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Hear All About It: Post Venture Aims To Recast Radio's News/Talk Model

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 19, 2006

In the 1920s, when many of the first radio stations were owned by newspapers, the news consisted of editors sitting in front of a microphone to read the morning paper to listeners. The goal was to boost newspaper sales.

Next week, The Washington Post and Bonneville International, owner of all-news WTOP, will launch a radio station, Washington Post Radio, on which no one will read stories from the newspaper. Instead, the station, WTWP, will try to appeal to listeners who might find all-news radio too superficial yet think of public radio as too dull. The idea is to make better use of the newspaper's wide-ranging expertise, develop Post personalities and give Washingtonians a new reason to stick with broadcast radio. And boost newspaper sales.

When Washington Post Radio debuts March 30 on 1500 AM and 107.7 FM -- dial positions that until now were home to WTOP's 24-hour headline service -- listeners will hear twice-hourly news bulletins from washingtonpost.com, morning and afternoon drive-time programs featuring Post reporters and columnists discussing the news of the day, and midday talk shows focusing on business, sports, health, family and the arts.

The station will include the voices of Post movie critic Stephen Hunter, Reliable Source reporters Roxanne Roberts and Amy Argetsinger, business writer Jerry Knight, baseball columnist Thomas Boswell, media writer Howard Kurtz and hundreds of other writers and editors, from foreign correspondents describing the scene in Baghdad or Bali to suburban reporters delivering the latest from crime scenes or neighborhood disputes.

"This is local, accessible, hometown, conversational radio," says Tina Gulland, The Post's director of TV and radio projects and an architect of the new station. "In eight years here, I've been seduced by how fun and witty and knowledgeable the people in this newsroom are -- and what fabulous storytellers they are."

The station also will feature journalists from Slate and Newsweek, both owned by the Washington Post Co. But because most print journalists lack radio experience, the station's anchors will be professional broadcasters, among them Mike Moss, the erstwhile morning man on WTOP; Bob Kur, a longtime NBC News correspondent; Sam Litzinger, a veteran of CBS and public radio; and Hillary Howard, a local TV weathercaster turned WTOP news anchor.

The anchors will work out of studios at Bonneville's local headquarters in the McLean Gardens section of Northwest Washington, while most of The Post's participants will join programs from a new studio constructed in the newspaper's downtown newsroom.

"People in radio often think of newspaper people as very deliberative and shaped by a luxury of time that is very different from what radio faces," says Holland Cooke, a news-talk radio consultant for McVay Media who was an executive at WTOP in the 1980s. "And we get the impression that . . . newspaper people think we're a lounge act. But the rich trove of information and expertise at The Post is much deeper than what gets into print. The unscripted newspaper reporter really paints a picture of the story, telling what it felt like at the scene.

"If Washington Post Radio can find a place halfway between the staid, contemplative sound of public radio and the 75-mile-an-hour sound of WTOP, people will definitely listen."

Kur, who will anchor the 3-to-7 p.m. shift, believes the new station will show listeners what media insiders have always known, that "most original reporting comes from newspapers. The other media pick up on those stories. The Post's reporters can immediately put the news into context and answer the audience's big questions: What's really going on? What's the back story?"

The headlines, traffic and weather on WTOP -- originally named for its location at the top of the AM dial -- will live on at 103.5 FM, former home of classical WGMS.

"WTOP will continue to do what they do best -- easy access to information and particularly traffic and weather," says Greg Tantum, who was just hired as program director of Washington Post Radio after many years at news-talk stations in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. While stories on WTOP rarely last longer than a minute-and-change, the Post station will devote three to 12 minutes to each topic, Tantum says.

WTOP's move to FM and the joint venture with The Post are designed to lure listeners from public radio, which draws a larger audience here than almost anywhere else in the country. And WTOP and the Post station are trying to lure younger listeners. "Young people don't need radio for music anymore," Tantum says. "But since 9/11, young people especially are hungering for more information, and in-depth, accessible news is what will bring them back to radio."

The area's two major public stations, WAMU (88.5 FM) and WETA (90.9 FM), have been looking at expanding their news programming. WETA is expected to announce plans soon for a daily local talk show, but its general manager, Dan DeVany, says that was in the works long before The Post developed its station. "Nobody knows what impact they will have," he says. "We're just going to wait and see."

The shotgun marriage of two distinct journalistic cultures comes at a trying time for radio and newspapers. All news media face declining audiences as the Internet, the iPod and the explosion of digital gadgetry turn the nation's news diet from one of big, familiar meals into nonstop grazing along the open road.

After two decades of diminishing local programming, radio executives are starting to believe that listeners are tired of the generic sound of nationally syndicated fare. If it is to lure back listeners who are using other technologies, radio must return to local content, some radio executives argue. On the heels of a Baltimore public station, WYPR (88.1 FM), announcing plans for a Maryland-centric talk show, Baltimore's WBAL (1090 AM) last week dropped the Rush Limbaugh program, the biggest station in the nation to do so, replacing it with local talk shows.

Even stations that are sticking with syndicated programming embrace The Post's experiment. "It's a tremendous opportunity to get new listeners," says Chris Berry, president of WMAL (630 AM), the talk station that features Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and other national conservative talkers, as well as local host Chris Core. "As America ages and because of the fragmented music scene, people are more interested in news and talk on the radio. We want Washington Post Radio to be very successful because we want them to keep listener traffic on the AM dial."

Washington radio-listening is heavily weighted toward the FM dial, and the AM audiences tend to be much older. The Post station will have AM and FM outlets, and the WTOP programming now on those two frequencies reaches about as many listeners on FM as on the traditional AM spot.

Berry doesn't expect the new station to eat away at his audience, primarily because his listeners are mostly political conservatives who prefer to listen to talkers who share their passions and concerns. But Berry isn't taking chances: He has stripped out all commercials from the first 20 minutes of each hour during morning drive time "to show the benefits of our news and talk format while WTOP is taking five commercial breaks." Washington Post Radio will feature far fewer commercials than WTOP, Gulland says, with about 10 to 12 minutes of advertising each hour.

Bonneville owns the new station and the two companies share in creating its programming, which will initially run from 5:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and 7 a.m. to noon on weekends, with Washington Nationals baseball play-by-play and other sports events filling many of the evening and weekend afternoon hours. Neither Bonneville nor The Post would disclose terms of the financial arrangement between the companies, nor would they comment on competitors' assertions that Bonneville is paying The Post a multimillion-dollar fee for use of its journalists.

"This is going to be a work in progress," Gulland said of the station's sound, "but we've spent years now with a flash-cam in the newsroom and Post reporters on NBC, MSNBC, News Channel 8, NPR, the BBC and so on, and we've learned how to tell stories in other media."

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