Here’s the situation: Most radio drive-time traffic reports are about as interesting to listen to as bedroom-
set assembly instructions are interesting to read. And here’s the question: Why aren’t more of them as good as the ones done by Lauren Valley on 88.5 WXPN between the hours of five and seven o’clock? I think the answer has something to do with Jim McGuinn.
With some exceptions, I usually leave my office at South Jersey Magazine in Marlton sometime around 5:30 in the evening. When I do, the first place I turn on the radio dial is XPN; not only because I love the music the station plays, but because (believe it or not) I look forward to hearing the drive-time traffic updates given by Traffic.com’s Lauren Valley. On her own, XPN’s resident guide to all things highway and byway is a pleasure to hear. The soft, alto timbre of Valley’s intonations fits perfectly with the station’s hushed, high-brow aesthetic, and her reports always walk that sublime line of authority and sympathy to which all traffic reporters should aspire. She never seems to take the task too seriously (I mean come on, it is only traffic after all) but at the same time she also knows when to lend her narratives a touch of the dramatic, a dash of the commiserative; for there is nothing worse than sitting in slit-your-wrists, shotgun-to-the-mouth bumper-to-bumper congestion and hearing a traffic reporter relay the situation as though he or she could care less. When the roads are that bad, the only person from whom you can usually gain both sympathy and comfort is the traffic reporter, and you want this person to at least pretend to share in your misery. You want her, in other words, to give a shit, and Valley is a master in this department (if a word such as master can realistically be applied to someone delivering the hour’s commuter breakdown).
But Valley’s persona and delivery are only half of what makes the early evening’s commute such a breeze to handle. The other half of the equation is Jim McGuinn.
When it’s time to break for traffic, McGuinn—a first-rate record spinner in his own right—doesn’t just hand over the mic to Valley and forget about it. No. He introduces her like another song, setting the stage for her reports while freeing the on-air vibe for the infusion of her animated personality. I am continually amazed by how seamlessly entertaining I find the interaction between them to be. Usually, McGuinn will invite Valley to comment on the previous thirty minutes’ playlist or top news story, and whether he’s curious to know what she thought about a rare Monkeys vinyl he just spun or an assessment he made as to why the White Stripes can be considered the premier rock outfit of the last five years, Valley always takes the bait and runs with it. Earlier this summer (and I can’t remember why), McGuinn was talking about the art of haiku, and when Valley came on she said, “Well, Jim, I actually prepared a little haiku for you this afternoon,” the recitation of which will go down as one of the most endearing radio memories I have. Or consider that just last week I heard the two of them riff for several minutes on a bomb scare in South Philly that turned out to be nothing more than unopened boxes of hotdogs. Valley could barely contain her laughter through the broadcast, and thus I was smiling all the way home.
I was recently riding with my friend Brian as he drove north up Route 73, swerving and dodging and bobbing and weaving his blue PT Cruiser through the tight pack of crowded cars all hurrying in the same heedless direction. At one point he turned to me and said, “Ya know, I think driving is when people’s true personalities really come out. I mean, think about it. What other activity is both so purely social and yet so purely anonymous?” He was right. In driving, we are all free to interact with one another as we have always wanted to deep within the recesses of our inhibited, socialized souls. Since this is the case, shouldn’t we expect the myth makers responsible for reporting the workings of our crazy dance of tires to at least resemble actual human beings? Shouldn’t we demand at least this much?
So the next time you find yourself on the road between five and seven o’clock in the evening, tune in to XPN. Sure, the tunes will help pass the time; but the traffic reports just may save your soul.