- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

It seemed like a classic case of fixing something that wasn’t broken. In July 2002, Gary Murphy and Jessica Cash were riding high in the ratings as the morning hosts at country music station WMZQ-FM (98.7) when owner Clear Channel Communications Inc. moved the duo to its oldies station, WBIG-FM (100.3).

The company then brought in two newcomers to Washington-area radio: Phoenix disc jockeys Ben Campbell and Brian Egan, to work WMZQ’s morning shift.

The switch jolted the industry. Clear Channel executives said they had two goals: to use the popularity of Mr. Murphy and Ms. Cash to boost ratings at WBIG, and to use WMZQ to begin grooming Mr. Campbell and Mr. Egan into national stars.

A risky strategy in the fickle world of commercial radio? You bet. But one year later, it’s beginning to look like there was a method to Clear Channel’s madness.

Morning ratings for both stations dropped after the switch, but have steadily rebounded. The spring ratings Arbitron Inc. released last month showed WMZQ in a three-way tie for seventh place among adults weekday mornings, one spot higher than its showing in spring 2002. WBIG ranked 10th, just one place below the spot it occupied one year earlier.

“It was tough in the beginning. People didn’t want this change,” Mr. Egan said, adding that even he and Mr. Campbell questioned the wisdom of uprooting their families to come here.

A few weeks after the hosts arrived from Phoenix, the region was gripped by the sniper shootings. Then the duo experienced their first brutal Washington winter, which was nothing compared with the chilly reception they received at their early public appearances.

Today, listeners embrace Mr. Campbell and Mr. Egan on the street and call in to give romantic and housekeeping advice to sidekick Jamie Kennedy, who arrived this spring. “It’s like they are following the story lines of the show. That wasn’t happening nine months ago,” Mr. Egan said.

Mr. Campbell’s impressions of President Bush and other celebrities have also become audience favorites, even earning the endorsement of former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who invited the WMZQ morning team to one of his final press briefings in July.

Local listeners also appeared to appreciate the refreshingly neutral position Mr. Campbell and Mr. Egan took during the Dixie Chicks brouhaha that erupted in the spring, when lead singer Natalie Maines said she was ashamed Mr. Bush was from Texas.

“It’s not our job to support them or to bash them. We have our opinions, but we’re a country music show. We’re not ‘Crossfire,’” Mr. Campbell said, referring to CNN’s political-debate program.

“Ben and Brian in the Morning” isn’t just catching on locally. Clear Channel now syndicates the program to 12 cities, primarily small markets such as Fargo, N.D., and Wheeling, W.Va. The duo also host “Ben and Brian’s Big Top 20 Country Countdown,” a three-hour weekend show that airs on more than 100 stations.

Mr. Murphy and Ms. Cash were gracious about ceding their WMZQ time slot to the newcomers, but they also concede it took them awhile to settle into their new gig at WBIG.

The hosts arrived at the station shortly after it overhauled its image, dropping 1950s songs from its playlist and adding more music from the 1970s. WBIG also dropped its longtime “Oldies 100” banner and started calling itself “Big 100.”

“When you change all that around, of course it’s going to take a couple of months for the audience to get used to it,” Mr. Murphy said.

He and Ms. Cash remain country music fans, so it took them a while to get used to spinning oldies. They also had to forget about interviewing musicians about their latest singles, since many of them are no longer recording or dead.

“We do know from our calls and e-mails that some of our listeners made the switch with us, even the country music lovers. That’s been really gratifying,” Ms. Cash said.

This just in …

• ABC affiliate WJLA-TV (Channel 7) has put its Sunday morning talk show “Capital Sunday” on hiatus and pink-slipped producer Jackie Faim. A retooled version will debut sometime in the fall. Kathleen Matthews is expected to return as host.

• CBS affiliate WUSA-TV (Channel 9) named veteran local newsman Charlie Norton executive producer of its evening newscasts and Atlanta producer Holly Sheppard executive producer of its morning news.

• As expected, Amy Robach, who anchors the early morning and noon newscasts on WTTG-TV (Channel 5), signs off Friday to join MSNBC. The Fox affiliate is expected to name a replacement by Labor Day. Meanwhile, word around the WTTG water cooler is that News Director Katherine Green, a favorite among many staffers, still hasn’t inked a new deal with Fox after weeks of talks. Ms. Green declined comment.

• Early returns show the local news on NBC affiliate WRC-TV (Channel 4) dominating the summer ratings sweep that concludes today. WJLA is in second place weekdays at 5 p.m., but may finish fourth behind reruns of “The Simpsons” weeknights at 6 and “Seinfeld” reruns weeknights at 11.

Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send an e-mail to cbaker@washingtontimes.com.

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