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Station Break: WTOP's 40 Anniversary, Glass-Enclosed Nerve Center, Traffic and Weather on the 8s, Ledo's, Washington Post Radio, Chris Core, NPR's Record Ratings

Jim Farley
Jim Farley (WTOP)

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Paul Farhi and Jim Farley
Washington Post Staff Writer and VIce President of News and Programming
Tuesday, March 24, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Paul Farhi was online Tuesday, March 24, at 1 p.m. ET to talk about the latest news, personalities and trends in the world of pop culture.

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Today, on a very special edition of Station Break, we welcome guest chatter Jim Farley, the top programmer at WTOP, the Washington area's most popular radio station. On the occasion of WTOP's 40th anniversary as an all-news station, Jim will answer such burning question as, "Why traffic and weather together on :08s, not, say, the :04s or the :09s?" and "What really goes on inside the Glass Enclosed Nerve Center?"

Plus: Today's Column: Consider This: NPR Achieves Record Ratings

Farhi has been a reporter at the Post for 21 years. He writes about TV, radio and totally random other subjects for the Style section.

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Paul Farhi: Greetings, all and welcome to a Very Special edition of the chat. Very special because today we have guest star Jim Farley, vice president of programming and news for WTOP, Washington's all-news radio powerhouse. Not coincidentally, Jim's appearance today (can we say "appearance" online?) coincides with WTOP's 40th anniversary as an all-news station. Jim has been guiding, shaping, refining, defining news on the radio throughout his career, and for the past 13 years at 'TOP's "glass enclosed nerve center." Welcome, Jim!

We'll get to your questions, comments and insults in a moment, but first, Jim, can you tell us briefly about WTOP's history and development? Was WTOP the first all-newser on the air?

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Jim Farley: No, WINS in New York was first successful all-newser in 1965 (I worked there starting in 1966). WTOP was the 4th or 5th all-news station in 1969.

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Paul Farhi: Ah. What's WTOP's particular claims to fame? Are there famous WTOP scoops?

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Jim Farley: Our biggest claim is traffic and weather together every ten minutes on the eights. Traffic gets worse every year and our audience grows. But people still tell us we were the station that helped them cope with the attack on the Pentagon on 9/11, the anthrax attacks and the DC sniper.

And, oh yes, Tractor Man.

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Paul Farhi: Okay, let's go to the phones...

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Bethesda, Md.:: Hi Jim, thanks for joining Paul and happy anniversary.

So, why traffic and weather together on :08s, not, say, the :04s or the :09s?

And what really goes on inside the Glass Enclosed Nerve Center?

Jim Farley: The CBS World News Roundup runs eight minutes. So the 8's were a perfect works-in-every-hour fit. And the glass-enclosed nerve center (our studios and newsroom) is a VERY busy place.

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Newark, Del.: How fearful are you about the death of terrestrial radio?

I don't listen to the radio (except sports talk), preferring satellite and podcasts.

Am I part of a vocal minority or a harbinger of the future?

Jim Farley: Ha! People have been predicting the death of free terrestrial radio since the first talking motion picture came out in the 192-s. Today 230-million people still listen to radio every week. Radio reaches 93% of the American public every week. Rumors of our demise are greatly exaggerated.

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Rockville, Md.: Jim Does the "Glass Enclosed Nerve Center" have windows looking outside?

Jim Farley: Yes. It is bright and airy. And the news anchors actually know if it is raining or snowy or sunny.....they don't have to guess.

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Alexandria, Va.: With all the media proliferation, radio, one of the original mass communications mediums, still seems to be going strong. How do you think radio will or should change over the next 5-10 years.

Congrats on the first 40, and hats off to you!

Jim Farley: Thank you! We are now on FM Radio, AM Radio, HD Radio and streaming audio on-line. Next look for us on your cell phones. WTOP is everywhere YOU are, as we like to say.

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Rockville, Md.: How much of NPR's success is attributable to changes in their style of presentation? It seems to me that Morning Edition especially has tried to be more accessible with the types of stories they air and even how they present their stories. For example, it seems that there are more lifestyle and health stories. Plus you can hear Steve Inskeep cackling at whatever he finds funny or repeating or restating what an interview subject has just said. What I really can't stand are the tortured segues between segments. But all in all I like their product a lot. I like hearing news stories with complete sentences and that go beneath the surface -- no offense, Jim Farley! :)

Jim Farley: NPR's biggest secret is no commercials and all that hamburger money. They do an excellent job explaining the news from their viewpoint. We have a different mission: live, local and what's in front of you right now.

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1600 Pennsylvania Ave: What was the result of the recent survey to determine when the Presidential Radio address will be aired?

Jim Farley: Most people said they didn't care. So we now run it in the 6am hour because that's where the Obama White House releases it. It seemed crazy to us to hold it back for 4 hours. For those who do care, we post it online so you can listen to it whatever time you want (same for the GOP response).

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Mt. Vernon, Va.: I'm curious about 1500 AM -- currently WFED. It seems like this would be more valuable as a simulcast as WTOP. I used to tune it in when I'd get within 70 miles or so of D.C. on trips -- 103.5 FM's range doesn't reach that far. And, I find it hard to believe that people in the federal government listen to this station during the workday, or on weekends, or at night.

Jim Farley: The combination of 103.5 and 107.7 and 103.9 FM reaches a much better footprint than 1500 and also penetrates apartment and office buildings which is a challenge for AM Radio. Our current combination is amazing.

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Winchester, Va.: On Sundays, the traffic people are always reporting house fires and/or "police action" that is tying up traffic, but your rarely hear the actual news reporters do a follow-up. Is this because of personnel short-falls?

Jim Farley: We'd drive people crazy if we covered every fire, shooting or stick-up. People do care if these incidents are going to make them late. We have more reporters on the street on weekends than any other local DC station does on weekdays.

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Arlington, Va.: Jim, since you once worked at WINS, can you answer a question that has bothered me for decades: if their broadcasts last 20 minutes, why is their slogan "You give us 22 minutes, we give you the world"?

Thanks and congrats on the anniversary.

Jim Farley: Thanks! You give us 22 minutes and we give you the world was designed (by a consultant) to make people THINK they listened longer than they really did and write that down in their Arbitron Diary.

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Alexandria, Va.: I think the event that shaped WTOP for me was the Air Florida crash during the snow storm back in 1982 when I was working at my first job out of college and crawling through traffic to get home. If I'm not mistaken, it was after that event that the traffic reports went to all day long rather than just the rush hours (and Bob Marbourg was doing them back then too). And I still miss having baseball, basketball and hockey all on the same station too. Congratulations on 40 years!

Jim Farley: Great point! Dave McConnell, still ticking after all these years, was live on-scene at that crash. Yes, that was a bout the time we expanded traffic 24/7. You'll find baseball and hockey on our sister station WFED at 1500 and 820AM.

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Another WTOP?: Are you fed by Ledo's pizza?

Side note, there is a dichotomy in the way your reporters pronounce their names with their native dialect. Some use heavy accents, some don't. Is it a personal preference?

Jim Farley: Ledo's delivers pizza to the newsroom every 3 weeks or so.

This newsroom devours food! And we don't tell our people how to pronounce their own names.

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Alexandria, Va.: Are you surprised there's no competition for WTOP -- that is, a locally produced, 24-hour news station. The station seems so successful, why wouldn't some other player want a piece of that pie? Couldn't, say, WMAL make more money with a pure talk format than it does with its conservative talk format? Or WTGB or WJFK with...whatever the heck their formats are?

Jim Farley: We'd love competition. Right now we look at the local TV news operations and The Post (and Examiner and Times) to gauge how we do competitively.

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Wheaton, Md.: WTOP seems to do a particularly good job reporting local water quality issues. Who is WTOP's chief reporter on this topic?

Jim Farley: Several of our reporters do that. We have done multi-part multi-reporter series on "Troubled Waters." Amazing what bad stuff gets dumped in there and then we eat fish from it, swim in it, recreate on it and DRINK it.

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Washington, D.C.: I hope this doesn't sound overly critical, but I have to wonder what purpose WTOP or any other local news radio station serves in this media-saturated world, besides perhaps traffic/weather updates and the occasional breaking news story. Everything I hear on WTOP I can find online (via computer or phone) in a couple seconds, and usually reported in considerably greater depth. NPR provides a particularly valuable service in getting beneath the surface and offering in-depth news analysis of issues that others aren't reporting on. What does the public gain from 30-second or one minute stories that don't provide much in the way of substance, context or analysis?

Jim Farley: Can you find it while you are driving a car?

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Laurel, Md.: Mr. Farley, someone once asked in this forum why WTOP ran ads (at the time) saying "Your favorite radio station doesn't play SONGS." Paul suggested it was because people filling in Arbitron diaries didn't think that checking the traffic and weather constituted listening to your station, and wouldn't put it down. Is that about right?

Jim Farley: Yes. It was a way to remind people to write us down in their Arbitron diaries. But now PPM devices record actual listening, not memory, and WTOP is the # 1 station in town.

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Reston, Va.: What influence does the ownership have on WTOP?

Jim Farley: Bonneville bought WTOP in 1997. I am still waiting for the first editorial discussion....it hasn't happened. On the ad side, they won't let us take ads for hard liquor or gambling (including the lottery).

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Fairfax, Va.: Why do you keep changing frequencies and call letters so quickly? Do you have special connections in the FCC that let you do this faster than other station owners can?

Jim Farley: We have upgraded to better signals whenever we can. The strategy is tom put our best product on our strongest distribution channels.

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Washington, D.C.: As such a well-respected and innovative veteran in the business, what do you see as opportunities for soon-to-be college graduates in broadcast journalism with the current hiring slump and freezes at different media organizations?

Jim Farley: Mom? Is that you?

We have internships for college students here at WTOP and we have often hired from the ranks of the interns. Internships have become auditions. Do one BEFORE you graduate.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I'll bet the guy who wondered why WTOP exists when there are computers...is a guy.

I.E. someone who doesn't want to hear the news while doing laundry, dishes, etc. Sure, some guys do home chores, but most of us who do them are women, and many of us listen to the radio then.

Jim Farley: Thank you!

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Winchester, Va.: Any chance you could sell a CD featuring the top stories WTOP has covered over the years (similar to those great station promos you have been running); also, do you sell coffee mugs with the WTOP logo?

Jim Farley: E-mail me (jfarley@wtop.com) and I'll send you one.

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NPR fan: Why should I listen to WTOP during the AM and PM drivetimes when I can get NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" without commercials (other than underwriting messages, which are a lot shorter and less annoying)?

Jim Farley: Were you listening to NPR on the morning of 9/11? If so, you were pretty much in the dark. They have their strengths but breaking news is not one of them.

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Nats Fan: If Bonneville doesn't let you take ads for the lottery, why do I hear the Virginia lottery spots during Nationals games on WFED?

Jim Farley: Because the team sells the ads during the games. The money does not flow our way.

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20036: It was really sad to listen to Mike Buchantz's short clips, and it's the same thing now with Chris Core. The whole "Core Values" thing is a laugh. I turn the dial when his spots play...

Jim Farley: We get huge (mostly positive) feedback about Core Values.

Chris loves doing it and we love having him on. Hey, we can't please everybody, but we do try to please as many folks as possible. We're not perfect and don't claim to be.

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Washington, D.C.: Love your traffic people!! Wonderful, informative voices. Especially Julie Wright and Lauren Demarco on weekends and Bob Marbourg and Lisa Baden during the week. New voice weekday evenings, Ashley Linder, great too. Keep it up. We love listening.

Jim Farley: Thank you. These are dedicated people whom love their jobs and get their best information from WTOP listeners who call them on their cell phones.

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Arlington, Va.: You said earlier that traffic has gotten worse in the area, but to listen to your reports, everyone commutes into the city in the morning and out in the evening -- those of us who have 'reverse commutes' get next to no information about our rides. If this is a time issue, why not expand the traffic reports? That would certainly be a value in this area, no?

Jim Farley: We did expand the traffic reports, and we let the traffic people go longer when the snit hits the shan. When we last expanded, we got the time by dropping the last minute of the CBS hourly news. News fans howled at the time.

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Paul Farhi: Great stuff here, Jim, but in the interest of full disclosure (and because I need to justify my existence on this chat) I gotta ask: What happened/went wrong with Washington Post Radio, our failed radio experience that was produced in cooperation with Bonneville and you?

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Jim Farley: Washington Post Radio was a great experiment in Journalism and I am glad we tried it. It just didn't reach critical audience mass. I am sure both Bonneville and The Post would do things differently next time and I hope there is a next time.

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Anonymous: Who wrote the music that you hear in the background at the top and bottom of each hour, and also before sports? WCBS uses it as well. Could any station theoretically use that same theme?

Jim Farley: We buy it from Non-Stop Productions. Steve Swenson and I put it on WTOP. Then Steve moved to WCBS and added the music along with our station voice, Pat Garrett.

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Arlington, Va.: re: purpose for all-news radio. You can listen to it while you're getting ready for work, school or whatever, so you can get the news while you're in the shower, shaving, putting on makeup, etc. No need to divert your eyes and hands to the TV, computer or cell phone.

Jim Farley: Doing my job for me. Thank you, Arlington!

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Paul Farhi: Really? WHAT would we do differently?

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Fairfax, Va.: PLEASE stop airing erectile dysfunction commercials. You and Bonneville are so proud of not airing lottery, liquor, and gambling, but why did you decide to air ED commercials? And PLEASE tell us why are you also airing commercials on get-rich-quick schemes? You are insulting your listeners with penis and credit card debt commercials. You didn't do this just two years ago.

Jim Farley: ED is a legitimate medical problem. And you wouldn't believe how much we tone those down before we air them. Have you heard the versions on some other stations? Practically X-rated.

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Jim Farley: Next time we would have to understand each other better. We intended to make Washington Post Radio news-based talk radio. Post executives wanted NPR without the huge NPR budgets. Talk radio involves a lot of controversy and previous Post management wanted no part of that. We had to respect their wishes while we were partners and we did.

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Dissenting voice on Marbourg: Lisa Baden does a much better job than Bob in packing lots of info into a short time and making it clear what area she is talking about. I think he's gotten tired, though he is Dean of Traffic and all that.

Jim Farley: They BOTH have their fans! I love them both but listeners do have preferences. Very different styles, but the same solid information.

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First N/T: "Was WTOP the first all-newser on the air?" I don't think it was even the first in Washington. Wasn't WAVA newstalk before WTOP?

Jim Farley: Yes, WAVA was all-news first. WTOP was the first successful all-news station.

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Paul Farhi: Interesting about WaPo Radio. So: We weren't controversial, like Rush or Hannity. We weren't comprehensive like NPR. And we weren't fast and immediate like WTOP. Kind of a lose-lose-lose proposition....

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Re: Chris Core: Any chance Chris Core could get a bigger spot on your station? I used to listen to him on WMAL and would love to hear him again (even toned down) for more than a few moments.

Jim Farley: 60 seconds twice a day in drivetime IS a big spot on WTOP!

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Boston, Mass.: I miss WTOP up here! Is it true that the AM signal could be heard as far north as New York on a clear night?

Jim Farley: Yes, it goes up and down the east coast but it can't get inside office or apartment buildings. We need to strongest signal we can get in the DC metro area.

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Washington, D.C.: How does a hungry and aggressive booker get an opportunity to work with you?

Jim Farley: E-mail. Tell us in a few lines Who, What, When, Where and WHY our listeners should care. If you can't do that in a few lines, it is probably not a good radio story.

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Alexandria, Va.: Do newspapers and radio share news gathering operations? I would think in these lean times they might pool reporters.

Jim Farley: The Post and other newspapers offer their reporters up for us to interview on a daily basis. So does Time, Newsweek, US News and many others. Getting heard on the top radio station in Washington helps sell newspapers and magazines. So their is collaboration of sorts.

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Reston, Va.: How do you balance the load of commercials?

Jim Farley: We do some news, we do a commercial. We do traffic and weather, we do a commercial. We do some more news, we do do a commercial. We do sports, we do a commercial. Info following spot following info. We don't run a zillion ads back to back like most other commercial radio stations.

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Annapolis, Md.: Any chance of WTOP getting a Baltimore area signal -- maybe an underperforming signal like 100.7 or 104.3? If something like that were to happen, the traffic and weather could be split by signal -- Fredericksburg/Culpeper on 107.7, D.C. proper and 20 miles in a circle on 103.5, Frederick and Hagerstown on 103.9, and Baltimore/Annapolis on 100.7. That would be great!

Jim Farley: Splitting signals is a no-no in the radio ratings world. Arbitron will give you credit only for a 100% simulcast.

Split the signals, the ratings go DOWN.

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Washington, D.C.: I was going to submit this today anyway just to get Paul's take on it, but now it goes right to the top! At the end of the various commentary segments on WTOP, the anchor will come back and note that the segment is "part of commentary and analysis from both sides." My question is, both sides of what? Conservative/liberal? Democratic/Republican? Which side is Chris Core on when he's talking about lawn care or something like that? Maybe you should say "from all sides," or perhaps even better, skip the phrase entirely.

Jim Farley: If that makes you happy we will. We get irate callers all the time not aware that we balance our line-up. But that just goes with the territory.

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NE D.C.: I like Doug Hill and Steve Rudin on WTOP. When do they sleep? I hear Doug on the morning and in the evening and see him on TV at night. I hear Steve on the weekends and see him at night. They are great!

Jim Farley: Doug is incredible! He is a huge asset and we love Steve, too. Dedicated people don't watch the clock when it comes to the hours they put in, particularly during bad weather.

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Washington, D.C.: The newspaper industry is eroding; TV is moving to almost all news. What is the trend in the radio business to survive and prosper over the next 20-30 years?

Jim Farley: We are not a radio station. We are a multi-platform organization that gathers news and information and pushes it out in a compelling fashion on FM Radio, AM Radio, HD Radio, streaming audio, podcasts, cell phones and on-line scripts, graphics and video. We are growing.

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Washington, D.C.: I read today that the "other" D.C. newspaper is going to start a daily/morning radio show. If you were advising them, how would suggest that they succeed in these times?

Jim Farley: Starting with only 3 hours a day is a good idea. Start slow and grow. But newspaper people just don't seem to like the idea of getting up for morning drive in my experience (Right, Paul?. And don't be afraid of controversy. Controversy drives talk radio.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Jim,

Do you envision doing any more than you're doing now with HD radio? I know it's a chicken and egg problem, but I will say that the continuous loop of T+W on HD3 was one of the factors in getting an HD receiver with my latest car radio. Any chance of some other alternate programming on the AM signal?

Jim Farley: We are always looking for new ideas that make sense (and dollars).

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Paul Farhi: My hat's off to the folks who do radio at 5, 6 a.m. Heck, the folks who do ANYTHING at that hour. I once had a newspaper job that started at 6 in the morning. I didn't last long...

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High Up in Ballston, Va.: First, congratulations to Jim Farley, who's found a way on a commercial station to compete with NPR.

Now, about those commercials. What do you and Jim think about the proliferation of ads for supplements, credit-consolidation firms and special CD offers for financial and child-rearing plans? From my talk-format heavy listening, these commercials dominate talk radio.

One comment in addition to my question: I think most of those products are legit and aren't snake oil, even if, as with Omega 3 supplements, the price can seem much higher than what I'd pay at my local Vitamin World. But that's fine. What's troubling to me is a new ad [that] represents the absolute nadir of radio advertising. It goes something like this:

"Narrator 1: Think of all the things you waste money on each day, like coffee. How frivolous. Thank goodness that I've discovered a more responsible use for my limited funds: calling a psychic hotline."

"Narrator 2: That's right. I called, and the psychic just KNEW that I was interested in a boy. She told me what I needed to do to catch his eye."

Disgusting and transparently irresponsible, but I have to credit the advertiser for chutzpah.

I've heard the ad on various talk shows. Is WTOP running it?

Jim Farley: If you ever hear that ad on WTOP, e-mail me (jfarley@wtop.com) and I will have a frank and earnest conversation with our Sales Department. Thanks for the kind words.

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Washington, D.C.: How has this economy effected your advertising revenue?

Jim Farley: The DC radio market is down 30% so far this year (L.A. is down 41%). WTOP is doing much better than the market overall.

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Paul Farhi: Jim, one thing I've always been curious about: How do you make the timing fit so perfectly on WTOP? Are there tricks to stretch or cut stuff to hit all the points of the "clock" (traffic at :08, sports at 0:14, for example) exactly right?

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Silver Spring, Md.: When WTOP was new, the announcers read with the sound of typing in the background. When did you ditch that?

Jim Farley: Sometime in the early 90's.

My first job in the business was as a copyboy at WINS. We had to hang reams of wire copy on metal hooks as they spooled off noisy teletype machines. A live microphone hanging in that room provided the typing noise. One day I pushed the copy through the spike and into my palm. I said a VERY bad word right in front of that microphone. It was soon replaced by a continuous loop tape of the sound and not the actual teletypes themselves. I was fired, but hired back a day later after my abject apology. I think I was 18 years old at the time.

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Paul Farhi: We've got time, as they say at White House press conferences, for a couple more questions...

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Jim Farley: The news anchors can "cheat" by a few seconds either way. But if they hit a traffic report on a 9 instead of an 8, I get cranky e4-mails from listeners complaining about "false advertising." WTOP listeners vent frequently and we read each and every e-mail.

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Washington, D.C.: Congratulations on 40 years! Can anyone buy air time on a radio station?

Jim Farley: Thank you and yes, we sell to almost anybody. We are a free marketplace of ideas. Controversial ads, issue ads. Just no hard liquor or gambling. We also don't take advertising from either side of the abortion issue because no matter which side advertises, it absolutely infuriates 1/3 of the audience. That policy was in place before Bonneville bought us.

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Fairfax, Va.: Do you delay 8 seconds to match the HD Radio stream? Does this mean the CBS 'gong' is always 8 seconds late? Does this delay also harm live sports?

Jim Farley: Yes, there is an 8.33 second delay because of HD Radio.

It's a trade-off.

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Kent Island, Md.: Can you do a better job on Bay Bridge traffic next summer?

Jim Farley: Call us. 1 877 222 103.5 gets you right to the WTOP Traffic Center. Pound 103.5 on Verizon or AT&T. Our best information comes from our listeners.

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Formerly Philadelphia, Pa.: Re the teletype: KYW, Philadelphia's all-newser, has tried to ditch the teletype sound a couple of times and they always get huge complaints and they bring it back. I kind of miss it on TOP...

Jim Farley: Yeah, but it is a sound that is not heard in any radio station anywhere in the U.S. anymore. Those old clunky teletype machines are antiques.

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Western Alexandria, Va.: Let me just say, I can't wait for Don Geronimo's non-compete to run out, because I know you'll be bringing him on for daily commentaries.

Jim Farley: Not the worst idea I've ever heard!

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Falls Church, Va.: I am a loyal WTOP listener, however, I cannot ignore the occasional 'turn to the right' editorially. Sorry, if you're going to run Cal Thomas's screeds, perhaps you could find time for someone like, say, Frank Rich? Please fess up and admit that Bonneville's ownership steers you to the Right Side (we liberals promise we won't stop listening!)

Jim Farley: You should hear the callers who hear commentaries from Mark Plotkin, Dave Ross or Colbert I. King. To those people we are Stalinists. The complaints about perceived bias come from BOTH sides pretty evenly. You can call 1 877 222 1035 and leave a comment. I listen to them all. Promise.

Thanks for letting me do this today, Paul!

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Paul Farhi: We'd better call it a day here, Jim, although it appears we could go until WTOP turns 80. That was a terrific give-and-take session, if we do say so ourselves (and, yes, we think we will)... Many thanks to our special guest, Jim Farley, and congrats once more to WTOP on its 40th. As for us, we'll do this again next week, with or without a radio superstar in the co-pilot's seat. And thanks again for your questions. And as always, regards to all!...Paul.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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