Having long ago chopped traffic choppers, radio stations employ more artifice than art to bring listeners increasingly indispensible traffic reports
Business New Haven
By: Mimi Houston
Whatever happened to the traffic reporter who went flying about in a helicopter that hopped across the state giving the latest updates on jack-knifed tractor-trailers or bottle-necked exit ramps? We could barely understand the muffled audio over the whirring rotors, but it was fun to watch them - headphones and all - cruising Connecticut skies for listeners' commuting benefit. But that's all old-millennium stuff now.
"Everyone you hear, with the exception of a handful of reporters, are right here in our building." states Jim Sharpley, director of operations at Metro Networks, a Westwood One company in Hartford that provides traffic reports to numerous television and radio stations across the state.
In exchange for the company's information reports, radio and television station affiliates provide commercial airtime inventory to the company. The packaging and sale of this commercial airtime accounts for most of the company's revenues.
"Metro Networks is based in Houston, Tex.," Sharpley explains. "We have 92 bureaus in the U.S. and England. We do traffic and we also have a newswire service called Metro Source. But traffic is our main service, which we offer to stations by becoming an affiliate with them. We don't charge them money, we sell airtime in the form of ten-second spots."
Indeed, Metro Networks is the largest supplier of traffic to the broadcasting industry, servicing more than 2,200 radio and TV affiliates.
Sharpley says traffic reports are in higher demand now more than ever, and have changed dramatically from those headphones and helicopter days of yore.
"Traffic [reporting] is a big part of most major markets and it's very high-tech stuff," he says. The main reason for keeping reporters on the ground - besides the obvious economics - is the quality of the video and audio lines. Now you actually understand the report that comes to you in time for your morning commute.
"Timing is critical here," states Sharpley. "We have so many stations and reports in an hour. It's all worked out ahead of time and sometimes there is a matter of [as little as] 20 to 30 seconds between each different report."
Metro Networks handles the traffic reports for 52 radio stations in Connecticut as well as ten in western Massachusetts. It also produces reports for three television stations: WVIT in Hartford, WTNH in New Haven and WGGB in Springfield, Mass. That traffic reporter on your favorite local a.m. news show is not actually in the television or radio station of your choice, even though it may look that way. They're really (in most cases) many miles away. It's all in the magic of entertainment.
But while the helicopters have been grounded, some reports still come from eyes in the sky.
"We do use fixed-wing aircraft to cover the highways," says Sharpley. "They get around quicker than helicopters. We have Captain Mike Daley who is a pilot and a reporter, and we have Captain Mike Allen, who is a pilot and reporter. We concentrate them along the shoreline of the Merritt and Wilber Cross Parkways, where we don't have any cameras, and we have a plane in the Hartford area that can cover reports that come from Waterbury, or elsewhere in that area."
Along other major commuter routes, especially I-95, the traffic service relies on cameras mounted on utility poles by the state's Department of Transportation (DOT). If you look up high the next time you're sitting in the passenger seat along these routes, you may see them perched above, snapping live pictures of traffic every three to four seconds or so.
"We use DOT cameras that run along I-95 from Branford to Greenwich," says Sharpley. "And we use nine [additional] cameras that are owned by the city of Hartford. The DOT also has, in the works, 114 cameras in Hartford that will be on line by this spring."
The DOT plays a key role keeping tabs on Connecticut's traffic situation 24 hours a day, seven days a week from two monitoring stations: one in Newington, responsible for the Hartford area; and one in Bridgeport, housed in the Troop G state police headquarters building, which monitors traffic along I-95.
"We constantly monitor traffic," explains Bill Stoeckert, highway operations director for the DOT. "We do this mainly for safety reasons, so that we can react to any situations and work with the state police. Our cameras were not installed for the media to use, but we certainly allow access to them as a public service."
Stoeckert says the DOT also sends regular faxes throughout the day to media stations with their latest information on traffic conditions, which are monitored on a special color coded map as well.
"There are sensors installed along I-95 that record the speed of passing cars," Stoeckert explains. "These speeds are recorded on the map in various colors - red for cars going under 30, orange if they're going under 40, yellow under 50 and green for 50 and over. This way we can see right away if there is a slow-down somewhere. Our traffic-management system works in coordination with what we see so that we can work closely with state police and with emergency responders."
Stoeckert says the map is available to the public on the DOT's Web site (www.dot.state.ct.us) and is updated regularly, so motorists can get an accurate picture of the traffic pattern along the route they are planning to travel.
Just when did Metro Networks and other traffic-provider companies - unbeknownst to most viewers and listeners - arrive on the scene?
"We started out as an itty-bitty company back in the mid-1980s," recalls Sharpley. "It was called Traffic Net, and was based in Providence, R.I."
In the mid-'90s, the company was bought by Metro Networks and grew steadily to the large number of stations it services today.
"We're pretty much full, but we do still take on new stations," says Sharpley. "But it obviously must be cost-effective for us. If it's a [radio] station that broadcasts only from dawn to dusk and is unrated in the Arbitron books, it's just not going to be cost-effective for us to hire someone to do that station."
Metro Networks current growth comes from within, so to speak.
"Stations are adding more and more traffic reports within the hour," Sharpley explains, and cites the state of the state's roads and the proliferation of construction delays as the reason. "Along the shoreline, traffic is a mess," Sharpley observes.
Added workload and more congested roadways keep Metro Networks reporters on their toes.
"We include construction delays in our reports and any kind of tie up. Our reporters are manning the cameras, and we keep in constant contact with our airplanes."
Metro Networks employs a computer system called ETAK, which generates the views collected from each outside camera for its numerous camera screens. Reporters rely on these ever-changing views to make each of their reports up-to-the-minute accurate each time they air. Reporters are busy on the phone as well.
"They're in constant contact with the police," explains Sharpley, from whom they get status reports on traffic and delays all day long.
"That's how this business has changed," he observes. "Traffic used to be reported during the morning and evening commute, there was nothing in between. Now we have mid-day reports - everyone wants traffic during the day now as well."
In order to meet the heavy demand, Metro Network keeps its sales team on the road.
"We're selling air time," says Sharpley, "But in a different mode. We are not in competition with any local stations. That's because we sell to Connecticut companies that do business in other markets.
"For instance, you might hear, 'This report sponsored by Bic. Try the new Bic Click....' But Bic doesn't just sell in Connecticut - they are throughout the whole country. We also have Goodyear Tire and a lot of other companies in Connecticut that advertise all over the U.S. You'll never hear Ted's Grocery Store on our reports, or if you do, that's a local sell. The radio station has sold that themselves.
In a typical arrangement, Sharpley says, "Out of the four reports we do in an hour, we'll take two, and the station can sell the other two. We really form a partnership with these stations and we've had good growth, especially over the last three to four years. We have one station in Norwalk that does traffic every six minutes all day long. They are in a very busy area, right between I-95 and the Merritt."
Sharpley sees the television market growing as well.
"You can ask, 'Why are TV stations doing traffic?'" he says. "But in any poll taken asking radio stations what people want to hear, it's always weather and traffic. And these two flip-flop. Television stations have picked up on this, and they know that while you're making breakfast and the coffee, the TV is on and you want to know, 'What's traffic like when I leave?' Or if your spouse comes home earlier, they can turn on the TV and see why you're not home yet.
"Traffic is big business," Sharpley adds. "It's like a mini-news story - live, right now. And while we do treat traffic reports like a news story, we don't delve into the details like the news does. We don't want the blood and guts of it - we're interested in alternate routes. All we want is basic, simple information."
"We always give the alternate route out [of the congestion]," concurs Rachel Lutzker, traffic reporter for Clear Channel Studios, provider of "Time Saver Traffic" on its radio stations in Connecticut and Springfield, Mass. as well as on WFSB-TV in Hartford.
"That's so important if, say, you're stuck in West Hartford and you don't really know the area. I've lived here for seven years and I can tell you how to get anywhere," Lutzker laughs.
Based in San Antonio, Tex., Clear Channel Radio is the largest operator of radio stations in the U.S., with more than 1,200 in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
"There are three of us here in Hartford employed by Clear Channel," explains Lutzker, "and we all work together and communicate by two-way radio. Sky Daniels is out on the road in the traffic vehicle and Chris Johnson is also in the studios.
Just like the reporters at Metro Networks, Clear Channel employees also use police reports and DOT cameras for their up-to-the-minute information.
"We also employ traffic spotters," Lutzker adds. "People located throughout the state that report to us as well. They're everywhere."
And while television reporters for Metro Networks only seem to be live at the station, in Lutzker's case, it's actually true.
"I do work here at the studios of Channel 3 [WFSB]," Lutzker says. "I'm actually part of the weather center - I have my own little inlet here with a microphone and a punchboard of 17 traffic cameras. The still shots on the screens are updated every few seconds. Everything I need is right here."
Lutzker reports to her contracted radio stations from her mini-studio as well, keeping tabs on every minute so she knows where she is supposed to be and when.
"We do traffic here at Channel 3 on the morning show every ten minutes - we have a set schedule, as do all the stations. I get in here at about 4:30 a.m.," she explains, "and I'm done by nine. I return in the afternoon at around 3 p.m. and I'm out the door by six.
"I cover the 'New River 105.9' [WHCN-FM], KC101 [WKCI-FM] and the one TV station [WFSB]," she says. "Sky Daniels does Kiss 95.7 [WKSS-FM], Country 92.5 [WWYZ-FM], and he's also the head honcho here, distributing all the information to everybody. He's also out on the road driving through Hartford, Waterbury, wherever - monitoring traffic that way. He keeps all the stations updated throughout the day. Chris does WELI [960 AM], Radio 104 [WMRQ-FM] and ESPN Radio 1410."
"It's really a great set-up that we have here," Lutzker beams. "Every day is different, and I get to be part of the morning shows, the afternoon shows - although I can't say I'm used to getting up at 3:30 in the morning yet."
The Fast-Lane of a Traffic Reporter
So what's it like to be a traffic reporter, anyway? Well, for one thing, you have to be able to look pretty good pretty early in the morning.
"I get to the station at 5 a.m.," says Jackie Brouseau, a traffic reporter for Metro Networks in Hartford. "You get used to it," she laughs.
"In the mornings I have about four radio stations and one TV station. Usually I have about two to five minutes between each report, but sometimes it's only about 30 seconds, so you really have to get organized."
Brouseau came to her job almost three years ago and has taken little time to move into the television sector, her long-time goal.
"I've always wanted to do TV," she states, "I went to the Connecticut School of Broadcasting after college and came right to Metro Networks. The timing for me has been really good. Someone moved up right away, so I got his radio station; someone [else] moved to New York City, so I got their stations; then I got Channel 30 [WVIT-TV], doing mornings and afternoons."
Time in the studios can be hectic, Brouseau acknowledges, and everyone has his or her job to do in order to prepare the reports.
"It gets a little bit crazy," she laughs. "Everyone has different stations, some have the same stations in the morning and the afternoon, because [the stations] want consistency. We have some reporters who are moms and do just the morning shift. It's great for them because they can have something for themselves and still be home for the kids all day.
"Four of us work a split shift," she says. "We come in at five, work till 10 a.m. and then come back at three and work until six p.m. Two of us are in television, because do Channel 8 [WTNH-TV] as well."
Brouseau says other factors besides station demands can make a traffic reporter's day hectic.
"This winter has been pretty crazy," she says. "There are always more accidents to report on when there is rain and snow, and this winter we've had that.
"We all make state police calls," Brouseau adds, whether there are accidents to investigate or not. "We'll divide up the state and someone will call Bridgeport, someone will call Hartford or Southbury. And we have a man in a car - "Mark the Shark" - who is riding around and keeping an eye on things and reporting them to us."
Brouseau says reporters feed all their information to the traffic producer, who collates it all into a main computer networked to each reporter's laptop. This is how everyone accesses information that is always fresh and comprehensive.
The reports themselves, says Brouseau, remain listenable because each reporter has his or her own style.
"You ad-lib what's off the computer, and that's what makes it fun," she says. "We all pick up traffic terms and really feed off each other. It's very noisy in here and it can be confusing and nerve-wracking, especially when you're just beginning. You really have to buckle down and pay attention to what you're doing.
"But it is fun. You know, you say a job is just a job, but when I stop and really think about it, I have to say I'm having a great time. I talk for a living. But you have to be quick, and you have to always think of new things to say."
Brouseau says most reporters are open to where their jobs will lead them and there have been exciting examples of upward mobility.
"One woman got her own radio show because of the way she was able to banter back and forth with the deejay when she did her traffic report," Brouseau says. "Another has become a field reporter for [WFSB-TV]. It's just a great way to get your feet wet and go on the air immediately. Then you can go anywhere from there - though," she notes, "it is very competitive."
She also likes the casual atmosphere of the studio, but acknowledges that her dress code has changed since she was promoted to doing traffic on television.
"I have to admit it's a bit of a shock to be presentable at five a.m.," she laughs. "But I don't feel a lot of stress." Brouseau says the informal and good-natured relationships she develops with television and radio reporters make the job enjoyable.
"It's so lighthearted, and we really laugh a lot," she says. "There are a lot of jokes going back and forth, and the audience really likes it when you banter."
And, Brouseau is forced to acknowledge, the new-found fame of being on television can be fun, too.
"My family is out of control," she laughs. "They love it. It's actually more exciting for them. Sometimes I'll get a call from my mom or someone saying, 'Were you sick today? You weren't there!'"