Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this article incorrectly said that WWWT and WTLP are AM stations. They are FM stations. This version has been updated.

WTOP news radio to be sold to Minnesota broadcaster

By Paul Farhi
Thursday, January 20, 2011

WTOP, the most popular and profitable radio station in the Washington area, is getting a new owner, a Minnesota company that vows not much else will change at the outlet that airs news, traffic and weather like clockwork.

In a deal that surprised much of the radio industry, Hubbard Broadcasting said Wednesday it was buying 17 stations, including Washington's WTOP and WFED, from Bonneville International for $505 million.

Hubbard, a small, family-owned outfit with a long history in the broadcasting business, was an unusual company to be making one of the largest radio-station deals in years. Radio companies grew wildly a decade ago in a frenzy of deal-making. But that binge had subsided, leaving many of the newly enlarged companies saddled with debt and teetering near bankruptcy as the recession socked the industry.

WTOP (whose flagship is at 103.5 FM) is the crown jewel among the stations Hubbard will acquire. The all-news outlet has been the region's top-rated radio station for years and is by far its most lucrative.

The station ranked second among all stations in the nation in revenue last year, according to BIA Financial, which tracks the industry. The firm estimated WTOP's annual revenue at $51.03 million, second only to Los Angeles station KIIS-FM ($55 million), the radio home of "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest.

WTOP's strength may be its unvarying format: It broadcasts local and national news, and weather and traffic reports at predictable times, promoted by its signature slogan, "Traffic and weather together on the 8s."

WTOP's managers welcomed their new owner Wednesday, saying they've received assurances that the station will continue to operate as it does now. "I don't see a lot of change," said Jim Farley, vice president for news at the station. Hubbard "is the same kind of company as Bonneville, with the same kind of values. They believe in news. They believe in public service."

Hubbard, which is privately held and does not release financial data, will effectively quadruple in size with the purchase of the 17 stations. The St. Paul-based company now employs 154 people at its 12 TV and four radio stations; after absorbing Bonneville's stations in Washington, St. Louis, Chicago and Cincinnati, it will have 701 employees. No layoffs are anticipated.

In addition to WTOP, Hubbard will also acquire Washington's WFED (1500 AM), which broadcasts news about government workers and federal contracting, and four other local stations. Two of the other stations (WWWT and WTLP, both FM) simulcast WTOP's programming. Another (WWFD-AM) repeats WFED's signal. The sixth, WBHQ-AM, is leased to a Spanish-language broadcaster.

The agreement between Hubbard and Bonneville includes an unusual provision: Bonneville's chief executive, Bruce Reese, and its chief operating officer, Drew Horowitz, will assume the same jobs with Hubbard after the sale is final.

Bonneville's top Washington manager, Joel Oxley, said having the same leadership will ensure stability and continuity for the local stations. "The idea is to keep a good thing going," he said.

WTOP employs about 100 people, including 50 in its newsroom. It will add 10 people next month when it begins producing its own traffic reports; some of those reports had previously been produced by an outside supplier, Metro Networks.

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