Listening While the Miles Go By

Thanks to audiobooks, truckers can't wait to get on the road again

When a snowstorm hits the Northeast, author J.A. Jance knows she'll get fan letters sent from Motel 8's.

Many truck drivers head for the nearest Motel 8 to sit out the storm. Cassette player in hand, they often click on an audio tape of one of Jance's best-selling books about J.P. Beaumont, a gruff Seattle-based detective who has a heart of almost gold.

"The general tenor of the letters is that Beaumont is a welcome companion on the road," says Ms. Jance, who has written 13 Beaumont books with no end in sight. "All the women drivers want to marry him," she says.

To fill those long, lonely hours while rolling across America, many truckers are now turning to the pleasures of an ancient art form - listening to well-told stories - while they drive the interstates.

"You get real tired quick of listening to all the same music on the radio," says driver Kevin Seeling from Oconto Falls, Wis.

At Flynn's truck stop in Shrewsbury, Mass, Mr. Seeling sits in his cab and flips open a cassette case with 14 Steven King audiobook tapes. "I listen almost all the time," he says.

Audiobooks are now so popular among truckers that hundreds of truck stops rent audio cassettes of books - mysteries, detective, romance, inspirational, science fiction, westerns and classics.

"We're adding around 800 truck drivers a month as members," says Gary Chalendar, president and founder of Books in Motion in Spokane, Wash, where membership is $5 a year. The American Trucking Association reports that some 3 million professional truckers now ride the roads.

Audio Adventures, based in Boulder, Colo., has rental sites at 400 truck stops and a current membership of about 30,000. Join for $5 a year and rack up points for the Frequent Renter Prize Program, featuring merchandise such as flashlights, denim shirts, and Swiss Army knives.

Both Books in Motion and Audio Adventures operate the same way. Pick out a book from one of their rental centers at a truck stop, for instance, in Limon, Colo., listen to it on the road, and then drop it off at a Richmond, Ky., truck stop two or three days later. Cost? Less than $4.

"We did a six-month study on the effects of audio tapes on drivers," says Mr. Chalendar addressing the safety issue. "The result is they drive slower, stay wider awake and are less irritable when cars or trucks cut in front of them," he says.

In Webster City, Iowa, Cynthia Weiss, librarian at Kendall Young Library, says she has eight to 10 truck drivers who are steady customers for audiobooks.

"I have a long haul trucker who said he was supposed to read John Steinbeck's 'Of Mice and Men' in high school but never finished it," she says, "He remembered it as homework he had to finish."

The tendency is to stereotype truck drivers as middle-aged, pot-bellied, hard-living males who barrel through the night and wouldn't know a book from the yellow pages. But stereotypes always fall hard, and today they fall even harder.

"While it's true that there is a lot of turnover in truck drivers these days," says Dan Gruidel, director of marketing for Audio Adventures, "truckers are more educated than in the past, more religious, and definitely more patriotic." And there are hundreds of husband and wife teams driving today.

At Flynn's truck stop, Mark Taber jumps down from his truck cab to add air to a right side tire, flattening a little under a heavy load of big rolls of paper. Inside the cab is a tape of "The Razor's Edge," by Somerset Maugham.

"You can get some remarkable books on tape," says Mr. Taber, a graduate in sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.

He rents his tapes from a mail-order house, and has been trucking for a year after quitting a job as a cashier in a store.

"I like the classics and theological discussions," he says of his listening preferences during long drives to Chicago and other Midwestern cities. "I drive fairly slowly, so its a relief to have something to do with my mind," he says.

Jen Schroder, who has driven trucks between the upper Midwest and the Northeast for about nine months, buys audiobooks instead of renting.

"If its good enough to listen to, I want to keep it," she says. She likes stories by Ann Rice, Dean Koonz, and Stephen King.

Unabridged and abridged audiobooks are read by professional actors or readers. Some of the classics, like "Ulysses," are a 40-hour listening commitment.

"If you become an avid listener," says Donna Carnahan, director of acquisitions for Recorded Books in Prince Frederick, Md., "you become attuned to how the author writes, and some of the fluff no longer satisfies."

In the cab of a truck, the voice telling the story becomes almost as important as the story. "It's a very intimate performance," says Ms. Carnahan, "one person talking to you for 18 hours or so, and bringing you into the story. The quality of the voice is paramount."

Jance agrees. When Books in Motion's Chalendar selected Gene Engene, a professor of drama at East Washington University in Spokane, Wash., to read the first book in the Beaumont series, it was the perfect match of an easy, gravelly voice with a captivating story.

"When Gary [Chalendar] sent me the first tape, and I heard Gene read the first words," says Jance, "I had goosebumps because his voice was dead right for Beaumont."

Although her successful series about detective Beaumont is not a literay classic, it is riveting popular fiction.

"I'm a storyteller at heart," she says. "I do very little expository writing in the books. They are dialogue driven and that makes for easy listening."

Chalendar and others predict that the trucking industry will expand by about 15 percent over the next decade. "I see nothing but more growth ahead for audio books," says Mr. Gruidel.

In Chicago, some of the big truck companies are putting audio libraries in truck terminals. To keep tabs on truckers' tastes, Audio Adventures recently installed a scanner at each truck stop it serves. "Every week we go through the database," Gruidel says, "and can tell what is popular and cater our inventory to what the drivers want."

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