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

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WTOP’s offices—the“glass-enclosed nerve center” that listeners hear about every seven minutes—sits in D.C.’s posh McLean Gardens neighborhood. Editors and producers sit at a long table in the middle of the newsroom and watch a bank of flat screen televisions that faces the central studio. Web writers crank out copy under a large, clear placard of the First Amendment. The three-person traffic department is crammed into a corner space. They’ll be getting larger digs down the hall soon.

In the studio, it’s a whirl of sound cues and button pushes as Dimitri Sotis and Sean Anderson anchor afternoon drive time on the Monday after the Super Bowl. Sotis tweets as Anderson reads the news. Then Sotis takes over as Anderson makes notes on his scripts. I ask questions during commercial breaks. The guys answer right up to the time they have to go on, at which point they immediately switch into slightly deeper and more robust announcer voices. Sotis compares the process to the movie Minority Report, when Tom Cruise’s character is trying to solve a crime before it happens by pulling in data from a variety of computer screens. Sotis’ metaphor seems appropriate as the show chugs along. “It’s a rush you can’t get anywhere else,” Anderson says.

One thing WTOP’s Sotis and Anderson, and probably every other news-radio anchor on Earth, for that matter, want you to know is that they are not just ripping and reading a script. It’s well-choreographed theater of the mind when done correctly—and an embarrassing round of silence and excuses when it fails. Anchors at both WTOP and WNEW run the control board, cuing up sounds, interviews, and commercials. Having an engineer at a radio station is like having a secretary: It doesn’t happen much anymore in the modern world. Nancy Lyons, WNEW’s afternoon anchor and an NPR veteran, explains it this way: “At NPR, I maybe had to juggle four inputs during a broadcast. Here, I have 25 inputs every half an hour,” she says. “A flawless 30 minutes feels great.”

WTOP’s Farley says he’s not changing anything because of WNEW. He calls D.C. radio a “crowded market” and says WNEW will have difficulty carving out a niche. He remembers the failure of Washington Post Radio, the 17-month partnership between Bonneville International (then WTOP’s owner) and the Washington Post. “Washington’s appetite for news is not limitless,” Farley says.

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That said, WNEW’s arrival preceded by four days an unscripted change at its bigger rival: The abrupt Jan. 26 departure of its political commentator, Mark Plotkin. Neither Farley nor Plotkin would discuss the exit—which was reportedly connected to workplace personality issues—but, for the time being, his free-ranging and idiosyncratic program has been replaced by news. “Because of our partnership with Politico and access to the big names on the networks, we don’t need our own political specialist. Instead, we’ll add another general assignment reporter,” Farley says.

“It’s very abbreviated, but it serves a purpose,” Plotkin says of the WNEW’s format, which he has listened to twice since its debut. He declines comment on WTOP’s programming choices after his departure.

Drive-time broadcasts may sound similar, but you don’t have to be a media professional to notice the difference between the rival stations’ websites. WNEW’s is a cookie-cutter template used by other CBS stations; WTOP’s is a fully integrated digital operation. WNEW’s talent try to put the best face on this and spin it as a good thing. “What comes first is what we do on the air,” WNEW’s Komes Dolge says. “I don’t want anchors Facebooking when they are on the air.” But she also says she appreciates it when reporters tweet between radio hits.

Meanwhile, Farley is obsessed with beating the competition on breaking news email alerts: WTOP sent out a breaking news alert at 10:33 a.m. on Feb. 8 announcing that federal employees would be permitted to take unscheduled leave because of a possible snowstorm. The alert beat Channel 4’s by seven minutes and the Washington Post’s by 18 minutes. The snowstorm never came.

The obsession is not limited to local news. WTOP filed a news alert about the 9th Circuit Court in California striking down Proposition 8, the state’s voter-passed ban on gay marriage, at 1:04 p.m. CNN filed an alert a minute later, Politico at 1:11 p.m., the Washington Post at 1:16 p.m. and the New York Times at 1:19 p.m. WNEW doesn’t even send breaking news alerts by email.

But here’s the real takeaway for a print guy who visits an all-news newsroom: Everyone seems kind of happy. Metropolitan daily newspapers have their share of sad sacks mourning the halcyon days of pre-Internet money and influence. If radio is doomed in an age of media streaming, few people at either the fledgling WNEW or the entrenched WTOP seem to have gotten the message. “There are fewer S.O.B.s per square foot than any other place I’ve worked, except maybe WTOP,” says Haning, WNEW’s afternoon anchor. WNEW News Time, 3:44.

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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