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After 30 years, traffic reporter Bob Marbourg is still the Jam Man at WTOP
Marbourg broadcasts his reports from a small office off WTOP's main newsroom and studio. Every afternoon he sits in front of an array of equipment that looks like a primitive missile-command center. He faces banks of police and public-safety scanners, four computer screens displaying traffic-camera footage plus data from traffic sensors, airborne spotters, mobile units. A set of headphones feeds WTOP's signal. The ambient noise (usually audible when Marbourg is on the air) is unrelenting, a cacophony of static and squawk.
Despite all the hardware, Marbourg will tell you that the greatest recent advance in traffic reporting is the cellphone. He has a network of dozens, maybe hundreds -- he's never really counted -- of commuters who phone in real-time tips about delays, accidents and the like. He's become so familiar with some of his callers that he knows their commuting routes, jobs, families. The majority of what he reports on the air, he says, comes from these calls.
Ah, here comes one now: "Northbound on 395 after Glebe Road?" he repeats back to a tipster. "An overturned vehicle? Well done! Thank you!"
Marbourg checks one of the cameras, and sure enough, an SUV is plopped on its side, looking like a wounded hippo. Marbourg gets the news on the air before dispatchers in Arlington County can put out the word to EMS units.
A commuter named Noel Mazade, who is on his way to Alexandria, calls to thank Marbourg for warning him off the clogged George Washington Parkway. "He just saved me from an excruciating and mind-numbing trip," Mazade says. "It's a great service."
Marbourg's style is a kind of anti-style. He's concise and straight up -- where, what, and here's your alternate route (it's all in the manual). WTOP's morning traffic queen, Lisa Baden, sometimes sings on the air to liven up her reports. But Marbourg is a just-the-facts-ma'am sort of guy.
His greatest displays of emotion are reserved for laggardly safety officials or work crews that don't get out of the way during rush hour.
"It's never been about me," he says. "It's always about the information, whatever serves the customers best. . . . We have a responsibility!"
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Born and raised outside New York City, Marbourg was an infantryman in Vietnam; he came to Maryland to finish college at night, and stayed. While working days at Woodward & Lothrop, he met his future wife, Kristine ("I was selling TVs and stereos; she was in intimate apparel -- selling it, that is"). The couple have two daughters, Jennifer, 29, and Jessica, 18.
Marbourg learned traffic reporting from "Captain Dan" Rosenson, who was among the first generation of airborne traffic reporters in the early 1960s, and Walter Starling, who surveyed from above in his Cessna 172. Marbourg met Starling in the mid-1970s and asked to tag along on his daily flights. Starling, who died in 2005, said sure, and soon Marbourg was filling in for him in the skies above Washington (unlike Starling, who flew solo, Marbourg reported while a pilot did the flying).
WTOP hired him full time in 1979 after Marbourg's predecessor, Steve Thompson, was seriously injured in the crash of his traffic-reporting plane. Marbourg flew twice a day, morning and evening rush hour, for the next 11 years before coming "inside" due to budget cuts.
Marbourg's methods have influenced a generation of traffic reporters, most of whom now work at Metro Networks in Silver Spring, the company that supplies traffic updates to 20-odd radio and TV stations in Washington (Marbourg is the only traffic reporter employed full time by a station). "He taught me everything I know about what I do," says Jim Russ, a fellow "traffic geek" who is Metro Networks' director of operations. "He has a thoughtful approach. He understands and values the customer."
Yet even broadcasting every 10 minutes, Marbourg says it still doesn't seem to be enough. He knows better than anyone that traffic conditions change constantly, like some kind of shape-shifting organism. Plus, he knows: Traffic news really matters only if it's about the traffic you're in, or are about to be in.
"As much of a perfectionist as I am, this is an imperfect process," he says, adding that he intends to keep at it until he gets it right. "Based on past experience, that should take at least another 10 years."
Someday, Marbourg says, they'll invent something better, something that tells you what's happening on the road you're on and the one you want to be on, right away. GPS and cellphone systems are improving.
Until then, it still comes down to a guy in a room, answering the phone, telling you what he sees out there, every 10 minutes on the eights.