The Rise and Fall of the Radio Traffic Report
By John Schneider, W9FGH
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WBBM in Chicago broadcast traffic condition reports from the studio in 1926.
What was possibly radio’s first airborne traffic report took place on August 10, 1935. Deputy Police Commissioner Harold I. Fowkerer observed New York City’s traffic routes from a Goodyear blimp, reporting on the congested routes for WINS. Here, he points to a traffic jam at 59th St. and the Queensboro Bridge. (Author’s collection)
Police Sergeant Leo Crittenden
broadcast expressway reports directly from police headquarters over
WWJ. The broadcasts were made
intervals from 6:00 to 9:00 AM and 4:30-6:00 PM weekdays. Inspector
and Traffic Director James A. Hoye watch as WWJ engineer Harry Lewis
and Sgt. Crittenden
Chicago police officer Leonard Baldy broadcast daily reports and conducted programs about traffic safety. Baldy was killed in a crash on May 2, 1960, after a rotor blade disintegrated during a traffic flight. He was the first of several radio traffic reporters to die in aircraft crashes.
Pilot David "Windy" Knutson and a passenger were injured when their WLOL traffic plane crashed on takeoff near Minneapolis, 1964.
November, 1966: WCUE in Akron started its "Trafficopter" service on an experimental basis with a leased helicopter. The reports proved so popular that the station soon acquired a helicopter of its own and expanded the service to regular five-day tours of 7:15 to 8:30 AM and 4:30 to 5:30 PM. Here, program director Joel Rose, center, tells the pilot, inside, which route to take for a rush-hour traffic report. WCUE traffic reporter Charles Watkins is at right. (Author’s collection)
The KCRA “Airwatch” plane soars over the California capitol building in Sacramento in this 1970s photograph, provided by the former KCRA radio Airwatch pilot, Dan Shively.
One of the first stations to report on traffic conditions was WINS in New York City. On August 10, 1935, Police Deputy Commander Harold Fowler flew over the city’s main traffic arteries in a Goodyear blimp, informing motorists about the least congested routes. Curiously, these first broadcasts were made only on the weekends. Two years later, KNX in Los Angeles began regular reporting of weekend traffic conditions as announcer Tom Hanlon observed the traffic flow from a United Airlines plane, describing the congestion on the city’s popular beach and mountain escape routes.
In 1948 in Chicago, the Cook County Sheriff’s Department broadcast its “Birds Eye” service during the Memorial Day weekend over WMAQ. A deputy and a pilot flew helicopter routes over the city from mid-afternoon to dark. They didn’t broadcast their descriptions live, but instead would land periodically to phone in their reports to the station. The experiment was carried out with the approval of the City Council in an attempt to minimize holiday traffic congestion in the city. WMAQ repeated the special broadcasts over the July 4 and Labor Day weekends that year.
But radio reporting of traffic congestion still wasn’t universally appreciated in those early years. In 1951, the local police chief of Huntington, West Virginia, complained that WSAZ’s on-air coverage of a traffic accident had contributed to excessive congestion, “with the net result that we had to dispatch badly-needed traffic men to attempt to handle the abnormal traffic.” The station refuted the claim and affirmed its belief that the broadcasts provided an important public service to the community.
Despite these early beginnings, the concept of daily commute-hour traffic reporting didn’t seem to take hold until the mid-1950’s. At first, it was the local police departments dispensing the information, phoned in from police headquarters. In February, 1957, WWJ in Detroit initiated its “Expressway Reports” with an officer calling in every ten minutes from a WWJ desk installed at the police station. About the same time, WAVE in Louisville began airing morning and afternoon reports from a newsperson stationed at police headquarters. Other stations in metropolitan areas also began covering traffic with their mobile units cruising the freeways.
Gordon McLendon’s KLIF in Dallas was probably the first station to broadcast live traffic reports from its own aircraft. In 1956, he hired a helicopter to broadcast hourly traffic reports. Then WOR in New York debuted its “Flying Studio”, with traffic reports aired afternoons beginning March, 1957. The fixed-wing WOR plane also served to cover breaking news events. Others following suit in 1958 included WLW in Cincinnati, KABC in Los Angeles, KGO in San Francisco, KXYZ in Houston, WJBK in Detroit, and WPEN in Philadelphia.
Although a few stations chose to cover traffic conditions from fixed-wing aircraft, most elected to use helicopters in spite of the greater expense, because of their superior maneuverability and ability to hover. But this also added an element of risk, as helicopters were not proven as safe as airplanes. In 1958, WGN in Chicago introduced its daily “Trafficopter” reports with great fanfare. Chicago police officer Leonard Baldy broadcast daily reports over the city, and also conducted regular programs about traffic safety. But on May 2, 1960, WGN listeners were horrified to learn that the popular officer had been killed in a crash after a rotor blade disintegrated during a traffic flight. Then in 1966, another radio traffic pioneer, Captain Max Schumacher, was killed in a midair collision while working for KMPC in Los Angeles.
As traffic reports became an important feature of the commute hours at major market stations, the number of aircraft in the sky increased dramatically. In 2004, there were reportedly a dozen radio aircraft in the Los Angeles skies, and some stations, such as WCBS in New York, even operated two helicopters at once.
More crashes followed. On January 10, 1969, WOR fill-in pilot/reporter Frank McDermott died when his helicopter fell into an apartment building in Queens. Listeners heard the crash live during the middle of a traffic update. Three alarms were needed to contain the blaze, which gutted the building’s entire top floor. Then another WGN "Eye in the Sky“ reporter, patrolman Irv Hayden, died along with his pilot on August 10, 1971, when their helicopter struck a utility pole. On June 4, 1986, ''KFI in the Sky” reporter Bruce Wayne died when his Cessna fixed-wing plane crashed shortly after takeoff from Fullerton Municipal Airport. And then on January 11, 1993, traffic reporter Mike Roszman and his pilot were killed in Buffalo after their WGR helicopter hit a power line in heavy fog and crashed into the Niagara River.
With mounting expenses and risks, the heyday of the air traffic reporter began to wane in the early 1990s. WOR ended its traffic flights in 1993 and sold its helicopter to WCBS. Then the ownership consolidation that started with the 1996 Telecommunications Act allowed station clusters to share their traffic resources. This in turn put more of a load upon the pilots. In Los Angeles, Commander Chuck Street complained that he was reporting for three stations each day, including one that required him to pitch hamburgers, breath mints and sex-enhancing products while airborne.
Finally, emerging technologies laid their disruptive hand on the traffic reporter’s art, as less glamorous but more cost-efficient forms of data collection became available. Now a traffic reporter could sit comfortably in his office while watching highway video cameras, listen to police radio scanners, and talking to stringers on the highway with their cell phones. Take the case of “Fearless Fred”. After flying WOR’s helicopter for nearly twenty years, he left the station to become the manager of Shadow Traffic in New York City. His company contracted with several stations to provide traffic information, mostly gathered on the ground from a variety of sources. By the time it was sold to Westwood One and folded into Metro Traffic in 1998, Shadow Traffic was serving 350 radio and TV stations in 15 markets. Metro Traffic in turn was bought by Clear Channel Communications in 2011 for $119.2 million, and is now a part of Clear Channel’s Total Traffic Network.
Today, with the confluence of internet, cellular and GPS technologies, radio traffic reports have become almost irrelevant. Phone-based services like Google Maps and Waze automatically aggregate information from their users’ phones, combine it with data from local highway authorities, and then share the information back to their subscribers in a localized map-based format. Motorists no longer have to sit through the commercials to catch “Traffic on the 8’s”, in the hopes of catching a nugget of useful detail about their own routes. These apps have become so popular that Waze now claims to have 90 million users worldwide. Then there is Sirius/XM, which provides continuous traffic information to its subscribers in 23 major cities via its dedicated traffic channels.
Although some large stations remain firmly committed to the service, radio traffic reports are starting to go the way of the dodo bird around the country. Some music stations now even consider them a tune-out risk. It was a wake-up call for many in 2015 when WAMU in Washington, DC, announced the end of its legacy morning traffic reports, which Jerry Evans had been broadcasting from his home in Florida. In its statement, WAMU said: “In a world now filled with smart phone map services, GPS devices in cars, and traffic apps, there is better, more up to date information available to our listeners than we could provide.”
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once proclaimed that “the only constant in life is change”, and this has certainly been true of the radio industry. In its almost hundred years of existence, continuously-evolving technologies have brought many disruptive changes. The true survivors among us deftly adapt to the changes without clinging to past traditions. Nonetheless, as we adopt each new technology, we often trade glamor for efficiency. Such is undoubtedly the case with the “radio cowboys of the skies”, and as they fly off into the sunset we realize we may never see their like again.
appeared in "Radio World" Magazine on December 20, 2017.
This article appeared in "Radio World" Magazine on December 20, 2017.