Tiny station offers feds place to vent

WFED radio targets region's bureaucrats

WFED, news radio for feds

April 10, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- It may be the only talk-radio station in America where federal workers won't get bashed.

On WFED Federal News Radio, 1050 AM, the region's army of bureaucrats is the target audience, tuning in to the low-power station's Silver Spring signal from as far north as Columbia and Fort Meade.

It's a concept that could work only in the Washington area: 24 hours of daily programming on federal pay, retirement benefits, contract management and the occasional dig at politicians - spiced up with programs such as Who's Your Data? and Ask the Chief Acquisition Officer.

Shock-jock radio it's not. But in a town where C-SPAN's dry-as-dust broadcasts are the soundtrack of daily life, political junkies get these jokes.

Take this bit from senior correspondent Mike Causey: "Because of the latest lobbying scandal to hit Capitol Hill - can you say Jack Abramoff? - members of Congress this year are going to have to buy their own baseball tickets. Oh, the humanity!"

Don't know who Mike Causey is? Then you're not a federal worker. Causey wrote a popular newspaper column on federal workers for nearly three decades. He's the "rock star" of the civil service, station news director David Oziel said. He's so "Inside the Beltway" that his online bio claims that he invented the phrase.

Little wonder his station, which began six years ago as an Internet-only radio station, is poised to earn more than $2 million this year. WFED managers are working to more than quadruple the station's reach, if the Federal Communications Commission - where staffers should have no trouble identifying WFED - approves.

"People can laugh at our emphasis on benefits, but we got an e-mail yesterday from a State Department guy in ... Afghanistan," said Causey, 66, at the station's studio near the National Cathedral in Northwest Washington. "He's doing some heavy lifting over there, but his family has got to eat, and he worries about his 401(k) just like everyone else."

Oziel admits that it is "tricky" for Causey to host a call-in show about work while the audience is at work. But federal workers are more than eager to shoot Causey questions via e-mail.

"Given the amount and types of e-mail we receive, there must be thousands of feds out there going to work every day doing nothing but focusing on when they can retire," Oziel said.

For folks outside the federal world, the station's content can be downright opaque.

Did you know, for instance, that "directive 8570.1 is here"? And "ISC squared" fills all of the "directive requirements," including "CISSP" and "SSCP" certifications and "education seminars" to review and refresh "your information security knowledge"?

(Translation for the rest of us: The Defense Department now requires members of the armed services and employees and contractors with "privileged access" to a Pentagon computer system to be certified by an accredited third party.)

Such gov-speak is leavened by advertisements for rented office furniture and federal employee discounts on insurance from Geico - the Government Employees Insurance Co., of course.

The station's Web site, FederalNewsRadio.com, bills itself as "the first Internet radio station to migrate to the broadcast airwaves."

Federal News Radio began in the middle of the dot-com bust as a Web-only offshoot of Washington's news-radio powerhouse WTOP - in part because steel beams in some buildings blocked the big station's signal.

As Web traffic began to build, news executives noticed that a large percentage of WTOP's incoming e-mails ended with .gov or .mil addresses, program director Lisa Wolfe said.

So Bonneville International Corp. bought a Silver Spring business-news station for $4 million and flipped the switch for WFED in December 2004, producing its programs at WTOP's Washington studios.

Wolfe said the station's largest advertisers are defense contractors whose rapport with WFED's niche audience - about 43,000 listeners each week and 44,000 Web surfers each month - could mean a big payoff come contract renewal time.

Advertisers care about mid- to upper-tier bureaucrats because they buy things for the federal government. And WFED has convinced advertisers that the 1,000-watt station - one-fiftieth the power of Baltimore's WBAL-AM - achieves that, in part, with little overhead.

The station has a news staff of seven and takes feeds from Bloomberg's government business report, CNN and federal industry publications, such as CongressDaily, to meet the round-the-clock demand. Most of its programming is prerecorded and automated.

But Causey's weekly show is live. Wearing a black Panama-style shirt on a recent day and speaking in a deep voice, Causey is tanned, has a tattoo of a star on his left wrist and wears a gold chain. Causey, who for years wrote the "Federal Diary" column in The Washington Post, looks as if he's ready to crack open a Corona on the beach in Cancun, and he uses that same laid-back approach in his daily commentaries.

On a recent day, he pointed out that the federal government's maximum buyout offer, which has stayed at $25,000 since 1993, has "gone from enough to buy a nice new car then to having a second seat installed in your bathroom today."

He has ranked and reviewed everything from agency cafeterias (FDIC is the "best one in town") to best- and worst-dressed ("the Secret Service wins every time"). A recent column on hated office habits generated the most reader reaction, as of late.

"This is a venting place for feds because I can say stuff about their bosses that they can't," Causey said. "We're informing the troops, but we're also letting the bosses know. Because in federal agencies, you don't march in to see the secretary of state and complain that the cafeteria food is rotten."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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