When Mooresville residents travel along Brawley School Road, they might notice a sign that changes weekly. A “reader board” is the technical name for the sign; within the outdoor advertising industry, it is also called a “changeable copy board.” The sign appears on a business on the north side of Brawley School Road between Williamson Road and the soon-to-open Exit 35 on I-77.Every Monday the words on the sign are changed. The man who comes up with the words that appear weekly on the sign is Stephen Benson. Long ago, he worked for Wendy’s and Benson credits Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s, saying Thomas “largely invented reader boards.”Every Sunday night, Benson starts to ponder what words to use on the signs, and he becomes very preoccupied. “Sometimes my wife gets crabby with me; she says, ‘Hello! Earth to Steve! Are you there?’ ”Benson moved to the Charlotte area in the 1970s to start mini-storage businesses and decided to use reader boards. He has lived at the same house on Hardison Road in South Charlotte for 25 years. Every Monday, in 62 locations (including Mooresville) in eight states along with nine marinas from Jacksonville, Fla., to Virginia, he emails the words for each sign’s new messages or statements for the week. Trying his ideas out on staff, he said, “If I received a cordial smile, the kind you’d give someone you ran into at Harris Teeter, I could gauge whether I had come up with a good sign or not. A smile where I don’t see any teeth.” That’s not good. “If I got a smile where I could see teeth, I’d know I was onto something.” Some of messages on the reader board that repeat each year are the two that ran just before and after Thanksgiving: “Is your turkey looking nervous?” and “Bet you ate too much!” Other repeats are: “Happy Hanukkah!” and – at Christmas – “And heaven and nature sing” (from “Joy to the World”). Benson, 73, tries to stay away from political or religious signs: “I happen to be a religious person. But I have to stay away from anything that may alienate any of the 4 percent of the population. We never talk about ourselves, either.” Although once just for fun – and because Benson doesn’t like Fig Newton cookies – the sign read, “Help Stamp out Fig Newtons!” The following week the sign read, “Fig Newton, Fig Newton, Fig Newton.” Unfortunately, an attorney from Nabisco sent a cease-and-desist letter. Recently, the sign read “Fiscal cliff . . . what cli ?”Some of the locations asked if he misspelled the word “cliff”– not understanding the irony. Back in the 1990s when then President Clinton was choosing his Cabinet, he nominated Zoe Baird to be the first female U.S. Attorney General, but it was discovered she hadn’t paid taxes or Social Security for her maid and nanny, resulting in “Nanny Gate.” Benson’s sign that week read, “Need a nanny? 1-800-Call Zoe.” It happened to be the phone number of an attorney in California who was not happy with the calls he was receiving. Benton said, “We never thought anyone would call the phone number. We quickly took the sign down.” Benson says this of what his signs post: “It’s not messages of life. It’s not a Hallmark card.”They are meant to be fun, and might not be for everyone. This past week, Benson commented, he thought of some “juicy ones” because of the Lance Armstrong news and Manti Te’o of Notre Dame. Benson, though, thought it was more important to go with “We honor Dr. Martin Luther King.”
Friday, Feb. 08, 2013
Stephen Benson’s messages are drive-by head-turners
Benson pens messages on reader-board in Mooresville
The messages Stephen Benson writes for outdoor "reader boards" range from the straight-forward and sincere, like this one, to the whimsical. SUZANNE RUFF
The messages Stephen Benson writes for outdoor “reader boards” range from the straight-forward and sincere to the whimsical - like this one.
Stephen Benson, 73, says this of what his signs post: “It’s not messages of life. It’s not a Hallmark card.” COURTESY OF STEPHEN BENSON