Memorial Day Road Music

By Robert MacMillan Staff Writer
Friday, May 27, 2005; 9:44 AM

The Friday before Memorial Day usually doesn't draw a big crowd to news Web sites. Many readers are hitting the road instead of spending quality time on the Internet. So why not have it both ways? Print this column out and take it with you.

* First, a homework assignment while you're cruising America's highways this weekend: Tell me about the strange or creative promotions that you see for iPods, Blackberries and other digital freebies. You know where to find me. Drop me a line.

Meanwhile, here's a report from Thomas A. Denne, a producer and director at Montgomery College Television in Rockville Md.:

"My gym has been advertising a free iPod mini to anyone who initiates a corporate account where at least six people join. Let's see, six people at roughly $50 bucks a month comes to $300 a month, and a minimum 12-month commitment comes out to a total of $3600. The cost of an iPod mini? A 4GB is only $179, according to"

Here's the real question: Who gets the iPod if six people sign up?

* It's a safe bet that many of the 37.2 million people who plan to travel more than 50 miles this weekend like to listen to music. According to the American Automobile Association, 31.1 million travelers will go by car, limiting them to what's in their digital devices, cassette players or the radio.

Some of those travelers will tune in to the growing number of FM stations playing the "Jack" format. I've written about it before and I bet plenty of you have heard it already. For those who haven't, Jack stations go against the conventional wisdom of playing a tight list of a couple hundred songs. Instead, they blow it up to a thousand or more and, in theory, throw format to the wind. A recent Associated Press story profiled Nine FM in Chicago, where afternoon DJ Matt DuBiel moves the playlist from Boz Scaggs to Prince to Cheap Trick.

My experience with the Jack format is limited to one station, and so far fulfilment falls short of the promise. What I've heard so far sounds like an A-List of songs no larger than those at any other radio station, and no less tepid. You know those bands whose songs straddle the "classic" and "alternative" rock formats? I'm talking about U2, the Talking Heads, the Clash, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello and other denizens of the new wave. Some of their songs are classic rock mainstays (" Once in a Lifetime", " Rock the Casbah"), others anchor the purportedly edgier alternative/college format (" Nothing But Flowers", " Washington Bullets"). Most of what I've heard on Jack tries to meld the two. Add some Bachman Turner Overdrive, Jackson Browne and Chicago and you get, well, a classic rock station with an extra cup of coffee under its belt.

If what you're really looking for is a one-hour rock block that ties together Stevie Wonder, Bert Kaempfert, Diamanda Galas, Bobby Vinton, Laura Nyro, Public Enemy, Mark Stewart and the Tuvan Throat Singers, you'll either have to program it yourself, find some Podcaster who's already done it for you, or hitch a ride with Peter Gabriel.

* Some people's tastes run to the roots of rock n' roll, at least to that fateful moment when white musicians started seeing what they could do with it. Those fans will appreciate the eMusic store, where they ought to make a stop with their digital audio devices before they hit the road. Salon's Thomas Bartlett reported that eMusic stocked its shelves with hundreds of tracks from Sun Records, incubator to Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and more -- though Elvis Presley's utterly amazing collection is controlled by his estate and sadly unavailable as a result.

The Dead Zones

We're not talking about the Stephen King bestseller or the David Cronenberg movie. Rather, we're talking cell phone dead zones. Everybody knows their local pockets of cellular instability, the seven hills of roam where a digital signal just doesn't penetrate. If you wind up visiting popular metropolitan areas this weekend, the Wall Street Journal might be able to help you locate these places in advance. The article includes a nice rundown of sites in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., New York and Atlanta. It also cites the Web site, whose operators probably could earn more than a pretty penny if someone could figure out how to pump that information into people's cars.

One interesting note from the Journal article: Cellular companies have improved service during the past few years, though progress still is not uniform. Here's an excerpt: "Wireless companies have made some strides in improving coverage over the past few years. In places where it's more difficult to install cell towers, U.S. wireless companies have been deploying micro-cell sites, or antennas that provide coverage in very local areas. ... As a result, Verizon Wireless customers can now use their cellphones in the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, for example, and in the Lincoln and Holland tunnels in New York, says Dick Lynch, chief technical officer of Verizon Wireless. Cingular says it has improved coverage at a number of sites in the greater New York City area, including the train platforms at Grand Central and Penn stations, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and baggage claim in one terminal of Newark Airport. Cingular, meanwhile, says it has improved coverage in Chicago -- around O'Hare Airport and Wrigley Field, among other places."

Healthy, Wealthy and Awake

Here's a cool site for people traveling by air, though if you're heading to other continents today or tomorrow you'll have to wait until your return trip to make this work. "It" is the Anti-Jet Lag Diet the site that claims to reduce or eliminate jet lag symptoms by altering your dietary regimen. The site is run by llc in Illinois and was developed by the U.S. Energy Department's Argonne National Laboratory that is run through the University of Chicago.

The diet doesn't apply to weight loss; rather, it prescribes a program of "feasting" and "fasting" on alternate days and at alternate times before travel to get the body used to its soon-to-be regular time zone. The site offers several examples and for $17, the site's operators will design a custom diet for your  flight. It also offers all sorts of other scenarios such as how to account for travel across the International Date Line, an example of how to handle the common New York-Paris run and why alcohol and caffeine present their own particular concerns when crossing time zones.

Hot Fraud in the Summertime

I cited the AAA statistic earlier in this column that said more than 31 million people would take to the roads for the Memorial Day weekend. For millions of others, however, it will be a time to stay home and hit the car lots. Memorial Day is a blockbuster weekend for automobile dealers, especially if the weather is nice and lots of people come to check out the sales. Curious buyers also are showing up in greater numbers online, but as the Orlando Sentinel reported, the Internet hasn't stripped away the business's reputation for unscrupulous behavior.

"A Lake Mary used-car broker was indicted by a federal grand jury Wednesday, accused of bilking more than $300,000 from buyers nationwide in an Internet scam," the paper reported. "Gerald R. Treadway, 61, faces 17 counts of mail and wire fraud in what prosecutors call a scheme that ran in 2003 and 2004 and sometimes involved several sales of the same vehicle."

Treadway advertised used cars on Web sites such as eBay, and while acting as a broker for used-car dealerships in central Florida. He took a 20 percent fee, but allegedly promised to ship cars to buyers after they had already been sold to someone else.

The Sentinel told the story of 59-year-old Kerry Koontz in Indiana, who lost more than $13,000 in his attempt to buy a Jeep Grand Cherokee only to discover that Treadway sold the sport utility vehicle to someone else: "I kept telling him that I thought he was a crook. . . . I told him I would turn him in," Koontz said. "He sent me a check for $500. That was my refund. . . . If I would be able to see him face to face, I would like to break both his knees."

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