By Paul Farhi and Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 18, 2006; E01
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."
Zier and Snyder say that shouldn't be a problem. Combined, they say the three stations reach farther and with better reception than WJFK. "We're going to be a vast improvement over sports radio in the Washington area now," Snyder said.
The comment is as much a shot at the Redskins' old station as the station that Triple X will compete against most directly, WTEM. "SportsTalk 980," as the station is known, is one Zier knows intimately: He oversaw its founding in the early 1990s, and was its top executive before being lured to Snyder's venture earlier this year.
Since then, Zier has raided the station for talent and programming. He snatched the ESPN shows and made a string of hires from WTEM, including program director Tod Castleberry and on-air reporter Bram Weinstein. The moves weakened WTEM, which was already reeling from the loss of one of its biggest draws, Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser, who left to become a color commentator for ESPN's "Monday Night Football."
The ESPN programs -- including "Mike & Mike in the Morning" and "SportsCenter" host Dan Patrick's show in the afternoon -- form the bulk of what listeners will hear. This, too, could prove problematic. Sports radio thrives on local sports talk, with hometown teams and personalities in the crosshairs of the call-ins and opinion-slinging. But outside of Riggins's program from 3 to 7 p.m. and an hour-long Redskins show at noon, the stations will be carrying nationally syndicated fare. As a result, local listeners seeking the latest on the Redskins are likely to find themselves tuning in to discussions of the Dodgers' pitching woes or the Indianapolis Colts' rookie prospects.
The two competitors will be fighting over a relatively small audience -- essentially, the adult men who are the most faithful sports-talk fans. WTEM captured an average of just 2 percent of the radio audience during the most recent three-month segment tracked by Arbitron Inc. -- and that was with the field all to itself. The station was the 15th most popular in the area, ranking just ahead of Spanish-language pop music on WLZL (99.1 FM) and classic rock on WARW (94.7 FM).
WTEM generated $7.7 million in revenue last year, which put it in 20th place among local stations, according to BIA. Sources close to the station put the number higher, around $10 million. By contrast, WTOP, the area's highest-grossing station, had estimated sales of $41 million last year, BIA said. (The Washington Post supplies radio programming to a station owned by WTOP's owner, Bonneville International Corp.)
For Redskins game broadcasts, Snyder is keeping the popular team of Sonny Jurgensen, Sam Huff and Larry Michael. In addition to the Riggins show, other current and former Redskins players, coaches, owners, cheerleaders and other members of the Redskins family are likely to be part of the programming, all almost certainly pushing Snyder's message.
"What you are able to do is control the message, not just during the game but in shoulder programming in days between the games where many fans keep the radio station on their radio dial and listen between the games," said Marc S. Ganis, president of the Chicago-based firm SportsCorp Ltd. and a consultant who follows the NFL closely.
This raises an obvious question: Can a radio station owned by a team be a fair critic of its owner, its team and the league?
"Talking Redskins works in sports talk every month of the year, but being a team-owned radio station prohibits you from being unbiased no mater what you may hear," said Dave Pugh, who replaced Zier as regional manager of the Clear Channel stations, including WTEM. "We've gotten calls from Redskins management regularly because of not only the fans speaking their minds but our [broadcasters'] perception and opinion as well."
Last year, for example, the Redskins demanded that WTEM change the hosts of its weekly chat with Coach Joe Gibbs after objecting to the tough questioning of former hosts Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin. The station complied, subbing in Weinstein.
Zier insists, however, that no holds will be barred, and that he is his own man, bolstered by an ownership stake in Red Zebra. He said he will have final say over the stations' content.
Riggins, who has often been a tough critic of the Redskins since retiring from the team 21 years ago, doesn't seem to be holding back. Is Snyder, his new boss, thin-skinned, he was asked during an early-morning interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown last week.
Riggins considered the question for a moment: "He's like tissue paper. He's a very sensitive guy. He reacts to things." But, he allowed, Snyder may also be misunderstood. "He made a lot of things happen at an early age," Riggins said. "If I had done many of the things he'd done, I would have been very confused."