Brooke Stevens's three-year run as afternoon host at news-talk WMAL may be ending soon.

Stevens's contract with the station (630 AM) expires in mid-February. As is typical in the industry, Stevens's agent had tried to begin negotiations with ABC-owned WMAL for a new contract. But so far it's come to naught.

"Since we are not negotiating and they elect not to negotiate, one could only assume that, come mid-February, Brooke will no longer be at WMAL," says Norm Schrutt, Stevens's Atlanta-based agent. Schrutt is the former president of ABC-owned radio stations.

WMAL General Manager Tom Bresnahan declined to comment on Stevens. Stevens, 37, also declined to comment.

Stevens's partner, Chris Core, is under contract with the station for another year. He will continue in the 4-to-8 p.m. slot, Bresnahan says.

WMAL consistently ranks among the area's top stations in the quarterly Arbitron ratings, thanks largely to the morning-drive show, featuring Tim Brant and Andy Parks, and the strong midday tandem of Rush Limbaugh and Laura Schlessinger, the nation's most popular talk show hosts.

Over the past year, the WMAL morning show received a 5.3 share in the Arbitron ratings, meaning it's attracted 5.3 percent of area listeners 12 years old and older. Limbaugh and Dr. Laura combined for a 5.3 share as well. But the ratings for the Stevens and Core show were only 3.8. That's partly caused by the plummet in radio listening between 7 and 8 p.m., as drive-time listeners have arrived home by then and turned off the radio in favor of television.

Core reports that there is "no acrimony" at WMAL over the Stevens situation--he and his co-host enjoy a friendly relationship. Indeed, it appears that the station--like every station, all the time--is simply tinkering with its lineup in an attempt to increase ratings. WMAL is also searching for a replacement for departed nighttime host Chip Franklin, who left for Baltimore's WBAL in October.

This column has received complaints about Stevens's hosting style, charging that she interrupts guests too frequently. However, she has her many fans, especially those who admire her tenacity for continuing a full work schedule while battling non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which was diagnosed in 1995. She has worked in Washington radio for 15 years, starting as a traffic reporter. Schrutt is actively shopping Stevens to other area stations, including all-news WTOP (1500 AM).

At bottom, it may simply be a difference of styles between Stevens and WMAL operations manager John Butler, who declined to comment on the situation.

"I would say that Butler and Brooke do not laugh at the same jokes," says Schrutt.

Commercial Interruption

Listeners of sports-talk WTEM (980 AM) heard a curious episode last week. An ad on the station began:

"Are you a white man who's proud of his race? Are minorities destroying your culture and your heritage?"

Suddenly, dead air. Then the station rushed another commercial on the air. Shortly thereafter, announcer Andy Pollin came on, telling listeners that the interrupted commercial was "causing some disturbance" and that folks should listen to the entire ad before jumping to any conclusions or calling the station, as a few did.

The rest of the ad went like this:

". . . If you hate what's happening to your country, then this message is for you. [Pause] This ad is not real, but the ideology is. Showtime presents a powerful original motion picture . . ."

The ad is for a TV movie called "Brotherhood of Murder," about a white supremacist group, appearing on the Showtime cable network. What happened, as described by WTEM operations manager Tod Castleberry, gives an insight into how radio works.

The ad was fed into the station's computer by a production assistant. It was screened, as each ad is before it airs, by a WTEM production director. But that staffer is often the only person to hear an ad in advance. The Showtime ad raised no red flags, which is understandable--if you hear the entire pitch.

After screening, the ad was programmed into its time slots. The air staff doesn't hear new ads until listeners do. And often, the air staff doesn't listen at all--commercials are a good time for announcers to talk with their producers.

The Showtime ad broadcast a few times, and offended a few listeners. They called the station to complain about its "racist" nature but provided few details about the ad. The WTEM staff scrambled, fearful that a bogus ad may have gone out.

The staff was told to look out for objectionable ads--but no one knew what to listen for. Within minutes, the ad broadcast again. When a board operator heard, "Are you a white man who's proud of his race?" he yanked the advertisement. He replaced it--after a few seconds--with another one, which is what listeners heard.

After a little investigation, the staff figured out what had happened, and Pollin went on the air.

"We thought it was important for Andy to clear it up for the listeners," says Castleberry.

WTOP Loses Another

Veteran reporter Kate Ryan leaves the all-news station following the exit of veteran reporter Paul Wagner. Ryan covered the many trials of Marion Barry, then moved to Montgomery County, where she reported on the county's clutch of bizarre criminal cases, such as those of Ruthann Aron and Samuel Sheinbein.

Ryan, 39, is headed to graduate school at Johns Hopkins University to study teaching; she hopes to head a junior high or high school class. Asked why she's leaving radio, she reports: "After a while, you start repeating yourself. I couldn't stand for the 11th straight year, the day after Thanksgiving, and say, 'Okay, people are shopping.' "

Filling the two slots at WTOP are Neal Augenstein, formerly of UPI, and Brennan Haselton, who arrives next month from KIRO in Seattle.

Ryan was inspired to enter radio by her late father, longtime NBC network reporter and anchor Bill Ryan, who notably helmed the NBC New York news desk for 72 hours straight during the Kennedy assassination. Ryan herself has shown similar toughness: In March, she endured a particularly grueling surgery to treat myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease related to muscular dystrophy.

My favorite Kate Ryan moment occurred last winter, as I was listening to her report live over her cellular phone while navigating a snow-covered Interstate 270. After a few seconds of listening to her describe the car wrecks she was passing, I realized I was driving right behind her. I thought, "I have to report on the blizzard, too, but I don't have to drive and talk at the same time." That's nerves.

Who is want to come talk RADIO I can invitate? I kiss you!!!!! Today's radio discussion is at 1 p.m. at www.washingtonpost. com/liveonline