Redskins Owner Set to Buy Last Classical Station

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 8, 2006

Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has reached a preliminary agreement to buy classical music station WGMS-FM in a deal that would expand his budding sports-talk radio empire and likely be the swan song for the area's only classical outlet.

Snyder and the owner of WGMS, Bonneville International Corp., have established a price for the sale but had not formalized the deal as of yesterday, people close to the negotiations said. They said, however, that an agreement could be wrapped up within days.

"They made an offer that [a seller] can't refuse," said one executive involved in the negotiations. He requested anonymity because the sale was pending. "If someone wanted to buy your house and was willing to pay 50 percent more than it was worth, you'd do it," he said.

Neither side would disclose the proposed sale price or discuss potential programming changes.

In a memo to Bonneville's Washington area employees yesterday, the company's top local executive, Joel Oxley, wrote: "Our company is in discussions with Red Zebra but there is not a deal in place. I will keep you apprised in the weeks to come of timing and additional developments as they occur."

Red Zebra Broadcasting, a company Snyder formed early this year, has been buying up stations in the mid-Atlantic region as outlets for sports programming and live broadcasts of Redskins games. But his three flagship stations in the Washington area -- known as Triple X ESPN Radio -- have weak signals. In some parts of the area, the three stations (at 92.7 and 94.3 FM, and 730 AM) are plagued by static and other interference .

Bennett Zier, who heads Red Zebra, would not comment on his company's negotiations with Bonneville. But he said, "Red Zebra is in the buying business. We're looking at several acquisitions now. . . . We have nothing to formally announce yet."

WGMS, which broadcasts at 103.9 and 104.1 FM, would only partially resolve Red Zebra's local reception problems. The stations would strengthen Red Zebra's coverage across the metropolitan area, but both outlets have poor coverage in such spots as Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Upper Northwest Washington, Arlington and McLean. Even so, said one executive, the two frequencies "are dramatically better than what they have now."

WGMS's signal deficiencies drew complaints from many music fans when Bonneville moved classical programming from 103.5 FM to 103.9 and 104.1 FM this year. The move, which followed Bonneville's creation of a new station in conjunction with The Washington Post, set off the channel realignment of Bonneville's other stations, including all-news WTOP AM-FM.

Classical music has been a dying radio format, nationally and in the Washington area, for more than a decade. WETA (90.9 FM) phased it out in early 2005, and now often duplicates NPR programming also heard on WAMU (88.5 FM).

Asked whether WETA would consider restoring its classical programs, general manager Dan DeVany said: "I wouldn't want to speculate at this time. We're really happy with our [news-talk] format. We've been doing some good things."

Of more than 12,000 stations nationwide, only about 165 have a full- or part-time classical format, according to Radio-Locator.com, an Internet database.

"Classical stations have a very challenging time making it financially," said Mark Fratrik, a vice president at BIA Financial Network, a Chantilly company that tracks the broadcasting industry. One part of the problem, he said, is that classical works are long, which makes it more difficult for stations to fit lots of commercials onto the air. Moreover, he said, classical fans tend to be older, and advertisers pay a premium for younger listeners.

People on both sides of the negotiations said yesterday it is unlikely that WGMS would continue as a classical station.

Bonneville executives said WGMS has been profitable. In 2005, it generated $9.7 million in advertising revenue, according to BIA. The station attracted an average of 3.8 percent of all Washington area listeners during the summer quarter.

Sales of radio stations must be approved by the Federal Communications Commission, a process that typically takes months to complete. But pending that approval, Red Zebra could take over WGMS within a matter of weeks, under a so-called local marketing agreement that enables one station owner to program, but not own, another station.

Under such a scenario, Red Zebra could use WGMS's frequencies to air the Redskins' four remaining regular-season games.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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