Cruise the radio dial on any given morning and you'll hear a glorious aural rainbow, the full spectrum of Washington's tastes. Talk WWRC (980 AM) jabbers away in Silver Spring; WARW (Arrow 94.7 FM) pumps out classic rock from Bethesda; WRCY (107.7 FM) blasts hard-rockin' country outta Manassas; and "lite" jazz WJZW (105.9 FM) dispenses electronic Darvon from Old Town, Alexandria.
Those four stations couldn't be any more different, yet they share one very important thing: their news department. All four stations air newscasts that originate on the 12th floor of a tony Chevy Chase high-rise: the local home of Metro Networks.
Since early 1994, the Houston-based company has quietly taken over the newscasts heard on 10 area stations, including some of the city's most popular. In addition to the stations above, Metro's more notable affiliates include soft-rocker WASH (97.1 FM), '70s nostalgia WXTR (104.1 FM), and hiphop WPGC (1580 AM). Metro executives do an elegant dance when asked how many stations they'll be serving in a year, but it's clear from their talk about adding staff that they expect their client roster to grow significantly in 1996. The stations that use Metro's service say it's a godsend that allows them to serve their listeners better and more cheaply, but some observers are starting to wonder about the wisdom of allowing one company to dominate so many local news outlets.
Better known as the company that delivers most of the city's TV and radio traffic reports, Metro Networks is capitalizing on the fragmented, bottom-line-driven nature of radio by offering affiliates inexpensive customized newscasts designed to fit the station's audience. The company's growth in Washington reflects a national trend in radio toward "out-sourcing" of news. Metro currently provides traffic and/or news in 26 markets. A similar outfit, Philadelphia-based Shadow Broadcast Services, operates in 10 cities, including Washington, where it provides the newscasts heard on seven radio stations, including heavyweights WMMJ (102.3 FM), WOL (1450 AM), WBIG (100.3 FM), and WGMS (103.1 FM).
Metro's client stations maintain near-total control over the newscasts they receive. The stations set the frequency and length of the reports, establish parameters for content, and select an anchorperson from Metro's stable of veteran broadcasters to deliver them. WPGC, for example, which targets men age 18 to 34 and wants to establish itself as a community-oriented station, ordered Metro to provide at least one local news story or community notice in every newscastalong with lots of sports and entertainment information. Business news WBZS (730 AM) pads its satellite-delivered network programming with Metro-provided local news. According to Metro Networks News Director John Irving, WJZW and some other Metro affiliates have banned "cop stuff"murders, fires, etc.from their newscasts. Still others request a focus on city or suburban news.
Metro's broadcasts are designed largely to prevent listeners from sneaking over to all-news WTOP (1500 AM) for an info fix. Metro newscasts consist of no more than three minutes of just-the-facts storieslittle detail, few soundbites, zero analysis (the one exception: its WWRC updates, which run as long as five minutes).
As part of its service, Metro helps affiliates foster the illusion that they produce their own news. When the Metro anchor who services WWRC hits the air, for example, he says, "This is Jim Hawk with an AM-980 news update."
"We strive for invisibility," explains Metro's Vice President/Industry Relations Ted Dorf. "When we're doing a newscast we're an extension of that stationwe are that station." The company is so concerned about protecting this fiction that Dorf initially expressed misgivings about cooperating with this story.
While it aspires to be a true news service, Metro is currently little more than a news-packaging operation. The D.C. office's 14-person news staff, which includes numerous local radio news veterans, does little original reporting. The company culls international and national news from Reuters. It scores most of its D.C. area stories from News Channel 8, the local cable television all-news operation. (Metro, in turn, provides the cable service with traffic reports.) Irving admits that, in the oldest tradition of broadcast news, his staff also borrows liberally from the Washington Post.
Metro barters its services for commercial airtime. For each newscast or traffic report it provides to an affiliate, Metro receives an opening "billboard" (i.e., "This WPGC newscast is brought to you by...") and a 10-second ad at the end of the report, which it in turn sells to sponsors. This is an ideal arrangement for cash-starved stations, which include both small-time operators and big boys looking to cut expenses, such as Westinghouse/CBS-owned WARW.
Of course, outside news providers save large stations money by allowing them to fire their own news people: WWRC terminated at least three staffers when it switched to Metro; WBIG released two newsies upon signing with Shadow. But according to Irving, the growth of Metro and similar services is actually a good thing for the beleaguered radio news profession. In fact, he notes, some of the news-hounds who lost their jobs to Metro and Shadow were subsequently hired by those firms. "We have 14 employees in our news department," he says, "and I have to think that if it weren't for Metro, half of them would be unemployed."
Irving adds that Metro's commitment to producing a solid news product has given radio newspeople a sense that their craft may actually have a future. "The main difference between working at Metro and working at a radio station [news department] is the sense of great optimism at Metro," he says. "There is a feeling that the sky's the limit, that we can deliver whatever the affiliates want. That's a rare commodity in radio news today."
Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) President David Bartlett agrees. "Metro has created radio news jobs," he says. "And it's producing a good product; it's not quick and dirty. It's a net positive."
No one doubts that having one or two companies provide all the news heard on a quarter of Washington's radio stations well serves those companies, their customers, and radio news people with mortgages to pay. But what about local radio listeners? Are they being manipulated by a Big Brother monopoly?
Since the 1930s, federal communications policy has striven to protect the diversity of broadcasters in local communities. The Federal Communication Commission's broadcast ownership limits are founded on the fear that one individual or company could control what is disseminated over the airwaves. In a market the size of Washington, a single entity cannot own more than four radio stationstwo AM and two FM. (Legislation pending in Congress will likely raise that limit.) Yet from a regulatory standpoint, it would be perfectly acceptable for Metro Networks to provide every news report heard on every radio station in the D.C. area.
Andrew Schwartzman, who heads the Media Access Project, views Metro Networks and its ilk as one more way for broadcasters to duck their public interest obligations.
"The reason stations are licensed to specific communities, and the reason you get a broadcast license for free is [that] there is a presumption the licensee is going to provide the audience with a perspective of someone who is part of the community, presumably a perspective that is different from another person licensed to broadcast in that community.
"When everyone gets their news from one place, it's like having McDonald's that are owned by different franchisees. The ownership is different, but the food is all the same."
Even radio people admit they are a bit uneasy with the notion of one organization purveying so much news. But, they quickly add, the alternative is at least as bad. Economic reality dictates that many radio stations simply can't afford to produce their own news.
"I don't want to seem indifferent on this issue," says the RTNDA's Bartlett, "but [the advent of Metro] is both good and bad. It's good in that it allows stations that couldn't or wouldn't do local news to do so. There are more newscasts on the air today than there were four years ago. It's bad in that all that news is coming from one source. I'll always prefer lively competition, but if the market doesn't allow that," Metro is a tolerable alternative.
That kind of talk from radio folk infuriates Schwartzman. The lack of in-house radio news, he argues, partially resulted from the deregulation that freed stations from minimum news requirements and relaxed ownership rules. Broadcastersincluding Bartlett, he notespushed hard for that deregulation.
"David Bartlett continues his yearslong effort to destroy every principle his members hold dear," says Schwartzman. "Deregulation destroyed radio news jobs and created an environment in which news directors are content to have cookie-cutter jobs [like those at Metro]."
While Schwartzman's concerns about the homogeneity of radio news cannot be dismissed, it's hard to view Metro Networks as a serious threat to the Republic. The company is simply providing minimalist news to music-oriented radio stations that would otherwise fill that time by tossing on another record. The Associated Press and UPI broadcast divisions have been doing roughly the same thing for years. With the exception of talk-radio WWRC, the stations that Metro serves have no interest in influencing the public; in fact, they are loath to air anything that even hints at controversy. (When is the last time you heard an editorial on the radio?)
And while it's true that public opinion can be manipulated simply through story selection, Metro's practice of custom-tailoring newscasts for its affiliates means that different stories will be heard on various stations. Those who fret about one company having too much control over the local news should forget about Metro Networks and start thinking about the Washington Post. CP