BOB GARFIELD: There's a certain kind of story that calls for a few words from the man on the street. But for every time reporters call upon a local man or area resident, there are a bunch of responses you never hear, such as "please leave me alone," or "get lost," or "how much will you pay me?" It happens. But if finding a willing voice is a problem for journalists, Greg Packer has provided the solution for more than a decade. Counting individual articles in the Nexis database since 1994, Packer has been quoted or photographed at least 16 times on separate occasions by the Associated Press, 14 times by Newsday, 13 times by the New York Daily News, and 12 times by the New York Post. And he's still counting. Reporter Amy O'Leary went on the rounds with the media's favorite vox populi.
AMY O'LEARY: Greg Packer is probably the easiest person I'm ever going to interview. [STREET AMBIENCE]
GREG PACKER: You know, I always come up with an answer for everything, number one. And, and I always give everybody, you know, the respect and the time that they need. I make it very easy for them. I make it accessible....
AMY O'LEARY: Which on April 15th means waiting outside the Post Office, just in case anybody wants a quote.
GREG PACKER: Yeah, well tax day is a media event in itself. I try to get my taxes done early and save it for the last minute and throw it in the mail, right here in New York on tax day.
AMY O'LEARY: Okay. See what he did just there? He slipped in the phrase "right here in New York on tax day." You've got the time, the place, it's a totally usable quote -- Greg's specialty. He's out there every week. First he checks the newspapers for concerts, sports games, parades, book signings, anywhere media trucks might be camped out. Then, he requests time off from his job as a highway worker on Long Island and shows up early, scanning the crowd for reporters. He gets quoted more than you might think, but for all this effort, Greg doesn't keep his clips. You see, for him, that's not the point. He wants a media job and what he calls "a big money offer."
GREG PACKER: Doing commercials, maybe a radio show, very similar to WNYC and, and others for that matter. You know, something other than going up and down highway trucks putting sanders on, pumping out floods, you know. That's all fine and good, cause you have to do something. But there's something out there that's better for me.
AMY O'LEARY: All in all, Greg's racked up more than a hundred appearances in the media. My favorite Greg Packer quote was something he said to the Daily News in 1998 about a Yankees game on Yom Kippur. Greg told them, "There's no way the Yankees will lose, but if they do, they'll certainly have something to atone for." [STREET AMBIENCE]
AMY O'LEARY: Do you go up to them, or--?
GREG PACKER: Or what?
AMY O'LEARY: Or do, or do they, do they come up to you?
GREG PACKER: I think it's, it's a little bit of both. Little bit of both. You know, it's-- it's a mu-- call it a mutual understanding.
AMY O'LEARY: In the time I spent with Greg, the only journalist who approached him was me. Greg, however, approached two documentarians, three photographers and a writer. He seeks them out to give them what they need, and Jeff Zillgitt agrees. He's a sports columnist for USA Today who Greg approached at two different sporting events in the span of 24 hours. Zillgitt wound up using Greg in his column but says it's rare that anyone approaches him to offer a quote. Overwhelmingly, he has to approach strangers.
JEFF ZILLGITT: I generally go to lots of sporting events. I have not one bit of problem walking into a, you know, sports locker room and asking a multimillion dollar player a question. The part of the job I, I don't really care for is that man on the street quote. You know, it, it's sort of awkward, because I, I, I just, I just feel like I'm bothering people.
AMY O'LEARY: Last summer, things changed for Greg when he showed up in a flurry of articles about the Hillary Clinton book tour. Conservative columnist Ann Coulter noticed and called Greg "the entire media's designated man on the street for all articles ever written."
GREG PACKER: You know, she's never met me. But you see, what Ann Coulter is forgetting is -- you know, whatever she's got to say about the media, I don't care. But to drag me into it -- I think it's terrible.
AMY O'LEARY: Greg is a big fan of Hillary Clinton. She's nice to him. She remembers his name. But Greg's no left wing stooge. He's for the Iraq war and definitely voting for Bush. Coulter may be wrong about Greg's politics, but she's right that journalists could be doing more. After her column exposed Greg's hobby, he was dealt another blow.
GREG PACKER: It's gotten to the point where the Associated Press, of all people, has had [LAUGHS] to issue a memo saying not to [LAUGHS] talk to me any more. [LAUGHS] The memo said that the world is [LAUGHS] full of all kinds of interesting people...
KRISTIN GAZLAY: The world is full of all kinds of interesting people. One of them is Greg Packer of Huntington, New York who apparently lives to get his name on the AP wire and in other media.
AMY O'LEARY: This is Kristin Gazlay, the deputy managing editor for national news at Associated Press. She wrote the memo.
KRISTIN GAZLAY: I sent out a note to the staff, noting that, you know, he had done nothing wrong, but that perhaps we were over-relying on him to provide insights into events.
AMY O'LEARY: The memo was the AP's equivalent of a bounced check taped to a convenience store window. Before Gazlay sent it out, the wire service had used Greg repeatedly on topics like the Millennium, St. Patrick's Day, the war in Iraq and Christmas.
KRISTIN GAZLAY: If there's any sense of journalistic outrage that he's pulling something on the media, he always said what his name was. When, when we called up these stories, they all say Greg Packer. That's who he is. [STREET AMBIENCE]
AMY O'LEARY: Hey, Greg.
GREG PACKER: Hey, Amy. How you doing?
AMY O'LEARY: You're first.
GREG PACKER: One of the first.
AMY O'LEARY: One of the first.
GREG PACKER: One of the first.
AMY O'LEARY: The next time I see Greg, he's sitting on a piece of cardboard outside the Virgin Megastore at Times Square. He and three teenage girls are the only ones camped out overnight. Greg tells me that he's probably slept outside this store ten times for various concerts and signings. Tonight, it's to see Hansen. [GREG SINGS MMMBOP, WHICH BLENDS INTO THE HANSEN VERSION]
AMY O'LEARY: Sixteen hours later, the wait's paid off. Greg's at the foot of the stage, five feet away from the media pool. When he sees a guy with a video camera, Greg asks him to wait while he unrolls a fresh Hansen poster and poses with it.
GREG PACKER: What's this for, anyway?
AMY O'LEARY: It's a strange image. A video camera zooms in on a middle age man holding up a poster showing Zak, Taylor and Isaac while all around him teenage girls are checking their lip gloss and adjusting their belly shirts. Ashley, the documentary filmmaker for Hansen, explains why he was drawn to Greg.
ONE MAN: It's, it's the big grin. That's what it is.
GREG PACKER: Yeah.
ASHLEY: You know, this just looks like a happy guy. Like everybody else is kind of packed in here, and even though they're like - a lot of 'em you know are here to see Hansen, they're excited about that - they're not sitting there smiling - they're like oh, I'm sweaty, I'm hot. He smiles - he's got a big grin. Grins attract people. That's why I came up. That and a huge poster.
AMY O'LEARY: The guy has a point. Out of the teeming masses that swarm New York, over a hundred journalists have selected Greg for a sound bite. But clearly, he doesn't represent a random sample. In fact, Greg's ubiquity undercuts the whole reason for remarks from the man on the street.
AMY O'LEARY: Maybe journalists should just stop doing man on the street interviews.
GREG PACKER: Nah, you can't do that. You need the man on the street quotes. You know, it's like the voice of the common person.
AMY O'LEARY: But often, as we heard, the common person doesn't like to give quotes, and reporters can't make them. So, let's cut them some slack. Greg may not offer a statistically accurate sample of the common person, but maybe he does represent the ones who like to talk. [THEME MUSIC UP AND UNDER] For On the Media, I'm Amy O'Leary.
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was directed by Katya Rogers and produced by Janeen Price, Megan Ryan and Tony Field, and edited -- by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director, and Rob Christiansen our engineer; we had help from Ann Kosseff and Mike Vuolo. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media, from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.