with so much passion, it's hard to let it go.
Volkswagen. Das Auto."
The message repeats itself, until the news page is folded sufficiently to block
the pinhole-sized perforation on the black audio box through which lights
travels to sensor to trigger the recorded disk.
Varied, colorful responses were reported across India to opening a newspaper
and hearing it talk. They ranged from frightened children to a Mumbai police
bomb squad rushing to investigate suspicious noises coming from a litter-bin
near S L Raheja Hospital in suburban Mahim - some irritated reader had chucked
away the black chatterbox, which can continue talking for nearly two-and-a-half
A startled housemaid reportedly picked up the talking newspaper and screamed
"ghost", an understandable reaction given the stories I heard as a kid about
ghosts violently slapping people opening the front door at dawn - probably as
grouchy farewell before the spooks vanish at sunrise.
Hundreds of messages about the morning newspaper experience flooded social
networking sites like Twitter. "The Volkswagen talking ad in today's TOI [Times
of India] scared the hell out of me!" tweeted one. "It's both funny and weird."
More proof of how the astonished mind can produce any thought came with one
startled reader revealing he had thought the wall behind his newspaper was
Not everyone was startled or impressed. Bangalore resident Rani Venugopal
scolded the Times of India for creating an environmental problem with all the
plastic that will be thrown away with the newspaper.
The bearded, bear-like Prahlad Kakkar, a prominent Mumbai-based advertising
filmmaker, complained of an intrusive, unwelcome advertisement before
breakfast. "When a man gets up in the morning, he wakes up with the newspaper
and this is the only time of peace and solace in the day," Kakkar told a Times
of India reporter. "The voice box intruded into this space and I did not know
how to stop it."
Even so, I bought an extra copy to relish again the childhood habit of
dismantling fascinating toys to explore the innards. The two-inch,
featherweight, hollow rectangular "voice box" contained two button cells wired
into a disc about an inch wide that produces the repetitive message.
I thought it was lighter pressure of fingers or of folded newspaper pages that
activated the voice - but the Times of India declared the next day that a
light-sensitive device worked the moment the pages were even half open.
The iPod-sized gizmos with the speaker, chip and batteries are made at a
Volkswagen factory in China. Mumbai resident and Volkswagen India manager Lutz
Kothe said his 14-year-old niece, Beatrix Madersbacher, gave him the idea
during a business trip to Munich.
Beatrix may have had a brainwave or seen the idea on the Internet. In early
2009, Lalit Pahwa, director of a small Mumbai-based publisher, Pioneer Book Co,
had talked about a pre-recorded audio chip embedded in a newspaper or magazine
page. It would start playing when the reader opened the page and stop when page
was turned. But Pahwa could not implement the idea for the two women's
magazines he publishes.
The German connection though was appropriate in enabling the world's first
speaking newspapers. Apart from Gutenberg, another German, Johann Carolus
(1575-1634), published the first-ever generally acknowledged newspaper - his
"Relation", or Relation aller Furnemmen und gedenckwurdigen Historien (Collection
of all distinguished and commemorable news) was published from 1605.
It took nearly six months of working logistics for the September 21 edition of
the Times of India and The Hindu to carry the talking page - 2.5 million copies
of the edition were selectively distributed in Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Bangalore
The copies had become collectors' items in Mumbai by the next morning, the
concluding day of the city's biggest annual festival of Ganesha, the
charismatic god of enterprise and adventure.