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Somebody Out There Wants Your iPod

By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, April 28, 2005 10:18 AM

When it comes to the iPod, the press corps -- myself included -- put on our best pack journalism act. Our coverage is comprehensive and, boy, is it breathless! And why wouldn't it be? New York City transportation officials say portable electronic devices, notably iPods, are almost entirely responsible for a spike in subway crime since the beginning of the year.

I can already tell what you're thinking: c'mon, MacMillan, we're having iPods for breakfast again ?! I'm afraid so. I hoped to write about something different today, but when Apple's diminutive music players -- or rather, their theft -- can bring Gotham City to its knees, we feel obliged to bring you the details.

The problem has gotten serious enough that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority held a news conference to announce that theft of the $99-to-$450 devices is quite literally out of hand.

The number of major felonies -- a category that encompasses murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, grand larceny and auto theft -- committed on the subway during the first three months of 2005 rose 18.3 percent over the same period last year, but if officials excluded iPod and cell-phone theft, the rate of serious crime would have fallen 3 percent, said Michael J. Farrell, the MTA's deputy commissioner for strategic initiatives, according to the New York Times . The real numbers are a little smaller -- 50 iPods and 165 cell phones stolen compared to zero and 82 in 2004 -- but it's enough evidence for the MTA to consider it time to start a public-relations campaign warning people to guard their digital devices.

Newsday reported that "beginning in May, the MTA will hang advisories on subways, with one warning: 'Earphones are a giveaway. Protect your device.' In fact, some owners of iPods have replaced the telltale white earphones with other headsets, to avoid unwanted attention."

MTA officials did not recommend that people curtail their iPod use on the subway, though they noted that blotting out one of your equally important five senses can make it difficult to avoid situations such as, say, getting mugged and beaten. Instead, the New York Post quoted transit chief Michael Scagnelli as saying authorities would take more care to find criminals in the system: "If you're a bad guy, watch out. The gentleman or lady next to you might be a cop."

Subway riders waxed philosophical when not putting safety first:

  • Jean Lam, 33-year-old veterinary technician from Queens, riding the F train and listening to Sarah McLachlan as she talked to Newsday: "If it's not the iPod, it's gonna be something else." If she lost her iPod, what's the worst that could happen on her commute? "I'd be staring at people." OK, better hang on to that iPod.
  • Unnamed subway rider, talking to local ABC affiliate WABC : "I'm not sure how they'd get it from me, unless they pried it out of my cold, dead hand."
  • Alison Emmett, 26, a Greenwich Village lawyer, talking to the Times: "You keep it in your bag. ... You keep your bag in front of you. You keep your hand on it."
  • So what's behind the high rate of theft? If you thought there was a profitable black market for stolen iPods, you'd be wrong. It's not that the average podsnatcher who rolled you on Nostrand Avenue is more desperate than a junkie for your Bebel Gilberto-Uncle Tupelo-Ministry mashup. The relatively steep price, the Associated Press reported , is enough of an incentive for crooks to keep them instead of selling them. Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, cast this argument through the Jean Valjean lens in an interview with the Times: "The participation gap creates techno-envy, where the kids who are locked out of participation in the culture covet those tools and devices that are considered essential to being a young person."

    Techno-envy: When the time is right, will you be ready? Actually, this is a chronic problem that puts the iPod into the long line of must-have items that have spawned spikes in theft throughout the years. The list includes electronics devices such as boom boxes, but it also centers around any portable status symbol: Air Jordans, gold chains, brand-name clothing, leather jackets, you name it.

    But what happens next? Will some tiny-but-irresistible slab of technology sitting on a laboratory table and bearing a serial number instead of a name be tomorrow's must-purloin item? Or will iPods stick around, dropping in price until every desperate crook gets his or her opportunity to drown out the world thanks to the soothing strains of whatever it is that they listen to?

    While we ponder that problem, it's also worth noting some of the other news coverage. The Boston Herald reported that the city's transportation officials created a special class of crime for electronic-device theft: "The iPods are a hot item," said one police officer. "That's where the highest number of complaints are coming from."

    Meanwhile, take a look at any police blotter or local paper nowadays, and you can track the meteoric rise in the iPod's popularity by how often it shows up:

  • The Seattle Times reported on a house party that turned the residence in question into "a scene from the looting of Baghdad." Among the many electronics items pilfered ... I don't need to tell you.
  • The Washington Post ran this anecdote to kick off a front-page feature: "The burglar visited every room of Sara Scalenghe's Northwest Washington apartment, stealing an expensive digital camera and a gold necklace passed down from her grandmother. But Scalenghe did not begin seething until she confirmed her biggest fear: Her new iPod had been swiped, too. The digital music player held 50 favorite songs, ranging from Mozart to Italian rap. The device also contained thoughts on a looming dissertation and recorded conversations with friends. For Scalenghe, her privacy, as well as her home, was invaded." (Not that this makes anyone feel any better, but I always figured that losing hundreds of hours of reporting and writing to a "computer glitch" was someone's way of telling me my story needed a rewrite.)
  • Stats from Temple University's The Temple News : "There were 282 reported incidents of theft on the Main campus in 2003. In 2004, the number rose to 312, an 11 percent increase." Yes, iPods again. "The other day, I was discussing the changes in crime relating to technology," Charles Leone, deputy director of Campus Safety Services, told the paper. "With high-priced items becoming more and more portable, these issues will rise."
  • Check out similar examples from the Dartmouth College and University of Montana at Missoula blotters. If it's happening there, you know it's happening everywhere.
  • And finally, here's an excerpt from a bizarre but interesting column in the Northerner , the independent student paper of Northern Kentucky University: "[People] spoke of the deep depression that accompanied their loss and the difficulty of moving on. I had to remind myself that the iPod was an inanimate object. They spoke in such eloquent and reverend terms that I was truly moved. I had to go hug my own iPod and just hold it. ... These thieves are breaking the window to your soul, shattering it for the world to view, leaving behind nothing but the naked soul. These soulless mercenaries must be stopped."

    Rock Bottom

    Yesterday's column picked up the news that Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting would ditch the all-talk lineup at KYCY-AM in San Francisco and replace it with a listener-run series of Podcasts. Several other news sources ran items in today's papers, including the San Francisco Chronicle which reported that the move is "raising eyebrows" among other radio players: "Other stations have podcast their programs on the Web, but none have turned their format over to podcasters. ... Whether the experiment improves ratings depends on what kind of podcasts KYCY chooses to air, said Dave Van Dyke, president of radio industry consulting firm Bridge Ratings LLC. ... But the station's ratings are so low Infinity might as well 'think outside the box,' he said. KYCY didn't even show up in Arbitron's January-to-March local ratings period list for the local market, he said. "

    The Wall Street Journal's Sarah McBride wrote that the move would be akin to handing over a local television station's operations to the cast of "Wayne's World:" "The move allows Infinity to tap into a hot trend, building on an Internet initiative it launched last month, under which it is streaming several stations over the Internet. It hopes to develop a separate advertising stream for these online broadcasts. ... 'We're trying to do something new, move the ball ahead,' says Joel Hollander, Infinity's chief executive, who adds he isn't yet sure if the station will catch on or not."

    Messages From the Pod People

  • Reader Jeff Henriksen in Washington, D.C., wrote in the other day to let me know how the iPod beat out Buddhism in the quest for serenity: "I received an iPod for Christmas and have finally reached 'critical mass' where all the music I really care to listen to is now loaded. Once reaching this realization, I felt compelled to purchase iPod's car adapter and home stereo adaptor, sequestering myself from the world of commercials. I even went a step further by purchasing Tivo and the result is that I could really not be happier in my world of commercial-free isolation!" It leaves me wondering how Paul Simon's lyrics to "The Sounds of Silence" would have looked had he been born into an iPod world.
  • John Senger in Rixeyville, Va., wrote in to give me some supplemental schooling on the "Jack" radio format that's picking up steam with increasing frequency: "You might be interested to learn that the 'Jack' format has been happening in Virginia for quite a while now. Back in late 2003 and early 2004, a station in Virginia Beach named The Coast (WKOC 93.7) became Bob FM (WPYA) with the tag line of 'We play anything.' Both The Coast and now Bob have long played just about anything you ask them to, so I think you'd have the say the new 'Jack' format is really the old 'Bob' format." John's a big Bob fan. Got that, Jack?
  • Send links and comments to robertDOTmacmillanATwashingtonpost.com.

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