- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 17, 2002

WMAL (630 AM) uses the Bonnie Raitt song "Something to Talk About" in the on-air promotions for its talk shows, but in recent months, the radio station seemed to take that sentiment a little too literally.
The industry has been buzzing since WMAL began tinkering with its schedule in February. Since then, longtime afternoon host Chris Core moved to mornings, then evenings; evening host Victoria Jones was fired; and morning man Tim Brant left to focus on his part-time job as an ABC Sports analyst.
To outsiders, WMAL looked like a station in turmoil. Management said it was just trying to adjust to the world after September 11, when listeners began seeking more serious talk radio.
The station says it has finally found the right formula. On July 15, it introduced a new version of its "WMAL Morning News" that emphasizes news and political debate. On Monday, it will trim Laura Schlessinger's late-morning advice show by one hour to make room for a new Sam Donaldson talk show.
"In many ways, WMAL has changed. In many ways, it has stayed the same. But we're still the quintessential hometown Washington station," said John Butler, operations manager.
WMAL was a top-rated station in the 1960s and 1970s, when the legendary Frank Harden and Jackson Weaver hosted its morning show. As FM radio grew, its ratings faded.
In recent years, the ABC-owned station became Washington's main source for conservative talk radio. In addition to Mrs. Schlessinger's show, WMAL carries the syndicated Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity shows.
With the changes, the station is attempting to hold onto its core conservative audience while reaching out to new listeners.
The new "WMAL Morning News," which airs weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m., is essentially a radio version of the CNN program "Crossfire." Longtime WMAL morning man Andy Parks is the program's co-host with Bill Press, a liberal and former "Crossfire" panelist, and WMAL newcomer Jane Norris, a conservative.
Some listeners have complained that Mr. Press is too brash, but Mr. Butler said he likes the viewpoints he brings to the program.
Listeners don't want to hear an "abrasive show," Mr. Press said. "I do think people want substantive talk. They don't want to be lulled to sleep on the way to work."
WMAL also wanted a harder-edged morning show to provide a better showcase for its news department, which airs reports throughout each talk show the station carries. Last month, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, an industry trade group, gave the department its Edward R. Murrow Award for Overall Excellence.
WMAL's lineup features liberals such as Mr. Press and Mr. Donaldson, but it still has plenty to offer conservative talk fans. Mr. Butler said the station recently signed "long-term" agreements to continue carrying Mr. Limbaugh's and Mrs. Schlessinger's shows, although he doesn't rule out moving Mrs. Schlessinger whose program has faded in the ratings to another slot to carry a longer version of Mr. Donaldson's program.
"Anything is possible," he said.
WMAL tied with oldies station WBIG (100.3 FM) for eighth place among the 31 major Washington stations in the winter, according to the most recent Arbitron ratings. It performed best weekdays from 3 to 7 p.m., when Mr. Hannity's show and the first hour of Mr. Core's show air.
Staffers are optimistic that WMAL can reclaim the ratings crown.
Said Mr. Core, "We have had a real resurgence in the last few months. I can only think it will go up from here."

Davis joins WUSA
Steve Davis will join WUSA-TV (Channel 9) as sports director, the CBS affiliate announced yesterday. His first airdate is expected to be in early September.
Mr. Davis, a sportscaster for Fox's Baltimore affiliate, replaces Jess Atkinson, who announced his resignation June 6.
Mr. Davis is seen as key to News Director Dave Roberts' plan to improve the station's sports coverage. Mr. Roberts and Mr. Atkinson often clashed, newsroom staffers say, and Mr. Roberts began interviewing for a new sports director before Mr. Atkinson submitted his resignation.
Mr. Roberts declined to comment. In a statement, he said Mr. Davis will "enhance an already-talented group of professionals on the air and behind the scenes."
Mr. Davis is no stranger to Washington sports. In addition to his work for Fox's Baltimore affiliate, he has reported on the Washington Redskins and the Washington Wizards for cable's Fox Sports Net.
"I know Washington is a great sports town. It's about as major league as you can get," he said.
WUSA also considered CBS Sports analyst Spencer Tillman for the job, but the two sides could not reach an agreement. "I truly believe we found the right person for the job" in Mr. Davis, said Ardy Diercks, WUSA's president and general manager.
Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send an e-mail to [email protected]

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