It’s the late-morning lull, “the rush-hour rodeo mode” winding to a halt. Bill Keene is pounding the keys on his California Highway Patrol computer terminal, searching for collisions, jackknifed big rigs, mattresses in the fast lane, anything to throw into his last couple of radio traffic updates, when he spots “something I live for.”
An injured “segal,” the computer reads, is trapped on eastbound Interstate 10 near Pacific Coast Highway. On the radio, Keene’s familiar voice sounds: “Here’s one for the books. There’s either a sea gull or a seal trapped on the Santa Monica Freeway near the McClure tunnel.” He throws it to helicopter reporter Skip Tucker, joking with him that they might have to “seal off the tunnel.”
Bill Keene, notorious punster, is on his game again, shortly before his retirement from the traffic and weather business after some 50 years in broadcasting.
A month shy of his 67th birthday, Keene is quitting the business he loves with some dissatisfaction over how automated, serious and repetitious his once-unpredictable and occasionally frivolous job has become.
“In the old days I couldn’t wait to get in here in the morning,” said Keene, who will give his final traffic and weather report for KNX-AM (1070) on Friday.
“I would listen to all the CHP and fire scanners and you couldn’t even go to the bathroom for fear you’d miss something. Back then the freeways were a little faster and more wide open and we always had an overturned truck to open the morning. It makes you sound a little ghoulish, but you just love to have something big like that. Now, though, it’s a lot more sterile and repetitious. The thrill is gone.”
When Keene added traffic to his radio weatherman duties in 1976, he had no computers, no “Caltrans Christmas Tree” and no tipsters with car phones calling in eyewitness reports. All he had were the scanners and his wits, and in those days, Keene remembered, the CHP put everything on the scanners--"juicy stuff” like high-speed chases and wisecracks about dogs on the freeway.
It was from those quirky events that Keene, mostly to fill time, came up with his most infamous plays on words. When a truck filled with sardines spilled its load on the Harbor Freeway and a bunch of CHP officers were standing around trying to figure out what to do, Keene called it “fish and chips.”
His favorite witticism popped into his head when he heard a CHP officer talking about five dogs on the Pasadena Freeway. Keene reported the five dogs on the freeway and then heard on the scanner that a sixth had joined in the fun. “I guess you could call that a six-pack of curs,” he quipped to his audience.
In the last few years, Keene barely has used the scanners. The CHP computer tells him every current traffic mishap. The Caltrans Christmas tree screen blips red, yellow and green to reflect the average speed along just about every Southern California freeway as measured by sensors on the road. With so much information and so little time--six one-minute reports each hour between 6 and 10 a.m. on KNX, as well as 14 similar updates on KCBS-TV Channel 2--Keene laments that he rarely has the opportunity to get frivolous anymore.
“Traffic is serious business now. You have all these people on the freeways and if you report one SigAlert or snarl, you have them all scrambling off the freeway looking for alternate routes. There’s really no time to get silly with some of this stuff and that just kills me.”
As Keene reflected on the changes in his business he’s seen over the past few decades, one of his more than 5,000 tipsters, who for six years have been calling Keene directly with traffic tips as a KNX promotional and functional tool, tells him that he saw no seal on the Santa Monica Freeway. “I guess it was just a bunch of blubber,” Keene tells the caller.
After 36 years on KNX as weatherman and the last 17 as both weather and traffic guru, Keene says the only thing he will miss is the tipsters. Some of them, he said, have become good friends.
Ray from Anchor Sheet Metal--Keene plugs businesses on the air in exchange for information--calls to say there is a brush fire in a canyon north of Malibu. Keene beeps his newsroom on the intercom and tells them to check it out.
Another good friend named Les calls and on his last report of the morning, Keene ad-libs: “Tipster Les says there is a tire burning on the center divider of the southbound Hollywood Freeway near the Harbor interchange, but even more dangerous is a man changing a tire in the fast lane right near the burning tire. Now there is a fella who is about a brick short of a load.”
Yet, Keene said, if anything drove him out of the business, it was problems stemming from the tipsters. The phone rings directly in Keene’s Studio 6 because Keene believes that people are less inclined to give phony information to him than to a secretary. A couple of times he’s been duped into reporting an invisible traffic catastrophe--including once when two college students called him one after the other to report an overturned tanker blocking all lanes of the San Diego Freeway near UCLA.
But some tipsters call simply to pester him, complaining about the weather, about the station’s programming, even about politics. “When I’m swamped, it just drives me up a wall,” Keene said.
Keene began his career in radio as a teen-ager during World War II in his hometown of Scottsbluff, Neb. In 1941, all the disc jockeys and news readers had been drafted, so he signed on to fill in. After a stint in the Air Force and at the University of Colorado, where he worked as a sports play-by-play announcer, Keene took a job at the Mutual radio station in Denver.
As television became more popular in the 1950s, Keene thought it best to get out of radio. He studied meteorology with a private weather service in Denver and set up a radio and television network that bought localized reports from it. One of his accounts was then-KNXT Channel 2 in Los Angeles. In 1957, the weatherman who was reading the reports Keene fed here decided to move elsewhere, and Keene was dispatched to Los Angeles to find a replacement.
“I came for a cup of coffee and ended up staying my whole life,” Keene said. The station offered Keene three times the money he was making as a weather forecaster. He’s worked continuously on the radio since then and concurrently served as television weatherman on Channel 2 from 1957-74. He’s also been Channel 2’s morning weather and freeway reporter since 1984.
Keene, who will live both here and at his home in Tucson, plans to golf, write and develop a weather consulting business for private clients such as movie production companies. Jill Angel, the former CHP officer and KNX afternoon traffic reporter, will take over his high-profile morning spot.
“It’s been exciting, but I think the business is actually on its last legs,” Keene said. “I believe that everything is soon going to be so automated that traffic reporters will become passe. You have smart cars being developed and soon things like the Caltrans Christmas tree will be in each individual car. I’ve worked since I got into this to improve traffic reporting to the point where I didn’t have a job anymore. I haven’t done that yet, but I’m getting out just in time.”