- The Washington Times - Monday, February 4, 2002

Valerie Klink has never met Mike Moss or Richard Day, but she brings them with her to work every morning. Ms. Klink, a 37-year-old systems analyst, rises at the crack of dawn weekdays for her hourlong commute from Haymarket, Va., to Falls Church. She keeps her car radio tuned to all-news station WTOP (1500 AM and 107.7 FM), where Mr. Moss and Mr. Day are the morning news anchors.
"I'm not one to sit in front of the TV to get the news. I'd rather use that time in the car to catch up with what's happening in the world," Ms. Klink says.
She is not alone. More than 1 million listeners like her have made WTOP the second-most popular radio station in Washington, a major accomplishment for a broadcaster that was stuck in the middle of the ratings pack just a few years ago.
Between Sept. 20 and Dec. 12, WTOP recorded a 5.5 share, the highest fall rating in its 76-year history, according to figures released last month by the Arbitron Inc. research service.
Essentially, the 5.5 share means between 5 and 6 percent of Washington's radio listeners were tuned to WTOP during any given period last fall. That share, roughly translated, means the station averaged more than 1 million listeners a week.
WTOP has been climbing steadily in the ratings since 1998. But it took its coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the anthrax scares and war in Afghanistan that followed to help it break the troika of local urban music stations that have ruled the top three spots in the ratings for years.
Longtime urban champ WPGC (95.5 FM) remains Washington's top-ranked station with a 6.7 share. But WTOP's ascension pushed WMMJ (102.3 FM) and WKYS (93.9 FM), urban stations that usually battle for the No. 2 spot, into a tie for third place.
On weekdays from 6 to 10 a.m., radio's most lucrative time slot because there are more listeners than any other period of the day, Mr. Moss and Mr. Day now have the top-rated show, drawing a bigger audience than stalwart DJs like Howard Stern, Tom Joyner and Jack Diamond.
"This has been a major growth period for us. We are definitely putting a better product on the air, and listeners are responding," says Joel Oxley, WTOP's vice president and general manager.
But success has come with a price: WTOP's rise has made it a target in Washington's fierce news wars.
Last week, a skirmish erupted between the station and WUSA-TV (Channel 9) over a WTOP promo that suggested some broadcasters get their inclement weather school-closing reports from WTOP.
"I'd like to say to WTOP radio: We don't get our school closings from you," WUSA morning anchor Mike Buchanan said during a Jan. 28 broadcast, according to dcrtv.com, a Web site that monitors local media.
Jim Farley, WTOP's vice president of news and programming, says his station "never said WUSA gets their school closings from us. We know they don't. But right now we're on top, and when you're the top guy, you're a target."

Back to basics
The WTOP that listeners like Valerie Klink hear today sounds much different than the one that slumped in the ratings six years ago.
Back then, the station relied heavily on infomercials to make money. Often, listeners tuned in to get the news, only to find paid programs touting weight loss and hair-loss products.
WTOP also carried lots of sports, frequently interrupting its schedule to air Baltimore Orioles baseball and Washington Wizards basketball games.
When the station did carry news, the format was unpredictable. Instead of a new newcast every half hour, it experimented with newscasts that started every 20 minutes.
"We had drfited from our mission of being a news-reliant station. We had lost our way, and the ratings reflected that," says Mr. Oxley, a member of WTOP's sales staff at the time.
With the ratings in the gutter, parent company Evergreen Broadcasting Corp. brought aboard Mr. Farley, a veteran of New York's radio wars, to help whip WTOP back into shape.
He phased out the infomercials and the sports. He also restored the 30-minute newscasts, and installed weather and traffic reports that air in 10-minute intervals, beginning at eight minutes past every hour.
New features were introduced, including the "Ask the Mayor" and "Ask the Governor" programs, in which D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and the chief executives of Maryland and Virginia visit WTOP's Northwest studios once a month to field listeners' phone calls.
The news delivery changed, too. Anchors loosened up. Friendly banter became common. Experienced reporters like Capitol Hill correspondent Dave McConnell, a WTOP fixture since 1965, were given more airtime. The sports reports became more than a laundry list of the previous night's scores.
"The goal was to make the station like a utility. No matter what time of day you turn us on, you're going to get the news," Mr. Farley says.
Not all the changes have been popular. Some listeners complain that WTOP's dense format CBS News reports every hour, the weather and traffic reports every 10 minutes, and features like Mr. McConnell's "Today on the Hill" reports sprinkled throughout each newscast leaves time for little more than a recap of the day's headlines.
Mr. Farley says WTOP is more than a headline service, but it doesn't expect to be its listeners' only source for news.
"Our audience is intelligent, and we know that they are going to pick up a newspaper or a newsmagazine when they want to learn more about an issue," he says.

Stronger signal
The tweaking that began under Evergreen continued when Bonneville International Corp., a Salt Lake City company backed by the Mormon Church, bought WTOP in August 1997.
At the time, the station was still heard only on the relatively weak 1500 AM signal, which originates from Wheaton. In April 1998, Bonneville also began broadcasting the station over the stronger 107.7 FM signal, which originates from Warrenton, Va.
Later, WXTR (820 AM), a Bonneville station in Frederick, Md., began simulcasting WTOP, boosting the station's coverage in fast-growing upper Montgomery County.
The stronger signals are aimed at commuters who once experienced fuzzy reception as they moved in and out of the station's original coverage area.
Danny Cummings, a construction superintendent who commutes from Harpers Ferry, W.Va., to Bethesda weekdays, says WTOP's reception problems have largely disappeared. "If I start to lose the station in one area, I can usually flip around until I pick it up again," he says.
The signal boost has been key to the stations's ratings surge, says Mr. Oxley, who became the WTOP's general manager in November 1998.
"It's like any other business: You can have the greatest product in the world, but if you don't have a good distribution system, it doesn't matter," he says.

Staying on top
WTOP reached No. 2 in the ratings after September 11, but Mr. Farley doesn't necessarily believe the station got a spike from its terrorism coverage. "The fact of the matter is that WTOP has been growing consistently for four years," he says.
The station hopes to avoid CNN syndrome ratings only go up when a big story breaks by adding more lifestyle reports to its newscasts. In the spring, for example, the station is planning features on planning summer vacation. In August, back-to-school reports will dominate its airwaves.
"We work hard to be relevant in people's lives, all year 'round," Mr. Farley says.
And since WTOP is Washington's only all-news radio station, it faces little competition.
Public radio stations WAMU (88.5 FM) and WETA (90.9 FM) carry National Public Radio news shows and cultural programming. WAMU has a local news operation that produces "Metro Connection," a newsmagazine that is broadcast Saturday mornings.
ABC-owned WMAL (630 AM) offers topical talk shows, including the syndicated Rush Limbaugh and Laura Schlessinger programs.
Because they are public stations, Arbitron doesn't rank WAMU and WETA among Washington's 33 commercial stations. During the same period that WTOP rose to No. 2, WMAL recorded a 3.3 share for 13th place. Its numbers were down from a year earlier, when it tied for 10th place with a 3.6 share.
WTOP remains one of the biggest money makers in Washington radio, and ranks third in revenue behind talk station WJFK (106.7 FM) and WPGC, which each generate more than $30 million annually.
WTOP made $24 million in revenue in 2000, twice the amount it generated in 1996, according to the most recent estimates by Chantilly media research group BIA Financial Network Inc.
Now that its ratings are up, the station is expected to raise its ad rates, which could push revenue higher. Media buyers say the increases won't ruffle their clients, even if they believe the station's numbers have been inflated by the war coverage.
"There is a feeling that this is an ongoing story, and that WTOP's numbers may be up for awhile," says Deborah Cover Lewis, founder and president of Media Vision, a Bethesda media and marketing firm.
Bonneville, in the meantime, is trying to extend WTOP's success to its other Washington stations.
Last month, the station began airing promos that encourage listeners to check out Bonneville-owned classical music outlet WGMS (103.5 FM) once they've gotten their WTOP news fix.
Bonneville has also started an Internet-only radio service, Federal News Radio, geared toward federal government employees. It is promoted heavily on WTOP.

Standing out
With its "just the facts, ma'am" style, Mr. Farley says WTOP has to work overtime to stand out in Washington radio, where everyone seems to have an attention-getting gimmick.
Last fall, Bonneville-owned pop music station WWZZ (104.1 FM) slashed the number of commercials it plays in a bid to reduce the "clutter" that listeners often complain about in focus groups.
Soft-rock station WASH (97.1 FM) switched to an all-holiday music format for 33 days after Thanksgiving. Last month, rock station WHFS (99.1 FM) took its DJs off the air for a "Jockless in January" promotion aimed at attracting advertisers during a traditionally slow month.
Mr. Farley is responsible for keeping WTOP in the public eye. It is a job that suits him well: Colleagues describe him as part Lou Grant and part P.T. Barnum, an old-school journalist who also understands the business of news.
At the height of last summer's Chandra Levy scandal, reporters would often wait outside WTOP's studios for D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey to exit following his appearance on the station's "Ask the Chief" show.
On those days, Mr. Farley would place a podium with WTOP's logo outside the station's doors. The podium gave the chief something to stand behind when he answered the reporters' questions, and it gave WTOP free advertising when the station's logo popped up in the images of the chief that later appeared in the newspapers and on TV.
And when photographers and cameramen venture inside the WTOP studios to film one of the newsmakers on the "Ask the Mayor" or "Ask the Governor" programs, they find the station's logo plastered on the walls and wrapped around microphone stands.
Mr. Farley has also cut a deal with WJLA-TV (Channel 7) to have popular weatherman Doug Hill deliver the forecast weekday mornings and afternoons on WTOP. As part of the deal, WJLA airs promos for WTOP that tout the station's as Washington's "severe weather team."
The "strategic partnerships," as Mr. Oxley calls them, help boost WTOP's brand recognition.
"I'm of the mind-set that there isn't this wall that separates us from other news organizations. We're always looking at ways to expand our partnerships," he says.


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