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The myth, the legend: A look inside WTOP's Traffic Center

Monday - 8/15/2011, 3:43pm  ET

Jolie Lee, Federal News Radio

WASHINGTON - Next to the "Glass-Enclosed Nerve Center" that is WTOP's main studio, three reporters sit in a space the size of a walk-in closet feverishly fielding calls, listening to scanners and giving on-air reports every 10 minutes on the eights.

Earlier this year, WTOP set up its own Traffic Center in-studio. In the past, WTOP contracted with outside traffic sources while using one in-house traffic reporter, Bob Marbourg. Now there are 20 full- and part-time employees who work out of the Traffic Center or in two mobile units.

Mike McMearty, WTOP's news director, said the decision to establish the traffic department allows the station to have more control and consistency in its traffic reports. The decision also acknowledges the role that traffic plays in the station's identity.

"I'd like to say it's the award-winning news product that brings everyone to the station, but if we're truthful, traffic is the No. 1 reason people come to the station," McMearty said.

If you ask Marbourg, traffic reporting is a public service. What he and his colleagues strive to do is deliver "immediate, actionable information," he said.

Over the three decades he has worked at WTOP, Marbourg has surveyed the roads from the air in a helicopter, from behind the wheel and from the station with footage from traffic cameras. The cell phone has been the most important technological change because drivers themselves provide the intel to deliver the news, he said.

GPS devices are now the traffic department's biggest competitor, but these tools still cannot compete with real-time information the on-air reports offer. Even as technology advances, traffic reporting still requires someone to interpret the data and deliver the information most helpful to the driver in that particular moment, Marbourg said.

"I try to project, even from the Traffic Center, 'What is my listener? What is my customer thinking and feeling?' so I relate as best I can as if I were sitting in the backseat of the car," Marbourg said.

Ed. Note: Jolie Lee is a digital news writer with Federal News Radio, a sister station of WTOP. Lee made this video as her final project for the Interactive Journalism program at American University.

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(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)