Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Because radio in the Washington area isn’t dry enough, Bonneville International Corp. plans to flip its newest acquisition, WPLC-AM (1050), to a new format: Round-the-clock news and information for federal government employees.

That’s right. Washington doesn’t have a mainstream rock station, or a decent pop station, or even a commercial talk station for people who vote with blue-state America, but soon we will have a station devoted to people who actually know what federal acronyms like GPRA and FEEAF stand for.

It would be enough to make a radio columnist scream — if it didn’t make such bloody sense.

The truth is, Bonneville’s latest venture represents one of the savviest radio moves in recent memory.

The Salt Lake City media conglomerate — which already owns several other stations in this market, including all-news powerhouse WTOP (1500 AM and 107.7 FM) — just picked up WPLC from a small outfit called Metro Radio for $4 million.

WPLC primarily carries business news during the day. Its signal is strongest in the District and its Maryland suburbs, but it weakens in Northern Virginia.

Bonneville plans to use WPLC to broadcast programming that originates on FederalNewsRadio.com, an online radio “station” that carries regular updates on federal topics such as procurement, benefits and pay; reports and commentaries by newspaper columnist Mike Causey; Capitol Hill reports from WTOP’s Dave McConnell; and news from the Associated Press.

The government is the region’s largest employer, with more than 300,000 workers.

Since its introduction in February 2000, FederalNewsRadio.com has become a hit with the government crowd, drawing about 40,000 visitors a month, including more than 25,000 people who download its audio stream.

“It’s really kind of backwards,” said Joel Oxley, a Bonneville vice president who manages the company’s stations in the Washington area. “Most of the time, you start a radio station and then you put it on the Internet. Here we had an Internet product, and now we’re putting it on a terrestrial signal.”

Bonneville probably will switch WPLC to the Federal News Radio format in December, when the Federal Communications Commission is expected to OK the sale.

Judlyne Lilly, formerly of WTOP, anchors Federal News Radio’s hourly reports, which are taped and repeated throughout the day. Eventually, the station plans to make Ms. Lilly its morning anchor and add a second host during the afternoons.

WPLC generated about $1.5 million in revenue last year, according to estimates by BIA Financial Network, a Chantilly media research group. The region’s top station, WTOP, took in $37.1 million, according to BIA estimates.

Federal News Radio has been profitable since its introduction, Mr. Oxley said.

Its success shows there is a need for federal news on the airwaves, he said.

“We’ve built up a pretty good audience on the Internet with this. There are people who want to hear this,” he said.

Maybe he’s right.

After all, if it weren’t for Federal News Radio, how else would we know about the Government Performance Results Act (the GPRA) and the Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund (the FEEAF)?

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

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