Dan Snyder
Dan Snyder Credit: Keith Allison on Flickr / CC 2.0

The local football team’s offseason has been bifurcated into two narratives: One says that, off-field, the team looks like a disaster, primarily because of the sloppy dismissal of well-regarded general manager Scot McCloughan. The other says that the team has actually had a pretty good offseason as far as addressing their roster composition and on-field needs.

But if you factor team owner Dan Snyder’s Red Zebra Broadcasting organization into the mix, the balance seems to tip pretty emphatically toward disaster.

Over the last couple of months, Red Zebra has systematically dismantled its network of local radio stations. According to radio industry watcher Tom Taylor and local media news source Dave Hughes, Radio One bought 92.7 FM (WWXT) and 950 AM (WXGI) in April. Then, a couple of weeks ago, the Educational Media Foundation bought 94.3 FM (WWXX). Finally, a conglomerate called AM 570 LLC, which is affiliated with Christian-themed Salem Media Group, bought 570 AM (WSPZ) last week.

This doesn’t look particularly great even on the surface: The two FM stations simulcast ESPN 980’s content on the clearer FM band with much more reach than the flagship 980 AM (WTEM) has ever shown. Those are gone now.

And 570 served as a complementary channel to ESPN 980, airing more of the sport network’s national programming (which cleared the way for 980 to lean hard local) as well as the live games and associated programming for teams that could be considered second-tier to the D.C. market, notably the Baltimore Orioles for Major League Baseball and the Virginia Cavaliers for NCAA football. That’s gone now.

Red Zebra’s foothold in Richmond was 950, which will continue to broadcast sports content under its Radio One ownership.

All that’s left in the immediate D.C. area is the flagship 980, and there are persistent rumors and reports that it too may be sold off. 

All of that is bad for anyone who likes local sports radio. Regardless of what you think of Snyder or of ESPN 980’s programming decisions, having more locally-focused options is better than having only one. And it’s ominous too for local on-air and behind-the-scenes sports radio talent, who will find an already limited number of gigs squeezed even further. 

And it looks to be a financial train wreck for Red Zebra too. Snyder’s company bought the two FM stations, along with 730 AM, back in 2005 for some $33 million, according to Billboard magazine. After a few years of complaints about weak signals, Red Zebra added 980, 570, and 1260 AM for another reported $24.5 million—an estimated total outlay of nearly $58 million. 

Five years later, the company sold 730 and 1260 for a reported $4.6 million. This year’s sales TOTAL $4.35 million. I’m not a media entrepreneur or a professional industry analyst, but I’m skeptical that a sale of flagship 980 is going to bring in enough to make up the $48 million difference between the purchase prices and the sale prices of all the stations.

You might assume that because Snyder owns both the team and the radio station the rights are somehow tied together, which would certainly boost the value of 980. 

But Chuck Sapienza, who was program director at 980 until 2015, says the rights had never been fully intertwined. “When I worked there,” he says, “we paid for the broadcast rights [to the team’s games]. So if the [Pigskins] wanted to advertise a game on 980, they had to pay the full rate. And if we wanted to get broadcast rights, we had to pay the full rate.” 

The distinction is somewhat moot now, as 980 is no longer the strongest signal in town broadcasting the games. In February, the team announced a deal with Cumulus Media-owned station WMAL to broadcast the games on 105.9 FM and 630 AM.  It was characterized as supplementary to the ESPN 980 coverage but looks different in light of the moves since.

After Red Zebra purchased WTEM in 2008, then-City Paper columnist Dave McKenna wrote a scathing indictment in these pages of Snyder’s many acquisitions and investments: “The pattern seems to be: He takes something over, that thing goes downhill, and before it improves or even gets off the ground, he’s moved on and taken over something else,” McKenna wrote. “You can look it up. His media acquisitions are many and uniformly fruitless.”

With the benefit of almost a decade of hindsight, it looks like McKenna might’ve blown it on one count: Fruitless implies that you gained nothing. Losing $49 million and letting a competitor have the prestige of broadcasting your own games? That’s like taking fruit out of your refrigerator and putting it back on the trees.