Drive-time radio to stay on the go Traffic: Montgomery County wants to replace low-power transmitters with a 1,000-watt, AM station devoted to speeding the commute.

February 27, 1997|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

No jingles. No giveaways. No commercials. Just all traffic, all the time.

Call it Radio Free Montgomery, and it's coming soon to dashboards and clock radios in the metro Washington area.

Montgomery County, which already has a site on the World Wide Web, a cable outlet and a newsletter, has applied to the Federal Communications Commission to buy a 1,000-watt commercial AM radio station for broadcasting traffic reports. Communications and highway experts believe it would be the only one in the country.

"AM radio is fair to everyone," said Gene S. Donaldson, the man charged with managing traffic flow in Montgomery. "Everyone has an AM radio. You don't have to buy cable and you don't have to buy an expensive computer."

As do Maryland and other states, Montgomery has a series of low-power transmitters that relay information about road conditions to drivers. But unless you are right on top of them -- typically within a mile and a half -- the message gets lost or sounds something like: "Mwfff grruble EXTENSIVE DELAYS. Murble durble gum wad ALTERNATE ROUTES. Snag narfle tooldigger DEATH AND DESTRUCTION."

Rather than get more little transmitters, the Montgomery traffic mavens want to spend $500,000 to buy and modify a big one -- WINX, a Rockville oldies station at 1600 AM that, in turn, is moving to another frequency. The signal covers 615 square miles vs. the 36 square miles served by the low-power TTC transmitters.

"This is one of the best investments we could make," said Donaldson. "We're not in it to compete with commercial stations. You're not going to see a bunch of disc jockeys sitting around."

In addition to providing blanket coverage, the county station would eliminate another nagging problem: the 10- to 15-minute delay between an accident and the warning broadcast on commercial radio. Motorists often find themselves stewing in an unannounced backup or zigzagging on back roads to avoid a snarl that no longer exists.

Because Montgomery already gathers rush-hour information for cable television, traffic services such as Metro Traffic Control and commercial radio stations, it would not cost more to broadcast it on a government-owned station, Donaldson said.

'Within a minute'

"The value here is providing information in real time," he said. "Right now, [commercial radio] gives you a traffic report every 10 minutes, and then it's in with all the regional traffic.

"We know within a minute or so what's going on out there and within another minute or so, we can have it on the air."

But members of the County Council aren't necessarily buying this cutting-edge proposal, believing that if it looks like a radio station and sounds like a radio station, it must be a radio station.

Council President Marilyn Praisner, for one, questions whether government should be competing for the ears of the thousands trapped each morning in their cars.

"There are a limited number of stations and the question is, should Montgomery County control one of them?" Praisner said. "Do we want to run a radio station 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for the one time people will need emergency information?"

Praisner said she and her colleagues were caught flatfooted when traffic officials' request to spend money allocated to enhance the travelers' advisory system translated into the acquisition of a radio station.

Value vs. cost

"We have to weigh the value vs. the cost and the alternatives, short of purchase," she said. "Perhaps we need to explore an arrangement with privately owned stations."

But Donaldson said there are other potential uses for a county-owned station, such as providing information on power outages and informing people about the status of snow-removal operations.

"It appears county government is buying a commercial radio station," Donaldson acknowledged. "All we're looking for is more horsepower."

Pub Date: 2/27/97

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