James “Jim” Bernard Russ, the well-known traffic reporter for WBAL News Radio with a radio career spanning 35 years, died Wednesday of a heart attack, just one day shy of his 58th birthday.
“No one loved the art of reporting traffic more than Jim,” said Cary Pahigian, president and general manager of WBAL News Radio. “He’s considered the dean of traffic reporters.”
“He was just so kind, and generous of his time and love,” said his sister, Kathi Hergenroeder of Annapolis. “He will be so missed by so many.”
Mr. Russ was born in Towson to Velma O’Neill Russ Simonetti, a secretary, and Herman Philip Russ, a machinist. His sister said he was a very talkative kid, and loved model trains. He grew up listening to WBAL, especially Orioles games and the popular Allan Prell show.
“I would be waiting for a phone call on the one house phone attached to the wall, waiting for a call from my boyfriend,” Mrs. Hergenroeder said. “I would find my brother standing at the phone, and he’d be waiting or on the line with Allan Prell discussing baseball. He was a regular at 8 years old.”
He was passionate about radio reporting from an early age, entertaining his family with mock news and weather reports. He graduated from what is now Loyola Blakefield in 1981. His father died when he was 10, and the school gave him structure, Mrs. Hergenroeder said.
He then went on to what is now Towson University, where he earned a degree in mass communication/media studies in 1985. He scored an internship with WBAL in 1984, flying on a plane to monitor traffic. One time, the plane ran out of gas and he and the pilot crash landed near Perring Parkway. Though he stopped taking commercial flights, his sister said he continued flying in later traffic reporting jobs.
Mr. Russ then worked with WTOP News Radio in Washington, D.C., and later, Metro Networks. To his colleagues’ delight, he returned to his hometown radio station in 2011 as a morning traffic anchor.
“It was particularly meaningful to him that he was doing it in his hometown,” said Jeff Wade, WBAL news director. “He never really stopped thinking about traffic. I would get texts from him on off-hours, weekends.”
“He was very genuine,” said Robert Lang, a WBAL reporter and news anchor. “What you saw on the air was the same guy you would meet on the street, off the air.”
Russ would masterfully coordinate social media feeds, scanners, cameras and phone calls to present an organized traffic story, Mr. Pahigian said.
“He had tentacles,” Mr. Pahigian said. “It was like he was conducting a symphony.”
John Patti, WBAL anchor and reporter, noted that he was a great partner in breaking news, often alerting other reporters of developing stories on Baltimore’s roads. Mr. Russ contributed to coverage of the August 2020 deadly gas explosion on Labyrinth Road in Northwest Baltimore, which earned WBAL an award from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association.
Liz Drabick, a traffic reporter at Audacy Inc., started working with Russ in 2009 at Metro Networks. Right away, she sensed his “incredible aura that was just gentle and calming and reassuring.”
“He spoke with authority and expertise,” she said. “He would tend to the listener, asking ‘What does a commuter need?’ He would never wax poetic but he was so informed.”
“I felt so lucky to work with somebody who was so kind,” said Lacee Griffith, a news anchor and reporter at WBAL-TV. “I was just blown away by how much he did, all of the pieces to the puzzle that he had to put together every morning.”
Mr. Russ was married to Lisa Calla-Russ, and they had a daughter, Molly. They divorced in 2014. Molly Russ, who lives in Philadelphia, described her father as “the best dad.” He teased her about liking the Red Sox, as he was a massive Orioles fan. He’d bail her out of school early to go to Opening Day, she said.
“He was very passionate about his job and the hobbies he had,” Ms. Russ said. “He inspired me to find my passion at a young age. … I don’t think anyone ever loved their job as much as my dad did.”
Alice Young, who lives in North Baltimore, started dating Mr. Russ in 2019. After just one date, he offered to drive her all the way to Philadelphia for a flight. In a story told both by Ms. Young and in a radio tribute on WBAL, Mr. Russ took care of an elderly family friend of Ms. Young. He would feed him lunch each day, help with his laundry and run errands.
“He had very good ethics and looked out for other people,” she said. “He would do anything for anybody.”
Condolences poured out from colleagues, friends, listeners and Maryland leaders — including Gov. Larry Hogan — on Twitter last week.
“We will miss hearing Jim’s familiar, informative voice on the radio as he helped Marylanders navigate their daily commute,” the governor wrote on Twitter.
One of his regular listeners, Meredith Power, told The Baltimore Sun that Russ was a staple on her daily commute from Arbutus to downtown.
“It didn’t matter that the sun was blasting through my windshield, making it tough to see — the cheerful and useful updates from Jim helped me to navigate things,” Power, who works for University of Maryland, Baltimore County, wrote in an email.
Power said when her husband moved to the area, she immediately pointed him to Russ’ traffic reports: “the best, fastest, most accurate ones in town.” She recognized Russ’ familiarity with Baltimore, and appreciated his humor.
“I always felt like the report was coming from someone who understood what driving in Maryland and Baltimore was like, for better or worse, and who laughed and was frustrated by the same things that made me laugh or frustrated me,” Power said.
Mr. Russ was a man of many hobbies. He loved biking around the city and was a devoted Orioles fan, taking a score book to each game. He had a Boston Whaler boat, which he frequently took out with his daughter. Block Island, Rhode Island, and Mystic, Connecticut, were some of his favorite trip destinations. He also enjoyed gardening with Ms. Young, growing tomato and celery plants. His loved ones described him as a bit of a “fashionista,” wearing bowties and lots of polo shirts.
His family is planning a mass and a celebration of life that is not yet scheduled, and will likely scatter his ashes in a private ceremony.
In addition to his daughter, sister and partner, Mr. Russ is survived by his brother Tom Russ of Towson; a stepbrother, Peter Simonetti of Wayne, Pennsylvania; and stepsisters, Claudia Shannon of Wilmington, Delaware and Regina Simonetti of Hockessin, Delaware.