Forty years ago, I made the first of five cross-country trips in two and a half years between New Jersey and Los Angeles, where I attended USC. This August, I made the trip again, making the long drive with my son to deliver him to his semester at Emerson College’s satellite campus in Los Angeles. As a researcher, and as a citizen, it’s a trip that offers many insights into our country.
Some Things Have Changed…
In the 38 years since my last trip some things have changed. Certainly from a personal perspective, making the trip in a roomy Mazda 3 with air conditioning and automatic transmission is quite an improvement over a non-air-conditioned Ford Pinto 2-door with a three-speed stick.
From a media perspective, of course there have been enormous changes. In my Pinto, I had an AM/FM radio and a battery-powered portable cassette player for music. If I got into trouble, I had to rely on the occasional highway-side emergency phone, or else go searching for a pay phone. Navigation was purely by paper map.
This year, just by virtue of my iPhone, I had 4,205 of my favorite songs downloaded and ready to play, plus dozens of podcast episodes and half a dozen audiobooks. My son could watch videos while we drove, or listen to his own music. The smartphone also was our navigator, source of information about roadside gas, food, and attractions, as well as a way of emergency communication if needed. The only gap in coverage was a very small section of New Mexico, and that was only because we took a long detour off the main interstates. Add in the Mazda’s own AM/FM/HD Radio, and we were truly spoiled for entertainment on our week’s journey.
Another difference in the trip from the 1970s was the more common presence of national brands. Back then McDonald’s was perhaps the most common brand I could see coast-to-coast, aside from hotel chains. But this has changed to include a number of fast-food and fast-casual chains, big box stores like Home Depot, and of course the ever-present Walmart. While these common brands take some of regional distinctions from the marketplace, for a cross-country traveler they make for something of a familiar comfort.
…Some Not So Much
For all that our car and media had changed, some things did not change in the many years from my first cross-country trip. There is still the sense of how wide open the United States is. After living most of my life in either the suburbs of New York or Los Angeles, the vast rural areas of our country are still amazing. Relatively large cities seem to emerge from nowhere, with suburbs of maybe 10 to 20 miles radius as opposed to the 60 or more miles I’ve grown used to around NYC or LA.
Funnily enough, back then and even on this trip, I somehow always thought back about the movie Soylent Green and how its premise was the cities were so crowded because overpopulation had filled the countryside – I don’t know how that could ever happen! But I digress…
The other striking things are the places and the people. In between cities, where there are towns, while some prosper as anchors for national chains, many do not. They consist of a few stores, schools, and a gas station. You can see how the rise of Walmart and big box stores, along with the decline in US-based manufacturing, has hollowed out many towns. It’s not something you see often driving around the NYC Tri-State area, or Southern California.
Without intending to be condescending, the people are also different than we see in our media world bubbles. The stereotypical farmer or rancher in his suspenders, overalls, and (non-fashion) trucker hat is common. Again, while some of us may have originally come from these areas, how often are these consumers included in our studies? I can’t help but think that choosing between between streaming TV services is at the top of their list of things to worry about.
Some Answers Are Six Miles Down
I’m always one to complain about someone presenting anecdotes as research, so just consider these to be some unscientific observations along one particular route that took in parts of NJ, PA, WV, OH, IN, IL, MO, OK, TX, NM, AZ, and CA.
For a researcher in any industry, I feel that getting such a ground-level exposure to the American consumer is a powerful reminder of just how varied this country is. For those in media, concentrated on the coasts, it is a particularly important lesson. And it can help inform those who can’t understand the success of Fox News Channel, or the results of the last presidential race, from the perspective of the coasts. Some of the answers can be seen out your window – 35,000 feet below you.
David Tice is the principal of TiceVision LLC, a media research consultancy.
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