Snyder’s move threatens—thankfully—to kill off AM sports yak.
Dan Snyder’s latest move toward becoming a sports-radio mogul was to sign up Bennett Zier. He’s the guy who ran WTEM-AM—SportsTalk 980—billed as D.C. radio’s first and only sports station.
Zier became general manager of that station in 1992, the year it was founded, and has stayed with the station through several ownership changes and corporate mergers. Last week, he left a management position with Clear Channel, WTEM’s current owner, to become CEO of Red Zebra Broadcasting, a company under Snyder’s wing.
Rumors are that Red Zebra, which is yet another step in Snyder’s “if you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em” media-domination scheme, will soon purchase multiple radio stations in the area to serve as a Redskins broadcasting network, with other sports programming filling up the rest of the schedule. Zier says it could be as long as “another month” before Red Zebra makes any announcements regarding scheduling specifics or which stations it will buy.
“I can tell you we will do some format that is compatible with the audience that likes the Washington Redskins. That basically means anybody in town,” Zier says. “You need to research and give the listener what they want.”
Whether or not WTEM has given sports fans what they want during Zier’s years of overseeing the station is a matter of debate. Some radio watchers think his SportsTalk stewardship has left the D.C. market wide open for the kind of sportscentric radio venture he will now run for Snyder.
“There is room here for another sports talker,” says Dave Hughes, founder and webmaster of dcrtv.com, an Internet site that has become a destination for most media types in the area thanks to years of tracking who’s buying what local station and who’s banging the morning anchor. “Particularly, an FM sports talker could do really well and put WTEM out of its place really quick.”
For years, the city’s only all-sports station has seemed openly hostile to D.C. sports fans. WTEM was launched as “the Team,” a counterpart to WFAN-AM, New York’s groundbreaking all-sports station known as “the Fan.” At its founding, WTEM served as the flagship station for Redskins games. But the Team dropped the team after just three years. And now, with the exception of the Washington Wizards, none of the area’s marquee teams are broadcast on the station.
Maryland football is the only area college program anybody cares about, but Terps games are on WMAL-AM; WTEM listeners instead get Virginia Tech, a school whose campus is a mere five hours outside the Beltway. The Washington Capitals now have the greatest athlete in the city, Alexander Ovechkin, but unless he gets arrested and the Washington Post writes a story about it, Ovechkin will have to buy airtime—like Virginia Tech does—to get a mention on WTEM. Caps fans are calling Ovechkin’s hat trick in the team’s 3-2 overtime win against Anaheim on Jan. 14 a performance for the ages, but they weren’t surprised that Ovechkin’s deeds didn’t rate much air on the sports station.
“The Caps don’t get much coverage from anybody here, but [WTEM] is the worst,” says Lottie Ignacio, a board member of the Washington Capitals Fan Club, echoing a sentiment held by essentially all diehard puckheads. “I think they hate hockey. I can’t even listen to the station anymore, they upset me so badly.”
The baseball coverage put up by Zier’s station has spawned even more venom. Months after the city got a baseball team for the first time in three decades, WTEM announced it had reached a deal to air Baltimore Orioles games. Zier wouldn’t discuss the relationship between WTEM and the Orioles, but it’s believed that Peter Angelos bought the airtime to continue giving his team a presence in the Nats market. That left the Nationals with a low-powered, unheard-of station, WFED-AM, as its flagship.
WTEM’s baseball coverage was relegated to a brief show on Saturday mornings, a spot on the broadcast schedule typically reserved for discussion of which local food banks are holding fundraising drives or some other sort of white-noisy public-affairs programming. With the steroid hearings on Capitol Hill, there was more talk about baseball on C-SPAN radio during the Nats’ inaugural season than there was on the area’s only all-sports station.
Nationals fans have trouble forgiving WTEM for not landing the hometown team.
“I love the Nats being here, but we got the shaft on the radio and in coverage in general,” says “Baseball” Bill Holdforth, a legendary Hawk ’n’ Dove bartender and a guy known as the No. 1 fan of the area’s last baseball team, the Washington Senators, before the franchise became the Texas Rangers. “I can pick up the Yankee games on radio better than I can the Nats game. In your car, you gotta make a turn and go down three blocks to pick up the station that has the Nats. You get no local sports from WTEM. For a sports station, WTEM relies too much on national coverage instead of Nationals coverage.”
Nobody can accuse Zier, however, of depriving listeners of Tony Kornheiser. At the station’s founding, a show was built around Kornheiser as a D.C. counterpart to WFAN’s Imus in the Morning. All these years later, no station in this market, AM or FM, devotes anywhere near as much energy to a single personality as WTEM does to Kornheiser. During football season, a tape of Kornheiser is played during the station’s pregame shows. Kornheiser phones in live during morning drive time the day after Skins games, and a tape of that performance is repeated for the evening drive time. Every weekday, he’s live from 9 to 11 a.m., and then those two hours are repeated on tape immediately afterward. Tuesday through Friday evenings, Kornheiser phones in for a live spot during The Sports Reporters, the show hosted by Andy Pollin and Steve Czaban that is the jewel of the station’s programming schedule.
But Zier’s fixation with Kornheiser reached its peak when the station began airing an audio-only version of Kornheiser’s ESPN television show, Pardon the Interruption, each evening. When Kornheiser goes on vacation, the station airs at least four hours per day of shows that have already been replayed.
The reliance on Kornheiser tape seems to be a part of a decision to not develop any new talent at the station during Zier’s tenure. While local hero John Thompson kills time on weekday afternoons, a show featuring relative youngster Bram Weinstein has for years been relegated to Saturday mornings and irregular evening fill-in duty. Weinstein’s recurring faux football-handicapping segment, where phony touts give their picks and agree to suffer severe personal humiliations should they steer bettors wrong, is usually good for several bellyaching laughs per week and deserves a bigger audience.
In Zier’s defense, the cult of Kornheiser has reached outside the station: The Washington Post puts his picture in the paper every day, an honor accorded no other sportswriter. Hollywood tried to make a sitcom of his life (CBS’s Listen Up). A like-new-condition copy of The Baby Chase, an out-of-print 1983 memoir about Kornheiser’s adopting a child, goes for more than $100 on Amazon.
But there’s been no obvious benefit to Zier’s Kornheiser-overload strategy. In 1998, WTEM jumped from its original frequency at 570 AM, where it was a measly 5,000-watt station, to the 50,000-watt frequency at 980 AM. WTOP-AM is the only station in this market with as powerful a signal. But any improvement in listenership since taking on the extra wattage has been negligible. In every Arbitron book before or after the move, WTEM has been crushed in the ratings not only by the city’s other blowtorcher, WTOP, but also by WMAL, a 5,000-watt station that has for years targeted fascist listeners and had management turnover at a rate normally suffered only by college stations.
In the last five Arbitron books, WTEM has finished no higher than a three-way tie for 17th place in the market, well behind weak newbie “Spanish Tropical” station WLZL-FM.
But Zier makes no apologies for WTEM’s programming during his reign. The Arbitron numbers for total listeners, he says, are deceiving, since his station never went after everybody.
“WTEM is a station for males,” he says. “And for men between 30 and 60, the station dominated.”
If Zier focuses Red Zebra’s efforts on the FM band, that domination could end soon.
“The top AM station, WTOP, now is going to FM [in March],” says Hughes. “That leaves only WTEM and WMAL on the AM dial. With satellite taking off, AM radio is practically dead here already. Pretty soon, listeners might have no reason to punch up AM.”—Dave McKenna