GRAND RAPIDS — Kevin Richards is the city’s most celebrated traffic reporter.
He has guided radio listeners and television viewers past jams and around back-ups weekday mornings and afternoons for nearly two decades now, and, in the process, has given traffic a vernacular of its own. Because of Richards’ reports, terms like strobes, boinks and snarls have become as much a part of the daily commute as detours and closed lanes. Richards has been warning area motorists of slippery pavement and other road hazards for so long, he jokes he has been stuck in traffic for 18 years.
He began rising in the middle of the night to do daily drive-time reports in 1983, then exclusively for WCUZ radio. Today, he has a staff of reporters, and Skyview Traffic is heard on nine area radio stations and one TV station. And likely none of his notoriety would have ever happened if a former boss hadn’t told Richards to go play in traffic.
Richards had been holding down a weekday air shift at WOOD AM 1300 when then-station-owner Bruce Holberg pulled him aside to tell him he was being let go. Holberg looked at Richards, and just like a scene straight out of the film “The Graduate,” whispered two words to him: traffic network.
“I had the idea years before and actually wrote it up and filed it away,” said Richards. “And what he did was he kind of gave me the push, turned the light on, opened my eyes and showed me the door — for which I’ll be ever grateful.
“I don’t think I followed the plan he might have had in mind because I think he intended to finance and manage it. But it wasn’t a big priority for him,” he added.
So Richards created the Grand Rapids Skyview Traffic Co. after leaving WOOD in 1992, and became the city’s first independent traffic reporter. He drove the business solo for years, starting his reports nine years ago on WGVU AM and FM, the city’s National Public Radio affiliate.
But within the last few years the reach of Skyview Traffic has stretched to the Lakeshore and to a new medium, WOOD TV-8, a move that has given Richards a chance to expand the firm’s reporting staff. Now, Linda Rexford, Scott McCoy and Amanda Hildabrand also guide Skyview commuters through the region’s traffic traps.
“For all the things that people complained about what Holberg did, he did his job very well,” said Richards without a hint of bitterness. “His own goals were actually more important to him than anyone else’s, but that’s how you succeed.”
Richards said when others learn that he owns a traffic-reporting company, most see his chosen profession as a highly unusual and unique way to make a living. Still, Richards doesn’t consider himself to be a trailblazing traffic pioneer.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that over the years there have been a lot of people who have done this,” he said. “Usually it’s not a resounding success, and it’s only been a success for me and my family because I’ve used it as a platform for other revenues.”
Richards has spun Skyview Traffic into the multi-media arena, serving as a subcontractor on audio and video projects for area firms. In addition, he does voice-over television commercial work for companies that advertise on cable.
“My goal for the traffic reporting business was that it pay for itself, and now it does. But it’s not really a profit center for the company,” he said.
Born in Brooklyn 45 years ago, Richards came here with a buddy from his college days to work at a firm that distributed records and other merchandise. He did that for four years and just stayed. He now makes his home on the southeast side of Grand Rapids where he lives with Amy, his wife, and their four children. Jenna is the oldest at 18, then comes Megan, 15, Kevin, 11, and 6-year-old Caitlyn.
So what does Richards do when he’s not directing traffic?
“Sleep,” he said, laughing. “But I’m also a Cub Master for my son’s Cub Scout pack.”
As for the future, Richards said Skyview Traffic will be closely tracking the development of Intelligent Traffic Systems, the industry’s high-tech strategy that features more cameras monitoring more traffic on more routes and using more programmable signs to provide motorists with more information. He also sees himself further developing the multi-media B2B side of the company.
In the meantime, Richards will continue to tell us where to go, a service that sometimes is taken for granted until the weather demands otherwise. Rainy days with near freezing temperatures, he said, are usually to blame for the worst road conditions and not the heavy snow West Michigan sometimes gets. Cold rain creates the biggest threat, as it’s able to pop up without warning in three of the four seasons.
The resulting ice can be subtle, almost invisible, and very selective where it chooses to hide, like on overpasses and bridges. When that type of ice hits, Richards and his staff almost become traffic surgeons as they go into a triage mode to diagnose road conditions.
“We stop paying attention to the low-speed fender-benders on city streets, and stop paying attention to the stalled cars blocking a lane, and pay attention to which freeways are moving and which are not,” he said.
“Those become the only roads we worry about. The rest of the incidents on a day like that are merely illustrations of the point that we make going in that you need to be very careful,” he added. “Those are the days when people get hurt real bad.”
The GR Skyview Traffic Co. can be found on the Web at www.skyview.iserv.net. A trip there gets a traffic update, a road construction roundup, compiled traffic reports, weather and highlights of West Michigan history. Almost everything a traffic aficionado needs.
“I’ve been stuck in traffic for 18 years,” said Richards, smiling. “And that’s going to be the title of my autobiography.”