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

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All-news radio has a well-established place in D.C.’s media diet because it’s hard to watch TV or surf the Internet while driving. Maybe robot cars will one day change that dynamic and we can all laugh at YouTube videos of cats during our commutes. In the meantime, the hours of listening to WNEW for this story have formed a habit.

I’m driving back from lunch at National Harbor with my wife during President Day’s weekend. She is worried about possibility of snowstorms. Even though the signal fades in and out as we head to the District, I tune into WNEW because I know I only have to wait four minutes for a weather report. Like the station’s tag line says, “When you need to know, we’ve got you covered.”

In handicapping the performance of WNEW, the early results won’t matter much. But the latest weekly ratings from Arbitron aren’t encouraging. WNEW ranked 38th in the D.C. market in the first week of February, down one spot from the previous week. “WNEW is getting zero traction so far,” Farley says. “They had a rough launch.” Hughes thinks WNEW will rank somewhere between 15th and 17th in the ratings once it gets going. “They really haven’t been doing a lot of advertising for the station yet. I don’t think many people know about the station unless they’ve read about it in the Washington Post,” he says.

I expect WNEW is warming up its marketing machine. CBS cross-promotes WNEW with some of the six D.C. radio stations it owns. WNEW’s sports report comes from 106.7 The Fan and Tommy McFly from 94.7 Fresh FM dishes on Hollywood. Swenson says he expects WNEW to make more than $10 million—about one-sixth of WTOP’s revenue—this year. That seems likes an easy hurdle to clear. Walking out of CBS’ offices in Lanham, Swenson tells me the company’s lease expires in two years. “We’re looking at places in the District,” he says.

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It’s spring-like night in late February on Georgia Avenue. I tuned into WNEW to check the traffic and weather on my drive home from the gym. The station gives me the headlines of stories I’ve read already online. Then the anchor is cut off mid-sentence by a Sleepy’s commercial. A minute later she is back and turns the broadcast over to Bob in the traffic center. But Bob is not there—or doesn’t make a sound. At least five seconds pass before she continues with a story about the upcoming premiere of the Hunger Games movie. Two minutes later, Bob is back. He gives his traffic report and the anchor tells me the time and temperature. WNEW News Time, 3:48.

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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