Snyder Is Getting Radio Active

By Paul Farhi and Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Daniel Snyder bought a football team, a chain of amusement parks and his own jet before the age of 40. Now he has fixed his gaze on a new role: Media baron.

With little fanfare, the Washington Redskins' owner flips the switch today on his latest venture: a collection of three small radio stations that will broadcast Redskins games, ESPN chat programs and an afternoon talk show hosted by former Redskins running back John Riggins. The three stations will go by the somewhat awkward umbrella name "Triple X ESPN Radio."

The stations, which Snyder bought this year, represent Snyder's latest effort to capitalize on his crown jewel, the Redskins, a franchise with an estimated value in excess of $1 billion. By doing so, he will take on WTEM (980 AM), until now the only sports-talk station in the area.

Snyder's move into broadcast ownership follows the lead of other sports franchises that have created networks to reach fans while giving sports owners direct control over content. The NFL, NBA and NHL have all started their own cable and satellite TV networks, and Major League Baseball streams its games onto its Web site. The Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves have long carried their games on franchise-owned radio and TV stations, and the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Angels recently moved their radio broadcasts onto stations partially owned by the team.

In an interview, Snyder said he is bullish on the conventional broadcast business at a time when other investors have turned their attention to newer technologies. With the Redskins as his calling card, he says he is interested in building a portfolio of radio and TV stations throughout the mid-Atlantic region.

Radio is like the newspaper business, he said -- out-of-favor on Wall Street but still full of potential. "If The Washington Post were for sale, I'd buy it right now," Snyder said. "I don't buy companies at their peak. I sell them at their peak."

Snyder is counting on twin brands, the Redskins and ESPN, to lift three relatively weak stations (94.3 FM, 92.7 FM and 730 AM) that have been broadcasting Spanish-language pop music and talk. He is betting that if he can acquire more and more powerful stations -- he has bought one in Richmond and has a deal in the works for another in Norfolk -- he can create a wholly owned Redskins network reaching millions of fans from Pennsylvania to the Carolinas.

Snyder, 41, decided to become his team's broadcaster last December after CBS Radio's WJFK (106.7 FM) declined to renew its $10 million-a-year contract to carry the team's games, the most lucrative radio rights deal in the NFL. Not long thereafter, Snyder hired Bennett Zier, the top local executive at radio station operator Clear Channel Communications, and bought the three stations from Mega Communications of Florida for $33 million.

The question now is whether he can make it work.

Zier will oversee stations whose signals are so weak in parts of the metropolitan area that they can't be heard without interference. The AM station is weakest of all; under terms of its license, it must reduce its power after dark, which means it will fade out almost entirely by 5 p.m. during the fall and winter.

As such, the Snyder-controlled company that Zier runs, Red Zebra Broadcasting, is counting on a novel strategy: It will broadcast the same programs simultaneously on all three stations, counting on listeners to find the strongest signal by jumping from one station to the next via preset buttons. A new TV commercial for the stations, starring Riggins, attempts to make a virtue out of this deficiency. Over the sounds of the ESPN "SportsCenter" jingle and "Hail to the Redskins," an announcer says, "94.3 to the West. 92.7 to the East. And 730 AM all over D.C."

"It would be better if there were one signal," said Mark Fratrik, a radio industry expert and vice president of BIA Financial Network, based in Chantilly. "It doesn't knock me down. . . . If you want to position yourself as the Washington area sports network, not having complete coverage makes it more challenging."

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