That Washington finally has a headline-news station in the style of those in New York and Philadelphia is yet another way in which our once-sleepy city — where old-fashioned, personality-driven radio shows (Harden and Weaver on WMAL, Don and Mike on WJFK) lingered much longer than in most U.S. metropolises — has ascended to the big leagues. We now have an urgent-sounding all-news utility to go with our world-class traffic, Major League Baseball franchise and revitalized city center.
But did Washington — one of the country’s most news-addicted markets, up there with San Francisco and Boston — really need another all-news station? The city already had one at the top of the ratings, as well as in-depth reporting on public radio. (WAMU, at 88.5 FM, which airs National Public Radio’s news shows in morning and evening drive times, puts Washington third among the nation’s top 20 markets in the portion of the audience that listens to news on public radio.)
WNEW, owned by CBS, does not propose to add deeper or smarter content to Washington’s news diet. Rather, it seems designed mainly to carve off a chunk of WTOP’s massive revenue — the highest in the nation — delivering more to the corporate bottom line than, say, just another music station. (Music on the radio, in contrast to news and talk, is in existential trouble, as younger listeners rely more and more on iPods, smartphones and music discovery sources such as Spotify and Pandora.)
WNEW tells listeners it is different because it is truly all news, unlike WTOP (103.5 FM), which drops its regular format for a couple of hours each week for call-in programs featuring the governors of Maryland and Virginia or the District’s police chief. And WNEW promised from the start to focus more on suburban news, an implicit dig against WTOP for airing so much city news.
In its first weeks, WNEW is adding a lot of headlines to the local airwaves but precious little meaning. Its menu includes noticeably more Maryland stories, including some Baltimore area news, which sounds odd in Washington. But if you don’t like a story on WNEW, it will often be gone in just two or three sentences — less text than this paragraph.
That allows the station to air more stories per hour than WTOP — about 50 compared with WTOP’s 23, according to logs I kept during WNEW’s fourth week on the air.
There are great similarities between the two stations. Both air 15 to 19 minutes of commercials each hour. Both deliver traffic and weather reports at least every 10 minutes. Both read summaries of stories from the Associated Press, The Washington Post and the Examiner. Both air business reports from Jill Schlesinger of CBS Marketwatch. Both do sports twice an hour.