On March 27th the Golden Gate Bridge will convert to all-electronic tolling. That’s big news to people who drive between Marin County and San Francisco. But it’s just one piece of the Bay Area’s traffic puzzle to traffic reporter Joe McConnell, a man who knows these highways better than just about anyone.
McConnell has worked in radio since 1982, including traffic updates on KQED Public Radio. What does it take to do one of the toughest jobs in broadcasting for so many years?
These days McConnell works from a small studio (about the size of a handicapped restroom stall) at the San Francisco offices of Total Traffic. It’s the service formerly known as Metro Traffic and Shadow Traffic, now owned by Clear Channel.
His studio is simple, almost Spartan: just two computer screens, a microphone and a small console to connect with different stations. One screen contains various apps for writing reports, researching news and checking the roads, including a real-time map of highway sensors.
“It’s kind of like looking at a big ant farm,” he laughs. “You’ll watch something happen and you’ll see it back up and see the streams change.”
The highway-as-ant-farm appeals to McConnell’s background. He came to the Bay Area from his native Omaha, Neb. to get a Ph. D. in psychology from UC Berkeley.
“How people react and what they do and the decisions they make, are all evident right here on the traffic map. You can also watch the economy change by watching the traffic patterns…. traffic gets bad when the economy gets better, and traffic does actually improve when people lose their jobs.”
Here's what McConnell's job looked like in 1992
These days we can get traffic info from smartphone programs like Google Maps or Waze. But broadcast reports combine data from the public, law enforcement, road sensors, online maps and aircraft surveillance. After more than 25 years in the traffic business, McConnell says radio is still the ultimate, hands-free app.
“There are other ways to find out what’s going on, but you have to take your eyes off the road to figure them out,” McConnell says. A radio report is "free; you don’t have to pay for it. And it’s the most immediate. We can tell you exactly what’s going on from all possible sources, the best we can possibly tell you. It’s still going to be the most up-to-date information you can get.”
Today McConnell's workload is mostly news, feeding Total Traffic’s national radio service. He records news updates for stations in Tennessee, Wisconsin and South Carolina, as well as a national news update. Stations download these reports from a server, though it’s unclear so far how many listeners receive this relatively new service. And the workload keeps growing, now including business and consumer news updates for Clear Channel’s streaming service iHeartRadio.
“I think over the years there have been some people who have run out of this job screaming,” McConnell laughs, “but I’ve stayed. I guess I’m just one of these people who, once I find a comfortable niche and I find something I’m really good at I just tend to do it. Because there's not that many things that I am good at. I’m not very good with a screwdriver or a hammer, and I’m no great business genius. But I’m good at this stuff. I enjoy the craft of it.”
On a typical weekday morning, there’s almost no way for any traffic report to mention every single incident or accident. But the information available to McConnell and other traffic reporters is far richer than is once was.
“People would be listening to their radios in 1988, not hearing me (not mention a major incident) and they would say, ‘What’s wrong with him? Why doesn’t he know that?’” McConnell recalls. “Well, it’s because there’s no plane that happened to be flying over at that moment. ... I would not have known that without an airplane flying over it in the olden days.”
These days McConnell lives in Sonoma: a good place to unwind from the frantic pace of his job. He says he has no plans to retire, though he wouldn’t turn down a winning lottery ticket. Until then, at least his ever-more-hectic job lets him fully be himself these days – he used to do radio traffic under three different names.
“I was Joe Vincent on KGO,” McConnell says, “and I was Rocky Dolemite on (what is now) KNBR 1050. But now these days I’m just Joe McConnell. Just plain old Joe.”