WNEW began broadcasting on a Sunday afternoon in late January. It was not an auspicious start. There were technical problems and dead air. Newbie anchors bungled the names of towns, streets, and newsmakers. Live feeds from the field were dropped.
The comment section of DCRTV.com, a website that has covered the local radio and television scene since 1997, became a den of WNEW haters. One anonymous commenter, MLB4, wrote on Feb. 12, “The WNEW weekend and overnight anchors are absolutely horrible. This Sunday morning the female anchor called Mitt Romney ‘Mitts,’ ‘Myth,’ and everything but ‘mittens.’ She struggled to even get a sentence out without a stutter or pause. I have heard anchors repeatedly pronounce Bowie as ‘Bough-eee’—despite the traffic anchor correctly saying it two minutes prior. This isn’t even college-level. It sounds like someone reading a newspaper out loud in an old folks’ home. I hate to say it but I don’t think WTOP has anything to worry about.”
But here’s the thing about all-news radio: No matter what people like MLB4 say, it keeps going. All the time.
CBS only green-lighted WNEW the week before Thanksgiving. But radio types had suspected something was coming ever since June, when Swenson relocated from New York, ostensibly to supervise all of the company’s local stations. “Steve has all-news radio in his DNA,” says Jim Farley, WTOP’s vice president of news and programming. In August, Swenson pitched his CBS bosses the creation of a station to compete with Farley’s. As it happened, Swenson knew the concept well: He’d been WTOP’s general manager from 1996 to 1998, hiring Farley away from ABC and nurturing the career of Joel Oxley, who ultimately replaced him. “He taught me how to be a programmer,” Farley says.
To understand how Swenson wants to change Washington radio, look to New York, where he spent 13 years, first at all-news WCBS and then at WINS—you give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world—the station where the format was born. To most mortals, the stations are pretty similar. But listen a while, and you’ll notice that WINS, with its traffic reports on the ones and its sports every half-hour, is a stickler for structure, while WCBS is, at least within the all-news context, a bit more discursive. In Washington, Swenson believes, WTOP’s political shows and call-in fare mean there’s room for a more tightly formatted, WINS-style analogue.
Sure, NPR listeners might say there’s no difference between a station that does five-second sound bites and one that gives people an occasional 30 seconds to sound off, but in the all-news universe, it’s a distinction.
So far, though, news selection seems to be the biggest differentiation. On WNEW, you are more likely to hear local news about crime and the bizarre. While the station likes to promote itself as hyperlocal, there are plenty of Hollywood stories in the mix. At times, WNEW sounds like a podcast of the late night local news, but without the lame banter. WTOP might tip its hat to Washington’s self-image as a national capital full of statesmen and diplomats; WNEW’s listeners are unlikely to learn much about Syria.
Will it work? Looking at the ratings, it’s clear that a challenger wouldn’t have to actually oust WTOP from its perch in order to do well for its owners: The all-news niche is big enough for even a newcomer to grab some easy dough. Last year, WTOP was the top-rated station every month except December, when WASH-FM adopts an all-Christmas format. (“Every December, I get mugged by Burl Ives,” Farley says.) But otherwise, all-newsers can count on Mother Nature, among other allies, to juice ratings. “During Snowmeggdon, WTOP’s numbers went through the roof,” says Jon Miller, Arbitron’s director of programming services.
Politicians are another great friend to local programmers. WTOP’s tops-in-the-nation status is especially remarkable when you consider that Washington only represents the eighth-biggest radio market—but not when you think about its slew of ads from advocacy groups and wannabe federal IT contractors. An election year provides an added incentive. “Citizens United is a great boon for increasing array of advertisers,” says Elizabeth Wilner, vice president for strategic initiatives of the Campaign Media Analysis Group. Unlike political ads for candidates that must be provided at a discounted price, media outlets can charge outside groups what the market will bear. Though most of the political advertising will go to cable television, there is a trickle-down effect that will fill radio station coffers.
“We wanted to launch in January because it is an election year,” says Swenson.
Still, WTOP and WNEW share a lot of apolitical advertisers: Hadid Carpet, Sleepy’s Mattresses, United Bank. “These listeners have a stake in the establishment. They are the home owners and car buyers in the community,” says Michael Harrison, publisher of the radio trade magazine Talkers.
And CBS clearly believes in the concept. To create WNEW, it changed the broadcast frequence of 99.1’s former occupant, the CBS-owned Latin music station El Zol—potentially disrupting a station that did a respectable $10.5 million in 2010 billings and broadcasts in a fast-growing format to a growing demographic. El Zol now lives at 107.9 on the FM dial, which CBS bought from a Christian broadcaster for $8.5 million. All this risky reshuffling for a small, weaker competitor to the region’s top station? “In looking at the listener base for El Zol and what we were trying to do in starting up a brand new all-news station, we felt that El Zol would fit best on 107.9’s signal,” Swenson says. WNEW News Time, 3:36.