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Traffic-reporting firm born in a snowstorm

David Saperstein was sitting in his stranded car during a Baltimore snowstorm in 1978. It was then he got the idea to start his own traffic reporting service.

A year later, he and a friend in the radio business had formed Metro Traffic Control (MTC), a traffic information service now airing nationwide on 126 radio stations and on TV stations in Boston and Baltimore. The company has fared so well that by 1983 it plans to double the number of cities it serves, and branch into Canada.

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According to Mr. Saperstein, traffic information obtained in the conventional manner - by a broadcast helicopter flying sorties for a radio station - is often inaccurate and outdated by the time it reaches the listener over the air. In an effort to alert drivers to traffic snarls, MTC reports are never more than 5 minutes old when broadcast, he says.

However, some radio stations say they are fully capable of delivering traffic information that is just as accurate as MTC's.

''We give traffic information as soon as it is available,'' says Philip Sirkin of WHDH in Boston. He notes that while MTC must deliver its traffic information at scheduled times, his radio station is able to broadcast information at any time, because it does not have to wait for scheduled reports.

To gather and distribute traffic information, a typical MTC office employs a staff larger than that of most radio news offices, Mr. Saperstein says. In addition to aircraft, MTC daily dispatches a large fleet of cars and vans, and stations them along various segments of highway and at key city intersections. Information from these mobile units is radioed to an anchor person at each city's MTC operations base. There it is worked into radio reports.

Chris Cross, assistant program manager for WBZ, Boston's leading morning radio station, says his station has a fleet of helicopters and mobile units equal to that of MTC, and he rates his station's traffic coverage as ''just as effective.'' While he believes MTC's services are a good option for smaller radio stations that cannot afford their own traffic coverage, he says large stations such as his ''have the ability to go much further (than MTC).''

Saperstein disagrees. He sees his company's emphasis on research and development - and resulting up-to-the-minute information - as the thing that sets it apart and gives it the competitive edge. Metro Traffic Control officials emphasize company research into better operating methods. ''We never stop R&D,'' Saperstein says; ''it's the key to future success for everybody.''

Since its inception, MTC has developed the use of computers for traffic reporting. For example, computers help determine delay times for commuters in traffic jams. Saperstein says delay times predicted by computer are accurate to one or two minutes.

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The company's emphasis on R&D has launched MTC into the development of a ''TV traffic package'' with graphic, full-color city maps. When this package becomes available to television stations early in 1983, Saperstein says, it will ''revolutionize the ability of television stations to do traffic reports.''

Metro Traffic Control wants to bring more traffic reporting to television. The concept of TV traffic updates began about a year ago, when MTC began television broadcasting in Boston. Saperstein says surveys indicate that most household television sets are in the kitchen. People eating breakfast or preparing dinner are likely to have the TV on, and they can benefit from up-to-the-minute traffic information, he adds.

According to Saperstein, MTC also attracts advertising dollars. Usually networks have only a single radio or television station in a given area, but more than one station in a city may subscribe to the MTC service. In fact, in the average city MTC services, listeners can hear its reports on a dozen radio stations, Saperstein says.

When advertisers buy time with Metro Traffic Control, they get on average 65 percent of the city's radio listeners, Saperstein says. They would have to buy time with 15 individual radio stations to match the exposure MTC alone can give them, he adds. Among others, MTC advertisers include Piedmont Airlines, Maryland National Bank, and the Dallas Times Herald newspaper. MTC requires its advertisers to commit themselves for a whole year.

Is Saperstein worried about competition from individual radio stations? ''No ,'' he says. ''The initial outlay (of capital to start such a service) is just too big.''

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