WTOP (103.5 FM) tops ratings with coverage of Washington's Feb. snowstorms

SNOW BELT: A pedestrian makes his way through the Feb. 9 snowstorm.
SNOW BELT: A pedestrian makes his way through the Feb. 9 snowstorm. (Linda Davidson for The Washington Post)
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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2010

February's record snowfall translated into record audience ratings for WTOP (103.5 FM), the all-news radio station that was the only local radio station on the air covering the storms day and night.

With listeners stuck inside and hungry for information during the nearly back-to-back snow blasts, WTOP's ratings soared to more than twice that of its nearest competitor for the week, reaching levels unseen since a new electronic ratings system began in Washington in late 2008, according to figures released Monday by Arbitron.

For the week of Feb. 4-10, WTOP attracted an average of 16.9 percent of the radio audience; runner-up WAMU (88.5 FM), which broadcasts some local news programming, was at 7.7 percent for the week.

In the three weeks preceding the big storms, WTOP's weekly share of the audience never rose above 12.2 percent. Although it is typically the leading radio station, its share rarely rises above 10 percent in an average week. The weekly rating period coincided perfectly with the first storm on Feb. 6 and the second three days later.

"We felt as if our job was to hold the hands of people sitting there in the cold and dark," said Jim Farley, WTOP's vice president of news. ". . . It was like urban campfire radio."

For thousands left without power in the storm, he said, WTOP was the only source of continuous information.

WTOP's storm coverage was heavy on personal stories. The station opened its microphones to listeners to let them talk about their experiences dealing without electricity or heat or both. Staff members who came to work went on the air to describe what their commute had been like. To keep up the round-the-clock coverage, the station put up about two dozen employees at a hotel near its upper Northwest Washington studios, shuttling them back and forth in four-wheel-drive vehicles.

In all, some 539,000 people listened to WTOP at some point during the first storm on Saturday and Sunday, or slightly more than 27 percent of everyone listening to the radio on those two days, Arbitron estimated. For the week, some 1.49 million people tuned in, or 39 percent of the total local radio audience of 3.8 million.

The station eliminated about $140,000 worth of commercials over the four days of the storms to provide more coverage, Farley said.

While the station hasn't announced bonuses for the storm coverage, it has given its employees sweatshirts commemorating the memorable week. The shirts read: "WTOP Blizzard of 2010 Survivor."

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