By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 5, 2008
Redskins owner Dan Snyder reached a deal yesterday to buy three local AM radio stations from Clear Channel Communications, including the area's leading sports-talk station, WTEM. The purchase gives Snyder control of sports talk radio in Washington.It thus gives the owner of the most popular and closely followed sports franchise in the region ownership of the bigget broadcast outlets for commentary about his team.
Snyder's purchase of WTEM (980), WTNT (570) and WWRC (1260) for an undisclosed price means his Red Zebra Broadcasting arm will own six stations in the area. Red Zebra's current stations, known as Triple X ESPN Radio, also carry sports-talk programs.
On their afternoon "Sports Reporters" program yesterday, WTEM hosts Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin wondered how much they'd be able to criticize the team -- or whether they'd even be employed by the station -- once Red Zebra takes over July 1. Czaban, Pollin and other WTEM hosts, including former Redskins players Rick "Doc" Walker and Brian Mitchell, have often lambasted the team and its owner in recent years.
"We're being swallowed up by the big burgundy-and-gold empire," Czaban said on the air.
Bruce Gilbert, Red Zebra's chief executive, said that his company would encourage, "within reason," a freewheeling exchange of opinions. "You can't be in the sports radio business without talented talk-show hosts like Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin," said Gilbert, a former ESPN Radio executive, in an interview. "You hire people to be opinionated. You want them to be opinionated. If we didn't, why would we buy these stations?"
Red Zebra hasn't decided on any personnel or format changes at the stations, Gilbert said. As such, it remains unclear whether Red Zebra will restore ESPN's syndicated shows to WTEM after luring this programming to Triple X two years ago. Red Zebra also has not decided what to do with WTNT and WWRC, which are almost moribund outlets that broadcast syndicated political talk shows and infomercials.
The only programming change made so far, Gilbert said, is that all six Red Zebra-owned stations will carry Redskins games starting this summer. The simultaneous six-station broadcast will help bolster reception of Red Zebra's existing stations, which are found at 92.7 and 94.3 FM and 730 AM. Gilbert noted that people in transit could switch to another Red Zebra station if one signal became too weak.
Since taking over the Redskins in 1999, Snyder has made a number of deals to control both the media and the message. In addition to purchasing the Triple X radio stations in late 2005, the Redskins buy time on local TV stations to air upbeat, magazine-style shows such as "Redskins Game Day" that are produced by the team.
Team owners have made similar moves for decades. Tribune Co. of Chicago owns baseball's Cubs, the Chicago Tribune and WGN, the TV station that broadcasts the team's games. Ted Turner's Turner Broadcasting System owned the Atlanta Braves and their main broadcast outlet, WTBS. More recently, the NFL and the New York Yankees both started cable networks and moved games onto their channels.
Such dual ownership occasionally generates complaints about access to news. Last year, for example, the NFL riled journalists by placing tight restrictions on the media's videotaping of interviews and team practices. The move was prompted by team owners' desire to have "exclusive" footage for team-owned Web sites.
Team ownership of media outlets also raises issues of favoritism. News and discussion about an owner's team could result in other area sports and teams being ignored, said George Solomon, former sports editor of The Washington Post and formerly ESPN's ombudsman.
Gilbert said "it would be disingenuous" to suggest that Snyder's overlapping businesses "wouldn't collide at some point." But, he added, "our goal is to put on the most entertaining and compelling programming that serves the most listeners possible. . . . We want to be a radio company with different stations and different formats."
The purchase of the stations must be approved by the Federal Communications Commission. Gilbert said such approval could come within 120 days.