Next time you flip the dial on your car radio, think about this: Someone may well be eavesdropping on your choice of gangsta rap, trip-hop or anarchist communiqués.
That’s because since 1998, Birmingham, Alabama–based Mobiltrak has been wiring L.A. with hundreds of scanners that clandestinely record FM-radio frequencies emitted by passing cars, says director of sales Lucius Stone. The boxes, which are installed on telephone poles and in car lots, restaurants and shopping malls, transmit listener data to a processing center, where stats are compiled and posted on the Web. Businesses pay thousands of dollars a month to find out how many people are listening to their ad campaigns and promotions. Radio stations, including KIIS, have also used the service to keep up with ratings battles, Radio and Records, Inc. magazine editor Ron Rodrigues says.
Mobiltrak doesn’t track the license-plate or vehicle number of any car, and no one knows who’s driving, explains Stone, who insists that the privacy protests are misguided. “It’s all anonymous,” he adds.
The aim is to improve on the industry-standard Arbitron ratings, which rely on Nielsen-like diaries of listeners’ selections. The difference is that Arbitron diarists know they’re being surveilled; a guy driving down Beverly Boulevard, say, doesn’t know that the little silver box on the corner is scanning his sounds.
One need look no further than the Mobiltrak Web site to see how the technology could be abused. The news link tells the story of L.A. FM station KLJH, owned by Stevie Wonder. A perennial citywide ratings loser, KLJH discovered through Mobiltrak that it had the highest listener numbers of any station in South-Central Los Angeles. Now, imagine if some cop or mayor — or demagogue — had gotten hold of this information during the 1992 riots. Pull the plug on race talk! No more Rodney King verdict bashing!
“Right now, [radio scanning] is a market ploy, but if in the future someone doesn’t like the political views someone is listening to, even if it’s within their First Amendment rights, it could become something else,” says ACLU of Southern California associate director Elizabeth Schroeder. “And there’s always the possibility it will be used to try to stereotype groups.”
Stone says the controversy has been “fantastic publicity for us.” Schroeder says she doesn’t doubt it.
“I’m glad I listen to books on tape so they can’t monitor me,” she says.
The wild-goat shoot on Catalina Island continued this week, despite an 11th-hour offer from an anonymous donor to pay to have the animals rescued.
Goat supporters had hoped the Catalina Island Conservancy would reverse its decision to knock off remaining billies, which have been blamed for wiping out native vegetation. But citing the imminent threat to local flora, the conservancy’s board turned them down, outraging opponents.
“If you have a humane alternative, why wouldn’t you choose it?” says Bill Dyer, spokesman for In Defense of Animals, which fought to save the goats.
“It’s the goats vs. thousands of organisms a day,” responds Catalina Island Conservancy official Bill Bushing.
The conservancy on January 12 unleashed hunters from the Institute of Wildlife Studies to kill off 100 goats remaining along the island’s rocky coast. Goats R Us, a goat-herding group, had successfully removed 121 goats over the fall, but staff members returned in November to their Orinda, California, ranch to prepare their own 2,000-plus goat herd for winter. Bushing accused the group of quitting early; Goats R Us owner Terri Holleman vigorously denies the charge.
“We never said we would stay to December 31,” says Holleman, who had planned to return in March to complete the rescue. “They wanted the project to fail.”
Rescue of the last 100 goats would have cost $25,000 to $40,000, says Dyer. The conservancy, has paid the wildlife institute $3.2 million since 1997 for animal killing and other conservation programs, says Bushing. At press time, hunters had picked off all but 32 goats; the rest are expected to be dead by the end of the week, says Dyer.
“I feel terribly sorry for the goats,” says Holleman, who contends that the relocation team donated its time, living in rugged conditions with little help from the conservancy.
“What they did was unconscionable,” says Debbie Avellana, an island resident who lobbied for the goats.
ZACARIAS’ STRANGE DAYS
Call it bad timing, but last week it appeared as if ousted former LAUSD Superintendent Ruben Zacarias had his feet in two parallel but opposing universes. One day, he was among those named in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Southern California on behalf of students crammed into overcrowded schools such as Rosemont Avenue Elementary in Echo Park, where five makeshift classrooms were sharing a single cacophonous school auditorium. The very next day, Zacarias was standing before a group of well-wishers at the Mexican Consulate, shaking hands and being congratulated by, among others, LAUSD board member Vicki Castro. The occasion? Zacarias’ acceptance of the Ohtli Prize, which the Mexican Foreign Ministry awards to people whose work has a positive impact on Mexicans living outside that country’s borders.
Noticeably moved by the Mexican honor, a somber but dapperly dressed Zacarias told reporters, “The important thing isn’t Ruben Zacarias, the individual, but rather that the system improve.” And then it was on to getting the prize, a commendation from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and even a letter from el jefe, President Ernesto Zedillo, who lamented not being able to share the moment in person.
The ACLU suit alleges that the district and the state are failing to provide adequate and equal protection to children like those at Rosemont, who also happen to be mainly Latino and working-class, including many of Mexican origin. Now, OffBeat is not one to judge people by the latest lawsuit against them, but we had to wonder what was going through Zacarias’ mind. Violator of children’s rights, or hero of Mexican-immigrant families? Will the real Zacarias please stand up?