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A larger radio animal
Red Zebra Broadcasting yesterday said it will acquire WTEM AM-980 in a deal that places Washington's dominant sports radio station under the control of Redskins owner Daniel Snyder.
The Silver Spring-based company, which counts Snyder as a board member and principal investor, also will buy news and talk stations WWRC AM-1260 and WTNT AM-570 as part of the deal with Clear Channel Communications, expanding Red Zebra's roster of stations to nine.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
In purchasing WTEM - commonly known as Sportstalk 980 - Red Zebra essentially boosts the availability of live broadcasts of Redskins games. For the past two years, games have aired on the company's lower-wattage Triple X ESPN Radio network and on Clear Channel's WBIG FM-100.3.
In the immediate term, there appears to be no change to the format or personnel at WTEM. A press release from Red Zebra said the company was "especially thrilled" to be adding WTEM's hosts, including Steve Czaban, Andy Pollin, Rick "Doc" Walker and former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson. Red Zebra said it has struck a separate agreement to provide programming for all three stations beginning July 1. It is still unclear how programming on Triple X will be affected.
In addition to Redskins games, Triple X currently airs programming from ESPN Radio, plus an afternoon drive-time show with former running back John Riggins as host.
"During the coming months we'll evaluate all program lineups to determine the best mix of programming to serve the many diverse fans of sports and news talk," Red Zebra CEO Bruce Gilbert said. "Some things will change, some will remain the same, but our goal will be simple: to bring the best radio to the most listeners."
The company said it also would look to expand its coverage of live pro and college games. Currently, WTEM broadcasts games from the Washington Wizards and Georgetown basketball.
Though Snyder has no direct operating role with Red Zebra, the deal to acquire WTEM essentially brings Washington's dominant sports station under the control of the Redskins. Snyder is the principal investor in Red Zebra along with Dwight Schar, a minority Redskins owner. Both serve on the company's board of directors. A spokesman for Snyder did not return calls requesting comment.
"I think it makes a lot of sense," said Stu Swartz, a radio industry consultant who has worked on behalf of the Minnesota Wild and several other sports teams. "It's bigger exposure and discussion, and it creates a major ad vehicle for the team. [Snyder] is moving in a direction a lot of teams should."
The deal, however, means every all-sports station in the D.C. area is under the control of a team, and that troubled some industry observers who worried about censorship of outspoken hosts.
"This is a terrible thing for fans," said Charles Warner, a former radio station executive and journalism professor at the University of Missouri, who now serves as an industry consultant. "When a team owns a radio station, I don't think fans' needs are served at all. It's a terrible idea."
Snyder and his investors launched Red Zebra in 2006, acquiring AM-730, FM-92.7 and FM-94.3 to form Triple X ESPN Radio, making it the Redskins' official flagship network. The company also bought three stations in Richmond and Hampton Roads in Virginia.
Former Clear Channel executive Bennett Zier originally was hired to run Red Zebra; he left last year and was replaced by Gilbert, the former general manager of ESPN Radio.
Rumors of a possible deal to acquire WTEM have circulated for months. Industry analysts said they expected Red Zebra to bid for a large station like WTEM because of the relatively low signal strength of the Triple X network stations. Red Zebra struck a deal with WBIG to air Redskins games last year because it had a stronger signal.
WTEM, meanwhile, maintained its status as the most popular sports station in Washington, buoyed by its larger 50,000 watt signal. (The station drops to 5,000 watts at night.)
Red Zebra Broadcasting is part of a growing roster of companies controlled by Snyder. In 2005, he became chairman of the board of theme park operator Six Flags Inc. Last year, his RedZone Capital investment firm bought the Johnny Rockets restaurant chain and Dick Clark Productions.
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