- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Washington’s all-news radio leader, WTOP, yesterday moved to 103.5 FM, the station broadcasting its parent company’s strongest signal.

Local listeners had long complained about spotty WTOP broadcasts on 1500 AM — where it had broadcast for more than 60 years — and 107.7 FM in certain areas downtown and throughout the Washington region.

After trying unsuccessfully to buy a station with a stronger signal, WTOP parent Bonneville International Corp. decided to give its best performer its best signal, said Jim Farley, WTOP’s vice president of news and programming.

“It is a historic shift for people in Washington, but they followed us over to the little FM and they’ll follow us to the bigger FM,” Mr. Farley said.

Bonneville’s revamped local lineup now features classical music on WGMS on 103.9 FM and 104.1 FM. The Salt Lake City company ended the nearly two-year run of modern rocker Z104.

“TOP has gotten so big that we wanted people to be able to hear it no matter where they are,” said Joel Oxley, general manager of Bonneville Radio in Washington.

Starting yesterday at noon, 103.5 FM and 820 AM became WTOP’s permanent frequencies, but the station will be simulcast on its previous carriers until March 30 when Bonneville starts Washington Post Radio on 1500 AM and 107.7 FM.

The three-month transition period will include a marketing blitz to educate listeners about the changes, Mr. Farley said.

WTOP celebrates its 80th anniversary on the air this year. It was WJSV until 1943 when it became WTOP. 107.7 FM was added in 1998 when Bonneville bought WTOP.

Z104’s staff were among 35 persons Bonneville fired yesterday, Mr. Oxley said. He added that the company will hire 25 persons, including a program director who will report to Mr. Farley, for the new station.

Shortly after noon yesterday, Z104’s Web site showed a note reminding its former audience that modern music still could be heard on other stations: “Saying good-bye to Z-104 doesn’t mean saying good-bye to music. Mix 107.3, DC 101 and Hot 99.5 all play modern music.”

“It makes sense to move TOP to the strong FM signal. That station is an institution around here,” said Joe Howard, Washington bureau chief for Radio & Records Inc. “But it’s always hard to see a station get shut down, always hard to see people lose their jobs.”

WGMS’ classical offerings were a consistent ratings winner for Bonneville, and were buoyed when its competition, WETA 90.9 FM, dropped classical music in February to become a news and talk station.

Mr. Oxley said Bonneville is negotiating with Major League Baseball to broadcast Washington Nationals games on Washington Post Radio. He previously said the company’s goal was to carry all of the team’s games on Z104 to continue last season’s relationship.

Chartese Burnett, a Nationals spokeswoman, would not comment Tuesday because no deal was in place for the upcoming season. She did not return numerous calls yesterday.

Washington Post Radio will feature radio journalists interviewing the newspaper’s staff about national, international and local news. WTOP’s “Ask the” series, “The Politics Program With Mark Plotkin” and “Newsweek on Air” will be moving to the new station, Mr. Farley said.

It will be a “long-form news station” built to compete with National Public Radio, Mr. Oxley said.

NPR programming can be heard locally on two FM stations: WETA and WAMU 88.5.

“This is a big deal. It’s exciting, but there are a lot of questions,” said Caryn Mathes, WAMU’s general manager.

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