In the Fast Lane
Metro Networks' Lisa Baden Pulls Out All the Stops to Keep Up With Traffic
Washington Post
July 9, 2002

Author: Paul Farhi; Washington Post Staff Writer

Just before she goes on the air -- which she does roughly 60 times every weekday morning -- Lisa Baden employs an old radio announcer's trick. She smiles. Smiling loosens Baden's jaw and facial muscles, making it easier for her to get her mouth around such popgun phrases as "backup on the Beltway to St. Barnabas Road." More to the point, Baden smiles to pump up her game -- in effect, to transform herself into a bigger, better, friendlier-sounding Lisa Baden. You can hear the change. Off the air, Baden can be understated, with an occasionally inaudible voice and a high tittering giggle. When she's on, she's the Traffic Queen -- authoritative, assertive, as whimsical as she wants to be.

"At Connecticut and Georgia Avenue, someone lost a hefty load of dirt and they're going to have to get a large Shop-Vac to move it out of the way. Pay attention!" she commands during the height of rush hour on a recent Friday morning. "Not bad between University Boulevard and Georgia Avenue. A gasp of slow traffic heading to the Wilson Bridge. . . . It's good to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge" en route to the shore.

To which she can't help adding, "Take me! Take me!"

A few minutes earlier, Baden began a report about a new trouble spot by saying, "Sunshine in your eyes? Yeah, baby!"

If you drive in the morning, Baden, 44, is as unavoidable as brake lights. She's on six times an hour on news station WTOP-AM/FM, four times more on cable's Newschannel 8, and here and there on stations based in Front Royal, Va., and Potomac, Md. With the cadence of an auctioneer and diction as sharp as a scalpel, Baden doesn't merely report the dreary particulars of the morning mess. Instead, she guides harried drivers to alternate routes, cajoles laggardly highway authorities, and generally commiserates with your bumper-banging pain.

Sometimes she sings.

On her retentively neat desk, Baden keeps a dog-eared sheet of notebook paper, on which she's jotted the names of dozens of traffic-themed song titles: "King of the Road," "Chain of Fools," "The Long and Winding Road," etc. Every now and again, in the midst of yet another description of the misery along I-270 or -66, she'll snap off a few bars.

The other day, leading out of a commercial for a new production of "West Side Story," Baden chimed in, "We like to drive in A-mer-i-ca."

"Got your attention, didn't it?" she says later. Or as she likes to put it when someone criticizes the frivolity, "It's traffic. It's not terminal cancer."

WTOP says Baden does her thing from "the WTOP Traffic Center," but this is a convenient bit of puffery. Baden works neither for, nor in, any radio or TV station. Her command center -- desk, phone, microphone -- is on the 15th floor of a modern office building down the street from the Tastee Diner in Silver Spring. Her employer is Metro Networks/Shadow Broadcast Services, a little-known outfit headquartered in Houston that has quietly monopolized the radio traffic-reporting field.

Metro's Silver Spring office is home to almost all the voices reporting on Washington's hopeless congestion -- Jerry Edwards, Julie Wright, Robert Workman, Beverly Farmer, Rob Edgar, Nicole Nichols, Baden. It's even home to traffic reporters who don't exist; Farmer is Farmer on Channel 9 and on several small radio stations in Maryland, but she's "Alex Richards" on WMZQ-FM and "Vera Bruptly" on WJFK-FM. Back when, she was "Ginny Bridges" and "Lee McKenzie." The dean of road warriors, WTOP's Bob Marbourg, is among the few traffic reporters who don't work for Metro.

Founded by a Baltimore-area car dealer named David Saperstein in 1979 and now owned by radio powerhouse Westwood One Inc., Metro supplies traffic reports as well as news and sports to about 50 radio stations in and around Washington. It has similar operations in 74 other cities. For hundreds of cost-conscious stations, Metro has become a one-stop information monolith. It's the only source of news these stations use.

A station that signs on with the company gets the services of Baden, Edwards or any of Metro's 40 other reporters for free. What's more, Metro's reporters tailor their reports to sound as if they're coming from the station's very own "traffic center" (the pseudonyms preserve the illusion of exclusivity).

In exchange, Metro gets 10 seconds of each report for its own use. The company sells those 10-second snippets -- thousands of them a year -- to sponsors (it won't discuss how much it sells the time for). The arrangement "sure beats having to spend your station's money to put up a [traffic] helicopter," says Jim Russ, Metro's operations director.

Metro does marshal some formidable resources. During a typical rush hour, it has three planes circling above the traffic, a couple of cruising mobile units, a wall of police radios and access to dozens of government traffic cameras arrayed at key points around the region. Metro operates its own cameras, too, including one atop the Willard Hotel in downtown Washington that can pan, tilt and zoom down to street level via remote control.

What it lacks in glamour, traffic reporting makes up for in immediacy and utility. More so than even the weather, traffic broadcasts are the ultimate news you can use. Is there anything more satisfying than learning about a tie-up in time to avoid? There's even something satisfying about hearing about the jam you're part of. It's a comfort, however small, to have your miserable reality confirmed by Lisa Baden or Julie Wright.

"Traffic is the biggest single thing we hear about from our listeners," says Jim Farley, WTOP's vice president of news and programming. "There's an urgency about getting that information. You get in your car, you want to know what's in front of you. And you want that information as fast as you can get it."

WTOP practically saturates its listeners with traffic news, offering reports every 10 minutes around the clock, 24 hours a day, every day. During rush hour, this makes WTOP extraordinarily popular. The station has led the ratings during morning drive hours in four of Arbitron's last five quarterly surveys -- with a whopping 20 percent advantage over its closest competitor during the last period. Says Farley, "Lisa is responsible for a good part of our success."

The constant demand for up-to-the-second data imposes a grueling schedule on Baden and her fellow Metro stars. To beat the rush hour that she'll be reporting on, Baden leaves her home in southern Anne Arundel County each morning by 3:45. She's working almost literally from the time she hits the road in her Honda CRV; her car is equipped with a two-way radio that connects Baden to her office, just in case she spies trouble during her 50-minute commute. (She often drives, she confesses, "far above the speed limit.")

Even at 5 in the morning -- or maybe especially at 5 in the morning -- Metro's newsroom is percolating with deadline energy. The noise -- squawking scanners, reporter talk -- is constant. Russ presides over the scene like a Starfleet commander, from a long desk in the middle of the main room. He's the pivot man, monitoring the official police and fire sources and relaying the goods to Baden and other reporters, who sit nearby.

This morning, a Friday, things are droning along predictably -- the usual three-mile backups in the usual places -- when Russ swivels and declares to no one in particular, "University near Caddington. One overturned. Possible trapped passenger." It's an electric shock. Everyone knows instantly what this means: A car has flipped over in Wheaton. Big news.

Within seconds, the alert is being read over the air. According to the dark humor of the newsroom, such mishaps aren't just commuter calamities. They're Metro's bread and butter. "When we hear something like that, we like to say, 'Job security!' " says Russ.

Russ is just one of the sources Baden pays attention to. There's so much information incoming that it takes professional cool not to be bewildered by it. Baden, for example, wears headphones that let her hear live feeds from the airborne and mobile units in one ear, and countdown cues from her stations in the other. She can also see live feeds from the traffic cameras, and a running scroll of "incidents" on her computer. (Typical entry: "Incident. 05:37 am. Va. St. Police. Accident. No. bound 95 at Pr. Wm. Pkway. Rt. lane. Truck and car. Police on way.")

Baden also gathers her own data, making and receiving as many as 200 calls a day. Among her callers are a small group of trustworthy regulars who tip her to hot spots and accidents, often before highway authorities are on the case (to avoid hoaxes, she won't report information from anyone she doesn't know). She's so adept at juggling all the data that she can be on the air describing an incident at the same time she's hearing about it.

Because she's on the air so often -- at least once every 10 minutes for six hours straight -- Baden's life is ruled by the second hand. Every morning, before starting work, she synchronizes a little portable timer with the U.S. Naval Observatory's atomic clock. She carries the timer around with her wherever she goes.

"My window for going to the bathroom is three to four minutes," she says, laughing. "I like to say this is a high-stress and fast-paced job for something that's not moving at all. Isn't that ironic? We're jamming in here and they're not moving out there."

Despite the grind, morale runs high in the Metro traffic room. The place is filled with people who aren't just knowledgeable about traffic, but actually appear fascinated and enthusiastic about its ebbs and flows. "When you're growing up, no one says, 'I want to be a traffic reporter,' " says Jerry Edwards, who's been one for 18 years. "But you learn how much impact you have. What we do affects so many people."

For sheer commitment, it's hard to beat Rob Edgar, another of Metro's reporters. Edgar, 35, was an airborne reporter until October 1998. One morning, as he was landing at Bowie's Freeway Airport, Edgar's plane crashed 100 yards short of the runway. The pilot, Douglas Duff, was pronounced dead at the scene. A nearby resident pulled Edgar from the burning wreckage. He suffered a broken leg and pelvis and had burns over 40 percent of his body.

Edgar spent 66 days in the hospital, and nine months recovering. When he was well enough to work again, he came right back to his old beat, reporting on the ground instead of in the air. Edgar never mentions the incident as he shows you around Metro's office. Instead, he talks about one thing: traffic.

Reporting on traffic is unlike almost any other kind of reporting. Although there are certainly patterns to it, Washington's traffic has its own unpredictable animal logic. It's the most ephemeral of things, here and gone and back again in an instant. That makes reporting on it something like chasing butterflies. That big mess oozing along the Dulles Toll Road? It might not be there by the time Baden gets on the air to tell you about it.

In other words, Baden and her ilk must be two things at once: accurate and instantaneous. It doesn't always work out. Travelers zipping along at 60 mph on I-270 a few mornings ago, for instance, probably were a bit mystified by a report of a slowdown just south of Shady Grove Road. It had disappeared by the time news of it was aired.

"The mistakes we make . . . happen because we're juggling so much stuff at once," explains Russ. "It's the old rule -- when in doubt, leave it out. We try to be careful in how we phrase things. We'll say, 'At last check, 270 was slow.' If you're wrong about something, you'll spur a lot of cell phone calls. People notice."

A 40-second traffic report hardly seems like a starmaking vehicle, but Baden has developed her own cult following, particularly since she began broadcasting three years ago on WTOP, the region's radio-news giant.

People are constantly calling her, and not just to talk about the state of the Beltway. Is she married, they want to know. (Yes.) Does she have children? (No.) Does she have hobbies? (A few: sewing, boating, playing piano.) Of course, they want to know what she looks like. "I tell them I'm wearing a ball gown, that my hair is perfect, that my makeup is done to a T," she says. "What I say is, I am a goddess! Isn't radio great theater of the mind?"

Baden didn't set out to be a traffic oracle, though she wanted to be on the radio ever since she did the Pledge of Allegiance on the PA while attending third grade in Landover Hills. While her friends were tuning in to rock-and-roll, she preferred listening to the comedy and banter of local legends Frank Harden and Jackson Weaver and "The Joy Boys" (Willard Scott and Ed Walker).

Baden finally got on the air herself at the University of Maryland's radio station ("during the dawn of Madonna") as a student in the early 1980s. But there were fits and starts after that. She was a part-time weekend deejay for a tiny AM station in Laurel out of college, then an editorial assistant and occasional morning voice at WPGC-FM.

Deferring her on-air dreams, Baden became WPGC's marketing director in the late 1980s. Her job ("the most thankless in radio") involved coming up with ways to promote the station and its sponsors. Once, she cooked up a stunt for a shampoo advertiser and a local amusement park; she rented a dunking booth, hauled it to the park, and had passersby take a whack at dunking one of the station's deejays in a vat of shampoo.

Metro Networks gave her her big chance in 1991. Initially, she found her subject dull and dry, and for a time described herself a "a plain vanilla traffic reporter." Her personal turning point came about four years ago. A supervisor, since departed, turned down her request for a raise by informing her that she was merely a "worker bee," and not star material.
-- Interview by Jeanine Herbst
"I was just incensed," she recalls. "He was calling me a worker bee! I was devastated." Baden sulked a little and considered quitting.

Instead, she decided to become . . . Lisa Baden. "That's when I started being me," she says. "I started telling the story. I started being real."

That's when she started singing. She started describing the traffic as "backstroking around the Beltway." She became memorable, 40 seconds at a time.

And now? What's Baden's next step? The question takes her aback momentarily. She seems both a little bit surprised by it and a little bit hurt. "I'm a traffic reporter," she says quietly but firmly. "That's what I am. That's what I want to be." And then, once more, Lisa Baden smiles.

Edition:  F
Section:  Style
Page:  C1
Copyright 2002 The Washington Post
Record Number:  070902XC01In988189
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Lisa Baden - WTOP Traffic Reporter, Washington
Washington Post
March 18, 2001

Interview by Jeanine Herbst

This is such a fast-paced job. I mean, the job moves, whereas the traffic is so slow! It's such an irony. I like that it affects all people in all walks of life. I hear from them on the WTOP hot line. In one call I'm talking to a lobbyist, the next a cafeteria school worker, the next a cabdriver, then a mom trying to get her kids to day care in time. Then there's the time a man called in, stuck in traffic on his way to have a medical procedure done.

The singing [Baden sings during part of her report] is such a controversial topic. It's like a Kathie Lee Gifford, love-hate thing -- you either love it or you hate it! That is the most commented-on thing when I meet people. No kidding. "I love it when you sing," or, "I wish you wouldn't sing." But I get more "love its," so I keep it up. Plus, I find that music is relatable to everyone, and I kind of think it helps defuse road rage sometimes. It's like, Relax, you're not in the accident, you're in a backup. It helps put things in perspective. That's the purpose of it, anyway.

A consultant at the station called me quirky. You see, I went in for a job review three years ago, and went down through all the criteria on why I should get a raise, and the supervisor came back and said, "There are two kinds of people -- stars and worker bees, and you are a worker bee." I was devastated by that, and I sulked and licked my wounds for a while, and then I came back and I said, "Dammit, this is where the rubber meets the road, so I am going to be myself." And if defining me as quirky fits, so be it.

Edition:  F
Section:  Magazine
Page:  W6

Copyright 2001 The Washington Post
Record Number:  031801XW06Li4646