By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 23, 2006
Like every true Redskins fan, Casey McNamara isn't happy that his team has lost its first two games. But something burns him up even more: He can barely hear the games on the radio.
No matter where he goes or how finely he tunes his radio, McNamara, who lives in Olney, says he can't seem to get decent reception. "It's just terrible," says the regional manager of a local restaurant chain. "I get static. It's maddening."
Executives of the three stations that broadcast the games say they have not heard a groundswell of complaints about reception. The three stations, collectively called Triple X ESPN Radio, are owned by Daniel Snyder, the team's owner.
Since the Redskins began preseason play in August, however, some local listeners have grumbled that the team's broadcasts are marred by fading signals, interference from other stations and persistent static.
Victoria Elder -- a self-described "religious Redskins fan" since 1971 -- says she's tried moving three different radios around her home in Annandale, but still gets nothing but static and "a high-pitched whining sound" when she tunes in. "It's so bad I can't listen to it," says Elder, a management consultant, adding: "It's not like Annandale is somewhere way out in the exurbs. I'm inside the Beltway."
The sentiment is similar on Web sites devoted to the Redskins. "Well, I will say that I live in D.C. (I can see the U.S. Capitol from my street) and I definitely couldn't get the Redskins radio signal," wrote one participant on the Webskins discussion group on Yahoo.com.
The frustration has carried over to the team's site, Redskins.com. When the site solicited questions last month for a planned online chat with Snyder, several people posted grumpy questions about the stations. "What is your plan for obtaining a better region-wide broadcast signal strength for the Triple X radio network?" asked one. "The streaming is great, but signal coverage in my car in northern Montgomery County and in my office in downtown Bethesda is almost inaudible."
But Bennett Zier, who heads Snyder's media group, Red Zebra Broadcasting, says: "We have had no level of consistent complaints, [nor] have we had a lot of complaints. We've had mostly positive feedback. People love the format, they love the sound . . . and the whole feel of Triple X. It's been nothing but positives."
Complaints started up soon after the team switched its flagship station this summer from WJFK-FM (106.7) to Snyder's new radio group, a trio of small Washington area stations. Snyder purchased the stations from a Spanish-language broadcaster in January, with the longer-range plan to turn them into the heart of a Redskins broadcasting empire.
Redskins games and sports-talk programs -- including a daily call-in show hosted by ex-Redskin John Riggins -- are broadcast simultaneously on the three stations (92.7 and 94.3 FM and 730 AM). The stations are licensed to broadcast at relatively low power levels and have widely dispersed transmitters (in Calvert County, Warrenton and Alexandria).
Because of those two factors, the signals are hard to receive in some parts of the metropolitan area. The AM station might be the most unpredictable of the three; under its license, it must reduce its power after dark, which made for sketchy reception during the team's two regular-season games, played on a Monday and a Sunday night.
When the stations debuted in July, Eric Edholm, a columnist for Pro Football Weekly, wrote that a friend had trouble hearing the broadcasts even though she was listening in the middle of downtown Washington.
Jim Mueller, a systems analyst, says it hasn't been easy hearing announcers Larry Michael, Sonny Jurgensen and Sam Huff this season, even with a top-of-the-line radio. "These stations are horrible," says Mueller, who lives in a 12-story condominium complex south of Alexandria.
Mueller says he gets perfectly clear broadcasts of Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers games in his vacation cabin "out in the woods" of Minnesota, about 100 miles north of Minneapolis and 150 miles west of Wisconsin. But he's had no such luck in the nation's capital.
"The Redskins are the sports team in town," he says. "Even if you're not a fan, you almost have to listen to it if you want to be included in the conversation in the office the next day."
Fan frustration with the stations could be an indirect boon to rivals, particularly WTEM-AM, which broadcasts sports talk and news. (The Washington Post supplies radio programming to a competitor, WTWP AM-FM, which is owned by Bonneville International Corp.) At least that's what competitors hope.
Dave Pugh, the executive who runs WTEM and seven other local stations owned by Clear Channel Communications, says, "I feel sorry for the fans that they don't have an outlet on the radio on which they can hear the games."
For now, radio and TV ads for the Redskins stations try to instruct would-be listeners to the station closest to them by using the tagline "92.7 to the east, 94.3 to the west, and 730 AM all over D.C."
In addition, all the stations' programming, including games, is streamed live over the Internet. This capability has had a somewhat ironic result: Reception of Redskins games thousands of miles away is better than in some parts of the Washington area.
Redskins fan Marcio Avillez says he can hear the games "just fine" where he lives -- 8,000 feet above sea level in Colorado. "Not sure if the over-the-air radio broadcast back in D.C. is cutting it," he says via e-mail, "but I'm loving being able to finally get the games over the Internet." With a broadband connection and a digital video recorder that enables him to sync the Internet broadcast with the TV, "I am virtually back in my McLean Gardens family room."
To improve local reception, Snyder and Zier might have a few additional options. The company has said that it wants to buy more stations, including another in the area, to help improve the stations' reach. Snyder also owns 160 acres at Redskins Park in Loudoun County, which could serve as a site for a radio tower that would throw the stations' signals still farther.
Zier acknowledges that there have been complaints about one quirk in the radio and TV broadcasts of the team's games: that the radio commentary isn't in sync with the TV images. That's because the radio stations broadcast the audio play-by-play without delay, while TV stations usually impose a delay of several seconds.
Because the length of the delay varies depending on whether a TV set is receiving a signal via an antenna, a cable connection or a satellite hook-up, there's no way to match the radio broadcast with everyone's TV picture, Zier says. What's more, delaying the radio broadcast might upset fans who listen to radios while watching the game at FedEx Field.
All of which leaves such fans as Dave Backus out of luck. Backus liked to turn the TV sound down and get local color from the radio during games -- until the various delays made the timing impossible. "It's been a problem for the past few years," says Backus, who lives near Staunton, Va., in the Shenandoah Valley.
Zier says he has no control over the timing of the television broadcasts, but he understands how the delay could cause confusion. He was in Dallas on Sunday for the Redskins-Cowboys game, and watched Rock Cartwright return a kickoff 100 yards for a Redskins touchdown. Zier described the run as it was happening via a cellphone call to his son at home in Montgomery County -- a few seconds before his son saw it on "live" TV.