Jam Sessions

As New Yorkers fret over their evening commute, local WB station WPIX directs traffic for them online. The station recently debuted five daily Webcasts focused on traffic on “Commutercast,” which WPIX says is the first of its kind, is streamed live and commercial-free.

“We're serving the needs of our customers at home and at work,” says WPIX VP of News Karen Scott. “We can give them the best way home with the least headaches.”

The Commutercast is one example of stations' innovations to stand out on-air and on the Internet. Traffic is a popular element in local news, particularly on morning shows, where reports come every few minutes and traffic updates stream across the crawl.

In major markets such as Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta, traffic stories are just as big as the weather, and traffic reporters can be household names. Stations are constantly looking for ways to make their traffic news stand out. Last May, KABC Los Angeles began flying a high-definition helicopter that snaps razor-sharp pictures of tie-ups and the city's infamous car chases. And stations in growth markets like Memphis, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala., where urban sprawl is stretching commutes, devote significant time and resources to traffic as well.

Alan Oldfield, VP of North Amer­ican TV, Frank N. Magid Associates, says interest in traffic reports surges “when traffic becomes news,” such as a major jam. That is when having the right reporter or system is critical, he says: “Viewers want to know you have the tools to cover it.”

Drive time online

For WPIX, the online traffic reports represent a smart play for audience share. Unlike many traditional affiliates, which start evening news as early as 4 p.m., WPIX broadcasts only morning and late news. Commutercast gives the Tribune-owned station a chance to reach those viewers who are still at work and don't have a TV around.

WPIX reporter Alyssa Coleman hosts the Webcasts, which run every half-hour from 4 to 6:30 p.m. The reports feature maps and data from information supplier and video from WPIX's helicopter. Coleman also gives updates on public transportation.

High-tech traffic

In San Francisco, NBC's KNTV recently promoted Information Technology technician Mike Inouye to morning traffic anchor, an unlikely move for a highly rated station in the No. 6 market. What makes it unusual is that Inouye has no on-air experience, although he is a standup comic and spent a year as Internet reporter for the station's Web site. He says he loves performing and views traffic reporting as a twist on standup: “I deliver information quickly and put it in context.”

Inouye often performed at station events and impressed Assistant News Director Todd Mokhtari. At his urging, VP of News Jim Sanders decided to give Inouye a shot. “To Californians, traffic is almost like a religion,” says Sanders. “Traffic can be an incredibly important part of a station's image.”

Inouye, he adds, boasts two traits that other candidates could not match: He's comfortable with the traffic equipment, and he's a Bay Area native. “The hardest thing to find is someone who knows the area,” Sanders says. “They might be great on TV, but they don't know where to look at the traffic and the local [language].”

KNTV is working Inouye into other parts of the morning news. In November, the station did a takeoff on Today's “Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?” and hatched “Where in the Bay Is Mike Inouye?,” in which the reporter traveled to little-known spots that are right off major freeways.

His favorite spot: a landfill that doubles as an outdoor art gallery that Inouye insists “is a very cool place.”

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