ESPN 980 Quiets Wood, Local Baseball Chatter

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, July 30, 2008 3:48 PM

Phil Wood had a pretty good idea his Saturday morning baseball talk show on the old WTEM radio was going, going, gone when he met with new program director Dennis Glasgow earlier this month.

"He insisted I come in for a meeting," said Wood, a native Washingtonian now living in the Baltimore suburbs. "It's fifty miles each way for me, but I drove in and met with him. The whole thing might have lasted eight minutes. First he asked me to fill out a job application for Red Zebra [the company that bought the station in June]. And the only question he asked me was, 'So, when exactly is your show on?' That kind of told me I was not going to be in their long-range plans."

Wood nevertheless showed up for his scheduled show a few days later on July 5. He was broadcasting from Congressional Country Club, where the station now known as ESPN 980 had set up shop during the AT&T National golf tournament that week. A few days later, Wood was told he no longer would be on the schedule, ending the 15-month run of a show the City Paper had only recently named as the best radio program in Washington.

That may have been something of a stretch, but there's no question that Wood has been Washington's pre-eminent on-air baseball authority, with a historian's perspective and vast knowledge of the old Senators, as well as being thoroughly up to date on all things having to do with the current Nationals, Orioles and major league baseball in general.

Oh yes, during his show, he always managed to blend in plenty of rock and roll references, a lovely touch that, combined with all his other baseball bona fides, endeared him to a faithful following of listeners. Some of those fans e-mailed me last week to point out their displeasure over his dismissal from Redskin owner Daniel Snyder's latest $25 million plaything.

But here's the good news on Wood. He never missed a show. The week he was let go in Washington, he was immediately picked up by Baltimore's ESPN affiliate -- WJFK-AM 1300 -- where he did his show on Saturday, July 12 and is now on for three hours every Saturday. If you can't pick up that signal in the Washington area, the show is streamed online and simulcast on television by MASN, which gives him an even larger potential audience than he ever had at 980 AM.

"I also got a ton of e-mails from people when the show was canceled," Wood said. "I had developed a really good rapport with the audience, and we kept getting a lot of new people listening ever since baseball came back to Washington. I like to think it was a convergence of baseball and rock and roll. I view them both as a part of American pop culture, and the show seemed to work.

"The unfortunate thing is we had made some progress. Just a couple of months ago, one of the sales guys told me my numbers were actually looking really good, especially for an AM station. But after being in the business for 35 years, nothing really surprises me."

Wood's dismissal may well have been the first sign that a station now under Snyder's corporate umbrella was not about to devote two solid hours every Saturday solely to baseball. If Wood had talked some Redskins, some of the time, perhaps he might have been able to survive, but that's hardly what he does best, and station officials never even bothered to ask him if that was possible in the first place.

Wood also has carved out a small niche for himself on MASN's coverage of the Nationals. He fills in as a co-host on the pregame show when Ray Knight is out, and by the time the season ends, will have appeared on about forty telecasts working with one of his broadcasting idols, long-time Washington radio personality Johnny Holliday.

MASN would be wise to expand that role for Wood, and to get him involved with more Orioles programming, as well. The man clearly knows what he's talking about, delivers his information and illuminating insights in a low key, non-confrontational manner and might not be a bad resource in the broadcast booth for a game every once in a while, as well.

In fact, giving Wood a regularly scheduled daily Nationals-oriented baseball show on MASN also might mute some of the criticism toward a regional cable network that still seems highly Baltimore-centric in its programming and news coverage.

Wood also has some interesting theories on the Nationals' dismal television ratings, with only about 9,000 viewers reportedly tuning in per night to watch on MASN and MASN2, according to numbers published three weeks ago by Sports Business Daily.

For one, Wood said he had a hard time believing a team with an average attendance of about 27,000 fans per game could only be drawing a third of that number to their television sets. Then again, he added, judging from purely anecdotal evidence gathered while answering listener questions over the last 15 months, he also believes that there are some viewers out there who still haven't been able to figure out the difference between MASN and MASN2.

"If you get used to seeing the Nationals play on MASN, and then you turn it on and the Orioles happen to be on, there are some people who just assume the Nationals aren't on that night and don't look for them anywhere else," he said. "But I really do think 9,000 is way low.

"The Orioles [ratings] are fairly low, too, and at this point, I really don't put much stock in some of those numbers. If a club was drawing attendance like Tampa or the Marlins, 13,000 a game in the ball park, then 9,000 would make some sense."

Some of his listeners called to say they were not happy that all the Nationals games are not aired in high definition. In fact, only 40 games of both the Nationals and Orioles are in HD and, Wood said, "some people have become such HD snobs, they say 'I'm not going to watch it unless it's in HD.' They chalk it up to the cheapness of MASN, but I don't buy that. MASN is still considered something of a start-up, and I'm sure that number is going to increase. But I promise you, budget has nothing to do with it. They don't skimp on anything."

There are other theories on the seemingly low ratings, but the fact that the Nationals are deep in the cellar, with the worst record in the major leagues, with a roster decimated by injuries, surely has to be an overriding factor.

That being said, the Nationals and MASN also could be doing more to promote the team and the telecasts, whether it's print ads, broadcast buys, billboards or even ads on the side of Metro busses.

The fact that Orioles ratings are better than Nats' numbers in the Washington market also ought to be somewhat embarrassing to a team ownership that clearly has been penurious on spending the money to put a decent team on the field. Winning almost certainly will be the ultimate factor in how many people buy tickets or tune in the broadcasts.

And now sadly, with the decision to eliminate Phil Wood from the only sports talk station in town, is it any wonder that hardly anyone is talking all baseball, all the time on the airwaves, save for the game broadcasts themselves.

Then again, how 'bout those Redskins?

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.

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