Leonard Shapiro, Sports Columnist

Stuck in Between Stations

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, May 8, 2007; 3:16 PM

It would be somewhat misleading to describe the competition between Washington's two main radio sports talk entities as anything resembling a war of the words, if only because WTEM seemingly has Daniel Snyder's Red Zebra Triple X ESPN Radio stations in a full retreat these days.

Sports talk's target demographic is centered mainly on men between the ages of 25 and 54. In that category, WTEM (980 AM) was ranked ninth in the Washington market in the latest ratings book, with a 3.1 share of the audience, or about 7,400 listeners per quarter hour. Triple X was 18th in the 25-54 demo with a 1.5 share, or 3,500 listeners per quarter hour.

Both operations are clearly utilizing different strategies in an attempt to build their audiences, and both also have recently made major changes at the top to implement their respective plans.

At WTEM, Bill Hess has taken over as director of operations and program director and over the last few months has totally overhauled the station's line-up. Hess, who also oversees WASH Radio for Clear Channel, is a firm believer in local is better, a strategy that clearly seems to be paying off nicely.

"We believe that when you have compelling, passionate locally based hosts with credibility, that's the way to go," he said in a recent interview. "The company has always supported 980 (WTEM) with the right kind of investment, and that allows us to put on this kind of programming. We want to have strong local hosts all during the day."

Listeners in morning drive now get Steve Czaban, arguably the station's most controversial host, even if his three-hour morning show (6-9 a.m.) is part of Fox Sports Radio's daily lineup and is obviously more geared to a national audience.

Hess recently pulled former Redskin and long-time broadcaster Rick "Doc" Walker out of the John Thompson show and gave him his own two-hour slot starting at 9 a.m. In some respects, it was a move made to counter-program against Washington Post Radio's Tony Kornheiser, a former WTEM and ESPN Radio morning host.

While Kornheiser still does some sports on his new show, which airs from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. and is replayed for another two hours through 12:30 p.m., he's also trying to appeal to a more general audience. Walker is all sports all the time, and as he often like to say, "comes strong to the microphone" with hardcore predominately local sports news and talk, often heavy, on the Redskins.

Kornheiser, meanwhile, sadly will go on hiatus in two months, the better to focus on his work in ESPN's Monday Night Football booth through the 2007 season. That may be even more good news for WTEM's morning lineup.

"He's a talented guy who used to be a major part of this station (WTEM)," Hess said. "Would I like to have him here? Yes. But I understand he'll be gone again, so I'm not worried about competing with him."

Hess also has introduced a new show, pairing Channel 5 sports anchor Dave Feldman and Carol Maloney of Comcast Sports Net, another two hours (11-1 p.m.) of light and lively conversation with the only woman doing sports talk in the market. Maloney clearly knows her stuff, and Feldman is arguably the best and longest-tenured local television sports anchor in the market now that George Michael has gone into semi-retirement. It's a nice mix and a very easy listen.

John Thompson's show airs from 1 to 4 p.m., with former Redskin Brian Mitchell now part of a three-man team along with the former Georgetown basketball coach and long-time local broadcaster Al Koken. Mitchell initially had his own mid-day show on WTEM, a must listen during the Redskins season for his fearless jabbing at his old football team, but Hess said he thought Mitchell would be a better fit in a team concept.

With Thompson frequently on NBA assignments and out of town for a good portion of the year, there are still plenty of opportunities for both Mitchell and Koken to voice their own opinions, and Thompson continues to offer listeners high profile guests, even if he often prefers softball questions when a more hardball approach might be even more entertaining.

From 4 to 7 p.m., Czaban joins long-time WTEM host Andy Pollin on the Sports Reporters show in afternoon drive time, with a wide variety of talented guest hosts throughout the week. Czaban can be irresponsible at times and loves to provoke, but Pollin, arguably the most knowledgeable local sports authority on the radio, has always been the perfect foil to reel him back in from outer space

"It's like Happy Hour talking sports at the bar," Hess said. "It's an approach people seem to like, and we wanted them back in that time slot."

Over at Triple X ESPN Radio, the only locally generated shows are one hour at noon with former Redskins reporter Bram Weinstein, and John Riggins occasionally entertaining three-hour show in afternoon drive time, which Riggins often does from a studio in New York. Call it Riggo-centric local radio.

The rest of the day talk show lineup is ESPN Radio programming during the week, and sources at the station say that's not likely to change any time soon, especially with former ESPN Radio executive Bruce Gilbert coming to town as Red Zebra's new CEO.

Gilbert's main challenge will be to keep educating listeners on where on the dial they can locate his programming. Red Zebra's three stations -- 730 AM, 92.7 FM and 94.3 FM -- all are hampered by generally weak signals that can make listening in the car radio on a drive around the beltway a maddening experience, with voices often competing with static depending on where you happen to be. Out in my neck of the Northern Virginia woods 50 miles from downtown, trying to tune in a Redskins radio game broadcast often becomes an exercise in sheer futility.

Gilbert did not return telephone calls over the last two days to comment on his plans for Red Zebra. Meanwhile, WTEM's Hess said he's not all that concerned about the competition anyway.

"They have not demonstrated strength in the market," he said. "We believe if we do this right, they'll continue to be a non-factor. We think local hosts will win every time. They may have the ESPN brand, but there's more to this battle than that in this town."

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Badgerlen@hotmail.com or badgerlen@aol.com

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