Friday, August 18, 2006


Two-oh-six a.m. The alarm is not set to go off for another 49 minutes. The chances I go back to sleep are about the same as my winning the lottery. And I don't play the lottery. I reach down and pet the cat, get up and go to the bathroom, come back to bed and pet the cat some more. At 2:48 I get up for good.

An hour later I stand outside the front door of WTSP-TV in St. Petersburg looking for a security guard. I don't see him. Wherever he is, I hope he's keeping an eye on the employee parking lot's exit gate. It's sitting wide open. I pull out my cell phone and call the newsroom. "This is John McQuiston. I'm filling in for Meredyth on traffic today," I tell the producer who answers the phone.

"You're at the front door?" she asks.


"And the guard's not there?" If the guard were here, would I have called you?


"I'll come up and let you in."

"Thank you."

And that's the glamorous part of the job.

I don't know in how many cities this happens but each of the stations in Tampa does traffic reports on its morning show. Each anchored by an attractive young woman. I won the job of substituting for the one on Tampa Bay's CBS affiliate by answering an ad on craigslist. Yep, that's me: The backup traffic twinkie.

I am not an employee of WTSP. A company called provides the traffic information as well as the person who delivers it. The station's news director had to approve my hiring but my paycheck comes from The company has an agreement with the state of Florida to put sensors along the major roads. They record the speed of passing cars and feed the data back to company computers. When I select a map, graphic representations of actual speeds cars are traveling show up automatically. I don't make the stuff up. If there are accidents, I have to manually add the icons to the map, render it, and repeat the process for the other map or two I'll use for that report.

I put on makeup as soon as I arrive. This is good because if I don't do it now I'll forget later. It's not so good because it feels like a refrigerator inside the studio right now and my nose starts to run. Now I know why women never blow their noses with gusto. It'll wipe the makeup off.

The studio will warm up when the crew turns the lights on.

I stay busy. From 5-7 a.m., I will appear near the top and middle of each half hour plus three other times in the show. Because the traffic information on the maps is in so-called "real time," I'm always rendering the maps and rundowns at the last moment to put the freshest data on the air.

That'll put a spasm in your bowel, especially if you're not used to the pace. Or if you're simply not used to being awake at all at 5 a.m. Or if you have hyperactive intestines to begin with. Or some diabolical combination of all three.

Five oh-two a.m. My first report begins with a shot of one of the traffic cameras instead of on me. Then when I refer to the map I intend to show after the live picture, I pop up on the screen. "Did I forget to set the computer right?" I wonder aloud as I turn to look at its monitor behind me. Nope. It's set correctly. Then the map comes up.

Not the smoothest start. If you're going to have a clunker, have one which you handle smoothly and, better yet, have one right at 5 a.m. when no one is watching. Not many are driving in the 5 a.m. hour, either. Most of what I have to talk about concerns which lanes are closed on what roads for construction and when they'll fully re-open.

Five fifty-seven a.m. I finish my final report of the hour, a brief narration over a live shot of Interstate 4 east of into Tampa, and blow out a big breath. I'm exhausted. I'm only halfway done.

Part of the stress comes from having so many times to report so little. In two reports, there were no indications of slowdowns anywhere in our viewing area. That's not abnormal for that hour but it makes me paranoid that I'm missing something. The live camera pictues help. In a couple of locations at least, they confirm what the computers tell me.

Traffic volume rises with the sun and, finally, I start to see some slowdowns. Sometime after 6:30 a truck hits a light pole in I-275 west of downtown Tampa. The accident gets moved to the median quickly but people slowing down to look will clog the Interstate in both directions. I'm sorry for the people inconvenienced but I'm grateful for the material. Besides, the stoppage doesn't come from something in the road; it's from idiots who have to sightsee!

By then I have lost the nerves I felt at the beginning but I still have no time to relax because of the constant rush to prepare the next report. One after another I get through them cleanly until I reach Nirvana. Or 7 o'clock, which is close enough. I'll have reports in each of the local cut-ins to the CBS Early Show but there's only one of them each half hour.

I buy a bag of pretzels from the vending machine and munch on them in a darkened corner of the studio. I've been awake for five hours, at work for three, and this is breakfast. With time to breathe, I can't recall much of the show. I don't know if the fear of missing something will ever disappear. I'm not going to do this frequently enough to get into any kind of groove. I did three days in June. This is the first of three days here in August and I'm scheduled for two more days in September.

That's enough. I don't miss the daily grind of television. And grind is the term for it. It wears you down. My health has improved a lot since I left my last full-time TV job in Cincinnati. It's unbelievable. If the right opportunity came along, would I consider it? Absolutely. But I'm off the TV career climb. My home is here and so am I.

Now it's off to work. I still have my regular job. Then I'm supposed to drive to Lakeland to shoot a story for the statewide sports show to which I contribute stories.

I'll sleep tomorrow. Maybe.

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