This spring, Shawn Matthews drove to New York with an iPod, a friend, and a low-powered FM transmitter.
The friend had brought the transmitter along simply so he and his passenger could both listen to the ’Pod on the car’s radio, but Matthews immediately saw another possibility.
“And then it hit me,” recalls the 33-year-old Arlingtonian. “We could totally broadcast our message to whoever we want to!”
That’s important in Matthews’ line of work: The bespectacled, spiky-haired executive creative director of Sensational Media Group (company motto: “Music. Style. Vision. Hype.”) makes a living from getting exposure for his clients. The trip opened up a new area of marketing to Matthews: If he loads up his iPod with a client’s songs and uses a transmitter to send them out, anyone with a radio in the immediate vicinity can hear his promotions.
“I’m the brains behind Podjacking,” he declares.
The fact that his iTrip transmitter has an FCC-approved range of only 10 to 30 feet, or that targeted radios have to be pretuned to the correct frequency, doesn’t seem to bother him. Currently, Matthews is using his main client, local singer-songwriter Andy Zipf, as a guinea pig.
Together, they stand on crowded intersections holding up handwritten signs reading, say, “Tune your radio to 89.7.” With the iPod loaded with Zipf songs but held out of view, Matthews hopes drivers will believe that some radio station is playing the tunes.
“Broadcasting is typically going for tens or hundreds of thousands of people,” he explains. “We’re literally going for one person. If we can get one person a day to sign up for the mailing list and come to a show, then it’s worth it. Because we’re building our fan base.”
In fact, Matthews has even adapted the concept to target pedestrians. At a Podjacking demo in Foggy Bottom, Zipf, 24, stands mute on the sidewalk, holding a sign reading, “Will You Communicate With Me?” Matthews hides the iPod behind a small transistor radio. The ’Pod plays a steady stream of Zipf tunes, commentary, and animal noises through the radio.
“Would you like to hear one of my songs?” asks the iPod. “Sure,” responds a young woman. She stands listening a moment, then says, “This is awkward.”
“This is awkward,” Matthews agrees brightly.
As evening-rush-hour traffic increases, the group switches focus back to the people behind the wheel. Though some drivers chuckle and one guy flashes his own indecipherable sign, the cars are moving too fast to confirm that they’ve been ’jacked. Once they fly by, the motorists are out of range of Matthews’ transmitter.
“I think I like the person-to-person better,” says Zipf.
With the battery running low, the Podjackers move to the corner of 23rd and H Streets NW. Two women respond to the sign: “Sure, we’ll communicate with you. What do you want us to say?”
Donkeys bray from the iPod. “Goodbye,” says one of the women, feeling mocked.
Another passer-by is more intrigued. “What’s this for?” She listens, laughs, and wonders how the team got its tunes onto the transistor unit. “How do you play that on the radio?” she asks.
“You’ve been Podjacked!” exclaims Zipf triumphantly. —Dave Nuttycombe