Achenblog Meets Raw Fisher--On the Radio
The announcement this month that Washington Post Radio will debut in March on the frequencies now used by all-news WTOP has many readers wondering what the new station will sound like and what impact this will have on the newspaper and here on the big web site. Those of us at the Post are also trying to find the budding Charles Osgoods, Rush Limbaughs and Howard Sterns in the meek masses of the newsroom.
Dr. Joel Achenbach of Achenblog fame and I exchanged email about this venture and today we post that discussion on both blogs simultaneously, a simultaneous electronic exposition by two print guys about radio and the future of the news biz. Dr. Achenbach issued the opening remarks:
Achenbach: Marc -- can I call you Marc? -- or do I have to call you by your new first name, "Raw"? -- I am hoping you can give a quick briefing on the significance of the Post starting a radio station (and all-news WTOP shifting to FM, and so on). Are we thrilled by this? Is this our big break, finally, after languishing for years as ink-stained wretches in the dead-tree industry? Or are we skeptical, because of complex reasons involving things like signal strength and the moribunditude of the AM band? Do we really have enough time and creative energy to produce all that radio programming? And are listeners hungry for objective journalism over the airwaves, or will they demand that we fulminate? Sorry for the MIRVed email.
Fisher: Lieber Herr Professor Achenbach!
Welcome to the wonderful world of radio, as we bravely charge into the wonders of multimedia synergy. (Oh, we already did that? It's oh-so-90s? Ah yes, AOL and Time Warner and all that. Right.)
Well, here we go, hacking our way into the past! Yes, that's the ticket. And no, I'm not being snide. For the Washington Post to go into radio--and AM radio to boot--is deliciously retro, and that's the right move because when old media get smacked around by new technologies, they almost always find their future in the discard pile. So while the whole media landscape is aflutter over how micro-niched and atomized popular culture is becoming, we grab lustily for AM radio and revisit its power to reach nearly everyone. There is a demographic problem here, in that the average age of AM listeners may exceed even that of print newspaper readers, but Washington Post Radio will be both on 1500 AM and on 107.7 FM, which you can't really hear here in Washington, but which booms out like a beacon of yore across much of northern and central Virginia. The folks in Charlottesville will love this.
So what will we do on Washington Post Radio? Supposedly, we'll offer listeners something in between the headline machine of all-news radio and the serious reportage of National Public Radio. Ideally, we'll be newsy, fun, chatty, funny and insightful. More likely, we'll have some of that and some, well, stumbling analysis from news people who really don't know radio. Bottom line: We don't know what we'll sound like quite yet, because we haven't got the programming ready. But the idea of letting listeners in the D.C. area hear the voices of the people they've been reading for years is a good one--building personalities is a major step toward building loyalty to Washington Post journalism.
But you're right to ask about priorities and time, because reporters need to be able to get out of the building and sink into stories, and if they're busy prepping an appearance on radio or TV, they're not out collecting facts and scenes. So what's the answer?
Achenbach: All I know is, you're going to be bigger than Howard Stern.
Seriously my first thought on this radio gig is, shouldn't we get a bigger signal? Our own satellite, maybe? If we're going to do it, why not aim for total global radio domination? The other day on WTEM, Mr. Tony and the sports guys were saying that if WTOP leaves for FM, the AM band will be even more of a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. But that presupposes that WaPoRad at 1500 will have fewer listeners than WTOP. I say in 6 months we're the new kings of local radio and we can't AFFORD to pause in our radio broadcasting duties to do something as time-consuming as report and write stories. Marc, you're going to have a microphone surgically installed into your sternum.
You mention amateurs who "don't know radio." Give us all a quick clinic in good radio. How fast do we have to talk? Do we have to learn how to wrap it up? Do we have to have a POINT, like a topic sentence, or can we just kind of blather for a while and hope that in the process we'll figure out our message?
You ask for some solution to the resource problem. Yes, you're correct, if a reporter is prepping for radio or TV, he or she isn't out pounding the pavement, digging up stories. My guess, though I haven't talked to them (who has time to report this stuff out EVEN IN OUR OWN BUILDING?), is that the bosses would like the radio stuff to be ancillary to the main job, sort of a drive-by thing. In my experience, multi-media multi-tasking is a great way to become pathologically scatter-brained. But it's also fun, and for many reporters it'll be a terrific opportunity to do something new and different. Readers and listeners will like it. The biggest logistical problem isn't time, so much as patronage. Synergy sounds great at the off-site group hug, but not on deadline on a typical Wednesday afternoon. I've learned something about the value of editors while blogging in the past year; editors aren't just people who make your copy better and save you from you!r worst instincts, they also are advocates. The less something is edited, the less it is sponsored. So to make the radio thing work, editors have to have incentives for their reporters to wander off to the mike in the middle of the day. Otherwise the radio station will be begging and cajoling and groveling and ultimately trying to survive on a diet of wild nuts and berries.
Fisher: I think you're onto something there, chief. As leader of a small but tight cult, you know the importance of incentives, and other than the nice little ego stroke of hearing yourself on the radidio, there's not much reason for newspaper people to want to set aside their reporting and writing time to go on the radio. But we live in desperate times and as newspaper circulation dives and online readership climbs, we in the news biz are looking for ways to reach the news-consuming public and maintain a great big newsgathering infrastructure.
Maybe radio can help; it is, after all, the most intimate of media, and that's essential in a period in which personalities, opinion and beliefs matter more than they did in the half-century of Serious Journalism.
So: What will Washington Post Radio sound like? I now speculate with no inside knowledge of any kind. But I expect it will be not dissimilar from the appearances that Post writers already make on radio shows scattered around the dial--Stephen Hunter sharing the best bits from his movie reviews on one of the morning zoo shows, Tony Kornheiser (if he will deign to slice up his media empire a trifle more narrowly) on the latest doings in the Sportlight Spotlight (free lunch to the first reader who catches that reference without Googling), Broder and Balz and the rest of the politics pod, your own enlightened speculations on the origins of the universe, Tracy Grant on what kids are up to, and on and on. But instead of doing three minutes on Russ Parr or Jack Diamond's morning show or 90 seconds on Morning Edition or 20 minutes on Kojo Nnamdi, we'll be doing it 14 hours a day on Washington Post Radio. (And nobody asked me, but I'd call our station just about anything except that. You want folks to get connected with our writers and personalities and make the connection to the Post in their own minds; you don't want to hit them over the head with the fact that a large company that already dominates the news in this region is now branching out into another space. People don't like anything that has a faint odor of monopoly, but people do respect and value the credibility of an authoritative and trustworthy provider of fact and insight.)
So what should we call it? And what Post show would you most keenly look forward to tuning into?
Marcus, wait, do we have to worry about what the listeners actually want? That's going to complicate things. It's hard enough keeping track of our own instincts and impulses without trying to monitor the desires of the general public. Remember how things were in the old days, when newspapers were fat and happy, and we'd just impose upon the public whatever we thought the public ought to read? Them was the glory days.
The name, I'm sorry, has to be Washington Post Radio for the same reason that the website isn't called "washington.com," which I think was one of the early candidates. The whole point of the station is to promote the brand, and the brand is The Washington Post. You say people don't like monopolies: What kind of shaggy, bean-sprout-chewing, love-bead-wearing freaks are you hanging around with these days, Marc? Thanks for the bulletin from the ashram. Americans are huge supporters of monopolies and near-monopolies (Microsoft, Wal-Mart, the Republican Party). Calling it Washington Post Radio also has the merit of being descriptive.
OK, here's an alternative: Call it At The Post.
"This is At The Post, 1500 AM, 107.7 FM, and worldwide, at www.atthepost.com."
"It's 7 minutes after the hour At The Post, time for traffic and movie reviews on the 7s with Lisa Baden and Stephen Hunter."
"Coming up At The Post, Marc Fisher carves up the DC Council and serves it to stray cats in his alley."
And so on.
Don't get Michael Mooreish on me, oh cosmic one. You know as well as any of us the anti-mainstream media fervor out there, and the last thing any big news organization should be doing right now is exuding heft. That said, we should be trumpeting what we do best and what we offer that no one else does, and that is our depth and our range. Only a large news organization with a deep commitment to accountability reporting, foreign and local news, and a serious selection of topics can act as a real check against power of all sorts, and the Post's challenge is to send that message to a new generation of flittering, skeptical readers. This web site helps show what a big newsroom of dedicated writers and reporters can do to add value to the ordinary, generic headlines that dominate the web. A radio station can help bring all that alive in even more intimate and direct ways. But whatever we call the thing, we have to guard against arrogance, boredom and superficiality; to put it more simply, we can't let ourselves become TV news.
So onward into the ionosphere, where the radio waves play and a million voices blend into the collective noise of a planet drowning in information. Whatever the Post ends up doing on the radio, it won't be Howard 100 News, the PR drivel I've been listening to on Howard Stern's new Sirius satellite channel. It will be something new, which is kind of fun. See you on the radio.
By Marc Fisher |
January 23, 2006; 7:38 AM ET
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