Executives at Washington Post Radio (WTWP) got some good news on Monday. After endless months of dismal performance in the ratings, the station finally inched up a bit in a set of audience share numbers.
So how did they mark the occasion? By laying off five full-time and part-time staffers at WTWP headquarters on Idaho Avenue NW. “It’s always unfortunate to make a move like that,” says Joel Oxley, senior vice president/market manager for Bonneville International Corp., which owns WTWP and operates it in partnership with the Washington Post.
The mixed message was hardly lost on the recipients of WTWP pink slips. “That was the only difficult thing,” says Kate Brown, a producer who was let go. “The same day the ratings had gone up—and to see the sales staff happy about that—to lose your job…”
Management gave an unsurprising rationale for the cuts. “They said it was budget, and I certainly believe it was,” says Brown.
Yeah, no leap of faith required on that front. Anyone who’s monitored the station for the better part of its 14-month existence understands why money is tight at WTWP. Although Monday’s good news reflected an uptick in April listening, “uptick” is a relative term at the station. During the last complete Arbitron ratings period (winter 2007), Post Radio commanded 0.8 percent of the listening population aged 12 and up. That put the station in 20th place in the Washington market, tied with WAVA-FM, a Christian station that provides “life-changing talk radio.”
Battling Bible programming for market share was never part of the WTWP business plan. The idea was to pair Bonneville’s expertise in running a radio station with the Post’s deep bench. A newsroom of 800-plus staffers, after all, looked like a pretty good resource for a radio station with a news talk format. Crime wave? Get the Metro desk on air right away! Feature piece on comedy trends? Call Weingarten!
But then the station bombed, and bombed, and bombed. The top dogs at Bonneville and the Post had compelling explanations for WTWP’s cellar-dwelling ways, according to staffers. First, they claimed that the station was struggling to forge a market identity. Then they claimed that WTWP listeners thought they were in fact listening to fellow Bonneville-owned news station WTOP and thus not reporting their true listening habits to Arbitron. Then they said that better numbers would reward a slew of January 2007 programming changes. And when that prediction didn’t quite pan out, they spoke of a ratings jump powered by the arrival of proven on-air talent and longtime Postie Tony Kornheiser.
Kornheiser is a veteran of talk radio and brings his considerable tool kit to WTWP every weekday morning—compelling banter about everything from making restaurant reservations to the latest in the NBA. Station execs are impressed enough with the program that they run it twice each morning—live from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m., and a repeat from 10:30 to 12:30 p.m. “The Tony part of it is working out well,” says Tina Gulland, director of television and radio projects at the Post. “He’s both entertaining and weaves Washington Post content throughout.”
The problem with Kornheiser is that he’s in great demand. Late this month, he’ll leave the Post airwaves and won’t return in full force until next January, following his season in ESPN’s Monday Night Football booth. Gulland won’t say what the station will do to fill the programming void that he’ll leave. “We’ll miss him desperately,” she says.
And so will WTWP listeners and advertisers. The station’s dependence on Kornheiser scraps its premise of mining the newsroom for content. Sure, Kornheiser has been a lifer at the paper, but he’s a celebrity whose services command millions.
He’s not the sort of Postie who inspired the launching of WTWP. Those folks have names like Spencer Hsu, Carol Leonnig, Nell Henderson, and Lena Sun, among other day-in-day-out bylines who contribute commentary to the radio station.
Segments that carry input from the flannel-ass journo set often feel dry and stilted, a circumstance that should surprise no one. These commentators are print journalists, most of whom have never practiced sounding smooth on air.
And they work for Leonard Downie Jr., the Post executive editor who leads all media outlets in the national Arbitron ratings for journalistic monasticism. Downie is so wary of bias that he doesn’t exercise his right to vote. Though he doesn’t require the same of his reporters, his evenhandedness trickles down through the ranks. It’s no coincidence that his charges often sound as if they’re trying not to say anything when interviewed on WTWP.
Tuesday’s programming featured a prime example of WTWP stiffness. A station anchor interviewed Post reporter Perry Bacon Jr. about religion and politics. Bacon answered the questions competently, and that’s about it—nothing quotable, much less memorable. On came Sam Smith, a legendary local lefty. With little prodding, Smith railed against Republicans, whom he compared to the “white elite in the South, keeping the blacks and whites against each other.”
Then he marveled at how Tom DeLay had claimed to have heard from God. “I just can’t believe in a God who would talk to Tom DeLay,” quipped Smith.
That may just be the solution to WTWP’s problems—just stick with people who can speak without fear of offending people on their beats. There’s probably a cute promo line in there somewhere: “Washington Post Radio: All the News, None of the Reporters.”
Failing a radical makeover, the station may be resigned to flailing in between Kornheiser seasons. But is there an exit strategy for WTWP? “Does most every association have all sorts of allowances? Yes. Am I going to get into them? No,” says Gulland.
Says Jim Farley, vice president of news and programming for WTWP and WTOP: “It would have to be by mutual consent.”