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Delivering the News to Kings of the Road : Satellite Channel Caters to Truckers

March 25, 1993|LEWIS BEALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ELKTON, Md. — Clarence Varney was running a full load of granulated steel from Riverton, N.J., to Salem, Ind. His big rig was so heavy it felt like it had more mass than a collapsed star, which immediately led him to thoughts of the weather. Varney had driven out of a snowbound Midwest several days ago, and because he'd been on the road ever since, didn't know the up-to-date forecast.

This was serious business. Varney had nearly 700 miles to drive, part of it through mountainous terrain. Jockeying a heavy rig over snow-covered or wet roads had dangerous potential. Because of this, Varney had already gotten permission from his company to drive a hundred or so miles out of his way in order to avoid some of the steeper sections along the route. Now he needed to know what weather to expect.

But Varney didn't trust the weather information he could get from his CB--"It could be some guy in a VW, and here you are in a 53-foot trailer," he said--and the radio stations in the East were only giving out local forecasts. So he headed for the only source of information that could tell him exactly what he needed to know.

Fifty miles south of Philadelphia, Varney pulled off I-95 into Maryland's Liberty Bell Auto Truck Plaza, strolled into the restaurant and ordered something to eat. Then he turned around in his seat, looked up at a TV monitor placed in the wall, and checked out what was on Trucker TV, a satellite-delivered news and information service seen at truck stops across the country.

Varney watched as anchor Kate Sullivan, formerly of KCAL-TV Channel 9 in Los Angeles, ran through the top news stories of the day. He paid close attention to items specifically related to the trucking industry, scrutinized a feature story on a truck-driving school, and drank some coffee during a humorous bit by a reporter who reviews the food at truck stop restaurants.

Then, there it was. Traffic conditions on the nation's interstates. And weather reports by region. The forecast called for showers throughout much of Varney's route, with a possibility of light snow. Now, at least, he knew he was in for a tough run.

"This network is super," he said. "I can really use the information about the weather and traffic tie-ups. And they'll run stories about new state regulations, and it's like, 'Damn, I never heard of that before.' It is so helpful for us drivers out here."

They call it place-based media, and it wasn't even technologically feasible until a few years ago. Stick a small satellite dish on a roof somewhere, face it toward a signal coming from a central source and, voila!-- narrowcasting in the most basic sense.

The possibilities are limitless--for education, industry, government, you name it. But the people at the American Transportation Television Network (ATTN), based in Washington, D.C., have come up with one of the more unusual uses for this space-age TV concept. They have targeted a population of 3.5 million truckers, who spend billions of dollars a year while on the road, and are broadcasting to them at the one place where they all turn up at one time or another: the nation's 2,500 full-service truck stops.

"There's no other source of information for these guys," says Steve Cohen, chairman of ATTN. "They live this atomized life, they step down out of the truck, and the question is, how do they reconnect?"

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Adds Tom Hauff, a former trucker with extensive local TV news experience who is now the network's executive producer: "These guys are on the road, and there are only a handful of radio stations catering to their needs. I see ourselves as the local TV outlet for truckers."

If the whole concept of Trucker TV sounds a little bizarre--and leads to comic thoughts of networks for taxidermists or accountants--its conception and execution are no joke. They may actually prove to be a paradigm for future media historians studying the narrowcasting phenomenon.

ATTN, which launched last October and currently broadcasts to 50 truck stops nationwide (the network plans to be in more than 300 by the end of the summer), is the brainchild of Jim Rutledge and Steve Cohen, both veterans of Court TV with extensive TV news backgrounds. They saw a well-defined, homogenous audience that was not being reached by traditional media. An audience that was overwhelmingly male, earned between $35,000 and $50,000 per year, and was a natural for a wide range of sponsors from ice chests to tires, leisure clothing to pharmaceuticals.

Rutledge and Cohen also realized that from a news perspective, the trucking industry had tentacles that reach into myriad aspects of American life. "These guys are responsible for transporting 80% of everything we touch," says Cohen, "so there are so many other industries affected."

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