Start off with attention-gripping theme music that alerts listeners to the top headlines. Add news items so short that the station is basically a headline service. Give your new all-news radio station a rapid-fire pace that makes good old WTOP sound like a grandfatherly storyteller.
The result, WNEW, which debuted last month on 99.1 FM, represents both a step up for Washington and a sad truth about the news business.
That Washington finally has a headline-news station in the style of those in New York and Philadelphia is yet another way in which our once-sleepy city — where old-fashioned, personality-driven radio shows (Harden and Weaver on WMAL, Don and Mike on WJFK) lingered much longer than in most U.S. metropolises — has ascended to the big leagues. We now have an urgent-sounding all-news utility to go with our world-class traffic, Major League Baseball franchise and revitalized city center.
But did Washington — one of the country’s most news-addicted markets, up there with San Francisco and Boston — really need another all-news station? The city already had one at the top of the ratings, as well as in-depth reporting on public radio. (WAMU, at 88.5 FM, which airs National Public Radio’s news shows in morning and evening drive times, puts Washington third among the nation’s top 20 markets in the portion of the audience that listens to news on public radio.)
WNEW, owned by CBS, does not propose to add deeper or smarter content to Washington’s news diet. Rather, it seems designed mainly to carve off a chunk of WTOP’s massive revenue — the highest in the nation — delivering more to the corporate bottom line than, say, just another music station. (Music on the radio, in contrast to news and talk, is in existential trouble, as younger listeners rely more and more on iPods, smartphones and music discovery sources such as Spotify and Pandora.)
WNEW tells listeners it is different because it is truly all news, unlike WTOP (103.5 FM), which drops its regular format for a couple of hours each week for call-in programs featuring the governors of Maryland and Virginia or the District’s police chief. And WNEW promised from the start to focus more on suburban news, an implicit dig against WTOP for airing so much city news.
In its first weeks, WNEW is adding a lot of headlines to the local airwaves but precious little meaning. Its menu includes noticeably more Maryland stories, including some Baltimore area news, which sounds odd in Washington. But if you don’t like a story on WNEW, it will often be gone in just two or three sentences — less text than this paragraph.
That allows the station to air more stories per hour than WTOP — about 50 compared with WTOP’s 23, according to logs I kept during WNEW’s fourth week on the air.
There are great similarities between the two stations. Both air 15 to 19 minutes of commercials each hour. Both deliver traffic and weather reports at least every 10 minutes. Both read summaries of stories from the Associated Press, The Washington Post and the Examiner. Both air business reports from Jill Schlesinger of CBS Marketwatch. Both do sports twice an hour.
WNEW is leaner than the competition — eight reporters to WTOP’s dozen, a staff of 46 compared with WTOP’s 70-plus full-timers. On the big breaking local story of any given day, both stations will have a reporter on the scene.
But WTOP, which was owned by The Post from 1949 to 1978 and has been all-news since 1969, goes beyond local headlines with an extensive Web site and features like those found in daily newspapers: food and entertainment reports, interviews on foreign or national stories by experienced anchors such as Bob Kur, a dose of wit and personality from reporters such as David Burd and Neal Augenstein. (Hubbard Broadcasting, a family-owned Minnesota company, bought WTOP from Bonneville International last year as part of a 17-station, $505 million deal.)
WTOP starts each hour with a few minutes of national news from CBS in New York; WNEW’s top stories are notably more local, although it uses snippets from ABC Radio’s national and foreign reports later in each hour.
WTOP’s architect, Jim Farley, says his station will stick to its blend of breaking news and deeper reporting, including investigative series, interviews with newsmakers, and stories from reporters such as Mark Segraves, whose coverage of D.C. government demonstrates years of experience on the beat.
WNEW has suffered from early stumbles over local-place names and a lack of context in some reports. And the station continues to suffer from technical glitches, with uncomfortable silences around the dramatic, jampacked minute of headlines that launches each half-hour.
Washington’s all-news competition is a reprise of a showdown that began in the 1960s in New York City. In 1965, WINS created the format WNEW has adopted. Under the slogan “The news watch never stops,” it tolerates little personality, analysis or commentary — defining elements at WINS’s crosstown rival, WCBS, the model for WTOP’s approach.
The essence of the WINS format is urgency, which in New York is underscored by the sound of an old-fashioned teletype machine ticking away in the background 24/7.
WNEW has no ticker. Its anchors and reporters do not inhabit that attitude of insistent urgency. They sound like they’d be more comfortable on the more relaxed WTOP, which is where three WNEW anchors once worked (Evan Haning, Chas Henry and Amy Morris). But the new station delivers the headlines, quickly and efficiently, which in the end is all it seeks to do.