Post Radio Ponders a Fix For Its Low-Rated Formula

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 7, 2007

Faced with continuing financial losses and stubbornly low ratings for Washington Post Radio, Bonneville International Corp. and The Washington Post are reassessing programming on the station, which the two companies launched 14 months ago.

WTWP (107.7 FM, 1500 AM) primarily airs news and talk programs, much of it featuring reporters and editors from The Post. The newspaper-on-the-radio format is unique in the radio industry.

WTWP has struggled to attract listeners since its inception. Although its ratings have begun to improve, the station has never exceeded a 1 percent share of the local radio audience in any of the quarterly audience surveys conducted by Arbitron Inc.

The station continues to lose money, although the privately held Bonneville -- which owns WTWP and is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Salt Lake City -- hasn't disclosed its financial results.

Executives of The Post and Bonneville said the station's business situation is prompting a reappraisal.

"Are we looking at ratings that are really disappointing and a broadcast marketplace that is tougher than any of us hoped for? Yes," said Tina Gulland, The Post's director of radio and TV projects. "Are we looking at how we can address that? We certainly are."

On Monday, Bonneville laid off five WTWP employees, including two producers and an associate producer.

The station's most successful show has been its morning talk program hosted by Tony Kornheiser, the veteran Post sports columnist. The show is a freewheeling blend of topics, from sports to movies to the news of the day. Its success suggests that the station needs "more conversational elements [and less] straight news," said Jim Farley, vice president of news for Bonneville.

Kornheiser has become so valuable to the station, executives said, that his show will continue, with his name, even after he leaves it at the end of this month -- as he prepares for his second season as an analyst on ESPN's "Monday Night Football." WTWP morning man David Burd will host "The Tony Kornheiser Show," along with Kornheiser's current sidekicks. Kornheiser will call in to the show from time to time, Farley said, but will not have a regular slot on the program; Kornheiser is committed to ESPN until the end of the football season.

Burd is currently heard on the station from 5:30 to 8:30 a.m. Once he inherits the four-hour Kornheiser show, Burd will be on the air for a seven-hour period each weekday.

Bonneville is also considering using syndicated talk programming at other hours of the day, marking a potential retreat from the station's original concept.

Among the programs that Bonneville is considering is a show hosted by conservative Glenn Beck. However, both Bonneville and The Post must agree on all programming decisions.

Beck's widely syndicated show is now heard from noon to 3 p.m. on WTNT (570 AM). "Beck is an interesting guy," said Joel Oxley, Bonneville's top local executive. "He does a good job in some other markets."

The Post makes its journalists available to the station under a three-year contract with Bonneville; the contract has two years remaining.

Oxley said the station's ratings improved in April, thanks to the Kornheiser show, broadcasts of Washington Nationals baseball games and the introduction of dual anchors during most time slots during the day.

In April, the station had a 1 percent share of area listeners, ranking No. 20 among local stations. WTWP ranked just below a Frederick-based country music station, WFRE (99.9 FM), and the new WPRS (104.1 FM), which plays contemporary gospel music.

"It's just one month, but it was encouraging," Oxley said of the improved ratings. "Obviously, we have to keep trying to improve, and to make the station as compelling as possible."

Said Gulland: "We've gotten much better at doing news and information, but it's expensive, and we're not building an audience as quickly as we had hoped."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company