‘It’s served a great purpose for us’: Lake County’s highway advisory radio being retired

After nearly 20 years on air, Lake County’s Highway Advisory Radio 1620 AM is being retired. The voice-to-text station shared broadcast information gathered at the county’s transportation management center, above. Courtesy of Lake County Division of Transportation

An AM radio station operating for nearly 20 years in Lake County never registered on any ratings or rankings. But for awhile it was a reliable source of traffic information when there was a need to know.

Once an integral element to alert motorists to crashes and other situations in real time, AM 1620 is going off the air May 1.

The five transmission towers need an investment of $400,000 or more to continue operating and with many other ways to track Lake County roads the fate of Highway Advisory Radio was sealed.

“It’s served a great purpose for us,” said Jon Nelson, assistant county engineer.

News of the pending retirement has been broadcast the past few weeks in the familiar mechanical voice-to-text delivery. The message also is on the Lake County PASSAGE website and app, the mainstays of an intelligent transportation system introduced in 2006.

Like an old wooden tennis racket in a pickleball era, the little 10-watt station has become more nostalgia than necessity.

Not that it is without fans. Though meant to cover Lake County, two people in Finland and a man in New York emailed the Lake County Division of Transportation saying they could hear the station, Nelson said.

But these days, many electric vehicles don’t have radios and some may be hard pressed to find AM radio on their devices.

The original three transmission towers were installed along Interstate 94 in 2005 and two more added for western Lake County in 2010. Nelson noted the iPhone came out in 2007, Google maps began providing traffic information in 2008 and expanded in 2012 to more urban areas.

PASSAGE debuted as an innovative combination of technology and communications to gather information, improve traffic flow and manage congestion on arterial roads. It operates from the Transportation Management Center on the Lake County government campus in Libertyville.

Among other functions, 675 traffic signals and more than 1,100 cameras are monitored. In January, there were 43,143 website sessions, 47,449 phone app sessions, 263,048 email notifications and 4,433 X engagements, Nelson reported.

The website now is a go-to resource for information on crashes, construction or congestion. But it wasn’t available until a year after PASSAGE opened so 1620 AM was a key element.

“The main service was the radio station,” Nelson said.

Specific figures weren’t available but surveys have shown a declining audience, Nelson said. The towers are getting old and rusty and each one requires a dedicated fiber optic cable as a direct connection to PASSAGE, he added. Replacing them would cost $400,000. Removing them will cost $50,000.

“This really is antiquated technology and to pay that kind of money to fix an AM broadcast station, I wouldn’t be in support of it,” said county board member J. Kevin Hunter of Ingleside. Hunter is a member of the county board’s public works and transportation committee, which unanimously recommended retiring the station.

Whether that would leave the county without an outlet in an emergency, like the cell network going down, was among the questions.

Dan Eder, program manager of the Lake County Emergency Management Agency, said 1620 AM was introduced for road-related issues for people in vehicles and not intended as a source of mass notification if cell systems fail.

In that case, EMA would work directly with Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services, which has a variety of redundant communications tools and methods, Eder said.

RACES is housed in the Lake County Emergency Center and can work directly with state and federal partners to coordinate communication, most recently during the solar eclipse, he added.

When cellphones, regular phones, the internet and other systems are down or overloaded amateur radio hobbyists, known as “hams,” still get through, Eder added.

“But it’s also a service — a vital service that has saved lives when regular communications systems failed,” Eder said.

Nelson said Chicago and other news media follow PASSAGE and other communications channels and there are ample avenues to find what 1620 AM has provided.

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