Your local traffic report . . . from hundreds of miles away
By Paul Farhi,
Those tie-ups on the Beltway that you hear about on the radio while you’re tied up on the Beltway? These days, the “local” traffic reporter bringing you that information may not be very local at all.
WAMU (88.5 FM), the Washington area’s top-rated station, gets its up-to-the-minute news about local roads from reporters in . . . Florida. And Philadelphia.
Jerry Edwards, the venerable traffic reporter who does the station’s morning updates, describes the daily fight of the lights from his home in the Sunshine State’s Sarasota. Dave Solomon, who handles afternoons, broadcasts from up the interstate in Philly.
Radio stations have long used “voice tracking,” a technique that makes a distant disc jockey sound like he or she is broadcasting locally. But traffic reporting — a vital service for rush-hour drivers — has generally remained a local affair. Most Washington area stations get their updates from a company called Total Traffic Network, whose reporters work out of a regional office in downtown Silver Spring.
Even so, technology makes it possible to produce traffic reports far, far from the madding crowd. Edwards’s home studio in Sarasota is outfitted with computers and other equipment that he says gives him access to the same cameras and government traffic information that reporters in the Washington area use. Traffic tips come in from listeners via a Washington phone line that forwards calls to him. High-quality audio links make it sound as if he’s describing conditions from down the street, not from down South, 960 miles away.
“I don’t think the listener really cares if I’m in Florida or on the moon as long as I’m accurate and doing the best job I can,” says the affable Edwards, who’s been doing traffic on Washington’s radio and TV airwaves since 1984. “I don’t think it really matters to them as long as I’m credible.”
Edwards began broadcasting from Florida in August after he sold his home in Maryland and moved. The station agreed to continue airing his reports, said Dick Cassidy, WAMU’s director of content operations. “I didn’t want to lose him,” Cassidy said. “He’s such a resource.”
WAMU, a non-commercial station that carries local news and talk programs as well as NPR programming, has not said on the air where Edwards and Solomon are when they’re reporting. But it leaves a strong impression that its traffic reporters are right in the middle of the action, what with preliminary banter — “Hi, Jerry,” “Hi, Dave” — and patter about local conditions (“Be careful out there in this rain,” etc.).
Moreover, when it hired Edwards last year, WAMU said publicly that he would be “embedded” at the station. The in-house setup, it said then, “will result in improved service for listeners, who will receive accurate, real-time information on accidents, congestion, road closures and other information affecting the morning commute.” (Edwards and Solomon are employed by a company called Radiate Media, based in Salt Lake City, which contracts their services to WAMU).
The whole thing gets Jim Farley, of rival news station WTOP (103.5 FM), about as riled up as a commuter stuck in a rush-hour jam.
“It matters” where the reporters are, says Farley, WTOP’s vice president of news and programming. His station, which battles WAMU for ratings supremacy, employs its own staff of 20 full- and part-time traffic reporters who broadcast traffic conditions every 10 minutes around the clock.
Farley says every member of his traffic staff experiences local conditions every day. “They drive in it, see it, feel it,” he said. “They hear from their friends and neighbors about it. Quality of life in this region is defined in part by where you live, where you work and how long it takes to get from one to the other. . . . You need to feel it.”
At the very least, Farley says, WAMU should disclose to its listeners that its traffic reports are coming from out of town. “Not doing that is deceptive and misleading,” he says. “It’s not honest reporting.”
But WAMU says it has no plans to ’fess up about its reporters.
“We don’t think that’s necessary,” said Cassidy. “If you listen to any radio station, information comes from many different places.”
Adds Cassidy, “If this didn’t work, I’d tell Jerry, ‘Get back here.’ But we’re pretty solid with it. We’ve made sure that every single thing he did here, he can do there.”