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The Death of Radio Traffic Reports Foretold - Prematurely

by Roger Lanctot | Nov 30, 2015

In May of 1897, American writer and humorist Mark Twain wrote a letter explaining that an ailing cousin in Europe was stimulating press reports of his passing.  The letter explained that this was clearly not the case. The average American remembers the quote as a far more droll "the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."  It appears that Twain (aka Samuel Clemens) never actually said that.

This kind of misinterpretation came to mind as I pondered a blog written two weeks ago by a friend of mine, Fred Jacobs, president of Jacobs Media.  Fred opined about the decline in listener interest in traffic reports in the context of widening use of smartphone traffic apps, such as Waze.

Fred's blog: http://tinyurl.com/p7abskk - "The Beginning of the End of Radio Traffic Reports"

The telling event for Fred was Washington, DC, NPR station WAMU's decision to drop regular ("on the 8's") traffic reports in favor of treating traffic as news.  As a broadcast rock radio expert, Fred may be forgiven for his prejudice of seeing traffic as a distraction for listeners.  But he was also reflecting on comments made at Jacobs Media's third annual Dash conference on the future of automotive audio where other analysts, such as Larry Rosin of Edison Research expressed similarly skeptical sentiments.

My objections to Fred's premature eulogy for radio traffic reports in favor of Waze are many and include:

  • Waze provides icons and color codes but no context - in other words Waze lacks the what, when and why of traffic reports
  • Waze is distracting
  • Waze encourages and rewards interaction - not a wise behavior in traffic
  • Waze has five or more minutes of lag built into its traffic reporting - what appears to be real-time is not happening in real-time
  • Alternative routes provided by Waze are not based on predictive traffic

This is aside from the fact that most users of Waze are actually using the app for its identification of speed traps.  The traffic info is a nice to have, relative to this more economically salient function.

But Fred's Waze-like missperception of the bigger picture is more important.  NPR (National Public Radio) is in a bit of a ratings squeeze as its audience increasingly skews older.  In this context, with young people flocking to apps and away from cars, the emphasis is likely shifting to content plays and podcasts (such as "Serial") to win younger listeners.

NPR probably got the message currently overwhelming the technical press that smartphones are more important to "young people" than cars and to win those new listeners the national network of broadcasters needs to tweak its format.  For NPR in the Washington, DC, area, though, the decision to ditch or de-emphasize traffic may well have deleterious and unintended consequences.  DC, after all, has the worst or second worst traffic in the U.S.

As is often the case around the world, traffic and weather go together and WAMU continues to tout its "Capitol Weather Gang" still putting out its regular detailed weather reports.  Not reporting on traffic with the same regularity and the same level of detail as weather creates the sense of one hand clapping.  The listener has been conditioned to expect those two reports together and Strategy Analytics surveys show that across demographics traffic reports are a top priority.

WAMU has been locked in an intense battle with local broadcaster WTOP for traffic hegemony, in spite of the fact that WAMU's traffic reports were being delivered remotely and expertly (from Florida) by a semi-retired Jerry Edwards.  All-news WTOP has an entire team, led by Shadow Traffic alum Jim Battagliese, reporting on traffic - including listener traffic spotters and traffic spotting vans driving around the city at all times.

WAMU quickly learned the folly of its decision.  In the words of Battagliese:

"WAMU's decision couldn't have come at a worse time. Their first day without traffic was the Monday after the Paris attacks, when we had an armed woman in DC, closing a nine block area Downtown.

"It began around midnight and lasted into early afternoon. Although we got very little info from DC Police about what was going on, the big story was the traffic. Our mobile reporter spoke to police on the scene and they told us, exclusively, that if people worked in the closed area that they should go home, as they would not be allowed into their buildings; no vehicles or pedestrians (were) allowed in the closed areas. A critical piece of information that no other radio station could get (or traffic app) because they weren't on the scene.

"The traffic apps had the closure, but couldn't give you any additional information. The apps kept reporting it as a police speed trap. I guess they don't have an option for police activity or a 'person with a gun' (icon). The apps also couldn't tell you how long the closure was expected to last or that pedestrians weren't allowed in the area. The only way to get the full story was to turn on the radio.

"We got several e-mails afterward thanking us for our traffic reports that day, as Jack Taylor, our morning traffic reporter, bluntly said, 'if you work in this area, DC police say you have the day off. Go home! You will not be allowed in your building any time soon, even if you're on foot. This is not going to end any time soon.' We saved a lot of people from getting stuck in downtown gridlock that day."

The power of local traffic reporting accessible via the car radio is a value proposition that will not soon be replicated by smartphone apps.  There is no substitute for live human eyes on the problem providing interpretation and intelligent guidance.

There is a reason Jerry Edwards at WAMU could successfully deliver remote traffic reports.  His trained eyes and ears and knowledge of local law enforcement and emergency response resources allowed him to "make sense" of the otherwise inert traffic information.

Not unlike the human driving behavior that is so difficult to emulate for automated driving, a traffic reporter like Jerry Edwards can immediately assess the broader implications of incidents and backups on commuters moving in and around the scene.  That knowledge and intuition translates into helicopter-ish authority on the best routing alternatives and the likely length of time necessary to resolve the incident.

Can WAMU survive without traffic reports?  Probably.  Does it mean radio traffic reports are suddenly irrelevant?  Hardly.

But the relevance of traffic reports is a strategic, demographic conversation in a world where middle-aged and older drivers dominate and young people - at least allegedly - eschew driving.  It does mean that traffic reporting is a multimedia experience - so being broadcast on the radio is not enough.  The same information needs to be available via smartphone, PC and television.  WTOP is working on that.  Maybe WAMU should have turned in the direction of the skid rather than jamming on the brakes.

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  1. Mike Kristof | Nov 30, 2015
    Thank you Roger, Waze is video game at best. No editor to correct a complete mish-mash of input or followup on what is included, not to mention it asks its users to distract themselves from driving.