- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2002

Traffic reporter Bob Marbourg never uses the phrase "usual delays." The way he sees it, there is nothing usual about Washington gridlock.
"It's like a kaleidoscope. It's the same broken glass, it's just arranged in different ways," says Mr. Marbourg, who reports for all-news radio station WTOP (1500 AM and 107.7 FM).
Mr. Marbourg reports from the station's "Traffic Center," a converted closet in its Northwest studios, where he monitors video feeds from local traffic cameras and fields calls from listeners who phone in tips.
"Without a doubt, the phone calls have become our primary source of information. The best information comes from the people," he says.
On Wednesday, Mr. Marbourg began his day about 11 a.m. when he left his home in the Maryland suburbs and tooled around town in a company car. Among his destinations: New York Avenue in the District and Glebe Road and King Street in Northern Virginia.
"I want to see for myself what's going on. When I am on the air, what I am saying is based on a mental picture of what I've seen," he says.
By 1 p.m., Mr. Marbourg is at his desk in the Traffic Center, which is down the hall from the studio where news anchors Diane Kepley and Dimitri Sotos sit.
Mr. Marbourg's tiny room is packed with equipment.
There are two television monitors tuned to all-news and all-weather channels, the computer monitor that displays the live feeds from the government-operated traffic cameras, and radios tied in to the police, fire and rescue dispatching systems for the District and Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax counties.
The computer sits to Mr. Marbourg's right. Although he is right-handed, he has learned to operate the machine's mouse with his left hand.
Mr. Marbourg wears a headset and stays hunched over his microphone when he is on the air. Before he begins each report, he hits a "hot button" that puts his voice on the airwaves.
When delivering his reports, Mr. Marbourg punctuates his statements with hand gestures. Sometimes he slices the air in half with a kind of horizontal karate chop; other times he jabs away at the air with the pen he holds in his right hand.
Mr. Marbourg's reports are heard weekday afternoons "on the eights," meaning they air in 10-minute intervals beginning at eight minutes past each hour.
Because of the fast pace, he never reads from a script. It would be too confusing to try to jot down notes in between each report, he says.
Instead, he delivers each report from memory, based on what he has just seen on the video monitors and what he has heard from listeners who call in tips.
"If somebody tells me right before I go on the air that the left-bound lanes [of the Beltway] have been reopened, that's the first thing out of my mouth when I go on the air," he says.
Mr. Marbourg takes his job seriously. Growth in the Washington suburbs has made the region one of the nation's most congested, and that makes life harder for drivers, he says.
"At any given time, you have people trying to arrive at work on time, trying to arrive at day care on time, you have salespeople trying to get to their appointments. This is a major preoccupation of people's lives," he says.
The methods Mr. Marbourg uses to gather information the tips from listeners, the live feeds from the traffic cameras, the fire and rescue dispatches make the job more of an art than a science, he says.
Sometimes, listeners complain because Mr. Marbourg doesn't report on the traffic jam they are stuck in. "The only gridlock that matters is the gridlock that you are sitting in," he says.
Mr. Marbourg strives to be a responsible broadcaster.
"You never want to say more than you know you know," he says. For example, he won't report school bus crashes until he feels he has enough information.
"Until you can say it's this route from this school, and the extent of the injuries are minor, you just worry people. You have to limit the universe [of possible victims]," he says.
Mr. Marbourg has worked for WTOP since November 1979. Washington's traffic patterns have changed a lot since then, he says.
When he began his career, he says the morning rush hour never began before 7 a.m. and never lasted past 9 a.m. The evening rush hour was confined to a two-hour stretch between 4 and 6 p.m.
And commuters don't descend on the city in the numbers they once did.
Jobs have increasingly moved to the outer suburbs, like Loudoun, Stafford and Frederick counties, which makes it harder to cover all the traffic jams.
Mr. Marbourg is the last traffic reporter in Washington who is employed by a TV or radio station. The other reporters work for private companies who contract their services to broadcasters.
When Mr. Marbourg isn't on duty, WTOP uses traffic reports from these companies.
Mr. Marbourg heads home when his shift ends. He says he usually doesn't hit too much traffic on his way home, but he doesn't necessarily mind getting caught in gridlock.
"It's good for a traffic reporter to get stuck in traffic once in a while. It reminds you of what it's like for your listeners," he says.

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