Fire flyer with me
Does the city burn kiosks to clear them?
Sometimes the weight of all that paper and tape on Madison's flyer kiosks becomes too much, and the task of clearing them off falls to… somebody. Sometimes it's the City of Madison Parks Division, sometimes the Streets Division, sometimes a neighborhood association or even a nearby business, depending on what part of the city you're in and who you ask.
"Parks staff is responsible for the kiosks in the mall concourse special charge area, which includes most of the kiosks downtown (most of these are newish and some combination of metal, glass, and maybe some wood)," explains City of Madison Park Superintendent Eric Knepp. "The older wooden ones around the near east side are kind of a no person’s land of maintenance, as they were originally supposed to be maintained by neighborhood associations, I think…The only thing I know is 2-3 years ago there were a lot of complaints that they were 'full' and eventually I was instructed by the Mayor’s Office to go clean them up. We did so, but I honestly don’t recall if we had conversations about who should be doing this long-term."
But beyond the bureaucratic confusion, there's a weirder layer to this matter of kiosk maintenance: The question of whether city workers light the things on fire to help clear them off.
I've been hearing this assertion since the Tone Madison Facebook page posted a photo a couple weeks back of a kiosk unraveling on Willy Street. Several folks who've put in plenty of time flyering in Madison, either for independently booked shows or as part of a street team for large promoters, say they've seen burning or burned kiosks, and that they've been told that city workers conduct controlled burns, I guess, to strip them down. The more I ask around, the more elusive answers seem to get.
Not to attack anyone's credibility, but this does seem like a bad idea, right? All those layers of paper could make for an unpredictable burn, and the tape and ink involved could put off harmful fumes and noxious smells. And we're talking about kiosks that are all in relatively dense, central areas with a lot of foot traffic. Even if someone burned them in the dead of night, they'd still be close to buildings, trees, awnings, and cars. Dry conditions or an unfavorable wind could spell trouble. Plus, burning the flyers off wouldn't work after a rainfall, or even after a particularly damp snow. Also some of the older kiosks are made of...wood?
Don't get me wrong: I know people set flyer kiosks ablaze from time to time. Someone was arrested for doing just that on State Street in 2018. Lighters are cheap, and plenty of folks out there have more booze in their bodies than sense. So if you're telling me you've seen one of these things on fire, I believe it. But the idea that this is an official, city-sanctioned practice? Were I not such a humble person, I would suspect that people were pulling a Truman Show-caliber mind game on me.
If city workers are out there doing it anyway, local fire officials would not be OK with it.
"City ordinance allows only for the open burning of clean, dry wood," says Cynthia Schuster, spokesperson for the Madison Fire Department. "Burning any other type of material is prohibited, so burning posters on a kiosk would be illegal. We have no knowledge of City crews using this method to remove posters from kiosks. Kiosk fires we’ve responded to in the past have usually occurred late at night and are typically deemed acts of vandalism." (Full disclosure: Schuster is a friend of mine.)
Schuster adds: "Speaking on a personal level, as a downtown resident of 18 years, I’ve never seen any City workers set the kiosks on fire. I have seen them rip the posters off in an impressively efficient swipe or two!"
It is clear that at least some folks have heard about the practice while working on street teams in Madison. One is Abby Sherman, of Madison bands Addison Christmas and Trophy Dad, who spent about a year and a half flyering for Majestic Live, later absorbed into Frank Productions, which then became Live Nation subsidiary FPC Live.
"I was always doing Willy Street, but towards the end one day I went to do my route as normal and I got to the kiosk in front of Grampa's Pizza and it had been burned," Sherman says. "I texted my boss because I obviously was like... WTF?? And at first neither of us knew that it was something that the city did. But I think after a day or two they figured it out."
Majestic co-owner Matt Gerding says that "I’m pretty sure this does actually happen," but adds, "I have seen the paper on one of the kiosks be all burned up in the past maybe once or twice—which could just be some random person having done it." Summer Wuestenberg, a marketing assistant for FPC Live, wasn't certain either. "I know they do try to strip them occasionally," Wuestenberg says. "Not sure if that means they light them on fire, though."
I figured Steve Manley, owner of the venerable B-Side Records, might know something about it. Manley has been working at the State Street shop for longer than I've been alive and people frequently drop off show flyers there while hitting the kiosks. Manley says he's "just seen the aftermath more than once," but hasn't seen anyone actually starting a kiosk fire.
"City workers?" Manley adds. "Well that is insane if true."
Tag Evers, who is both a longtime local concert promoter and a new member of the City of Madison Common Council, is dismissive. "Never heard that," Evers replied to an emailed question about kiosk burns. "I can’t imagine [the Parks Division] doing something that unsafe." I have also seen Evers on flyering runs years ago, before his company True Endeavors was acquired by Frank Productions, so I know he has hands-on experience as well as experiences delegating.
I also reached out to the Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association. "I think I've heard that rumor!" says TLNA's Patty Prime. "I think one of the businesses cleared the Johnson/Paterson kiosk a few years ago, but manually. It wasn't easy as I recall."
City of Madison Recycling Coordinator Bryan Johnson asserts that "The Streets Division has no role in cleaning the State Street kiosks from flyers."
Knepp, the Parks Superintendent, is at least aware of the notion of blazing broadsides.
"I’ve heard that in the past staff used to 'burn' them off… but we don’t use that method anymore (this assumes of course the urban legend is true). I think 2-3 years ago we got roped into cleaning off the wooden ones and we did it through pulling down all the old flyers. That is the method we use on the downtown kiosks."
Alder Mike Verveer, whose district covers much of the State Street area, responded to my inquiry by asking Parks Division staff to "dispel the kiosk fire myth." Assistant Parks Superintendent Lisa Laschinger replied: "The Parks Division does not burn posters off of kiosks that we are responsible for maintaining. We physically remove the posters and properly discard them. Also, as I mentioned, we have heard reports and seen where some kiosks have been vandalized by individuals who choose to ignite the paper on the kiosks. This behavior is not authorized or deemed appropriate by the City of Madison Parks Division or any other City agencies to my knowledge."
Alder Marsha Rummel, whose district covers the Willy Street kiosks, says: "I have never had a discussion with [the Marquette Neighborhood Association] or [the SASY Neighborhood Association] about maintenance of kiosks. I think nearby business owners may adopt them."
Joe Copeland, who worked for Evers back in the late 'oughts and works with Tone Madison on events, also caught wind of the rumor in his street-team days. "Somebody used to light them on fire all the time. Mostly Langdon Street, sometimes on Willy Street and at Johnson and Paterson, next to Burnie's Rock Shop," Copeland says. "I was under the impression that it was something the city did, but I don’t know for sure...I’ve never seen one get lit, but I do remember seeing city workers cut a giant mass of fliers down."
If you do happen to see a kiosk on fire, call the fire department immediately and then please send me photos. If you're thinking of lighting one on fire, in an official capacity or otherwise, please stop right now!