RADIO DAYS

The Real Scoop on Why I Lost My Show

By Chris Core
Sunday, May 25, 2008

On Friday, Feb. 29, I walked out of the studio at WMAL radio much as I had for the past 33 years, on a post-show high. I had just finished a passionate discussion on race relations with my audience. The phones had been jammed for the past two hours and were still ringing when I signed off. Now my producer said that the boss wanted to see me. Not an unusual occurrence, but as soon as I entered his office and saw his face, I knew that this wasn't going to be an ordinary conversation.

Chris Berry, the general manager, told me that the parent company of WMAL, Citadel Broadcasting, had ordered nationwide cutbacks. Five people at WMAL, including the news director, the national sales manager and me, had to be terminated immediately, as did the entire on-air staff of our sister station WJZW. I was shocked at the suddenness with which this happened. But I wasn't totally surprised. I'd kind of seen it coming.

The business model for radio, like all other media today, has changed and become more competitive over the years. Just as cable diluted the television market, the rise of FM and eventually satellite radio has increased listeners' choices. Add the Internet to the mix, and radio stations have to either evolve from their traditional ways or wither. WMAL made some costly choices over the years.

When I joined it in February 1975, it was a full-service station at its peak. The show I first worked on as a news and sports reporter, "Harden and Weaver," had a 25 share, meaning that one-fourth of the D.C. area population listened to it. Thirty-three years later, the WMAL morning show, the terrific "Grandy and Andy," is attracting a 3.6 share and the top-rated station a 9.1. To be fair, there are now many more stations on the air for listeners to choose from. Double-digit shares are a thing of the past. Still, for the three decades I was at WMAL, I saw a steady decline in audience.

Part of the problem was signal. WMAL rose to prominence for two reasons: the strength of its local personalities and its great AM signal, which could be heard clearly in all parts of the Washington metropolitan area. FM radio at that time was merely an afterthought. Not knowing what to do with it, WTOP sold its FM signal (now WHUR) to Howard University for exactly $1. WMAL-FM (now Mix 107.3) filled air time with recorded jazz programs. But as the area kept growing, broadcasters knew that they had to come up with a way to get their signals to the outer suburbs. By 1980, Washington had become the number one FM market in the country. The more powerful FM signals could be heard all the way to West Virginia, and with their clearer transmission and ability to broadcast in stereo, the new FM stations saw their ratings jump.

WMAL was already in trouble in 1980, but it didn't know it yet. It plugged along on its formula of homegrown personalities and being all things to all people, but all people weren't listening to a single station anymore. Seeing its declining market share, WMAL added radio's hottest property, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, to its lineup in the late 1980s. The result was twofold: Limbaugh eventually wound up with the highest ratings on the station (still true today) and his show labeled WMAL a right-wing radio station instead of an objective source for news and information.

People often lamented to me in later years, "Why can't WMAL be like it was in the old days?" It's because radio is a business. And businesses that stay static and ignore market conditions shrivel and die. The shoe store, the restaurant and the automobile business all follow different business models from the ones of 30 years ago, or they'd be long since gone. Same thing with radio. A few years later, all-news WTOP added 107.7 FM to its 1500 AM signal to reach the entire metro area with a stronger signal and blew past WMAL, its main competitor, in the ratings. It's a blow from which WMAL hasn't recovered.

In 1992, one other thing happened. WMAL let go of the rights to broadcast the Redskins after having been the team's flagship station for half a century. WMAL and the Redskins were practically synonymous, and it was a tough call for the station to make. But Jack Kent Cooke, the late Redskins owner, had greatly raised the fee he wanted for the rights to the games. Although WMAL's managers were willing to break even to keep the Skins, they weren't willing to lose money broadcasting them. The rub is that the team attracted a huge audience and raised the profile of the station that carried them. People who listened to the Skins on Sunday still had their radios tuned to 630 when they woke up on Monday morning. That kind of carry-over can jump-start a whole week of broadcasting.

The brand-new WTEM sports radio was willing to use the Redskins as a loss-leader to get audience, but it also eventually gave them up. Today, team owner Dan Snyder has to put the games on stations he himself owns because the rights are too expensive for others to justify.

By the turn of the century, the only AM radio stations to show up consistently in the ratings were WMAL, WTOP and WTEM. Most Washingtonians turned on the FM dial. In some cities, AM radio still flourishes: San Francisco (KGO), Chicago (WGN) and Los Angeles (KFI). That's mostly because those stations made the decision to stay local. WMAL went the other way. Limbaugh was followed first by "Dr. Laura" Schlessinger, then Sean Hannity and Mark Levin. All these shows both helped and hurt. They attracted a good audience, but they made WMAL less special and much less local. You can hear two-thirds of WMAL's current programming anywhere in the United States.

The final chapter of the station's heyday -- and my future there -- was written when WTOP went totally to FM (103.5) in 2006, taking a huge chunk of listeners away from the AM band, and when Citadel Broadcasting bought all the Disney/ABC stations (including WMAL) in 2007. At the time of the sale, I told my wife that my days at WMAL were numbered.

Citadel owned only small-market radio stations at that point. To get back into the game, either the company would have to invest in the future by pouring money into advertising, creating new programs and promoting its stations, or it would have to try to improve its bottom line by cutting jobs. The choice is between the immediate satisfaction of making the bottom line look better for investors today and thinking five years down the road. Most companies in the United States, unfortunately, choose the former option.

I left WMAL with no bitterness, honestly. I had a great run. But I'm just a small example of what's happening to people all over the country as our economy changes. Good companies that think beyond today's bottom line and plan for the future will survive. The cut-costs-at-all costs companies will not. The free market works. But smart capitalism is a Core value.

cccore@aol.com

Chris Core, former host of WMAL's "The Chris Core Show," is now a daily commentator on WTOP (103.5 FM) and a show host on XM Radio's POTUS '08 (Channel 130).


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