By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 5, 2006
Radio broadcaster Bonneville International Corp. shook up Washington's airwaves yesterday by moving its all-news station WTOP and classical outlet WGMS-FM to new frequencies, eliminating pop music station Z-104 and announcing plans for a news-and-talk station it will program with The Washington Post.
The moves involve three local stations that occupy six slices of the AM and FM bands. By reshuffling its station lineup, Bonneville is attempting to place its most popular and lucrative programming -- news -- on the frequencies that have the strongest broadcast signals. At the same time, it essentially is backing out of the music field, eliminating airplay of contemporary recordings and consigning classical to one of its weakest signals.
With only a perfunctory on-air announcement, the Utah-based broadcasting giant at noon yesterday triggered the local radio version of musical chairs. It abruptly knocked WGMS off of 103.5 FM and moved WTOP into that slot. WGMS, in turn, moved to 104.1 and 103.9 -- the former homes of the pop station Z-104, which immediately disappeared. In a flash Z-104's listeners went from hearing upbeat deejays and adult-contemporary singles to a dulcet-toned announcer introducing a Rachmaninoff piano concerto.
On March 30, two of WTOP's frequencies (1500 AM and 107.7 FM) will switch to Washington Post Radio, news and talk programming that Bonneville will produce with The Post, which owned WTOP from 1949 to 1978. Bonneville will continue to own the stations under a new trademark and content-licensing agreement.
Although details of the Post-programmed stations are being worked out, the stations -- likely to be called WTWP, sources said -- are expected to become the home of Washington Nationals broadcasts. Bonneville is close to finalizing an agreement to carry the baseball club's games this season, sources said yesterday. Bonneville Senior Vice President Joel Oxley said the company would like to land the rights to Redskins games. The team's contract with WJFK-FM expired with Sunday's final regular-season game.
Bonneville's repositioning of its stations will strengthen WTOP by expanding its reach, local radio executives said. Broadcasting at 103.5, WTOP's news, weather, sports and traffic reports will blanket the region with one signal instead of the three relatively weaker ones (two AMs and an FM) the station has used.
In addition, the station will extend its signal by broadcasting in a monaural format instead of sonically cleaner but less pervasive stereo. Station officials said WTOP's signal would be the most powerful in the region, with a "footprint" stretching from south of Fredericksburg to north of Baltimore and incorporating parts of Maryland's Eastern Shore.
"We'll reach people all over the place," said Jim Farley, WTOP's vice president of news and programming, at a news conference in the station's broadcast studio. "If you're working at home, if you're in the car downtown, we'll be your nonstop news source."
WTOP, which usually ranks among the area's top five stations in audience share, is the market leader in advertising sales. It generated about $41 million in revenue in 2004, according to BIA Financial Network, a media consulting and research firm based in Chantilly. The station's success reflects not just the size of its audience but also its attractive demographics; news consumers are generally perceived by advertisers to be among the best educated, to have relatively high incomes and to pay closer attention to the radio than those who listen to music stations. WTOP is the area's only all-news commercial station.
Classical music fans, particularly in the District and Montgomery County, will find it harder to get a clear signal for WGMS at its new frequencies. The station's broadcast towers are in Waldorf and Frederick, and the potential for interference or lost signals could drive away some listeners, an executive at a rival radio company said yesterday.
Yesterday's announcements underscored the changing nature -- and to some extent, the slow shrinking -- of radio as a music medium. Although radio airs many kinds of music, direct competition among genres is rare. Washington, for example, was left with only one contemporary rock station (DC101, WWDC-FM) after WHFS-FM switched to a Spanish-language pop music format last January, and with one major classical station (WGMS) after WETA-FM switched to news and talk in March.
Z-104 (WWZZ) promoted its format as "modern music" -- a mix of Green Day, Kelly Clarkson, Nickelback and other pop hitmakers -- and competed for much of the same audience and advertisers as rivals Mix 107.3 (WRQX-FM) and Hot 99.5 (WIHT-FM).
Moreover, music stations are in an increasingly tough battle with such music-delivery technologies as iPods, podcasts, satellite radio and cell phones. Thus, Bonneville sought a distinctive format that would help differentiate the station and broaden its appeal, Oxley said. "Let's face it, Matchbox Twenty doesn't sound very different in Minneapolis or Los Angeles or Washington," he said. "Washington Post Radio can be very local," with exclusive content.
"It's going to be NPR on caffeine," he said. "It will be non-drowsy public radio."
In a rare nod to its competitors, Z-104's Web site yesterday carried this message: "Saying good-bye to Z-104 doesn't mean saying good-bye to the music. Mix 107.3, DC 101 and Hot 99.5 all play modern music."
Bonneville, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will lay off the station's staff of 35. The company then will hire about 25 people for the new Post stations, including a program director and two producers.
According to BIA, Z-104 had revenue of $9.9 million in 2004, slightly more than WGMS's $9.3 million. But company analyst Mark Fratrik estimated that WGMS was more profitable because of the lower cost of operating a classical station compared with a pop station, which requires heavy promotion and relatively highly paid deejays.
The Post-programmed stations, meanwhile, are wild cards that will face strong competition for news audiences from National Public Radio affiliates WAMU-FM and WETA-FM, news-and-talk station WMAL-AM, C-SPAN radio and WTOP itself.
Farley and Tina Gulland, The Post's director of radio and TV projects, said the stations will be the "long-form" version of WTOP's shorter news reports, with interviews, commentary and news provided by The Post's journalists. Several features heard on WTOP, such as "Ask the Governor" and Mark Plotkin's weekly politics program, will move to the Post stations.
But Fratrik said it might take some time for audiences to figure out what the stations are offering.
Post officials said the agreement could help cross-promote the newspaper and take advantage of its news-gathering resources. "This content-sharing relationship will enable us to put Washington Post journalism regularly on the radio in our circulation area," said Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Post. "It will allow us to do creative things on the radio that you can't do in print."
Under the agreement, Bonneville will pay The Post a license fee and the two companies will split ad revenues after an undisclosed sales level is reached.
Sources said The Post came to terms with Bonneville after discussing similar deals with WETA and Clear Channel Corp., which operates eight stations in the Washington area.
The collaboration comes as The Post and other newspapers battle declining circulation and growing consumer enthusiasm for new media.
"It seems a pretty good move," Paul Ginocchio, a newspaper analyst at Deutsche Bank, said of the radio partnership. "I don't know that it will have a huge impact on the revenue stream, but it enhances the brand and reaches more people."
Staff writer Steven Levingston contributed to this report.