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Listen Up: Audio Books Ease Long Commute

BEHIND THE WHEEL

Motorists on their mind-numbing drives to work are key customers for burgeoning industry --and nowhere more so than in the Southland.

March 12, 2002|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most entrepreneurs who are locating a new business site check for adequate parking, freeway access and real estate costs. Tyrone Pereira looks at average commute times. The longer, the better.

He won't even consider a neighborhood for one of his stores unless the average driver faces a commute of 25 minutes or longer. If the average drive time stretches for an hour or more, that's prime real estate.

Pereira is the co-founder of Talking Book World, the largest retail distributor of books on cassettes and CDs. Commuters are his core customers. The ones with long, mind-numbing drives to work are his dream clientele.

"The success of the product is definitely tied to the commute time," said Pereira, whose company has 14 locations in Southern California, with stores set to open in Temecula and Irvine this summer.

For the audio book industry, Southern California--home to the nation's worst traffic congestion--is the land of milk and money. Audio books are a $2-billion industry, and Southern California's daily freeway snarls can take credit for a big chunk of that.

"We consider it a major market anywhere there is a long commute," said Jean George, a spokeswoman for Santa Ana-based Books on Tape, one of the pioneers of audio books.

Southland commuters spend the equivalent of about 10 days each year sitting in traffic, almost the same amount they spend annually on vacation. That kind of punishment can make for drivers starved for relief from the daily monotony of a freeway commute.

Drivers such as Beverley Kruskol of Tarzana. She owns a commercial painting business and must drive throughout the region to meet with clients and workers. That means regular run-ins with the Ventura Freeway, the "four-level" interchange downtown and those obnoxious SigAlerts.

"I'd go crazy if it wasn't for my tapes," Kruskol said as she scanned a stack of cassettes in the Talking Book World store in Tarzana. She mostly prefers science fiction, but also likes mysteries. "I don't love the traffic, but at least the tapes make it 60% better," she said.

'I Don't Even Know Who Else Is Out There'

For many Southern California drivers, audio books are standard survival gear--like snow tires in Alaska.

Brad Weinstein, a clothing manufacturer from Thousand Oaks, spends a good chunk of his day in traffic, driving from one vendor to another. But he doesn't mind, as long as he has a good book playing in his car tape player. He prefers an engrossing mystery.

"I don't even know who else is out there," he said of his daily commute. "I just sit back and relax."

Weinstein estimates that he has gone through 40 or 50 books in the last year. That's a lot of time spent staring at someone else's back bumper. It's enough to drive the most mild motorists to strangle their own steering wheel.

But Kim Traxler, a nurse from Canoga Park, said her audio books act as an all-natural commuting sedative. "I find that if I'm stuck in traffic, I take out the audio book and I say, 'I'll get there when I get there,'" she said.

The only side effect is that audio books can be addictive. Traxler and others said they find it hard to pull themselves away from a good book even after they have reached their destination.

"I will be sitting in my car in my garage waiting to finish a chapter," Kruskol said.

Sales Up About 12%, Observers Say

Regular customers such as Kruskol have helped boost audio book sales nationwide about 12% in the last year, according to industry observers.

Southern California traffic not only fuels audio book sales, but was a primary catalyst for the industry.

Back in the 1970s, Duvall Hecht was just another frustrated commuter, schlepping two hours each day between his home in Newport Beach and his job at an investment firm in Los Angeles.

To break the monotony of the drive, Hecht ordered books on cassette from a dealer on the East Coast. But the dealer sold only copies of a very limited selection at a high price.

"I went around in frustration over this," Hecht said.

That frustration was the mother of invention because Hecht eventually launched a business dedicated to recording thousands of books and renting out the audio to commuters.

With an investment of $4,000 from a friend and only four titles--"Oil and Water," "The Paper Lion," "Happy Days" and "Zelda"--Hecht founded Books on Tape. Last year, his firm, which serves an average of 100,000 customers annually, was sold to Random House for an undisclosed sum.

"I saw it [demand for audio books] because I was on the 5 Freeway, plodding to work every day," Hecht said.

Today, audio book customers spend an average of 4.4 hours each week listening in the car, according to a survey by the Audio Publishers Assn. The selection is vast. Almost every conceivable topic can be found on audio books, from biographies to lessons in quantum mechanics.

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