Radio station WNEW made its local debut Sunday afternoon, bringing news, weather and traffic reports to Washington’s airwaves and a question to mind: Can a second station broadcasting news, weather and traffic reports make it in the region?
The station, owned by media goliath CBS, is entering what its managers acknowledge is one of the most news-clotted markets in the country. They also recognize that they’re up against the all-news equivalent of an aircraft carrier — mighty WTOP, which dominates the local radio dial so thoroughly that it attracts more than three times the advertising revenue of any other station in Washington.
Nevertheless, WNEW (99.1 FM) is betting that it can be scrappier, livelier and just plain newsier than its primary competitor.
Its first broadcast from its new studio, a former office-machines sales office just outside the Beltway in Prince George’s County, sounded much like WTOP. There were brief reports about the death of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, an apartment fire in Laurel and Newt Gingrich’s win in the South Carolina Republican primary. As on WTOP, there were also weather and traffic updates at regular intervals. Even the advertisers were similar.
Starting early Monday, one of WNEW’s most prominent voices will be a familiar one to WTOP’s listeners. The station’s morning traffic reporter is Lisa Baden, who called the drive-time grind every weekday for more than a decade on WTOP until early last year, when the station began using its own employees to report traffic (Baden is under contract to a company called Total Traffic).
Having Baden on board suggests the importance of traffic reporting to news radio, as well as WNEW’s determination to go right to the heart of WTOP’s success.
For decades, WTOP has been uncontested in news radio in Washington, although a few stations (notably public station WAMU-FM and WMAL-AM and FM) offer a hybrid of news and talk programs. The absence of direct competition enabled WTOP, which is heard primarily at 103.5 FM, to grow into the richest radio station in the nation. Its annual revenue was $57.2 million in 2010, according to BIA/Kelsey, a Chantilly research firm.
WTOP’s success in some ways became a self-fulfilling prophecy, scaring off would-be challengers, said CBS’s top Washington executive, Steve Swenson. News radio, he notes, is an expensive format. Unlike a music station, which can be programmed by autopilot, a news station requires a relatively large staff of reporters, anchors and editors to keep the news coming round the clock. Competitors, he said, resisted the initial start-up costs, which run into the millions of dollars.
But Swenson, 56, knows the format can also be mega-profitable: Until recently, he ran CBS’s two all-news stations in New York City, WCBS and 1010 WINS, which were the third- and eighth-highest-ranking stations by revenue in the nation.
So, rather than being put off by WTOP, Swenson says he sensed the area was ripe for an alternative. He began plotting WNEW’s launch last summer. “There are usually choices in any radio format in a market” — two or three pop music stations, for example, he said. “In this market, there wasn’t” a second all-news station.
CBS and Swenson probably know as well as anyone how this is done. The company operates eight of the dozen or so all-news stations in the country, with outlets in New York (where an earlier incarnation of WNEW once aired), Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, Detroit and Los Angeles. Swenson himself has spent more than 30 years in radio news. “We kind of know what works and what doesn’t work,” he said.
The new station lit its “On the Air” light on Sunday with 39 people in its newsroom, about one-third as many as WTOP. Robert Sanchez, WNEW’s program director, acknowledges that his staff of eight field reporters “is not a lot of boots on the ground” to cover a region of some 5.6 million people. But between weather updates every four minutes, traffic reports every 10 minutes, business and sports twice hourly, plus 17 minutes an hour of commercials, there’s only so much time left over for actual news on an all-news station.
“The goal is not to be WTOP,” said Sanchez, a veteran of news stations in Miami and New York. “The idea is, you punch the button and you’ll find out what’s happening now. You don’t always get that on WTOP. I hear a lot of process on WTOP — national-security stories, political minutiae. They can sound like a very glossy magazine. That’s great, but when something is happening, you don’t pick up a magazine to find out about it.”
WNEW intends to spend less time reporting on developments at the Pentagon or Capitol Hill and more on a breakdown on the Red Line, adds Michelle Dolge, the station’s news director. “We don’t want our people to be in here,” she said. “We want them in the neighborhoods.”
If WNEW’s managers know a bit about their rival, it’s probably because they used to play for the other team. Swenson ran WTOP between 1996 and 1997, and Dolge spent 17 years there. Among Swenson’s hires at WTOP was Jim Farley, who has headed its news operations and built its powerhouse reputation over the past 15 years.
Farley calls WTOP vs. WNEW “a friendly rivalry” but doesn’t think much of the upstart’s chances. “They have a tough task ahead of them,” he said. “The news appetite is already satisfied” by what’s available. “News is just everywhere. It’s on the radio, TV, print, your cellphone.”
Farley says he “still has scars” from the last attempt to cram more news onto local radio — “Washington Post Radio,” which featured newscasts and discussions with reporters from The Post. The collaboration between the newspaper and WTOP’s then-owner, Bonneville International (WTOP is now owned by Hubbard Broadcasting of Minnesota) died in 2007 after 18 months of low ratings and indifferent advertiser reaction.
In preparation for WNEW, Farley insists WTOP isn’t making any preparations. “We’re not changing a thing,” he said.
WNEW may be at a disadvantage right out of the gate. Its dial position, 99.1 FM, is a familiar one to a generation of local rock fans, having been the home of the “legendary” alternative music station WHFS until 2005 (it was replaced by the Spanish pop music station WLZL, now moved to 107.9 FM). But broadcasts over 99.1, which emanate from transmission facilities in Bowie in Prince George’s, tend to come in stronger in Baltimore County than on the far western and southern fringes of the Washington area.
WTOP, by contrast, simulcasts on three signals (103.5, 107.7 and 103.9 FM) with a massive “footprint” that stretches from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Eastern Shore and north into Pennsylvania. As a result, more people may tune into WTOP than WNEW simply because more people can pull in WTOP.
Swenson isn’t concerned about the station’s signal strength; he says it has come in loud and clear in tests throughout the region.
Even so, he’s keeping his expectations modest. WNEW will be a success, he said, if it can capture about $10 million in advertising during its first year. That’s a pale echo of WTOP’s annual total, of course, but would put the newcomer solidly in the middle of the pack among local radio stations. And in the all-news game, that would be pretty big news, indeed.