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From the Basement, It's No Wonder Radio Reception Is Poor

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ah, the dog days of summer. Time to kick back, relax on the porch with a tall glass of lemonade and listen to the quintessential sound of the season: the ballgame on the radio.

These days, however, hardly anyone's tuning in.

The Washington Nationals, last in the National League East and closing fast on a 100-loss season, have attracted the smallest radio following in the major leagues, according to audience research from Arbitron.

How low? So low that even the microscopic numbers reported by the rating service might be too low to be statistically valid.

The team's broadcasts on the station formerly known as WWWT (107.7 FM and 1500 AM) attracted a cumulative weekly audience of about 26,500 from May through July, the most recent period measured by Arbitron.

The Nationals' following on radio isn't even in the same league as teams with similar records, even those in metropolitan areas with far fewer people than Washington.

The Seattle Mariners, for example, had won just two more games than the 46-85 Nationals as of Sunday. But the Mariners attracted 133,000 listeners per week, or about 26,000 per weekday game, through July.

The low figures give the Nationals the unusual distinction of being a team that has far more people watching its games in person (average attendance has been 29,990 per game) than listening to them on radio.

"The numbers are disappointing," said Jim Farley, vice president of news and programming for Bonneville International, the company that owns the stations carrying Nats games.

Farley says the team's poor record alone doesn't explain the results. "There's no storyline for this season," he says. "Who's the hero? Who's the big star? Even the [famously terrible] '62 Mets had Marv Throneberry. The Nats don't have a character like that. Night after night, the most interesting thing to talk about is that Teddy Roosevelt didn't win [the mascot race] again."

It could be worse -- and probably is.

Arbitron's figures are estimates based on a sample of listeners; as the share of these listeners falls to smaller and smaller fractions, the reliability of the estimates declines as well. Farley concedes that the actual radio audience for the Nationals is "probably lower" than the average reported by Arbitron.

Nationals spokeswoman Chartese Burnett declined to respond for a request for comment.

The Nationals have a generally admired pair of announcers -- Charlie Slowes and Dave Jageler -- and have two of the most powerful radio frequencies in the Washington area. One of the stations, 1500 AM, has a signal that can be heard as far away as Florida at night. The static-free FM station blankets much of the metropolitan area.

The stations themselves, however, have been beset by low ratings for some time, which has limited their ability to reach a wide audience and promote the games.

WWWT, which carried a primarily talk format during the day and Nationals games in the evening, dropped its talk shows and call letters this month because of low ratings. WWWT's two signals are now occupied by Bonneville's all-news station WTOP and its federal-news station WFED.

Before becoming WWWT, the stations carried news and information supplied by journalists at The Washington Post. That venture ended last year because of poor ratings.

With a more competitive team, the Nationals were a bigger draw on the Bonneville-owned stations last summer. According to Arbitron, the baseball broadcasts attracted an average cumulative audience of 58,700 listeners per week.

Despite the team's struggles, Farley remains optimistic about eventual success on the field translating into success on the air. The team's president, Stan Kasten, had a strong record of building his former team, the Atlanta Braves, through minor-league development and draft choices, he said.

"They're going to grow," Farley said. "Give them a few star players and a few years and they'll be contenders."

The Nationals' contract with Bonneville runs through the 2009 season. Farley said advertising support for the team has been strong and his company would be interested in renewing its agreement with the team.

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