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?
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.