For Madison traffic reporter, many ways of getting the word out

Katie Austin reports traffic on the radio and hosts a lively social feed to help Madison navigate its commute.Katie Austin reports traffic on the radio and hosts a lively social feed to help Madison navigate its commute.

For most people, the Friday afternoon rush hour is the springboard into a relaxing weekend. Yet Friday is the most hectic day of the week for Katie Austin, a radio traffic reporter in Madison.

On afternoons like this, the traffic is quickly building up on the Beltline and the interstate as rush hour approaches. Austin says once a delay starts, it won’t stop until 6:30-ish. If there is a crash, the situation could be worse. Austin doesn’t leave her seat in her office in the Mid-West Family Broadcasting after 3 p.m., busy getting information out. The radio is one way.

Today, however, social media is her best sidekick.

When Austin started off in 2003, social media were just some startups on the horizon - Facebook was a Harvard sophomore’s program and Twitter was still years from being invented. Austin recalls her early days doing traffic reporting, when she still had to drive around the city to collect information. 

Today, she is hovering over her two desktops with 18 tabs open, including three DOT cameras, four internet scanners, Google Maps, Facebook, Twitter and her website. Within her reach, two cell phones vibrate and a hand-held police scanner blares occasionally. The information comes in every second through different channels. She verifies it and then retweets, posts and updates, and records it.

Reporting traffic is not limited to the radio waves anymore. Austin has two on-air reports in each of her morning and evening shifts. However, if there was an accident right after her report, she would not want her audiences to wait for half an hour to get the news. This is where social media comes in.

Her Twitter account @madisontraffic was originally intended to provide information for her radio colleagues when she was off the air. In an unprecedented blizzard in December of 2012, she kept receiving inquires about the traffic from her colleagues on the air. Finally, she set up this account and referred them to the up-to-date information on the website.  

“My intentions were for Twitter to be an account that anyone can look at it,” said Austin, “but I had no idea about how much people were going to like it.”

About 18 months later, it has more than 4,000 followers.

Traffic report is a not traditional one-way communication on Twitter. Many of those 4,000 followers are active information contributors. Austin also tries to blend some flavors with the dry information in the tweets. In evening peak hours when cars are backed up on the westbound Beltline, she would show her empathy by tagging Beltline and saying things like “compromise is the key to a successful relationship.”

The madtowntraffic website is her most recent innovation, which is run through the Mid-West Family Broadcasting company. The website compensates for Twitter’s only-140-character limit. Austin says she is still experimenting with the website.

“This is lot more cumbersome,” Austin said.

For people on the road, Austin thinks it is more convenient for them to get up-to-the-minute traffic through Twitter.          

In a fast-changing industry, challenges are not something exceptional. Even with greater access to information today, there is no way to know everything. When Austin goes on the air, she has only 30 to 45 seconds to prioritize and squeeze as much information as possible - Beltline, interstate and downtown - not to mention a consideration of the balance between being funny and being serious.

There are many gems in her ten-year career. Austin recalls on her first day of the work filling in for her sick coworkers, she spotted a woman eating a bowl of cereal as she drove on the Beltline. She fell in love with this job immediately. Not everyone can handle a multitasking-demanding job, but her capability is proved.

“I get bored at jobs, I wouldn’t have to multitask.” she said.