Like 380,000 other District-bound commuters in the metropolitan area, Frank Levin rises early each work day to battle the often chaotic, mind- and fender-bending tussle called rush hour.
But to Levin, the daily commuter scramble is not the aggravating rut it is to other stifled motorists and bus riders.
It is his livelihood.
Metro Traffic Control (MTC), the multimillion-dollar commercial broadcasting service, pays Levin and five other mobile reporters to roam the snarled highways for six wheel-pounding hours each day. It is a daily grind that must to many seem like a vision of hell. Typically logging 2,000 miles each week, they plod along the back-ups and get stuck in bottlenecks while transmitting on-the-scene reports from the area's congested thoroughfares to listeners of 16 radio stations locally.
And beginning in October, viewers of WDVM-TV will be able to tune in to computer-generated video maps of major thoroughfares complete with rush hour snarls and alternate routes originating live from MTC studios atop the Landow Building in Bethesda.
The high-resolution, full color maps are generated by a substantially modified Apple computer that is programmed to reflect traffic conditions reported by MTC mobile units. The result is a series of electronic street maps, each color-coded to show roadway conditions. Larry Monk, MTC's network anchor, will provide the voice over, reporting driving conditions.
The cross-media venture was tested earlier this year in Denver where MTC and television executives deemed it successful enough to offer the telecast service here in Washington and in Houston.
MTC, a subsidiary of Baltimore-based Metro Networks, is the brainchild of David Saperstein, a one-time car dealer who at 41 is well on the road to turning highway bedlam into big business. "Sales this year are over $8 million in revenues," Saperstein says. "There's a good possibility that we'll reach $10 million, it depends on what happens in the fourth quarter.
"We don't discuss profits," he insists. "We're profitable, but that's about the extent of what we'll discuss."
MTC first aired in 1979 with three subscribing Baltimore radio stations. The service now reaches more than 25 million commuters tuned to 194 radio stations in 12 major U.S. cities and viewers of five television stations.
Network reports, which often include on-the-scene accounts from mobile units, are recorded via equalized telephone lines at subscribing radio stations and broadcast no more than five minutes later to ensure the accuracy of the reporting. Still, rush hour traffic can change dramatically from minute to minute.
Besides reports gathered by its fleet of six mobile units, MTC exchanges traffic information with Walt Starling, the airborne reporter for MTC-subscriber WASH-radio.
Although MTC studios in Los Angeles, Houston, Boston, Denver and Minneapolis lease aircraft, enlisting aerial surveillance here is of small value, Saperstein says. Private aircraft are forbidden to fly over many of the major sites of traffic bottlenecks due to restricted air space. MTC does, however, lease a plane to cover beach-bound traffic on weekends during the summer months.
To compensate for the problem, MTC stations a traffic reporter equipped with binoculars and a two-way radio atop the Washington Monument from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. In clear weather, visibility from 550 feet in the air is so good, the MTC reporter can see most of the major gateways into and out of the city.
"There are some cities that have services that do traffic but nobody that even comes close to doing it the way we do it," Saperstein says.
The only other national traffic reporting service, Shadow Traffic Network, does not compete head-to-head with MTC in any single market. First airing in 1975, Shadow reaches 12 million listeners over 74 radio stations in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut tristate region and in Philadelphia, says Michael Lenet, president of the Philadelphia-based network.
"Revenues are never enough," Lenet says. "At this point, I am looking for a partnership or joint venture with a major corporation that sees the value of what Shadow represents."
Maryland National Bank and New York Air sponsor MTC reports in Washington, paying MTC a flat annual rate in return for multistation exposure. Subscribing stations also pay a negotiated annual fee that varies greatly, Saperstein says, depending on the size of the station and use of the service.
"The proof of the pudding is in the second helping," Saperstein says of advertisers like New York Air, which sponsors MTC reports in two other cities as well.
It costs approximately $300,000 to set up a Metro Traffic Control studio, Saperstein says. Some require a higher initial investment.
In Los Angeles, for instance, the affiliate uses the MTC-developed Instatrak computer system that calculates time delays for motorists based on weather conditions and time of day at key junctions.
But while traffic reporting is Metro Networks' mainstay, there are plans for expansion into other areas. "I also have a tremendous desire to get into special programming," Saperstein says. "Right now, we do ski reports up in Denver and next year we're going to offer ski reporting across the country" in MTC markets.
Saperstein also envisions a news division specializing in local news reporting and syndicated programming. Having tested the news service in Houston, Saperstein says the programming, in the form of wire and audio reports, are slated to air in Dallas in the first quarter of 1983. If all goes well, he says, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles will follow later that year.
But Saperstein's biggest goal is to have MTC guiding commuters through rush hour traffic in 25 of the top 30 markets nationwide.