By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, June 3, 2008 2:23 PM
In his never-ending quest to control the Washington Redskins "message," it looks as if Daniel Snyder is about to buy himself another medium, or three. Sadly, that can't be good news for sports talk radio in Washington.
Maybe you missed the news last week that the Redskins owner even now is negotiating with Clear Channel Broadcasting to purchase three more radio stations, including sports talk WTEM, in an effort my Post colleague Paul Fahri wrote "to expand his fledgling but problem-plagued radio operations."
Who knew he even had a fledgling radio operation? Snyder paid $33 million in 2006 for three stations on the dial -- known as Triple X ESPN Radio -- but many listeners have a hard time tuning in unless they're within field goal distance of the transmitters.
Snyder acquired two FM stations and one on the AM dial and put them all under the "Red Zebra Broadcasting" umbrella, obtaining them to air Redskins games and load up the airwaves with team news some might also describe as feel-good propaganda. Instead, when listeners complained that Sonny and Sam frequently could not be heard on game days because the signals were so weak, Snyder was forced to contract last season with Clear Channel to put them on more powerful WBIG-FM, which covers a much wider area in the Metropolitan region than any of his three new stations.
But now, Snyder wants WTEM (980-AM), the town's oldest and most popular sports talk station, in his fold. WTEM has a far more powerful daytime signal than his original three, but the wattage on WTEM also gets dialed down when the sun goes down. It's totally maddening after dark for someone (like me) trying to hear a night game while driving west on Route 66 in Northern Virginia just a few miles beyond the beltway.
Still, whatever Snyder wants, he usually gets, and, some cynics might suggest, also fumbles. (Anyone checked Six Flags stock lately?) In this case, industry insiders are saying Clear Channel may be more than willing to sell to him, almost certainly at a rather inflated price considering that AM radio is not exactly a growth industry around here or anywhere else in the country.
If Snyder does succeed in acquiring WTEM, there are all manner of ramifications for area sports fans, not to mention some of the on-air people now gainfully employed by the station, including a couple of very vocal ex-Redskins.
You think Brian Mitchell and Doc Walker will be long for this world on WTEM once Red Zebra starts signing the checks? To their everlasting credit, those two have always been brutally honest in their tough love commentary regarding their old team, including strong criticism of the owner, team management and the coaching staff, even the now departed St. Gibbs. The same goes for afternoon drive time co-host Steve Czaban, not exactly on Snyder's holiday card list.
If Snyder and the Redskins control the message, those three messengers, and maybe several more, may well be looking for another live mike in a studio far, far away from WTEM's current location out the Rockville Pike.
The newly syndicated Dan Patrick show also could be a casualty. Snyder's current Red Zebra stations are ESPN network affiliates, and the boys from Bristol have not been particularly happy that their signal in the eighth largest media market in America is not much stronger than what two kids with tin cans and a string can generate in their own backyards.
Patrick, a long-time ESPN broadcaster, left the network last year to go out on his own, and it would be hard to imagine the worldwide leader allowing his show to appear on an ESPN affiliate. That would be a significant loss for this market.
Granted, we did have some unkind words for Patrick's show when he first went on WTEM last year. But that was mainly because we hated to see the station bump Channel 5's Dave Feldman and Comcast Sports' Carol Maloney out of that same time slot after their smart, highly entertaining show was on for less than six months.
But Patrick continues to attract big-time national newsmakers to his show every single day, and has never been shy about asking them tough questions when appropriate. He focuses on all the hot-button sports issues of the day but rarely preaches or takes himself all that seriously. Most of all, he always sounds as if he's having a delightful time on the air, offering up an easy listen that would very much be missed if Red Zebra completes this deal and decides to drop his show.
All ESPN all the time, perhaps punctuated by Redskins broadcaster (and full-time team employee) Larry Michael's kid glove interviews with players and coaches and John Riggins' mildly amusing but often bland afternoon show would not be my idea of must-listen radio. I've heard Riggins a few times (I must have been a few blocks away from one of the Red Zebra stations), and I'm happy to know he's very gainfully employed.
I'm also astounded that Riggo actually is not broadcasting from the Nation's Capital, but does his show mostly from a studio in New York. Yes, he's occasionally irreverent, but you're also not going to hear him take any shots at the boss, at least not if he's being paid a very handsome salary I'm told has lots of zeros and a couple of commas in it. Riggo is definitely not in Kansas any more, and can definitely do the math. He knows full well it wouldn't be wise to bite the hand that now feeds him a steady diet of filet mignon and lobster.
All of this is not to say that WTEM is the bright and shining beacon of sports talk radio in America. But at least, it's pretty much local sports-oriented most of the time with the exceptions of Patrick and Czaban's Fox Sports Radio-syndicated morning show. It's also not ESPN Radio, whose hosts far too often pull punches when discussing controversial issues involving rights fee "partners" like the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA.
Thankfully, WTEM also is not the mean-spirited, slash-and-pounce sports talk that seems so popular in many markets around the country. Our version of the genre has always seemed a little more politically correct than that, as you might expect in the Nation's Capital.
Still, with Snyder at the top of the WTEM corporate ladder if this deal does go through, listeners would be wise to tune in elsewhere for hard-hitting radio talk focusing on the town's favorite professional football team. Then again, there may be no other place to go, with Red Zebra seemingly soon to dominate the local sports talk market, controlling the medium and the message every lock step of the way.E Mail of the Week
Why must the public be protected from their own choices?
I'm not a fan of Mark Madden's act but I realize that's all it is, an act, never intended to be "fair comment and criticism." He was not employed as a commentator by NPR. His job was to generate the ratings that justified the highest afternoon drive time advertising rates in the market. Madden's latest bleat is typical of what he has been doing for years. If the Essentially Self Promoting Network truly felt justified in firing him because of outrageous comments, that should have been done about twenty minutes after they bought the station. Instead, ESPN happily took the money he generated until someone in Bristol ran a spreadsheet and decided that the bad publicity from this one was going to cost Disney more money than he was producing. The hypocrisy of meeting to decide his fate while near continuous taglines were running on WEAE, identifying 1250 as "The Mark Madden Station" should be far more disturbing to a media observer than a boatload of dead Kennedy jokes. Personally I'm offended by slasher movies, hard core rap and Rush Limbaugh but I don't advocate that they be removed from public access. I just don't watch or listen. Why isn't that enough for you?
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at email@example.com.