The Redskins' Tumultuous Season Didn't Gain Yardage on Sports Radio

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

It was one of the most memorable Redskins seasons in years: Last-minute defeats and back-from-the-depths victories. The tragic death of Pro Bowl player Sean Taylor. A Cinderella run to the playoffs. And then the bombshell: the retirement of revered Coach Joe Gibbs.

On local sports-talk radio, though, the whole thing rated a collective yawn.

Even with the Redskins occupying the region's attention, the area's two all-sports radio operations saw no bump in their audience during the season, according to figures for the October-to-December period released yesterday by the Arbitron rating service -- a period that saw only minor shifts among the top 10 stations.

Local sports radio appears to have been in a holding pattern ever since Redskins owner Daniel Snyder bought three local stations in late 2005 and decided to take on longtime sports station WTEM (980 AM).

WTEM finished a tepid No. 18 among all stations in the fall ratings, with just a 1.1 percent share of the overall audience. And Snyder's stations -- known as Triple X ESPN Radio -- didn't even show up in the ratings.

Normally, that means a station didn't have enough listeners to register even the faintest ratings pulse. But in this case, the Triple X stations didn't make the ratings for a technical reason: Because on one occasion the three stations didn't simulcast, they were reported individually for the entire period instead of getting a collective rating.

But even without that statistical glitch, Triple X wouldn't have won any ratings Super Bowls. Bruce Gilbert, chief executive of the stations' parent, Red Zebra Broadcasting, estimates that the combined audience for his outlets was somewhere between a 0.5 and 1.0 percent share. In other words, about the same tiny sliver of the audience as the stations drew before football season.

Gilbert says he's pleased with the stations' overall progress but can't explain why the sports format hasn't gotten a bigger boost from the Redskins. "If I had the answer for that, I'd be a rich man," he says.

Part of Triple X's problem is that its signals (at 730 AM and 94.3 and 92.7 FM) are so weak that listeners can have a hard time hearing them, even at FedEx Field. Snyder and Gilbert effectively recognized that problem before the start of the 2007 season by striking a deal to broadcast Redskins games on WBIG (100.3 FM), which has a powerful signal. WBIG is owned by Clear Channel Communications, which also owns WTEM -- meaning the two sports-talk competitors were allies on Sundays.

Even if WTEM's overall audience didn't grow, program director Bill Hess says his station recorded strong gains among male listeners ages 25 to 54 -- the station's "core" audience with which it attracts advertisers.

"No question it's competitive out there," Hess says, "but with everything that happened during the past two months, people knew we were the place to go."

Well, far more of them headed over to all-news WTOP and the "Junkies" morning talk show on WJFK (106.7 FM). Those two stations ranked first and second among adult men (25 to 54) during morning-drive hours, the peak listening period.

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