News

UPDATED: WAMU Drops Traffic Reporter Jerry Edwards

UPDATED: WAMU Drops Traffic Reporter Jerry Edwards
If you're listening to WAMU, you're on you're own. Photograph via iStock.

Nearly a year after it ended afternoon traffic updates, WAMU is pulling the plug on the morning rush-hour advisories by longtime DC traffic reporter Jerry Edwards, the station announced Friday morning.

“We’ve made the decision to cover transportation as news rather than the typical jams and snarls experienced by drivers,” the station says.

In place of Edwards’s updates, which he filed four times per hour from his home in Sarasota, Florida, WAMU’s morning listeners will hear about traffic only when it is a “significant transportation event” such as the closure of a major bridge or highway, or a Metro breakdown such as the the fatal smoke incident at L’Enfant Plaza last January. In those instances, morning host Matt McCleskey will provide the updates, WAMU says. The station will also continue to use Martin DiCaro as its on-air transportation reporter.

In announcing that it is severing its four-year-old relationship with Edwards, the station suggests he was eclipsed by modern technology. “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 what we could provide,” the statement reads.

The station also flicks back at its reasons for dumping afternoon traffic jockey Mike Cremedas last year—not that many people listen to NPR affiliates for the traffic updates.

“About 75 percent of WAMU’s morning audience listens from home,” the station says. “And everything we know about our listeners tells us that public-radio audiences, in general, prefer content with context and a deeper understanding of their region, country, and world.

Edwards did traffic reports for WAMU from 1984 to 2006, a period during which he also covered the roadways for WRC-TV. He came out of retirement in 2011 when WAMU signed on with Radiate Media, a DC-based company that provides traffic reports to radio stations.

Replacing the time slots vacated by Edwards’s dismissal will be reruns of the “Door to Door” feature—charming segments about DC neighborhoods—from WAMU’s Friday magazine program Metro Connection.

UPDATE, 11:39 AM: In an internal memo obtained by Washingtonian, WAMU’s general manager, JJ Yore, writes that the station would have dropped Edwards sooner if not for a contract with an underwriter. The station informed Radiate Media of the decision several months ago.

“We had a long-term contract with underwriter JK Moving to sponsor traffic,” Yore writes. “Their WAMU underwriting rep, James Barbour, offered JK the opportunity to underwrite something else, but they wanted to stick with traffic, and we wanted to honor our contract.”

Yore also explains that Edwards’s employer, Radiate Media, was not paid in cash, but by five underwriting slots per day paid for by JK Moving. Those slots can now be sold directly by WAMU’s fundraising team, “and it should provide us with significant new revenue opportunities,” Yore writes.

The memo also contains a list of roadways WAMU will cover if their traffic conditions rise to a certain level. “WAMU will report traffic conditions on-air only when it becomes a news event—when it’s a significantly unusual situation or extraordinary event that is beyond normal/daily traffic backups and impacts a large number of our listeners,” the document reads. “This includes bridge closures or major arteries in DC, Maryland and Virginia being shut down due to a fatal accident, hazardous tanker spill, police investigation, construction work, etc.”

Yore also writes that WAMU sent Edwards a wine-and-cheese basket as a parting gift.

Read the full memo:

Good morning:

Today is Jerry Edwards’ last day delivering morning drive traffic updates for WAMU. This completes changes we began late last year, in middays and afternoons. We notified Jerry’s employer, Radiate Traffic, several months ago. We sent Jerry a nice wine-and-cheese basket as a gift from all of us and wish him well in the warm weather of Sarasota, Florida, where he moved a few years ago.

I wanted to give you a recap of the reasoning behind this decision:

  • Radio is not a good way to get routine traffic updates. Smart phone map services, GPS devices in cars, and traffic apps provide specific, useful information that broadcast traffic reports cannot replicate. We have a tech-savvy audience and we think they find better traffic information from these sources than from radio reports.
  • Our audience doesn’t value this kind of information: Everything we know about public radio audiences tells us they want content that gives them context and a deeper understanding of their region, country, and world. Routine traffic reports do not provide that. And when some other major-market stations ended routine traffic updates (eg KUOW in Seattle) their audience barely noticed. We had a similar minimal response when we ended midday and afternoon traffic last winter. We expect a bigger response this time since Jerry is the dean of Washington traffic reporters and has been part of WAMU for so many years. But we think that will pass.
  • Most of our radio audience listens at home: Yes, even during “drive time” more than 70 percent of our radio audience listens at home, not in their cars.
  • We think we can provide more useful coverage: Our regional hosts will integrate information not just about driving but about all the ways people get around the our region. But they will do that only when it’s news. Examples are closures of major bridges and arteries and significant Metro problems like the fire in L’Enfant Plaza last winter. That’s when this kind of coverage goes from routine daily commuter stuff everyone already knows (“the 395 is moving slow this morning”) to news. And that’s when it matters to all of our listeners, rather than just a few. Lettie developed a guide defining what qualifies as transportation news. You can find it here:
  • It makes business sense: We don’t pay our traffic provider, Radiate Media, in cash. But we do give them five underwriting spots a day to sell. Now, WAMU’s underwriting team will be able to sell that time, and it should provide us with significant new revenue opportunities. We will not increase underwriting time as a result of this decision.

Here are a few more questions and answers you might want:

  • What will we air in the time when traffic aired? It will depend on the day, and it will evolve. One thing you’ll hear are re-airings of edited versions of Door to Door, a wonderful segment from Metro Connection. You also might hear transportation news, headlines, promotion for upcoming segments or shows, or other content such as the sonic IDs we are developing.
  • Why did it take 10 months to end traffic in morning drive, after doing so during middays and evenings? Two words: business and honor. We had a long-term contract with underwriter JK Moving to sponsor traffic. Their WAMU underwriting rep, James Barbour, offered JK the opportunity to underwrite something else, but they wanted to stick with traffic, and we wanted to honor our contract.

A few words about communicating this change. We told key stakeholders earlier this week. We have talked to our member services and front-desk teams and given them talking points similar to what those above. We will post information on our website in the “Around WAMU” section. We’ll also explain this in our member e-newsletter, Frequencies, when it goes out on Sunday. If someone asks you about the end of our traffic reports feel free to share the points above. You also can encourage people to tell us what they think at feedback@wamu.org. And, of course, you can tell me directly. – jj

Traffic as News Event Policy

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.