Why Washington Post Radio Died
(Jump to bottom for an update on what will replace Washington Post Radio.)
From its sudden and fascinating inception to its slow and awkward demise, Washington Post Radio was a work in progress. It never came close to fulfilling its original promise--"NPR on caffeine," in the spicy phrase of the newspaper's radio-TV guru, Tina Gulland--but it was a radio station bubbling with possibilities.
Not that many listeners cared to explore those possibilities. The radio station--which will die next month by mutual consent of its clumsily-paired parents, The Washington Post and Bonneville broadcasting--never showed much of a pulse in the ratings, even though its programming ran on one of the most powerful and storied spots on Washington's radio dial, the former home of all-news WTOP.
In an era of rapid change in the news and media businesses, when both print newspapers and broadcast radio stations are seeing huge chunks of their audience migrate to online news and entertainment sources, Washington Post Radio was an experiment in stretching the idea that it doesn't really matter through what platform you get your news--what's important, rather, is who the storytellers are.
From the start in March of last year, Post Radio was intended to serve several purposes: 1) Promote the Post's print and online journalism by reaching a new audience on the radio. 2) Create another outlet for Post reporting and thereby add one more justification for keeping a big, sprawling newsroom at a paper that, like almost all U.S. papers, is otherwise shrinking its staff. 3) Give Bonneville, the owner of all-news WTOP and several other D.C. radio stations, a way to capture some of the Washington region's enormous audience for public radio's more in-depth and upscale news and information programming. 4) Build on the powerful profits that WTOP draws as the dominant local station in morning drive time.
The radio industry by and large found the experiment intriguing but foolhardy--a difficult marriage of two very different news cultures. The station, owned by Bonneville in a contract with the Post, was managed primarily by executives at WTOP's headquarters on Idaho Avenue NW in McLean Gardens, while most of the people who appeared on the station sat in a studio built in the Post's downtown newsroom. Both companies provided producers who worked in their respective newsrooms organizing each day's programming.
Not long after Post Radio launched, National Public Radio helped local public stations WAMU (88.5 FM) and WETA (90.9 FM) finance a series of focus groups with listeners "to help us see what Washington Post Radio would mean to us," said Caryn Mathes, general manager of WAMU, the third-most listened to public station in the nation, after outlets in New York and San Francisco.
The four focus groups were united in their perceptions of Post Radio: Listeners said that after they tuned in to the Post station, which launched with the slogan "There's always more to the story," "there wasn't more to the story," Mathes said. "People felt the station didn't deliver on deeper, more insider kind of stuff from the reporters who were on the air."
For the Post's hundreds of reporters and editors, going on the radio was something new. From the start, some people were good at it, some were just awful and a lot perhaps had potential, but didn't have much idea of what we were doing. This was learning by doing--in a very public way.
At first, the idea was to create a throwback to radio's golden era, with a station designed like a magazine, with different departments each hour--an hour on travel from the folks in the paper's Travel section, an hour with the editors from Book World, an hour of politics, and so on. But with the station making not a blip in the ratings and with its producers increasingly convinced that too many of the Post's writers had perhaps chosen a career in print for a good reason, the executives at Bonneville quickly moved to scrap the original format and go to something they knew more intimately--a tightly-organized hourly clock with different stories and personalities appearing every five minutes or so.
Listeners had every reason to wonder what had happened to the increased depth they had been promised. Print editors accustomed to a more serious news menu clashed with radio producers who argued that their medium required a more populist and lowbrow selection of stories. In each newsroom, too many people rolled their eyes over the cluelessness of their cross-town partners.
When the radio-side producers one morning invited on the air and lightly questioned some nutball hawking a conspiracy theory about how the U.S. government had arranged for the 9/11 attacks, editors in the Post newsroom went ballistic. Although many attempts would follow to find a happy medium between the two news sensibilities, the basic reservoir of mutual respect had dropped suddenly and permanently to a dangerous low.
At its best, Washington Post Radio was a comfortable, personable and conversational way to learn what was in that day's newspaper and sometimes even to get the story behind the story. The station's anchors were top-shelf professionals, from NBC veteran Bob Kur and former local TV weather forecaster Hillary Howard to CBS and NPR newsman Sam Litzinger and longtime local radio host David Burd. And some of the Post's voices worked splendidly on radio, winning praise within the industry and from listeners as well--Lisa deMoraes on television, Stephen Hunter on movies, Emilio Garcia-Ruiz on sports, and columnist Gene Robinson on just about anything.
Sometimes, the theory behind the station became reality, and a foreign correspondent could phone in from the scene of an earth-moving event with the kind of firsthand account that radio was invented to deliver. More often, however, the reporters who came on the air did little more than repeat what they'd said in that morning's paper.
In the end, there were too many oh-my-God, Martha, this person is freezing up live on the radio moments. A Book World segment crashed and burned when a writer insisted on reading his pearls of wisdom verbatim from his newspaper work. And on more occasions than either side cared to admit, reporters were told to come on the air to talk about one story, only to go live and hear an anchorman ask them about something wholly different, about which the reporter knew not a thing.
In the end, though, Post Radio's competitors say it was the basic concept that was flawed: "It sounded like a bad college seminar where neither the professors nor the students knew how to keep anyone listening," said the program director of an FM music station who asked not to be named because he might work with people at Bonneville in the future.
And from the other end of radio's spectrum, this from the chief of the region's most powerful public radio outlet: "This assumption that people don't have an attention span is kind of offensive," WAMU's Mathes said. "People who want a deep contextual approach to news do have an attention span."
For those of us who tried our hand at radio, Washington Post Radio was enormous fun, a chance to dive into a form that might seem similar, but really requires very different skills. The idea that Post executives fell in love with remains an important one: If the American newspaper is to survive as the basic foundation of newsgathering in this country, the companies that produce daily papers will have to find ways to sell their wares in various other media. But what the demise of Post Radio teaches is that that expansion into other crafts will mean that news organizations must hire and train people with a different set of talents and passions, and that inevitably entails a different concept of what the news is. It's a new world out there. Read all about it.
2:30 PM UPDATE:
This just in from Bonneville, the owner of the stations at 1500 AM and 107.7 FM, as well as 820 AM in Frederick, that were Washington Post Radio--the new station will be called Talk Radio 3WT and will feature syndicated right wing talkers Neal Boortz and Glenn Beck, as well as liberal talker Stephanie Miller.
Here's the text of a press release from Bonneville's local boss, Joel Oxley:
WASHINGTON, D.C. August 28, 2007 Bonneville International Corporation announced today that it will replace Washington Post Radio (WTWP) on 1500 AM, 107.7 FM and 820 AM with a personality-driven station, Talk Radio 3WT (call letters WWWT).
Talk Radio 3WT will feature a lineup of personalities currently heard on the station - David Burd, Jessica Doyle, "The Tony Kornheiser Show," and Pat Goss - along with established,
nationally-recognized personalities Neal Boortz, Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Stephanie Miller, as well as play-by-play sports. The station's slogan will be "Left, Right, and Whatever We Want," reflecting 3WT's diverse collection of personalities and opinions.
Earlier this week, Bonneville International Corporation and The Washington Post agreed to end their broadcast alliance which had resulted in the creation of Washington Post Radio.
Washington Post Radio, owned and operated by Bonneville International Corporation, was a collaborative effort which launched in March 2006 and featured station hosts interviewing editors, reporters and columnists at The Washington Post.
"Washington Post Radio was a tremendous experiment in broadcasting, and it was wonderful working with The Washington Post, a world-class newspaper," says Bonneville D.C. Sr. VP Joel Oxley. "While many advertisers were satisfied with the results the station generated, we just did not garner the Arbitron ratings we had hoped for. When we launched the 'Tony Kornheiser Show,' it was met with such success that we realized we needed to take the station in the direction of personality-driven talk with more opinion and less hard news. Since this did not meet the original vision of Washington Post Radio, The Washington Post and Bonneville mutually agreed to end the broadcast alliance."
"We'll continue to work together as media professionals as we always have," Oxley added. "The Washington Post has a huge array of talented people that we've featured for years on our radio stations in many capacities, and we will continue to do so. We're fortunate to have a great relationship with, and access to, one of the finest organizations with some of the best professionals in the world."
3WT will debut on 1500 AM, 107.7 FM, and 820 AM in Frederick on September 20.
By Marc Fisher |
August 28, 2007; 6:08 AM ET
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