In the Fast Lane
Metro Networks' Lisa Baden Pulls Out All the Stops to Keep Up With Traffic
July 9, 2002
Author: Paul Farhi; Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
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!"
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.
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
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.")
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
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.
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.
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.")
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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?"
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).
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.
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.
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
-- Interview by Jeanine Herbst
was just incensed," she recalls. "He was calling me a worker bee! I was
devastated." Baden sulked a little and considered quitting.
she decided to become . . . Lisa Baden. "That's when I started being
me," she says. "I started telling the story. I started being real."
when she started singing. She started describing the traffic as
"backstroking around the Beltway." She became memorable, 40 seconds at
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
Copyright 2002 The Washington Post
Record Number: 070902XC01In988189
= = = = = =
Lisa Baden - WTOP Traffic Reporter, Washington
March 18, 2001
Interview by Jeanine Herbst
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.
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.
Copyright 2001 The Washington Post
Record Number: 031801XW06Li4646