Like most people, WSB Atlanta’s Mark Arum hates commuting. But unlike most, he’s in a position to do something about it. As the traffic reporter for the Cox ABC affiliate — and the company’s two radio stations and newspaper in the city — he’s been keeping Atlanta viewers up to the minute on gridlock and road congestion for 14 years. The technology has improved over the years, and he says he still enjoys “getting people off the interstate just before there’s a closure.” This is the first of four articles that will appear this week and that collectively constitute a TVNewsCheck Special Report on Traffic Reporting.
Mark Arum lives close to work because, he says, he hates commuting. “If I happen to get stuck in traffic I get really frustrated. I don’t handle it well.”
So, it’s either ironic or perfectly apt that his work is as a traffic reporter, primarily for ABC affiliate WSB Atlanta, but also for two radio stations in the market and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, all owned by Cox Media Group.
After 14 years on the job, Arum says he still gets a rush from a really big traffic story and “there’s nothing that makes you feel better than getting people off the interstate just before there’s a closure.”
He spoke with TVNewsCheck Contributing Editor Diana Marsalek about the evolution of traffic reporting, whether TV traffic reporters are here to stay and why going up in the chopper is not always so much fun.
An edited transcript:
What do you think of your job?
I do like it. I find it a challenge. I really want to help people to avoid delays, avoid traffic. It’s kind of like a real-life video game where I want to make sure people get to work and school on time. It’s a personal challenge.
Where do you get the information for your reports?
We have the chopper (we had a sky plane until yesterday), access to hundreds of DOT cameras around the city, and we call every police jurisdiction around and we get calls from commuters. The majority of times, that’s where we get the information first. The traffic center in the morning is a two-person effort, myself and my producer Doug Turnbell, who calls the police jurisdictions.
It’s a two-man juggling act because we’re doing reports for the TV affiliate and two radio stations at the same time. Right before I get on TV, I could be talking to someone on the freeway who just gave me a first-hand account.
I basically have two different jobs. When I’m doing a radio report, I am talking to someone who is in his or her car already. On television, I am talking to people who haven’t left their houses yet so it’s a different type of report. It’s two different mindsets. It’s two different formulas.
Does the job get harder with worsening traffic?
I don’t think so. It’s muscle memory now. You can ask me today what traffic will be like on a certain freeway tomorrow and, barring something out of the ordinary happening, I can tell you what it’s going to be like. Traffic is getting worse. We had a slight dip when the recession hit, but since school has been back in session it’s been bad.
So traffic patterns reflect larger issues, like the economy?
It’s funny. On big federal holidays when banks and federal building are closed, you see a 10% reduction in traffic volume. It’s a little barometer of what’s going on.
How has the job changed since you started?
When I started we did not have Internet access in the traffic center. Now there are so many resources online, all my camera access from DOT. I have a Web site, on which I am able to switch and look and choose the camera shots. Also the way we get information to the reporters in the helicopters has gotten easier. I can just email them. Information is a lot more accessible.
Do you go up in the chopper?
Every morning and every afternoon we have a reporter and cameraman in the chopper. I am normally just in the studio, although on occasion I am in the chopper. If there is breaking news anytime in the morning, we are usually the first people on the scene — or over the scene. If the traffic chopper is out, we are going to be over it. Usually breaking news also impacts traffic in some way.
What’s it like riding around up there looking for traffic jams?
I think it’s pretty cool. I don’t think I could do it everyday. It’s taxing. I appreciate the role it plays but it’s a tough job.
Where do traffic reporters fall in the newsroom hierarchy?
In Atlanta, the traffic is so bad that it’s sort of like being a political reporter in Washington or a financial reporter in New York. Often, our top local story in rush hour gets pushed back and traffic becomes the top story.
You have quite a responsibility. Does it weigh on you?
Not until the emails come. It’s always in the back of your mind. I have so many friends that commute in the area. I personally have people that I want to help get around and I just multiply that. There’s nothing that makes you feel better than getting people off the interstate just before there’s a closure.
Do drivers blame you if their trips don’t go as predicted?
Sometimes. But with traffic anything can change at a drop off a hat. A lot of time it’s not my fault. Sometimes people will let you know when they are not happy and I am happy to provide a sounding board.
Your most exciting days must be the ones with bad commutes. Do you get a rush from traffic problems?
Absolutely. When traffic is a top story I eat it up. Your adrenaline definitely gets flowing when an interstate is shut down. Those are the mornings you do the job for.
Do you think TV traffic reporters could become obsolete? You can’t watch TV in a car.
I don’t think so. I think weather could before traffic because you can turn on the Internet and get a weather forecast. With traffic, by the time you walk out of your house and get into your car, things can change. One morning commute will be fine and another will be shut down. I am pretty confident the role of the traffic reporter on TV and radio is secure.
Do you get jealous of all the attention weathercasters get?
No. If weather is bad, traffic usually follows. On those mornings we tag team.