Here in Chicago I hear today's interviewee's friendly voice nearly every morning as she does the traffic reports for WBEZ, our local NPR affiliate. After the big blizzard recently I grew more curious about what she does for a living, which is one of those things we all take for granted but aren't too familiar with. In addition to covering traffic for NAVTEQ, she also works for NBC Channel 5 here in Chicago, after a career as a reporter for WCIA-TV in Champaign, IL. She also runs the blog INSPIREme Chicago, a website that seeks to report (get this!) happy news in Chicago.
Aside from having a lot more traffic news to report, how were you impacted by the blizzard of 2011?
Aside from the traffic part of it-- I didn't go home for 2 nights. NAVTEQ had all us traffic reporters stay in a hotel downtown so we'd make it into work. We walked to work together each morning at 4:30 through the blizzard conditions since there were no cabs (and really no sign of life anywhere!). That resulted in my cute new boots getting salt stains all over them! The nerve of that blizzard;) I was at work for the majority of the blizaster, so I was lucky enough not to get stuck anywhere!
When did things start getting crazy on your end on Wednesday?
Right when I got in! I knew Lake Shore Drive was blocked, but had no idea it was as bad as it was until I got into work in the morning. When I heard about all the cars and people stranded out there I was shocked! There were cars stranded all over the Chicago area and several counties had travel bans in place. Crews were rescuing stranded drivers with snowmobiles. It was just a mess all day. I tried to keep people posted the whole time on Facebook and Twitter between my on-air reports. It was a crazy, busy day--but definitely the type of day a traffic reporter lives for!
I know you grew up in the Chicago area but was it hard at first learning all the roadway names? Did you use any mnemonics or anything like that?
Chicago traffic reports can be pretty hard to understand--even for people who've lived here all their lives. Every road in Chicago has a number, name, nickname, etc. (Shameless plug: That's why I recently created a pdf detailing all of it with maps! Check it out.)
When I first started, I knew the basics but had a lot of learning to do! I was constantly looking at maps and then making my own maps to try and learn everything. I didn't come up with any cool mnemonic devices. I guess I'm not that creative! Ha It was just a lot of memorization and repetition. Like any job though, you learn fast when you're immersed in it.
As a driver, which city that you've been in has the worst traffic?
I lived in Washington DC for a summer and HATED driving there! Not necessarily the worst traffic, but there is just no rhyme or reason to their streets! They all go in circles. I got lost a lot there;) I'm not a very patient driver, so I'm glad I'm usually reporting the delays and not sitting in them!
Do you ever get unusual fan mail? You're so friendly-sounding and personable on-air, I can imagine a lot of people (especially guys) feeling that they could approach you.
I actually got an email once from a woman who asked me to send a signed headshot to her husband. At first I thought it was super strange, but then she told me why. Apparently they were dating long distance and they'd listen to WBEZ online every morning in their different cities. Then later they'd chat about things I mentioned or how I sounded. I guess it was a way they could connect on a small level and not feel miles apart. Funny! I ended up sending the pic. Anything I can do to help keep long distance relationships strong! Ha ha.
Typically, what's the first thing people ask you when they discover what you do for a living?
"Do you get to ride in a helicopter?!?" And I get to say yes! Every so often I fill in on NBC 5 and report from their helicopter. I can't say enough about the view of Chicago from a helicopter as the sun is rising or setting. Such a beautiful city!
What's the best shortcut anyone's ever told you about (or are there no such things in Chicago?)
I'll give you my favorite-- Kingsbury! A great alternate to Clybourn, which is always a mess on the weekends! Now don't go telling everyone about that!
If you go for a drive for fun and scenery, where do you go?
Wow! I don't think I've ever done that! I guess I should, huh? I will say, my favorite view of the city is coming inbound on the Dan Ryan right around Cermak. It always looks so beautiful!
On WBEZ I'm told that your reports are brought to us via NAVTEQ Traffic: how do the broadcast stations/traffic reports work? Why is that preferable to, say, the radio station just having its own traffic reporter?
I work for NAVTEQ traffic and I do my reports from their building. So I'm in a totally different building than the anchors over at WBEZ. Rather than sitting next to Melba Lara and Lisa Labuz, I'm next to the traffic reporters for 100.3, 101.9 and NBC 5. People are always surprised to hear that.
NAVTEQ basically contracts out its traffic information to many different stations and provides the talent as well. Stations then get access to all the sensor data and exclusive traffic information gathered by NAVTEQ. It's much cheaper for stations to do it this way.
What are some of the most unusual or strangely-funny sponsors you've had to list?
Haha...when I filled in for a Bonneville station a couple of years ago, I had to say "Diarrhea" like three times in one spot for Kaopectate!
When it comes to traffic, are there any particular roads you enjoy reporting, either because they're fun to say or there's always something goofy going on on it?
Some roads just sound funny...so those are fun to say;) Yackley, Goethe, Schmale, Nerge, McFetridge...
What are some of the most ridiculous reasons for delays that you've ever had to report?
One of the craziest was last year when a wedding party decided to pull over on LSD to get out and take pictures! It caused a massive back up. I'm still not sure what they were thinking, but I bet they got some great shots;) ha
You gape, don't you? Admit it!
Oh for sure!
What's the most practical or useful thing you learned in journalism school?
KISS. I think all journalists know what that means: Keep It Simple Stupid! In traffic reporting, you have to jam as much information as possible into one short minute. So it's important to find the shortest, easiest way to explain complicated incidents or detours.
What's been your favorite INSPIREme story of late?
It was a tearjerker! A regular guest (Kenosha Brad) on the Q101 morning show was losing his wife to cancer and friends were planning a benefit for her. I interviewed the family and was so inspired by their strength. Unfortunately, Brad's wife of 22 years passed away just days after I posted the story. He told me that she watched the story before she passed and asked if he thought her fight really inspired people. He said, "I think we touched people's hearts and we showed them that our love and your fight has beaten cancer." Such an amazing family!
How's the wedding planning going? Do you know where you're going for your honeymoon?
We have a date and a venue! And that's about it;) We still have plenty of time though because the wedding isn't until April 2012. My fiancé is the superintendent for a construction company, so we're truly a match made in traffic heaven. He creates the delays and I report them (so nerdy)! We'd love to go to Fiji for the honeymoon! We'll see if we can make that happen.
How does it feel to be the 274th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
Oprah is gonna be so jealous...I heard she was vying for the 274th spot!! All joking aside though, very honored!! THANKS ZULKEY.COM!!