WNEWs Steve Swensens Steve Swensen
WNEWs Steve Swensens Steve Swensen Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

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Tune into 99.1 FM and drown. They’re not lying. It really is all news. And it really is all the time: A stabbing at a Montgomery County McDonald’s! George Huguely on trial for murder! New Beatles ringtones for iPhone! Transvaginal ultrasounds! Plus there’s some heavy traffic on the Beltway—but no accidents—and a high of 60 degrees on the National Mall with cooler temperatures expected this weekend. In another four minutes, an anchor will tell you the temperature once again. WNEW News Time, 3:28.

So much for socially-networked media hype. WNEW, D.C.’s newest radio station, is as sexy as an alarm clock. And it’s meant to be: It turns out that the folks at CBS Radio have determined that embracing this most mundane information delivery system represents their best chance of challenging WTOP, Washington’s first all-news radio station and currently the top billing station in the country.

“Successful all-news radio stations are usually one of the most profitable radio formats,” says Steve Swenson, the CBS executive who oversees WNEW. “They typically are either the number one, two, or three top billing radio stations in a market.” WTOP has dominated Washington’s airwaves since 1969 by using the format. Only about a dozen markets are big enough to support a station doing nothing but the staccato headlines that qualify as “all-news.” And now, with the arrival of WNEW, Washington joins just three others—New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia—that host two such stations.

Radio matters more than you would think in this age of iToys, social media, and near-infinite choice. Media research firm Arbitron estimates radio reaches more than 93 percent of Americans a dozen times each week. In a wealthy area like Washington, thick with influence, traffic, and yuppies, having a top-tier radio station can mean big money. WTOP billed an estimated $57 million in 2010, the most recent figures available. Who wouldn’t want to snag a chunk of that—especially in a market where the advocacy ads aimed at insiders run hot even when the regular capitalist economy is icy?

Sure, the concept of a radio war may seem as retro as a Journey cover band. But, digital media hype notwithstanding, it’s not the only retro aspect of how some Washingtonians consume news. For instance, about 16% of us still get our news primarily from radio, and roughly 60% of those listeners tune in while driving. And when we drive, many of us want headlines, traffic, and weather information fired straight at us. WNEW News Time, 3:32.

WNEW began broadcasting on a Sunday afternoon in late January. It was not an auspicious start. There were technical problems and dead air. Newbie anchors bungled the names of towns, streets, and newsmakers. Live feeds from the field were dropped.

The comment section of DCRTV.com, a website that has covered the local radio and television scene since 1997, became a den of WNEW haters. One anonymous commenter, MLB4, wrote on Feb. 12, “The WNEW weekend and overnight anchors are absolutely horrible. This Sunday morning the female anchor called Mitt Romney ‘Mitts,’ ‘Myth,’ and everything but ‘mittens.’ She struggled to even get a sentence out without a stutter or pause. I have heard anchors repeatedly pronounce Bowie as ‘Bough-eee’—despite the traffic anchor correctly saying it two minutes prior. This isn’t even college-level. It sounds like someone reading a newspaper out loud in an old folks’ home. I hate to say it but I don’t think WTOP has anything to worry about.”

But here’s the thing about all-news radio: No matter what people like MLB4 say, it keeps going. All the time.

CBS only green-lighted WNEW the week before Thanksgiving. But radio types had suspected something was coming ever since June, when Swenson relocated from New York, ostensibly to supervise all of the company’s local stations. “Steve has all-news radio in his DNA,” says Jim Farley, WTOP’s vice president of news and programming. In August, Swenson pitched his CBS bosses the creation of a station to compete with Farley’s. As it happened, Swenson knew the concept well: He’d been WTOP’s general manager from 1996 to 1998, hiring Farley away from ABC and nurturing the career of Joel Oxley, who ultimately replaced him. “He taught me how to be a programmer,” Farley says.

To understand how Swenson wants to change Washington radio, look to New York, where he spent 13 years, first at all-news WCBS and then at WINS—you give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world—the station where the format was born. To most mortals, the stations are pretty similar. But listen a while, and you’ll notice that WINS, with its traffic reports on the ones and its sports every half-hour, is a stickler for structure, while WCBS is, at least within the all-news context, a bit more discursive. In Washington, Swenson believes, WTOP’s political shows and call-in fare mean there’s room for a more tightly formatted, WINS-style analogue.

Sure, NPR listeners might say there’s no difference between a station that does five-second sound bites and one that gives people an occasional 30 seconds to sound off, but in the all-news universe, it’s a distinction.

So far, though, news selection seems to be the biggest differentiation. On WNEW, you are more likely to hear local news about crime and the bizarre. While the station likes to promote itself as hyperlocal, there are plenty of Hollywood stories in the mix. At times, WNEW sounds like a podcast of the late night local news, but without the lame banter. WTOP might tip its hat to Washington’s self-image as a national capital full of statesmen and diplomats; WNEW’s listeners are unlikely to learn much about Syria.

Will it work? Looking at the ratings, it’s clear that a challenger wouldn’t have to actually oust WTOP from its perch in order to do well for its owners: The all-news niche is big enough for even a newcomer to grab some easy dough. Last year, WTOP was the top-rated station every month except December, when WASH-FM adopts an all-Christmas format. (“Every December, I get mugged by Burl Ives,” Farley says.) But otherwise, all-newsers can count on Mother Nature, among other allies, to juice ratings. “During Snowmeggdon, WTOP’s numbers went through the roof,” says Jon Miller, Arbitron’s director of programming services.

Politicians are another great friend to local programmers. WTOP’s tops-in-the-nation status is especially remarkable when you consider that Washington only represents the eighth-biggest radio market—but not when you think about its slew of ads from advocacy groups and wannabe federal IT contractors. An election year provides an added incentive. “Citizens United is a great boon for increasing array of advertisers,” says Elizabeth Wilner, vice president for strategic initiatives of the Campaign Media Analysis Group. Unlike political ads for candidates that must be provided at a discounted price, media outlets can charge outside groups what the market will bear. Though most of the political advertising will go to cable television, there is a trickle-down effect that will fill radio station coffers.

“We wanted to launch in January because it is an election year,” says Swenson.

Still, WTOP and WNEW share a lot of apolitical advertisers: Hadid Carpet, Sleepy’s Mattresses, United Bank. “These listeners have a stake in the establishment. They are the home owners and car buyers in the community,” says Michael Harrison, publisher of the radio trade magazine Talkers.

And CBS clearly believes in the concept. To create WNEW, it changed the broadcast frequence of 99.1’s former occupant, the CBS-owned Latin music station El Zol—potentially disrupting a station that did a respectable $10.5 million in 2010 billings and broadcasts in a fast-growing format to a growing demographic. El Zol now lives at 107.9 on the FM dial, which CBS bought from a Christian broadcaster for $8.5 million. All this risky reshuffling for a small, weaker competitor to the region’s top station? “In looking at the listener base for El Zol and what we were trying to do in starting up a brand new all-news station, we felt that El Zol would fit best on 107.9’s signal,” Swenson says. WNEW News Time, 3:36.

The WNEW newsroom in Lanham, Md., looks like disc jockeys hijacked an accounting firm. The space is subleased from Pitney-Bowes, the postage-meter company, and has never been a radio station before. The corner offices have been turned into studios and editing bays, with touch-screen monitors and sleek control boards. Reporters and editors sit in a cluster of cubes in the center. In late January, a week into the WNEW’s operations, engineers were still soundproofing.

Robert Sanchez, WNEW’s director of programming, says that all the equipment is state-of-art and that the station uses a software operating system, called Burli, that makes it easier to drop in live reports on the fly. “It’s specially designed for news radio,” he says. A week later, when asked about the dropped calls and unintended silences on WNEW, Swenson blamed the mistakes on the technology. “The technical system that we had purchased for operating our news station had software glitches that took the vendor time to figure out and correct,” he says. “That has all now been corrected.”

But the best technology means nothing if people can’t hear your station. WNEW’s signal from its Bowie, Md., transmitter is strong in the District and from the eastern Maryland suburbs to Baltimore, but not as powerful on the west side of the region. On the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, WNEW sounds scratchy where WTOP comes in loud and clear. “They just don’t have a killer signal,” says Dave Hughes, a self-described “radio freak” and owner of DCRTV.com. Hughes says he’s heard that CBS is looking to buy a station to boost its signal on the west side of the D.C. metro area, possibly 99.9 in Frederick, Md. Swenson says there are no plans to buy other stations.

WTOP listeners will recognize some familiar voices on WNEW. Lisa Baden, who works for Total Traffic Network, does the perma-perky traffic report she did on WTOP for 14 years until the station decided to move the operations in-house in 2010. Anchors Evan Haning, Chas Henry, and Amy Morris also came from WTOP. So did news director Michelle Komes Dolge, who worked her way up from secretary to news director during her 17-year career there. Komes Dolge had been out of the radio business for 11 years when Swenson offered her the job last fall. “I think all the time being a mom in Chevy Chase, D.C., made me appreciate radio more as a listener,” she says. Local radio remains a small world: Mike McMearty, the current WTOP news director, is godfather to Komes Dolge’s two children.

None of the WTOP refugees will talk smack about their former home. Still, several of them say the new work environment is different—both because it’s a new project and because it’s run by Sanchez, a Brooklynite who says he’s pushing for a faster-paced workplace. He wakes up at 5 a.m. and walks his wheaten terrier, Elmo, in Adams Morgan. Sanchez hears a lot of what he calls “process stories” on WTOP. “They want to hold on to you,” he says. “We want you to turn us on and get the news. It’s like the coffee and egg sandwich at Starbucks. You get what you want whenever you want it,” says Sanchez, who was assistant director of news and programming for WCBS and has worked at WINS.

Komes Dolge starts dispatching the station’s eight reporters at 5 a.m., each of them driving a shiny Chevy Equinox with the WNEW logo. “I want the reporters in the field, not in the office,” she says. The shifts are staggered so there is at least one reporter on duty from 4 a.m. to midnight. WNEW attempts to build a sense of urgency with shorter news reports and live segments from reporters; it’s about quick hits, whether it’s Metro installing an escalator at Dupont Circle or a body in the well in Fort Washington, Md., or—oddly—an outbreak of feline herpes at the Isle of Wight, Va., animal shelter in the Hampton Roads area.

A new all-news station, obviously, means the maximum number of radio reporters out in the field. But it’s doubtful that this air battle will produce a series of splashy scoops. When I asked Swenson what stories he’s proudest of after a month of operation, he says this: “Our focus during the first month has been on our audience and helping them learn where things are in our format. No time to do anything else but deliver our promise to our listeners.” So it is the utility of the format that will win listeners in a war of attribution. A decade from now, if WNEW is still on the air, you will be getting weather information updated every four minutes. WNEW News Time, 3:40.

WTOP’s offices—the“glass-enclosed nerve center” that listeners hear about every seven minutes—sits in D.C.’s posh McLean Gardens neighborhood. Editors and producers sit at a long table in the middle of the newsroom and watch a bank of flat screen televisions that faces the central studio. Web writers crank out copy under a large, clear placard of the First Amendment. The three-person traffic department is crammed into a corner space. They’ll be getting larger digs down the hall soon.

In the studio, it’s a whirl of sound cues and button pushes as Dimitri Sotis and Sean Anderson anchor afternoon drive time on the Monday after the Super Bowl. Sotis tweets as Anderson reads the news. Then Sotis takes over as Anderson makes notes on his scripts. I ask questions during commercial breaks. The guys answer right up to the time they have to go on, at which point they immediately switch into slightly deeper and more robust announcer voices. Sotis compares the process to the movie Minority Report, when Tom Cruise’s character is trying to solve a crime before it happens by pulling in data from a variety of computer screens. Sotis’ metaphor seems appropriate as the show chugs along. “It’s a rush you can’t get anywhere else,” Anderson says.

One thing WTOP’s Sotis and Anderson, and probably every other news-radio anchor on Earth, for that matter, want you to know is that they are not just ripping and reading a script. It’s well-choreographed theater of the mind when done correctly—and an embarrassing round of silence and excuses when it fails. Anchors at both WTOP and WNEW run the control board, cuing up sounds, interviews, and commercials. Having an engineer at a radio station is like having a secretary: It doesn’t happen much anymore in the modern world. Nancy Lyons, WNEW’s afternoon anchor and an NPR veteran, explains it this way: “At NPR, I maybe had to juggle four inputs during a broadcast. Here, I have 25 inputs every half an hour,” she says. “A flawless 30 minutes feels great.”

WTOP’s Farley says he’s not changing anything because of WNEW. He calls D.C. radio a “crowded market” and says WNEW will have difficulty carving out a niche. He remembers the failure of Washington Post Radio, the 17-month partnership between Bonneville International (then WTOP’s owner) and the Washington Post. “Washington’s appetite for news is not limitless,” Farley says.

That said, WNEW’s arrival preceded by four days an unscripted change at its bigger rival: The abrupt Jan. 26 departure of its political commentator, Mark Plotkin. Neither Farley nor Plotkin would discuss the exit—which was reportedly connected to workplace personality issues—but, for the time being, his free-ranging and idiosyncratic program has been replaced by news. “Because of our partnership with Politico and access to the big names on the networks, we don’t need our own political specialist. Instead, we’ll add another general assignment reporter,” Farley says.

“It’s very abbreviated, but it serves a purpose,” Plotkin says of the WNEW’s format, which he has listened to twice since its debut. He declines comment on WTOP’s programming choices after his departure.

Drive-time broadcasts may sound similar, but you don’t have to be a media professional to notice the difference between the rival stations’ websites. WNEW’s is a cookie-cutter template used by other CBS stations; WTOP’s is a fully integrated digital operation. WNEW’s talent try to put the best face on this and spin it as a good thing. “What comes first is what we do on the air,” WNEW’s Komes Dolge says. “I don’t want anchors Facebooking when they are on the air.” But she also says she appreciates it when reporters tweet between radio hits.

Meanwhile, Farley is obsessed with beating the competition on breaking news email alerts: WTOP sent out a breaking news alert at 10:33 a.m. on Feb. 8 announcing that federal employees would be permitted to take unscheduled leave because of a possible snowstorm. The alert beat Channel 4’s by seven minutes and the Washington Post’s by 18 minutes. The snowstorm never came.

The obsession is not limited to local news. WTOP filed a news alert about the 9th Circuit Court in California striking down Proposition 8, the state’s voter-passed ban on gay marriage, at 1:04 p.m. CNN filed an alert a minute later, Politico at 1:11 p.m., the Washington Post at 1:16 p.m. and the New York Times at 1:19 p.m. WNEW doesn’t even send breaking news alerts by email.

But here’s the real takeaway for a print guy who visits an all-news newsroom: Everyone seems kind of happy. Metropolitan daily newspapers have their share of sad sacks mourning the halcyon days of pre-Internet money and influence. If radio is doomed in an age of media streaming, few people at either the fledgling WNEW or the entrenched WTOP seem to have gotten the message. “There are fewer S.O.B.s per square foot than any other place I’ve worked, except maybe WTOP,” says Haning, WNEW’s afternoon anchor. WNEW News Time, 3:44.

All-news radio has a well-established place in D.C.’s media diet because it’s hard to watch TV or surf the Internet while driving. Maybe robot cars will one day change that dynamic and we can all laugh at YouTube videos of cats during our commutes. In the meantime, the hours of listening to WNEW for this story have formed a habit.

I’m driving back from lunch at National Harbor with my wife during President Day’s weekend. She is worried about possibility of snowstorms. Even though the signal fades in and out as we head to the District, I tune into WNEW because I know I only have to wait four minutes for a weather report. Like the station’s tag line says, “When you need to know, we’ve got you covered.”

In handicapping the performance of WNEW, the early results won’t matter much. But the latest weekly ratings from Arbitron aren’t encouraging. WNEW ranked 38th in the D.C. market in the first week of February, down one spot from the previous week. “WNEW is getting zero traction so far,” Farley says. “They had a rough launch.” Hughes thinks WNEW will rank somewhere between 15th and 17th in the ratings once it gets going. “They really haven’t been doing a lot of advertising for the station yet. I don’t think many people know about the station unless they’ve read about it in the Washington Post,” he says.

I expect WNEW is warming up its marketing machine. CBS cross-promotes WNEW with some of the six D.C. radio stations it owns. WNEW’s sports report comes from 106.7 The Fan and Tommy McFly from 94.7 Fresh FM dishes on Hollywood. Swenson says he expects WNEW to make more than $10 million—about one-sixth of WTOP’s revenue—this year. That seems likes an easy hurdle to clear. Walking out of CBS’ offices in Lanham, Swenson tells me the company’s lease expires in two years. “We’re looking at places in the District,” he says.

It’s spring-like night in late February on Georgia Avenue. I tuned into WNEW to check the traffic and weather on my drive home from the gym. The station gives me the headlines of stories I’ve read already online. Then the anchor is cut off mid-sentence by a Sleepy’s commercial. A minute later she is back and turns the broadcast over to Bob in the traffic center. But Bob is not there—or doesn’t make a sound. At least five seconds pass before she continues with a story about the upcoming premiere of the Hunger Games movie. Two minutes later, Bob is back. He gives his traffic report and the anchor tells me the time and temperature. WNEW News Time, 3:48.