Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Radio hosts and longtime friends Debra Leigh and Erica Hilary always found it odd that men dominated the talk-show airwaves, especially since the fairer sex is supposed to be the gabbier one.

Ms. Leigh, a weekend disc jockey at WASH-FM (97.1), and Ms. Hilary, the soft rock music station’s afternoon traffic reporter, figured there must be an audience for a show aimed at women.

Last summer, they persuaded their bosses to test their theory. The station gave the women a weekly three-hour show, putting it in a low-risk Sunday evening time slot.

The program, “Girl Talk,” celebrates its first anniversary this week, a solid — albeit quiet — success.

“Our goal is to do a show that reflects what women talk about,” Ms. Leigh said.

That means choosing touchy-feely topics such as dating and balancing families and careers.

It also means doing a show that captures the spirit of a conversation between women, complete with the requisite analyzing, scrutinizing and theorizing. In one regular segment, “Relationship Roundtable,” the hosts read e-mail from a listener with a problem, then open the phone lines to solicit advice for them.

“Female friendships are about commiserating, cheerleading each other on. Women want to feel part of a community,” Ms. Hilary said.

Men are listening, too, based on the calls the hosts receive. If tuning into the Sports Junkies, the bawdy morning team at rock station WHFS-FM (99.1), is like hanging out with your buddies at the neighborhood bar, listening to “Girl Talk” is the radio equivalent of eavesdropping on a group of girlfriends at lunch.

The key to the program is the hosts, who share the kind of chemistry that can make radio legends.

Ms. Leigh is the silky-voiced, denim-clad earth mother. Ms. Hilary is the sassy fashion plate. Imagine Mary Richards and Rhoda Morgenstern, the characters from the old TV “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” as radio hosts and you get the picture.

The show’s ratings are strong. When the last four Arbitron ratings quarters are averaged, WASH ranks fourth on Sunday nights among adult women.

“Clearly there is an audience for the show,” said Bill Hess, who joined WASH as program director Aug. 4. “Girl Talk” fits in well with his vision for the station.

Other signs of success: Ms. Leigh and Ms. Hilary now are being asked to do public appearances together; and in July, “Girl Talk” landed its first regular sponsor, the weight-loss product Serotonin-Plus.

Eventually, the women hope to break out of Sunday nights, a time when few busy Washingtonians tune in to the radio.

The hosts acknowledge their show’s laid-back rhythms would not work during morning drive, when listeners demand a steady stream of traffic updates and headlines. But they believe “Girl Talk” could work during the less-frenetic afternoon drive.

Catherine A. Melloy, who steps down as WASH’s general manager this week to run the local chapter of Goodwill Industries Inc., predicts the women will succeed.

“If you’re going to make it in this business, you have to have drive and enthusiasm. Those girls have both,” she said.

Still searching

Staffers at WRC-TV (Channel 4) are urging their bosses to tap Kathy Williams, a popular former manager at the NBC affiliate, as its new news director. Ms. Williams now runs the newsroom at Fox’s Houston station.

The Chicago Sun-Times has reported that Vickie Burns, news chief at NBC’s Windy City station, is also a candidate.

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

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