Thursday, October 13, 2011

"Traffic Reporting" in Madison: The Longest Rant I Have Ever Written

With all due respect to my friend and former colleague Shawn Prebil, who is quite conscientious and good in reporting traffic in Madison and is the best at it, in general the state of the art here sucks. This rant arises from my foray into rush-hour traffic this morning, and from anecdotal evidence supplied by my wife, who deals with afternoon rush-hour traffic five days a week.

When you look at the picture of a Los Angeles traffic jam above, you have the equivalent of ten thousand words on why LA needs accurate and timely traffic reporting – and, conversely, why Madison does NOT.   In LA, an incomplete or inaccurate traffic report can ruin your day.  In the late 80’s, when I was working for the Jack Kent Cook organization in LA, his newspaper (The Los Angeles Daily News) sponsored traffic reports on KABC-AM.  At one point in 1987, when the 101 Freeway was being reconstructed, the boys in the marketing department (it was a team effort, but I’m taking majority credit) came up with a slogan for a publicity campaign: “60 seconds on 790 could save you 60 minutes on the 101”.  It was a print campaign; the slogan was at the top; there was a graphic with the Daily News masthead in the middle; and the bottom line said “Daily News traffic reports on KABC AM 790”.

At that time, California Hiway 101 was the busiest stretch of road in the nation, collecting all the traffic from the San Fernando Valley and points north and west (where it’s called the Ventura Freeway), snaking down through the Hollywood Hills (where it’s called the Hollywood Freeway) and down into the heart of the city, where it terminates near the collection of tall buildings commonly thought of as “Los Angeles”.  The marketing campaign, run in conjunction with ABC, was to draw attention to the traffic reports on KABC-AM; the ad for the Daily News that ran in the traffic report cited some reason why your life was not complete without a subscription to the Daily News.  Synergy.  Both companies benefit.

The thing is, though, that before the campaign was launched, the principals of both companies laid down an edict: KABC traffic reports had to be deadly accurate, timely, and totally user-friendly.  Both companies actually gave a hoot about the product they were advertising, because as any LA commuter can tell you, once you’re burned by an inaccurate or untimely traffic report, and you wound up stuck in traffic (glance again at the picture at the top of this post), you will change the station and NEVER rely on them for traffic again.  NEVER.

This trip down memory lane now brings me back to this morning, and my encounter with local traffic reporting (such as it is).  I had a fasting blood draw at 8:25 at a clinic on Odana Road near Whitney Way (west side of Madison), so with no caffeine aboard, I was cranky to begin with.  I left our secluded exurban enclave at 8 AM, headed up HiWay MM, and merged onto the beltline.  Moments before I got to that spot, the traffic report on the radio (it was not Shawn, it was the other AM station that does traffic) said “the westbound beltline is kind of slow from the interstate to Park Street, but after that, it’s moving at normal speed”. 

Exactly the opposite was true.  I could see it with my own eyes atop the ramp where MM (Rimrock Road) crosses over the beltline.  Behind me, when I merged onto the beltline, traffic was fine.  Ahead of me….Park Street and beyond…it was a sea of red brake lights and three westbound lanes of bumper-to-bumper 10 MPH traffic.  The traffic report I’d heard less than a minute ago was completely and totally incorrect.

Another momentary diversion, if I may:  I have a slightly more than passing familiarity with the inner workings of traffic reporting in Madison.  My wife (before she was my wife) and I, when we worked together on the (Award-winning) broadcast “Madison’s Morning News”, created the first regularly-scheduled traffic reports in Madison history.  It was the summer of 1988; I’d just moved to Madison from Los Angeles, and the beltline bridge over Mud Lake was being built.  Prior to construction of that bridge, the “beltline” pretty much ended at South Towne Drive, and traffic continued on Broadway Street.  Traffic would back up horribly, and Toni and I enlisted the services of Maynard “Skip” Schneider, the Public Relations guy for the local Triple-A, to do actual, on-the-scene LIVE traffic reports from the construction site, at the beginning of top-and-bottom-of-the-hour newscasts, from 6:30 AM to 9 AM.

At the top of the hour, we’d run NBC national news; then we’d start our local news by giving a headline version of the lead story, then going to the News 3 Weather Center, with a live forecast (via telephone line), and then it was “Now, live from Car 1480 in the beltline construction zone, here’s Command Sergeant Major Skip Schneider”.  Skip, who got a hoot out of me calling him “Command Sergeant Major”, would then tell us what was going on and how to avoid the worst of the traffic snarls.  Same routine at the bottom of the hour.  And thus, traffic reporting was born in the Madison radio market in the summer of 1988.

Through the years, traffic reporting devolved from an actual person in an actual vehicle driving on the actual beltline (“Casey James reporting live from the beltline in the WTDY News Cruiser”), to “Road Rage Traffic”  with Shawn Prebil live in the News-Talk 1670 Road Rager ; then, when a new consultant came in and said we had to remove all the anger from the station, Road Rage Traffic went bye-bye and it became just “traffic and weather together”, a slogan stolen from a Chicago radio station.  Somewhere around 2005 the traffic vehicle was parked forever, and Shawn began doing morning traffic reports from a studio in the radio station, by monitoring D.O.T. traffic cameras.

Now, with radio dying the death of a thousand cuts (personnel cuts), the guy who does the traffic report I heard just before merging onto the beltline in Madison is actually sitting in a studio in Milwaukee.  Yes, he’s 75 miles away, and he looks at D.O.T. traffic cameras on his computer monitor.  And he’s responsible for doing live and recorded traffic reports on an ungodly number of Milwaukee and Madison radio stations.  As good as this guy is, and as accomplished a broadcaster and communicator as he is, it’s simply impossible to keep up with so much traffic in the state’s two largest cities and be completely accurate and timely.

If he knew how wrong his 8 AM report was, he’d be ashamed.  I’ve listened to this guy for years, and he’s a thoroughly competent professional.  But because of the economic unviability of radio in 2011, and the untenable debt service the company he works for (Clear Channel) has gotten itself into, he’s forced to attempt to do an impossible task.

I wasn’t late for my blood draw.  I knew, from years of living in the Madison area, that if you need to be anywhere in the morning, and your trip involves the beltline between 7 and 9 AM or 4 and 6 PM, you need to allow an extra 15 minutes travel-time.  Madison doesn’t have anywhere near the need for accurate traffic reporting that larger cities do.  It’s predictably slow at predictable places at predictable times.  A big wreck can throw a wrench into the pattern, but 95% of the time Madison traffic is completely predictable.  And that fact is the traffic reporter’s stock-in-trade.

Some day, in another round of cuts, Madison radio owners and managers will figure out that they really don’t need scheduled traffic reports, particularly because they’re not timely and accurate, and that the function can be handled by the news department, in the few stations where such a department still exists.  They can just take the commercial that’s connected with the traffic reports and fold it into the news report or into regularly scheduled programming.  They’ll make a few bucks less because the commercial isn’t “special”, but the personnel cuts will more than offset the small loss.

There you have it: the past, present, and future of traffic reporting in Madison.


  1. The good news is that you'll have in-car TV monitoring from intel satellites in another 5 years or so. DoDefense will need the revenues and Murdoch will monetize it.

    Related: what the HELL was going on on Tuesday evening 5:30PM on Gorham east of Wisconsin Ave.?

    Been there a million times, never saw a backup like that. Cop dismissed it as 'traffic,' but I don't think so.

  2. Dad29: Drug bust. Big heroin crackdown in Madison.

  3. Could you do your blood draws at the West Clinic on Junction Road instead? That might be more convenient than Odana if you're coming in from out of town.

  4. Oh, Rimrock--missed that at first. Nevermind.

  5. Colonel,

    I lived in Hollywood for a year-and-a-half between the fall of '75 and the spring of '77. I was enmeshed in quite a bit of traffic traveling to "the collection of tall buildings commonly thought of as 'Los Angeles'." Took my motorcycle sometimes and did the CHiP thing down the lines between lanes of cars. Took the bus sometimes and read the entire LA Times during the ride.

    My recollection is that the traffic at that time was pretty predictable, too. The traffic slinky phenomenon persists for a lot longer in heavy traffic areas. But one gets familiar with the patterns if one has to use the freeway system on a daily basis.

    But that picture! Gawd! Reminds me of the photo of a Chinese multi-lane roundabout I saw a few years ago that was completely stuffed with cars. Or the stories of the Chinese traffic jams that lasted for days coming into Beijing where people would hop out of their cars on the freeway, sleep at a nearby motel, and then climb back into their cars to continue on the way to Beijing the next day. Street vendors, prostitutes...the whole megillah.

    Anyway, a very evocative piece. Thank you!

    The Town Crank

  6. Good article. The photo is a well-known Photoshop of this section of Interstate 10: