- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Sports fans began this week listening to their usual radio fare wrapped in a slightly different package after Dan Snyder‘s Red Zebra Broadcasting took control of WTEM-AM, now known as ESPN 980.

Thus far, it doesn’t appear the Redskins‘ owner has made a major imprint on the station’s programming lineup, though baseball host Phil Wood and reporter Jerry Coleman were let go earlier this month and ESPN‘s “Mike & Mike in the Morning” replaced Steve Czaban’s “First Team on Fox.”

Time will tell whether fans will revolt at the notion of the only sports radio in town being a team-owned network. But there are a handful of things Red Zebra could do to avoid a public backlash:

No Snyder involvement - There is a general assumption Dan Snyder is heavily involved in operations of his radio stations. It is an assumption Red Zebra officials deny.

“There is no day-to-day involvement,” Red Zebra chief executive officer Bruce Gilbert said. “Unequivocally, no way.”

If indeed Snyder is keeping his distance, he should continue to do so if for no other reason than to calm fears from fans that he will influence coverage of his team. Fans don’t want news strained through a Redskins-operated filter.

Keep it local - Nothing against “Mike & Mike” or Colin Cowherd, but a true Washington-based sports radio station should not have 17 hours of ESPN-created content.

Yes, the station is called ESPN 980, but that doesn’t mean the station can’t find another few hours for another local show. At the very least, adding some local nongame programming on the weekends will squash the notion that everything coming from the station is produced in Bristol, Conn. Bringing back an hour or two of Carol Maloney and Dave Feldman, for example, would be a good move.

Gilbert said the station will re-evaluate the local/national balance.

“Ask me in six months,” he said. “The ESPN affiliation is important to us. … But you know, time will tell whether [ESPN] will keep up with the local shows.”

Let Czaban speak - This is what everyone fears: Steve Czaban one afternoon will criticize Dan Snyder, Jim Zorn or someone else with the Redskins and find himself unemployed by the next morning.

In fact, that’s probably Czabe’s biggest fear right now as well. Unless Czaban is advocating murder or spouting off Imus-like garbage, he should be given free rein to say what’s on his mind. He is the closest thing the District has to the popular, opinionated hosts in Philadelphia and New York. If he goes, so goes the station’s fun factor and its credibility.

Gilbert said there are no plans to stifle any of the stations hosts and that doing so would be counterproductive.

“The edict is be fair,” he said. “We don’t get personal. We don’t call people names.”

The Orioles? Really? - This is not a rant against Baltimore. In fact, kudos to Peter Angelos for getting his team on the air in a market he technically still shares.

But to most Washingtonians, it’s jarring to find the evening airwaves filled with sounds from Camden Yards. The next time the Orioles come calling, Red Zebra officials should decline and open up that same airtime to the Nationals or some local nighttime programming.

Gilbert said there are no immediate plans to eliminate O’s broadcasts. He said Red Zebra has had a good relationship with the Orioles ever since Angelos agreed to simulcast the former “John Riggins Show” on Mid-Atlantic Sports Network.

“As of today, we love having the O’s, but like everything else, it’s being re-evaluated,” he said.

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