22 November 2009

traffic reports on the radio

I enjoy listening to traffic reports on the radio. The regular traffic reports on KCBS AM 740 in the San Francisco bay area can actually be quite entertaining.

This area has bad traffic. It's the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the United States according to Wikipedia, and I often hear disturbing statistics about how much time the average person in this region wastes in traffic each year. These days, it's easy to obtain live traffic maps with the average speed of vehicles in a given location, but it's invaluable to know in advance that a disabled vehicle is blocking the left two lanes of a particular roadway. Or that a major event is starting or ending, which can impact traffic.

A couple of the in-studio traffic reporters have special methods of delivering their reports. One of the reporters, Mitch, starts the work week on Mondays at 10am by greeting the anchors by name, then saying "Happy Monday, if there is such a thing!" He sounds cheerful on the air, so I interpret his greeting as a positive and friendly way of saying that we're all in this together. On a few occasions, he omitted the "happy Monday" greeting for reasons unknown. He also says "Happy Friday" during his first report at the end of the work week. KCBS uses airborne traffic reporters, but also encourages listeners to call in with incident reports or updates. Occasionally, the studio traffic reporter will credit the caller. Mitch's usual way of crediting a caller for updating a long-standing problem is with a rhyme: "Joan was the latest... to update us."

Another traffic reporter on KCBS has an obvious interest in sports. Sometimes, when Ted greets an anchor who is just coming on the air, he will start out discussing the latest sports headline. He'll hurriedly finish up that bit and quickly start with the traffic report, as if he might get in trouble for wasting too much on-air time. In one instance, I heard Ted ask the anchor a sports-related question. The anchor was silent for a moment, then said "Let's have the traffic, Ted." However, the sports banter has continued between the two, so it must be an officially sanctioned practice when the traffic news is light. Ted has also been lucky enough to occasionally fill in for sports reporters.

Various traffic reporters on KCBS empathize with listeners when reporting about debris in the roadway. One traffic reporter alerted drivers that a ladder was dropped in the roadway at a particular location, and ironically added, "that never happens!"

Since the traffic reports are always live (as required by our current lack of time travel ability), they provide ample opportunity for studio mis-haps. Many times, I've heard an anchor call for the traffic reporter on the air, followed by silence, and additional calls. Then the anchor says "There we go!" as if they just found the right button or fader on the console, and the traffic reporter starts talking. I also heard the anchor introduce the traffic reporter as Mitch one morning, only to have Paul respond via microphone. The anchor then admitted she hadn't looked over to see who was sitting at the traffic desk.

The traffic reporters confused me with one of the ways they describe current conditions. Sometimes they cheerfully say that traffic is moving "at the limit" in a particular area. At the limit?! That sounds like a dismal scenario for people who need to travel through there. But my interpretation was wrong: finally, a reporter said "at the speed limit" to clarify the issue and correct my initial assumption of "at the capacity limit".

My understanding of how radio traffic reports originated is that a radio station had a helicopter or a plane that they planned to use for live weather reports. The station didn't see much difference in the weather forecasts, though. But one day, the weather forecaster in the sky spotted a bad accident on the roads, and relayed the message to the station. This turned out to be so useful that the reporter was told to report on the traffic from then on instead of the weather.

Traffic reports on the radio provide an interesting frame of reference when doing AM broadcast band DXing. When I pull in major stations from Los Angeles or Seattle, I can hear about their traffic conditions, and imagine that I'm in a different place. I can't remember if I've heard traffic reports for other large cities such as Denver or Vancouver. Then there are smaller cities like Reno, where station KKOH sometimes has traffic reports like this: "there are no accidents or incidents to report." Or, when they're reporting an incident, they use highway mile markers to indicate the location (presumably due to the lack of other suitable landmarks).

OK, I feel like I got that topic out of my system for now.

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