Radio Reeling--the Update and Analysis
Updating my earlier post on the radio whirlygig that hit Washington today:
Three big headlines:
1) Z-104 is dead and gone. The rock/pop hybrid station searched unsuccessfully for a niche somewhere between DC-101's rock sounds and the more pop sensibilities of Hot 99.5, classic rocker The Arrow and the lighter, more adult Mix 107.3. Now, Z is history and 35 or so employees are looking for work. Z's demise follows the loss of rock stations in many major markets; New York now stands as the nation's largest market without any rock on the radio.
2) FM is king. This is in some ways a 25-year-old story, but the move of all-news WTOP from 1500 AM to 103.5 FM means that Bonneville, a big and smart radio company, has decided that especially in this market, where AM signals have always been weak, the generations that have grown up knowing almost exclusively the FM radio band are now dominant and therefore it's time to close the books on AM. WTOP is the best AM radio signal in the Washington region--I actually picked up the station in Florida late last night. But for most folks under the age of 40, there's simply never a reason to flip over to the AM dial. WTOP was the exception to that rule for some; now they'll be able to live comfortably on FM, if they're tuning into old-fashioned broadcast radio at all, rather than plugging in their iPod or using one of the new web radio gadgets that will be available for cars very soon.
3) The for-profit radio world is finally waking up to the fact that public radio's approach to news and talk is popular and reaches a highly valued demographic of educated and affluent listeners. Thus, it makes sense for Bonneville to serve this, one of public radio's most successful markets, with a more high-end news product than WTOP's headline service can offer. That's why Bonneville will turn 1500 AM in Washington and 107.7 FM in Warrenton into Washington Post Radio. There were conflicting reports today about how Washington Post Radio will run; on-air reports on WTOP say that WTOP anchors and reporters will be interviewing Washington Post reporters, while the Post's annoucements make it sound more like the Post will be providing the content itself. However it shakes out when the venture starts in March, the radio station will be owned and run by Bonneville/WTOP. There is a lovely bit of historical circuity here: WTOP was owned by the Washington Post for many years until a 1960s divestment at the same time that the Post donated WTOP-FM to Howard University, which then created WHUR (96.3 FM).
And there are some lesser headlines as well...
The move is being made to allow all-news WTOP to move more of its operation to FM, where the great majority of the listeners are. AM radio has long been weak in Washington; this move will likely mean that even fewer local listeners ever tune to the AM band--that's bad news for the other AM stations, especially talk WMAL and sports talk WTEM. WTOP-FM will move to 103.5 FM, until now the home of classical WGMS, which will shift over to the 104.1 frequency that Z is vacating. That's an unfortunate move for the highly successful WGMS, which will now have trouble reaching big chunks of its affluent, educated audience in upper Northwest and lower Montgomery County, where the z-104 signal is very weak.
WTOP's current FM outlet, at 107.7 FM in Warrenton, served Virginia well, but was not really audible in Maryland or the District. That frequency will be home to the new Washington Post Radio.
Not clear yet what this means for Nationals and Redskins fans--Z-104 was the Nats' main station last season. Unclear if Bonneville will retain those rights or which station would carry the games. The Redskins' deal with WJFK is ending and owner Dan Snyder is moving to buy the three Spanish language stations owned by Mega in order to create his own all-sports local network, but those stations' signals are so weak that that cannot be the entire solution for the Skins' casts. More later.
---The Washington Nationals get a stronger and more appropriate home, moving to 1500 AM from the awful signals of last season's broadcasts on Z-104 and WFED, a very low powered, daytime AM station that Bonneville uses for its Federal News Radio service. Will that Washington Post/Washington Nationals station also be the new home of Washington Redskins gamecasts? Bonneville hopes so. Dan Snyder's deal with WJFK and CBS Radio expires at the end of this season and Snyder is moving to buy three small Spanish-language stations in town, ostensibly to begin creating a little local network of Redskins Radio stations. But none of those stations reaches the heart of the DC metro area well, so Snyder may also need to make a deal with Bonneville.
---These moves mark a sad and significant diminution of WGMS, the very popular and successful classical music commercial station that Bonneville owns. WGMS moved today from the powerful signal at 103.5 FM to a weak one at 104.1 FM. That means much less coverage for exactly those parts of town where the classical audience is most concentrated--upper Northwest DC and lower Montgomery County. To soften the blow, Bonneville announced it will add two subcarriers of more serious classical tunes and of vocal music, but that will be available only to owners of the newfangled digital radio receivers that are just now coming on the market. They still cost more than $500, so this is a longterm concept.
---The Nationals broadcast team says goodbye to Dave Shea, the jovial but clumsy sidekick to the Nats' dynamic and winning play-by-play man, Charlie Slowes. Excellent move, as is the departure from the TV side of the Nats' broadcast operation of color commentator Ron Darling, who was possibly the worst sportscaster in town last season. He'll take his reticent, dull act to New York, to join the Mets broadcasts. No word on a replacement, and no sign of progress toward getting the Nats games on TV this year.
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