In the wee hours, WTOP gears up for drive time

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the Washington region is not a top-10 radio market. The region is the ninth-largest radio market in the country. The article also misquoted an unidentified staffer in an exchange with WTOP morning writer Jason Fraley. The staffer was quoted as calling out the year 1939 in a request for the Best Picture winner for that year, to which Fraley, a film buff, responded, “Mrs. Miniver.” The year the staffer actually called out was 1942, the year for which “Mrs. Miniver” was Best Picture. This version has been corrected.

Mike Jakaitis, WTOP’s morning drive editor, settles into his chair well before morning drivers have gotten out of bed. Before many of them have even gotten into it. It’s just an hour after midnight when Jakaitis drapes his Phillies jacket over the editor’s seat and and sits down to make sense of a day that won’t dawn for five hours.

The traffic that WTOP announcers will soon breathlessly describe every 10 minutes is still parked in distant driveways; weather comes from off-site meteorologists. So Jakaitis focuses on the news portion of the station’s relentless news-traffic-weather triad.

WTOP (103.5 FM), Washington’s most popular and lucrative radio station, recently made news itself when the FCC approved its sale to a new owner. The station was the jewel in a $500 million deal involving 17 stations bought by Minneapolis-based Hubbard Broadcasting.

But the only change may be the name on the license. Hubbard says it has no plans to mess with success.

WTOP has sat alone at the top of Washington radio ratings since July 2009. It dominates the coveted rush-hour peaks, both a.m. and p.m. And in March, it overtook top-40 powerhouse KIIS in Los Angeles as the biggest revenue-generating station in the country, sucking $57 million from advertisers in a region that is barely a top-10 market.

“We plan to change absolutely nothing,” says Ginny Morris, Hubbard’s president.

That will be a relief to Jakaitis and the 102 other reporters, editors and producers who staff Washington’s biggest radio newsroom. But it comes as no surprise to industry analysts.

Tom Taylor, editor of radio-info.com, says WTOP has managed to bend traditional news radio to fit this market’s two defining characteristics: really high education levels and really bad traffic.

“Washington is an information-starved culture,” Taylor says of the wonks stuck on the Beltway. “They are clearly connecting with that audience.”

But what, and who, is behind the fire hose of information that WTOP connects to dashboards each morning? We take you now to the “glass-enclosed nerve center.”

1:28 a.m. Jakaitis’s first job is to scour the wee-hour offerings of the news wires, keeping a particular eye out for anything of interest to WTOP’s core audience: people in cars. Here’s something on a highway safety report. He zips an e-mail to a still snoozing reporter. Behind the soundproof wall of windows, overnight anchor Dean Lane can be seen communing with what Arbitron reckons is a graveyard-shift audience of about 6,000.

2:50 Reporter Neal Augenstein, logging on at his home in Loudoun County, reads the safety report from Jakaitis: Highway fatalities are down. He could cut the story in his den, or in the WTOP studios off Wisconsin Avenue a few blocks from the Washington Cathedral. But natural sound is everything in radio news, so 40 minutes later he is parked at a rest stop on Interstate 66, tapping out a script on his iPhone: “It’s now the safest it’s been to drive on our highways since Harry Truman was president. . . .”

Opening a two-track editing app on the phone, he rolls down a window to let in traffic noise and records the 37-second piece. He e-mails both straight from his phone.

4:04 Morning anchor Mike Moss takes a seat on the long editor’s desk across from Jakaitis and next to his on-air partner Bruce Alan, just arrived from his house in Gaithersburg. The two veterans are dressed for comfort behind the mike, both in cotton pullovers and khakis. An hour before air time, they scan the wires, read Web sites, look at the pieces filed by WTOP reporters the day before.

4:42 Morning writer Jason Fraley calls up a wire story on food safety that Moss wants in the newscast. He has 12 minutes to rewrite dry wire prose into WTOP style: “You might want to be careful eating breakfast in part of our area,” he types, “your sausage could be linked to salmonella.”

Someone walking by calls to Fraley, “1942.”

“Mrs. Miniver,” he responds without looking up. Fraley, a film buff, is known for his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history, by year.

4:50 The number of listeners has soared in the past hour as commuters launch. Nearly 30,000 have tuned in by 5 a.m. That will double in the next two hours.

Three more reporters have come in. The phones ring every few minutes. “Molly, weather, line six two,” shouts assistant director Saeko Robinson.

Alan and Moss gather their papers and push through the heavy door into the studio, coffee steaming from Alan’s just-refilled mug.

“Dean, we’re not ready,” Moss says, as the overnight guy stands and stretches, his workday over. “Give us another 10 minutes.” It’s an old joke. There are no tardies in live radio.

5:04 A huge oval table dominates the room, microphones suspended over six of the chairs. Moss, 54, sits at the one with the control panel and opens his iPad to one side. He inserts earbuds. A onetime national anchor for NBC radio, he came to WTOP 15 years ago after a long stint as national anchor for NBC radio in New York. He leaves his Loudoun house at 3:30 each morning, but then reaps the advantage of his hyper-early shift on deserted weekday golf courses after he wraps up at 10.

Alan, one seat to the left, puts on full-size headphones. The Brooklyn native and hockey nut, 57, has been on the D.C. air since the late ’70s and at TOP for more than 20 years. In the late ’80s, he hosted a morning talk show with local radio legend Ed Walker on WRC.

He rubs his hands. “I need to bump up the thermostat,” he says. “The night guys keep it like a meat locker in here.”

“Keeps ’em awake,” Moss says, reaching over to flip a button. An On-Air sign alights, and drive time has begun. “Good morning, I’m Mike Moss.”

“And I’m Bruce Alan,” says the other. “Coming up . . .”

They take turns reading promos of the stories they will get to after the commercial, sliding each sheet of paper into blue recycling bins as they finish.

6:03 Reada Kessler and Jack Taylor sit back-to-back in a pantry-size room in a corner of the newsroom. The shelves around them are stacked with 20 scanners tuned to police dispatchers. Two desk phones are set with speed dials for DDOT, VDOT and 18 other traffic agencies.

“Wait, say that again, eastbound 340?” Kessler says into the phone. They hear from hundreds of drivers who witness traffic mishaps, often calling WTOP before they call 911.

UPS drivers are regulars. “We’re very Maryland today,” Kessler says over her shoulder. “Can you get me anything in Virginia?”

“I’m heading up 95 now,” says Taylor, clicking methodically through webcams from Springfield to I-395.

6:30 Jakaitis calls CBS’s Bob Schieffer at home. He will be the first of three phone interviews, called “live shots,” on the morning schedule. “There’s a lot going on, the budget, Libya, Syria. You have a preference?”

6:43 Sports director Dave Johnson enters the studio and heads to a mike. It’s rare to see his tall figure in person during the NBA season, when he moonlights as the play-by-play guy for the Washington Wizards. He has done his TOP broadcasts from hotel rooms, airports and moving Amtrak trains.

“How’s the moving going?” Moss asks as Johnson fiddles with his headphones. The Johnsons and their son are packing up their Annapolis home for a remodeling project.

“My wife definitely hit a wall last night,” Johnson says sleepily. The Towson University grad early on spun records at a Sinatra-heavy station before going all sports. He called the 2006 soccer World Cup for XM Satellite.

“The Caps game went a little longer than expected last night, Dave Johnson,” Alan says in broadcast tones.

“But they got it done in overtime,” Johnson says, the fatigue gone from his voice.

7:20 The cubicles are nearly full. Each workstation has a broadcast mike that can be patched in live.

“Do you want to be on the radio in an hour?” reporter Kristi King asks over the phone.

8:27 “It’s 8:27,” Moss says over the air. He flips off the mike and calls up the Associated Press wires on his monitor. Unemployment figures will be released in less than three minutes.

“Here we go,” Moss says at 8:31 when a wire bulletin pops up: Jobless rate down to 8.8 percent. He hits the button. “When we come back, we’ll have news for you on the positive economic numbers.”

9:34 News director Mike McMearty and afternoon editor Judy Taub sit in McMearty’s office, plotting stories for the second half of the morning. McMearty scrolls through the ideas reporters have pitched. They greenlight the opening of crab season, an arrest in a Metro groping case, a royal wedding package offered by the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown.

But what Taub really wants is a local take on the story of a cobra escaped from the Bronx Zoo. “That’s what everyone is talking about,” she says.

King has been on the phone with the National Zoo, but they aren’t keen, on short notice, to talk about security at their reptile house.

“We could just go to the neighborhood around there and ask people if they are nervous,” Taub says.

King pauses. “I think that would be sensationalizing it,” she says. “They’ve never even had an escape.”

“Fine,” Taub says curtly. “I’ll get somebody else. You work on crab season.”

10:12 McMearty takes phone calls from reporters out in the field. “What does Katie have?” Taub asks, speaking of Rockville-based government reporter Kate Ryan.

“She’ll be late checking in,” McMearty says. “She’s trying to put medicine in her cat.”

10:25 The newsroom is packed. Political commentator Mark Plotkin ushers his first guest into the studio, Virginia House Speaker William Howell. The hour-long “Politics Hour” starts in six minutes. Along with the “Ask the Governor” series, it’s one of several long-form interview shows that head programmer Jim Farley has added to lure a wonkier slice of the audience.

10:44 Jakaitis’s nearly 10-hour day is over. He wipes down the keyboard and phone with a Clorox wipe. Taub plugs in her own ergonomic keyboard and takes the con.

10:56 Reporter Thomas Warren stands outside the National Zoo, having no trouble finding pedestrians willing to talk hypothetical escaped cobras. “Can I curse on this tape?” a man responds. “I would run an effing mile very quickly.”

11:14 Reporters are in a sprint to produce for the noon news. Transportation reporter Adam Tuss is waiting to hear back from a Metro police source on the arrest of a groper. King is racing back from the fish market on Maine Avenue.

11:20 Howell has made news by declining to rule out tolls on some Virginia interstates or bridges into the District. Taub orders up a story.

11:46 Taylor is looking at a webcam and talking to a Virginia driver about traffic cones.

“Midday is all about work zones,” says Kessler, 43. A former traffic reporter on XM, she has her own commute to Baltimore that touches two hours many days, and she’s looking to move closer to her native Silver Spring. “I don’t like driving in D.C. traffic, either.”

Plotkin, a veteran D.C. political analyst who doesn’t use a cellphone or e-mail, squeezes into the traffic room. “I need some expert help. How should I get to Catholic University right now?” he asks.

Kessler pauses. “Mapquest?” she says before turning back to her ringing phone.

11:52 Twelve minutes before the news, and two stories are still out. Warren, back in the newsroom, is recording his final cobra script.

12:04 Tuss’s groper story, the last to be filed, arrives in the system four minutes before midday anchor Mark Lewis begins to the read the headlines.

At the last minute, Taub inserts a breaking story about a plane diverted from Reagan National Airport. Afternoon anchor Debra Feinstein, getting ready for her shift, looks up when Lewis describes how oxygen masks were deployed. “Wow,” she says. Taub calls over to assistant news director Mitchell Miller. “Can you get Neal to do something more on the diverted plane?”

Taub is hearing the final stories for the first time, even as listeners do. If there’s a problem, they will correct it before they run again.

“That’s nice,” she says as Warren’s “effing mile” quote airs, raising a laugh in the newsroom.

“I was happy with all of that,” Taub says of the seven pieces her reporters have produced in just over two hours. “We made news on Virginia tolls; I haven’t seen the local cobra stuff anywhere else; Tuss got the groper.”

There is the tiniest pause in the ceaseless routine. Across the table, afternoon anchor Shawn Anderson looks up from his monitor.

“Okay,” says Taub, standing up. “Let’s look at what we’ve got coming up.”

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.

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