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Sunday, June 16, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bumper to Bumper

Metro traffic reporters see it all, or just about

Seattle Times staff reporter

Surrounded by scanners, computer screens and other high-tech gizmos, Sara Johnson raced to the huge window atop the Bank of America Tower with a definitely low-tech pair of binoculars strapped around her neck.

A helicopter had been spotted heading north. Was this the first sign of some traffic catastrophe? She raised the binoculars trying to see the trouble.

Here, on the 73rd-floor observation deck of Seattle's tallest building, is the home of Metro Networks, the company that brings you nonstop traffic reports on the radio. From this bird's-eye perch, Metro traffic reporters give commuters the bad news on the nines, the sevens, or whenever congestion strikes.

This company, which has been around for 15 years, generates little ink. And that's the way it wants it.

"It's by design," said Gary Taylor, general manager of Metro's northwest region. "We don't market ourselves, we market services to our clients."

That many listeners think the traffic reporter is sitting side by side with the radio announcer is by design.

For anyone who listens to the radio traffic reports, the reporters have become household names: Sara Johnson, Gina Tuttle, Paul Tosch, Adam Gehrke, and, yes, there really is a Shane Cobane. Though he spells his name differently, he's a shirttail relative of late rocker Kurt Cobain, said Taylor, "and he does a mean Elvis impression."

In all, Metro Networks, owned by Westwood One, a division of Viacom, provides traffic reports for 24 radio stations and two television stations. While it also does news reports, traffic has been its mainstay since the company was founded 24 years ago by a Baltimore car dealer who got stuck in traffic one day and came up with the idea for roving traffic vans.

Metro doesn't work directly for the radio and TV stations, but for the conglomerates who own them: Sandusky, Entercom, Fisher Broadcasting, Infinity and National Public Radio.

A few stations do their own traffic. KIRO- and KOMO-TV do. KING-TV doesn't.

KIRO and KOMO radio use Metro's traffic reports. KBSG, KISW and KMPS do their own.

The Metro Networks arsenal is formidable: a helicopter and airplane, computer monitors plugged to the Department of Transportation Web site, State Patrol and police scanners, radios, tips from motorists who don't call Metro but the radio station that airs the reports.

And then there are those binoculars. And a well-worn Thomas Guide that maps the Puget Sound-area streets.

From the top of the tower, the reporters can see the mess on I-5, the tie-ups on both Lake Washington bridges, snarls on the Alaskan Way Viaduct, emergency landings at Harborview Medical Center. Almost every local freeway is visible, except I-405.

The average traffic report is 30 seconds, but one Christian station wants its report exactly 52 seconds long. One reporter may be juggling four stations, flipping from one to the other, a red light burning to indicate they're on the air.

The stations pay nothing for their traffic reports. Metro makes its money by selling 10-second advertisements that accompany the reports.

While one station may tell you everything about the northbound drive out of town, another may concentrate on the Valley Freeway (Highway 167).

"It depends where the listeners live," Taylor said. "It's based on demographics and listener habits."

Tuttle, director of operations for Metro, spent 17 years with KOMO radio before joining Metro. In addition to managing the traffic reports, she's on the air herself on KRWM and KWJZ.

"You feel like it's such a privilege," she said. "You're perched on people's dashboards helping them, and they really want the information."

Johnson, one of the first traffic reporters to fly, is a veteran — senior traffic reporter — and trains the newcomers. She's on four stations: KIRO, KNWX, KQBZ and KUOW.

A Seattle-area native, Johnson has watched the tremendous growth of traffic with both fascination and alarm.

"It doesn't matter what time of day it is, there's always going to be something going on," Johnson said. "So many people get stuck so frequently, the burning question is, 'What's in my way and why aren't I moving?' I try to answer the questions and give a solid alternate route. It's what I love about the job. Every day is different."

Bumper to Bumper runs every Sunday. Do you have questions or comments about traffic? E-mail us at bumper@seattletimes.com or call Susan Gilmore at 206-464-2054.

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