La radio del Washington Post chiude i battenti

Il mondo della notizia cartacea non può essere trapiantato sic et simpliciter nella realtà del giornalismo o dell’intrattenimento radiofonico. Una verità che il Washington Post ha imparato a spese di WTWP


da Radio Passioni

Nel suo piccolo la conclusione dell’avventura radiofonica del gruppo RCS con la cessione di Play Radio a Finelco, ci aveva suggerito che il mondo della notizia cartacea non può essere trapiantato sic et simpliciter nella realtà del giornalismo o dell’intrattenimento radiofonico. Una verità che il Washington Post ha imparato a spese di WTWP, emittente all news andata in onda un anno e mezzo fa e destinata a chiudere il mese prossimo. WTWP aveva preso il posto sui 1500 kHz di un marchio storico della Washington all news, WTOP (spostatasi sugli 820 kHz). WTOP rimane di proprietà del gruppo Bonneville, partner radiofonico del Post nella nuova, sfortunata, iniziativa. Insieme alla notizia apparsa oggi sul quotidiano della capitale americana leggetevi il commento di Marc Fisher, blogger e columnist per il Post. Quella che doveva essere una “NPR alla caffeina” (una stazione di alto profilo culturale ed equilibrata ma dal giornalismo di approfondimento e aggressivo) era diventata una accozzaglia di interventi disparati, dove anche le migliori firme della carta stampata (il dead tree medium, come si dice oggi) apparivano fuori luogo.
Non ho ben capito che cosa intenda fare Bonneville della frequenza di 1500, uno dei canali nord americani più regolari per i DXer delle onde medie in Italia. Le onde medie sono sicuramente più seguite negli USA, ma non al punto da giustificare l’occupazione di una frequenza a fronte di uno share striminzito.

With Low Ratings, Post Radio Venture To End Next Month

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 28, 2007; C01

Washington Post Radio, which brought the newspaper’s journalists to the local airwaves, will go off the air next month after failing to attract enough listeners and losing money during its 17-month existence.

Post Radio, which is broadcast regionwide on 107.7 FM and 1500 AM, , was not able to draw even 1 percent of listeners during its first year. Although ratings have improved somewhat in recent months — partly because of Nationals baseball broadcasts and Tony Kornheiser’s morning program — the gains weren’t enough to convince WTWP’s owner, Bonneville International Corp., that the station could be profitable any time soon, executives said. Bonneville and The Post had a three-year agreement.
The two companies will announce Friday that WTWP — whose call letters abbreviate the newspaper’s name — will go off the air by the end of September. The stations will continue to carry news and talk programming without an association with The Post.
Billed as a new kind of radio programming when it began in March of last year, Post Radio, or WTWP AM-FM, featured in-depth discussions with Post reporters and editors about the day’s news. The station’s backers said it would be like “NPR on caffeine” for news-hungry listeners.
Some local programs, such as David Burd’s morning show, will continue on the new, still-unnamed replacement station, but the bulk of the broadcasting day will be filled with syndicated talk shows. Executives declined to identify a new lineup yesterday, but they previously have said they were considering conservative-libertarian talkers Glenn Beck and Neal Boortz, among others.
Bonneville paid an annual fee to The Post for access to its journalists and for the use of The Post’s name. The Post, which had no direct financial investment in the stations, will make a small profit from the fee payments, an executive familiar with the agreement said yesterday.
In addition to WTWP, the Salt Lake City-based Bonneville owns all-news WTOP (820 AM and 103.5 FM) in Washington and WFED (1050 AM), which broadcasts news about the federal government.
“It has been a good experiment during which we learned about radio as one of the platforms on which we can put Washington Post journalists and journalism,” said Leonard Downie, The Post’s executive editor. Downie declined to comment directly on WTWP’s demise.
People close to the station said the end of the venture would result in very few layoffs because employees of WTWP will be able to move to Bonneville’s other stations, including WTOP. It was unclear how the end of WTWP would affect a small cadre of producers who work on radio and TV projects within The Post.
During the recent spring ratings period, WTWP finished tied for 18th place among local stations, with an average of 1.2 percent of the audience, according to Arbitron. It was the station’s best three-month performance since its inception.
The addition of syndicated programs to WTWP’s lineup had been a source of tension between Bonneville and The Post when executives began meeting in June to consider changes. Bonneville, eager to cut losses that have run to about $2 million annually, favored syndicated programming because it costs a station virtually nothing to carry it. But The Post was concerned about being associated with the kind of one-sided and inflammatory rhetoric that often distinguishes successful syndicated talk hosts.
One unresolved issue is the status of Kornheiser, who hosted WTWP’s most popular programs on weekday mornings. Executives expected Kornheiser, a veteran Post sports columnist, to return to the station next January after finishing his second season as an analyst on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” but the dissolution of The Post’s involvement could affect his role.

Why Washington Post Radio Died

From its sudden and fascinating inception to its slow and awkward demise, Washington Post Radio was a work in progress. It never came close to fulfilling its original promise–“NPR on caffeine,” in the spicy phrase of the newspaper’s radio-TV guru, Tina Gulland–but it was a radio station bubbling with possibilities.
Not that many listeners cared to explore those possibilities. The radio station–which will die next month by mutual consent of its clumsily-paired parents, The Washington Post and Bonneville broadcasting–never showed much of a pulse in the ratings, even though its programming ran on one of the most powerful and storied spots on Washington’s radio dial, the former home of all-news WTOP.
In an era of rapid change in the news and media businesses, when both print newspapers and broadcast radio stations are seeing huge chunks of their audience migrate to online news and entertainment sources, Washington Post Radio was an experiment in stretching the idea that it doesn’t really matter through what platform you get your news–what’s important, rather, is who the storytellers are.
From the start in March of last year, Post Radio was intended to serve several purposes: 1) Promote the Post’s print and online journalism by reaching a new audience on the radio. 2) Create another outlet for Post reporting and thereby add one more justification for keeping a big, sprawling newsroom at a paper that, like almost all U.S. papers, is otherwise shrinking its staff. 3) Give Bonneville, the owner of all-news WTOP and several other D.C. radio stations, a way to capture some of the Washington region’s enormous audience for public radio’s more in-depth and upscale news and information programming. 4) Build on the powerful profits that WTOP draws as the dominant local station in morning drive time.
The radio industry by and large found the experiment intriguing but foolhardy–a difficult marriage of two very different news cultures. The station, owned by Bonneville in a contract with the Post, was managed primarily by executives at WTOP’s headquarters on Idaho Avenue NW in McLean Gardens, while most of the people who appeared on the station sat in a studio built in the Post’s downtown newsroom. Both companies provided producers who worked in their respective newsrooms organizing each day’s programming.
Not long after Post Radio launched, National Public Radio helped local public stations WAMU (88.5 FM) and WETA (90.9 FM) finance a series of focus groups with listeners “to help us see what Washington Post Radio would mean to us,” said Caryn Mathes, general manager of WAMU, the third-most listened to public station in the nation, after outlets in New York and San Francisco.
The four focus groups were united in their perceptions of Post Radio: Listeners said that after they tuned in to the Post station, which launched with the slogan “There’s always more to the story,” “there wasn’t more to the story,” Mathes said. “People felt the station didn’t deliver on deeper, more insider kind of stuff from the reporters who were on the air.”
For the Post’s hundreds of reporters and editors, going on the radio was something new. From the start, some people were good at it, some were just awful and a lot perhaps had potential, but didn’t have much idea of what we were doing. This was learning by doing–in a very public way.
At first, the idea was to create a throwback to radio’s golden era, with a station designed like a magazine, with different departments each hour–an hour on travel from the folks in the paper’s Travel section, an hour with the editors from Book World, an hour of politics, and so on. But with the station making not a blip in the ratings and with its producers increasingly convinced that too many of the Post’s writers had perhaps chosen a career in print for a good reason, the executives at Bonneville quickly moved to scrap the original format and go to something they knew more intimately–a tightly-organized hourly clock with different stories and personalities appearing every five minutes or so.
Listeners had every reason to wonder what had happened to the increased depth they had been promised. Print editors accustomed to a more serious news menu clashed with radio producers who argued that their medium required a more populist and lowbrow selection of stories. In each newsroom, too many people rolled their eyes over the cluelessness of their cross-town partners.
When the radio-side producers one morning invited on the air and lightly questioned some nutball hawking a conspiracy theory about how the U.S. government had arranged for the 9/11 attacks, editors in the Post newsroom went ballistic. Although many attempts would follow to find a happy medium between the two news sensibilities, the basic reservoir of mutual respect had dropped suddenly and permanently to a dangerous low.
At its best, Washington Post Radio was a comfortable, personable and conversational way to learn what was in that day’s newspaper and sometimes even to get the story behind the story. The station’s anchors were top-shelf professionals, from NBC veteran Bob Kur and former local TV weather forecaster Hillary Howard to CBS and NPR newsman Sam Litzinger and longtime local radio host David Burd. And some of the Post’s voices worked splendidly on radio, winning praise within the industry and from listeners as well–Lisa deMoraes on television, Stephen Hunter on movies, Emilio Garcia-Ruiz on sports, and columnist Gene Robinson on just about anything.
Sometimes, the theory behind the station became reality, and a foreign correspondent could phone in from the scene of an earth-moving event with the kind of firsthand account that radio was invented to deliver. More often, however, the reporters who came on the air did little more than repeat what they’d said in that morning’s paper.
In the end, there were too many oh-my-God, Martha, this person is freezing up live on the radio moments. A Book World segment crashed and burned when a writer insisted on reading his pearls of wisdom verbatim from his newspaper work. And on more occasions than either side cared to admit, reporters were told to come on the air to talk about one story, only to go live and hear an anchorman ask them about something wholly different, about which the reporter knew not a thing.
In the end, though, Post Radio’s competitors say it was the basic concept that was flawed: “It sounded like a bad college seminar where neither the professors nor the students knew how to keep anyone listening,” said the program director of an FM music station who asked not to be named because he might work with people at Bonneville in the future.
And from the other end of radio’s spectrum, this from the chief of the region’s most powerful public radio outlet: “This assumption that people don’t have an attention span is kind of offensive,” WAMU’s Mathes said. “People who want a deep contextual approach to news do have an attention span.”
For those of us who tried our hand at radio, Washington Post Radio was enormous fun, a chance to dive into a form that might seem similar, but really requires very different skills. The idea that Post executives fell in love with remains an important one: If the American newspaper is to survive as the basic foundation of newsgathering in this country, the companies that produce daily papers will have to find ways to sell their wares in various other media. But what the demise of Post Radio teaches is that that expansion into other crafts will mean that news organizations must hire and train people with a different set of talents and passions, and that inevitably entails a different concept of what the news is. It’s a new world out there. Read all about it.

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