Ratings Are Music to WTOP's All-News Ears

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Must be the traffic. Or the weather. Or the traffic and weather together. Whatever the reason, at the moment, all-news WTOP is the Washington area's hottest radio station.

Don't just take our word for it (because, after all, The Washington Post is a partner of WTOP in programming a forthcoming station, WTWP, AM and FM). Instead, the claim rests on Arbitron's latest quarterly audience ratings, released yesterday: During the October-December period, WTOP roared from fifth to first among local stations, with an average of 6.4 percent of all listeners.

WTOP's overall audience share was its highest in nearly three years, placing it ahead of Washington's Big Four "urban" music stations -- second-rated WPGC-FM, No. 3 WMMJ-FM, No. 4 WHUR-FM and No. 7 WKYS-FM -- for the first time since spring 2003.

Tracking the numbers is the easy part. Figuring out why WTOP is cooking requires some guesswork.

WTOP's audience usually swells when big news breaks, such as at the start of the Iraq war or when the weather makes a mess of the roads. Not much of that happened during the fall months, or at least not enough to make much of a difference over a three-month ratings period. As Jim Farley, WTOP's vice president of news and programming, said yesterday, "There were no exogenous news events."

Instead, Farley said, the station is attracting listeners by "continuing to make ourselves an indispensable utility. We're like a light switch. You turn us on and we're there. 'What's the traffic like? Which schools are closed? I need the score of the Wizards game.' We're there."

At the same time, he said, the station is adding more news-you-can-use: " 'How do I mail my Christmas package? How do I keep needles from falling off the tree?' We're trying to do more relatable, need-to-know stuff, too."

WTOP's owner, Bonneville International Corp., scrambled Washington's airwaves two weeks ago by moving WTOP to a new FM frequency (103.5), bumping classical WGMS-FM to weaker dial positions (103.9 and 104.1) and killing off rock-and-pop hybrid Z104 (all the shuffling is to make way for Washington Post Radio, a new long-form news-and-talk station, on March 30).

The latest ratings seem to offer a mixed verdict on the wisdom of the big switch. In addition to WTOP's strong showing, the now-downgraded WGMS had an impressive quarter at its old home (103.5). WGMS moved up to No. 7, from No. 12, among 25-to-54-year-old listeners. But the station's new dial positions do not bode well; WGMS has received hundreds of calls since the switch from people who cannot get a clear signal at the new frequencies, said Joel Oxley, Bonneville's top local executive.

Oxley said reception in Montgomery and Loudoun counties probably will improve when a new broadcast tower opens in Frederick in a few months. And listeners in upper Northwest Washington, Chevy Chase and Arlington might benefit from a new booster tower in the District, he said.

Among other ratings and radio developments:

· The two top programming executives at Clear Channel Communications' local cluster of stations, Jeff Wyatt and Tod Castleberry, resigned yesterday, less than a week after Clear Channel's top local manager quit to join Redskins owner Dan Snyder's new broadcasting venture. Wyatt, who oversaw programming for Clear Channel's 32 regional stations (including WASH-FM, WMZQ-FM and DC101-FM), said he had no comment on his immediate plans. Industry speculation is that he and Castleberry eventually will join their former boss, Bennett Zier, at Snyder's new company, Red Zebra Broadcasting. Castleberry oversaw Clear Channel's AM stations, including sports talk WTEM.

· WASH-FM, which switched from soft-rock music to all-Christmas tunes a week before Thanksgiving, finished fifth among all listeners and among those ages 25 to 54 in Arbitron's latest survey. The Christmas-music bump was so strong for WASH that it beat Jack Diamond's long-running morning program on Mix 107.3-FM among adult listeners.

· After months of having no measurable audience, WWRC-AM -- which airs liberal talk shows, including programming from the Air America network -- finally registered a pulse. The Clear Channel-owned station captured 0.6 percent of the 25 to 54 audience during the fall, tying it for No. 25 in the area.

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