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

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The WNEW newsroom in Lanham, Md., looks like disc jockeys hijacked an accounting firm. The space is subleased from Pitney-Bowes, the postage-meter company, and has never been a radio station before. The corner offices have been turned into studios and editing bays, with touch-screen monitors and sleek control boards. Reporters and editors sit in a cluster of cubes in the center. In late January, a week into the WNEW’s operations, engineers were still soundproofing.

Robert Sanchez, WNEW’s director of programming, says that all the equipment is state-of-art and that the station uses a software operating system, called Burli, that makes it easier to drop in live reports on the fly. “It’s specially designed for news radio,” he says. A week later, when asked about the dropped calls and unintended silences on WNEW, Swenson blamed the mistakes on the technology. “The technical system that we had purchased for operating our news station had software glitches that took the vendor time to figure out and correct,” he says. “That has all now been corrected.”

But the best technology means nothing if people can’t hear your station. WNEW’s signal from its Bowie, Md., transmitter is strong in the District and from the eastern Maryland suburbs to Baltimore, but not as powerful on the west side of the region. On the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, WNEW sounds scratchy where WTOP comes in loud and clear. “They just don’t have a killer signal,” says Dave Hughes, a self-described “radio freak” and owner of DCRTV.com. Hughes says he’s heard that CBS is looking to buy a station to boost its signal on the west side of the D.C. metro area, possibly 99.9 in Frederick, Md. Swenson says there are no plans to buy other stations.

WTOP listeners will recognize some familiar voices on WNEW. Lisa Baden, who works for Total Traffic Network, does the perma-perky traffic report she did on WTOP for 14 years until the station decided to move the operations in-house in 2010. Anchors Evan Haning, Chas Henry, and Amy Morris also came from WTOP. So did news director Michelle Komes Dolge, who worked her way up from secretary to news director during her 17-year career there. Komes Dolge had been out of the radio business for 11 years when Swenson offered her the job last fall. “I think all the time being a mom in Chevy Chase, D.C., made me appreciate radio more as a listener,” she says. Local radio remains a small world: Mike McMearty, the current WTOP news director, is godfather to Komes Dolge’s two children.

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None of the WTOP refugees will talk smack about their former home. Still, several of them say the new work environment is different—both because it’s a new project and because it’s run by Sanchez, a Brooklynite who says he’s pushing for a faster-paced workplace. He wakes up at 5 a.m. and walks his wheaten terrier, Elmo, in Adams Morgan. Sanchez hears a lot of what he calls “process stories” on WTOP. “They want to hold on to you,” he says. “We want you to turn us on and get the news. It’s like the coffee and egg sandwich at Starbucks. You get what you want whenever you want it,” says Sanchez, who was assistant director of news and programming for WCBS and has worked at WINS.

Komes Dolge starts dispatching the station’s eight reporters at 5 a.m., each of them driving a shiny Chevy Equinox with the WNEW logo. “I want the reporters in the field, not in the office,” she says. The shifts are staggered so there is at least one reporter on duty from 4 a.m. to midnight. WNEW attempts to build a sense of urgency with shorter news reports and live segments from reporters; it’s about quick hits, whether it’s Metro installing an escalator at Dupont Circle or a body in the well in Fort Washington, Md., or—oddly—an outbreak of feline herpes at the Isle of Wight, Va., animal shelter in the Hampton Roads area.

A new all-news station, obviously, means the maximum number of radio reporters out in the field. But it’s doubtful that this air battle will produce a series of splashy scoops. When I asked Swenson what stories he’s proudest of after a month of operation, he says this: “Our focus during the first month has been on our audience and helping them learn where things are in our format. No time to do anything else but deliver our promise to our listeners.” So it is the utility of the format that will win listeners in a war of attribution. A decade from now, if WNEW is still on the air, you will be getting weather information updated every four minutes. WNEW News Time, 3:40.

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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