Air War! All competition! All the time! Can newcomer WNEW actually challenge WTOP?

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WNEW's Steve Swensen
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

Tune into 99.1 FM and drown. They’re not lying. It really is all news. And it really is all the time: A stabbing at a Montgomery County McDonald’s! George Huguely on trial for murder! New Beatles ringtones for iPhone! Transvaginal ultrasounds! Plus there’s some heavy traffic on the Beltway—but no accidents—and a high of 60 degrees on the National Mall with cooler temperatures expected this weekend. In another four minutes, an anchor will tell you the temperature once again. WNEW News Time, 3:28.

So much for socially-networked media hype. WNEW, D.C.’s newest radio station, is as sexy as an alarm clock. And it’s meant to be: It turns out that the folks at CBS Radio have determined that embracing this most mundane information delivery system represents their best chance of challenging WTOP, Washington’s first all-news radio station and currently the top billing station in the country.

“Successful all-news radio stations are usually one of the most profitable radio formats,” says Steve Swenson, the CBS executive who oversees WNEW. “They typically are either the number one, two, or three top billing radio stations in a market.” WTOP has dominated Washington’s airwaves since 1969 by using the format. Only about a dozen markets are big enough to support a station doing nothing but the staccato headlines that qualify as “all-news.” And now, with the arrival of WNEW, Washington joins just three others—New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia—that host two such stations.

Radio matters more than you would think in this age of iToys, social media, and near-infinite choice. Media research firm Arbitron estimates radio reaches more than 93 percent of Americans a dozen times each week. In a wealthy area like Washington, thick with influence, traffic, and yuppies, having a top-tier radio station can mean big money. WTOP billed an estimated $57 million in 2010, the most recent figures available. Who wouldn’t want to snag a chunk of that—especially in a market where the advocacy ads aimed at insiders run hot even when the regular capitalist economy is icy?

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Sure, the concept of a radio war may seem as retro as a Journey cover band. But, digital media hype notwithstanding, it’s not the only retro aspect of how some Washingtonians consume news. For instance, about 16% of us still get our news primarily from radio, and roughly 60% of those listeners tune in while driving. And when we drive, many of us want headlines, traffic, and weather information fired straight at us. WNEW News Time, 3:32.

Photo Slideshow: Air War

Our Readers Say

You give us 22 minutes, we'll give you a headache!
Great story and thanks for the insight into the fascinating news radio industry in Washington. As you said: eighth largest market but home to the #1 most profitable station in the country. Focusing more news on local issues, which are always underrepresented in local news bureaus, will be the key to success. Even if it just is that "stabbing at a Montgomery County McDonalds."
Good story, but unless I missed it - it's odd that WNEW is a CBS radio affiliate, but that the national CBS radio news is not broadcast at the top of each hour because that's still on WTOP. I didn't read why this is so or when it might change. I'd rather hear what's going on in the world then than the local weather.
Similarly, the CBS WhiteHouse correspondent isn't on WNEW; he's on WTOP as well.

I want to listen more to this station, but missing those (or similar) things makes for a major shortcoming + I don't need to know the weather every 4 minutes.

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