Mark Arum: master of the traffic/talk show split shift

Mark Arum hosting his evening WSB show at WSB studios July 5, 2017. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

This was posted Friday, July 14, 2017 by Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Mark Arum leads the most splintered life of any media figure in Atlanta.

In the mornings, he’s the chipper traffic guy, guiding frustrated commuters through the mess that is Atlanta traffic on Channel 2 Action News and two radio stations. At night, he’s a talk-show host who gabs about pop culture, food, sports and whatever flows through his noggin.

For 15 of his 20 years in Atlanta media, he has worked what is known as a split shift.

“The body gets used to it,” said Arum, who at the tender age of age 43 was recently nominated to the Georgia Radio Hall of Fame, which he feels is a bit premature.

He’s developed an unusual sleep pattern to accommodate his crazy schedule.

After his 4:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. morning shift, he hits the pillow at 11 a.m., awakening at 5 p.m. to man his evening talk show. He later takes a 90-minute power nap at around 1:30 a.m. and is up at around 3 a.m. to be in the office by 4 a.m.

Another way to cope with the split shift: live nearby. “If I hit all the lights,” he said, “I can get there in seven minutes.”

Ironically, he noted, “I am not used to sitting in traffic. I get more frustrated than the average person.”

But road rage or any sort of rage is not in Arum’s laid-back nature. And while the phrase “regular guy” was long taken up by a previous radio show in town, his colleagues describe him that way in earnest.

“He’s that guy you just like to hang out with,” said his boss Pete Spriggs, who runs WSB radio. “He knows how to pull everyone into a conversation, makes everyone feel welcome. He doesn’t take life too seriously and that rubs off even with the hardest of hard news.”

A Connecticut native, Arum came to WSB in 1997 after graduating Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. to cover traffic but always wanted to do a talk show.

Spriggs first gave him a weekend sports talk show on weekends. “That was a life-changing opportunity to be more creative,” Arum said.

In 2008, his bosses then provided him a talk show in Connecticut, to build his persona and learn his craft for 18 months. “It was on two low-watt stations,’ he said. “When I saw ratings go from 0.0 to 0.9, I was ecstatic.”

Five years later, WSB provided him a weekday show from 10 p.m. to midnight, which was moved to 7 to 9 p.m. this year.

“What has helped my talk radio career is doing traffic on both radio and TV,” Arum said. “Everything I say on TV is off the cuff. I don’t have a teleprompter.”

We trailed him one day earlier this month to see how he manages his day.

Dressed in a blue check dress shirt and pink tie, Arum resides over the main desk of the WSB Traffic Center in the early hours on the day after July 4th, a relatively light traffic day. The room is dark except for lights set up specifically for TV.

Photos of the late Capt. Herb Emory, his mentor who died suddenly in 2014, are hanging in multiple places along with a special plaque outside the room. (“He is still the guiding force for all of us,” Arum says.)

Arum, especially between 4:30 a.m. and 7 a.m., does a fine-tuned juggling act among News 95.5 and AM 750 WSB, B98.5 and WSB-TV. “It’s like playing ping pong,” he says. Each venue demands traffic reports at specific times. Occasionally, schedules conflict and he has to pre-tape some of his radio traffic reports. “There are times, I can be heard in all three places at once,” he says.

Mark Arum is peppy in the morning but even he has moments of fatigue. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

In a span of two minutes, he messages the TV anchors to tell them what’s coming up, posts an update on Twitter, rolls through a 45-second TV report, then tapes a B98.5 traffic report. When he finishes a TV spot, he’ll sometimes punch his arm in the air and say “Boom!” Or he’ll channel Emeril and quietly say “Bam!”

“Unless there’s huge breaking news, it’s just like a well-timed machine,” Arum says. “It’s muscle memory at this point.”

Then again, he gets a thrill when the going gets tough: “Snowmageddon and the 85 bridge collapse. Those are Super Bowl moments for traffic reporters.”

Even on a quiet day, his work is steady, his movements a study in efficiency. His 15-second summaries of I-85 traffic on WSB are compact, smooth and seamless. He can eyeball a map and accurately pinpoint how long it would take, to, say get from Wade Green Road in Kennesaw to 285 on I-75.

“It looks like it would take 19 minutes,” he says at about 7:20 a.m. Then he checks the computer’s estimate: “18.” Close.

“Trip times are important for people,” he notes, “especially on TV before they get out of the house.”

Over 20 years, he’s only watched jams start earlier and earlier. “On 575,” he noted, “delays used to start in Woodstock. Now they start in Canton. There used to never be delays in Cumming. Now that happens all the time.”

Since he’s under the lights, the room is typically set at 62 degrees but the AC isn’t working today. He starts getting sweaty and goes for his make up. “If I get too shiny,” he says. “Mac Prep and Prime, secret of my success.”

The only disappointment this morning: colleague Ashley Frasca didn’t bring in her vaunted hash-brown casserole. “The preferred breakfast of the WSB Traffic Center,” he says.

“It’s pretty tasty,” she confirms.

Without food in sight, he guzzles three cups of coffee through the morning shift. “The Keurig,” he says, “is an invaluable member of the team.”

His bathroom breaks are called “Code Arum” by his traffic buddies. “I have time after 7 to take a longer bathroom break,” he says, noting that it takes all of 27 steps to reach the toilet. “The problem is if I have to go before 7, I have to time it between TV hits and record my radio reports. I’m famous for my bathroom breaks!”

Indeed, he notes, “I’ve used alternative receptacles before. I’ll just say that. The show must go on. That was a long time ago. I was young and foolish.”

Arum, who slept until 1 p.m. on July 4, admits being super tired this Wednesday morning. He goes straight home after his final radio traffic report at 9:06 a.m. He walks his two dogs Boscoe and Deuce, then slumbers at 10 a.m.

Mark Arum with his dogs Deuce (left) and Boscoe (center) CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Mark Arum at the mic on July 5, 2017. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Eight hours later, he’s back in the office in a blue polo shirt and a Braves cap. He has a couple of ideas to discuss on the show but shares them with no one. He likes to keep his cast on their toes, wants their natural, initial first reaction to things.

Andrew Longoria working the board for Mark Arum on July 5, 2017. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

And his affection for them is reflected by the fact they all go by nicknames. Board operator Andrew Longoria just goes by his last name. Phone screener Charlie Thomas became “Low-T Chuck” as a gentle joke a few years back. Producer Clint Reed AKA Buford has known Arum in the building for many years.

Arum didn’t pick his team, but he’s become friends with all of them. They hang out together a lot away from the show and house sit for each other.

And the show itself sounds like a group of guys at a bar teasing each other and throwing out their opinions, informed or not. Some nights, Arum is forced to put on a hard news hat, recently interviewing experts about former FBI Director James Comey‘s testimony.

But that’s not his preference. On this day, his on-air predecessor Erick Erickson addressed health care, Trump Tweets, North Korea and CNN.

Clint Reed AKA Buford is Mark Arum’s producer. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Arum? He spent two hours talking about a not terribly scientific survey which placed Georgia drivers as the least courteous in the country. Arum didn’t think this was the case at all while his castmates all disagreed with him. Later, he vented in the nicest way that cars with “Georgia educator” plates on them tended to feature the worst drivers.

“Some of my best friend are teachers,” Arum said. “And they’re a vital part of society. They do God’s work. They’re underpaid and overworks. But you stink at driving!”

Thomas, who was off that day, said their shows sometimes come off like a “Seinfeld” episode. “It’s just the four of us talking about nothing,” he said. Arum is such a “Seinfeld” fan, he frequently slips in some “Seinfeld” reference in a given two hours.

And he’ll take a subject and twist it in a way that is uniquely Arum. After Coca Cola announced layoffs recently, he posed this question to his staff and listeners: are you closer to getting fired from your job or quitting? That created great fodder for all two hours as he took calls. Longoria said he was amazed they were able to debate whether men should wear robes. “We had full lines of callers on that one,” Longoria said.

It’s non-political stuff like this that makes his show sing, fans say.

“His radio show is the best local show left,” said Marc Fredo, a 52-year-old Dunwoody resident who is in sales and marketing, on the AJC Radio & TV Talk Facebook page. “Listeners can always relate to his topics. He comes across as one of us. It’s a great wind down at the end of a long day.”

Arum said he chose at first to not delve deeply in politics because he didn’t want to alienate his traffic fans. “I tried to stay neutral,” he said, “not take hard sides. Then I found out I like doing this type of show. I’d rather have fun, talk about things I want to talk about, not things that will get me made or the listeners mad.”

Arum also has a deep abiding love for classic hip hop. He plays clips of Heavy D, Method Man, Beastie Boys and Dr. Dre in his intros and outros of his radio show. On Channel 2 Action News, he’ll subtly drop lyrics into his traffic report and trade off with anchor Fred Blankenship. Then last year, after Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest died last year, he decided to slip as many hip-hop lyrics from that group as he could get away.

He wasn’t sure if the bosses would appreciate it given he didn’t give them any prior warning. He heard nothing so he took his daytime siesta. At 5 p.m., he awoke to a flood of texts. “Oh no! I thought I was fired!” he said. “Channel 2 had put the video on its Facebook page. Friends had seen it from California to New York.”

The video went viral and has been watched more than 721,000 times on YouTube, 5.7 million times on WSB-TV’s Facebook page.

“Now every time Fred and I drop lyrics, we get tweets about it,” Arum said.

Bottom line, Blankenship said, “he’s a big kid with an amazing ability to not lose his playful side and still be the most estimable traffic guy in the mornings. He’s wonderful crazy. You have to be wonderful crazy to do that shift.”

The split schedule didn’t help his marriage, Arum admitted. He got divorced last year from Lauren after five years. “We’re still good friends,” he said, noting that she gets Deuce, the dog, on weekends.

Right now, he is dedicated to work and the occasional poker tournament.

In fact, he has spent the past week competing in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas with 7,220 other gamblers vying for the $8 million top prize. He has joked that if he wins, he isn’t coming back but Spriggs said he knows Arum loves his radio show too much to give it up any time soon. (UPDATE on Friday at 5 p.m. EST: Arum finished a respectable 886th place and ended up with $16,024. He had to place $10,000 as a buy in, with $7,000 from investors who will receive 50% of his winnings. In other words, he has made of $6,024 and will pocket $3,012 for himself. Not quite enough to retire on.)

“He’s built a great great following based on research and ratings,” Spriggs said. “I just hope he doesn’t run out of gas when he turns 50.”

Arum admits he can’t do the split shift forever. “I’ll try and do it as long as I can,” he wrote in a text Friday from Vegas. “My current contract as about four years left on it.”

B98.5, WSB, WSB-TV and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution are all part of Cox Media Group. 

 

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