After 30 years, traffic reporter Bob Marbourg is still the Jam Man at WTOP

TRUE TO HIS ROUTES: "It's never been about me," says veteran traffic reporter Bob Marbourg.
TRUE TO HIS ROUTES: "It's never been about me," says veteran traffic reporter Bob Marbourg. (Gerald Martineau/the Washington Post)
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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009

Bob Marbourg never wanted to spin records or read the news on the radio. One thing, and maybe only one thing, fascinated him: the mad struggle of a few million people trying to get from Point A to Point B each day.

And so for 30 years -- he celebrated his on-air anniversary this week -- Marbourg has sidled up to a microphone at radio station WTOP and narrated the breakdowns, slowdowns and fender benders that make up Washington's so-called rush hour (not much rush, and a lot longer than an hour now).

Marbourg, 65, hasn't counted how many one-minute traffic reports he's done over the decades, but the numbers stack up like I-66 on a rainy weekday morning. Thirty years, 50 weeks a year (he doesn't take much vacation), 36 reports a day . . . that's 270,000 broadcasts.

Maybe, he thinks, somebody got where they were going a little bit sooner and safer because of him.

"It's a great intellectual challenge," says the traffic man, between reports that his station has branded with the slogan "Traffic and weather together on the eights." "You're assembling all this information quickly, trying to create a picture for people. If you do it right, you get a bonus: You might help someone."

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It's safe to say that few in these parts know these parts like Marbourg. On or off the air, he's a kind of full-time traffic savant, an acolyte of the asphalt. He's been studying the region's traffic arteries and aneurysms for longer than he's been talking about them.

Several times a year, Marbourg rigs up a video camera to his dashboard and drives along local roads, commenting to himself as he goes. Later he'll watch the tapes at home and use them to annotate a thick stack of map books he carries around everywhere. He'll note the location of landmarks, businesses, dangerous curves, even shoulder and curb types. Concrete? Dirt? Gravel? Marbourg probably knows.

Many mornings before going on the air, he'll do his own reconnaissance of bottlenecks and construction projects. It makes his commute -- 30 minutes each way from Prince George's County to Northwest Washington -- a bit longer, but you never know when such details will help "the customers," as he prefers to call WTOP's listeners.

If you're ever Marbourg's passenger, be prepared to take notes. He's been known to ask his companion to keep tabs on the timing of stoplights.

Some years ago, Marbourg started keeping notes on how to report and describe traffic (sample: "Always say where before you give any details of what") as a kind of how-to manual for future Marbourgs. He's now up to 18 pages.

"It's not just traffic reporting for him," says Jim Farley, Marbourg's boss. "It's quality of life."

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