News camera going into Johnson traffic spotter

 January 16, 2001 | Chattanooga Times Free Press (TN)

 | Page: C1 | Section: C1
617 Words

Butch Johnson has been the voice of Chattanooga's Air Traffic Network for the past six years.

Soon, his reports on accidents, traffic jams or high-speed chases may be seen as well as heard.

Mr. Johnson is adding an electronic news-gathering camera to his airplane to provide real-time images from the sky for the Internet and WTVC-TV9.

The new camera and equipment is part of a $100,000 investment that Mr. Johnson expects could change the local market for traffic information. Once he receives licensing and a "thumbs up" from the Federal Communications Commission, Mr. Johnson will broadcast live aerial on-the-spot feeds from his airplane to his Hixson operation.

From there, he'll download information to his Web site and to the studios of ABC affiliate WTVC Newschannel 9. "It has taken almost two years to get the ball rolling on this," Mr. Johnson said, strapping on his gear preparing for an afternoon traffic report on radio and Newschannel 9. "There are things going on besides traffic.

"We want to break stories to tip off everybody. This is the future for traffic reporting. We'll be like Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles, where you see stuff involving high-speed chases and fires."

From inside the plane, he can operate a joystick attached to a monitor and a remote control device that will let the camera zoom in on incidents and record what's happening onto a six-hour super VHS tape.

And by placing cameras in strategic locations around town, Mr. Johnson can pinpoint live traffic conditions on routes such as Interstates 75 and 24, the Ridge Cut and other areas that usually cause headaches for commuters and police.

"We want people glued to our Web site," he said. "We know what we can and can't show the public and are very sensitive to that fact."

The live cameras on the plane and in the vehicle will be in operation Monday through Friday from 5:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Such information, he said, could prove valuable not only for local television stations but for such government agencies as the U.S. Forest Service, Tennessee Highway Patrol and Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"As far as we know, we'll be the only traffic service in Tennessee that has a camera on its airplane and a license to control the signal," he said.

His ambitious plan also calls for him eventually trading in his Cessna 172 Skyhawk airplane wings to hover below that 1,000-foot altitude in a helicopter.

"I'm training right now for my helicopter rating," he smiled. "Hopefully, within a year-and-a-half, we'll get a chopper."

This latest chapter in the entrepreneur's life changed recently when he upgraded his Web site to promote his expanded radio traffic reporting to television.

Over the summer, he landed a three-year contract with Newschannel 9 to provide timely, useful information to its viewers. WTVC replaced its contract with WUSY (US-101) to gain the live traffic video and audio reports from Butch Johnson.

"He'll have two live cameras, one in the air and on the ground, to use during Good Morning Chattanooga," said WTVC News Director Steve Hunsicker. "That's something that's never been done before in Chattanooga. I'm looking forward to seeing it -- and so are our viewers."

"It'll be completely different," said Elaine Change, a two-year traffic reporter. "From our master control base operation, we'll control what Butch gets on camera to download on our Web site."

Mr. Johnson, who has been providing traffic reports in different cities for the past 13 years, admits it will be challenging to reach a larger audience.

"As we get more into the TV stuff, it's going to get more intense," he said. "Our competitors will either have to compete with us or do what we do better."

The Web site for Mr. Johnson's traffic information is .

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