New all-news radio station for Baltimore - sort of

WNEW: A

But will it mean more news for Maryland listeners, or is it just better branding by CBS?

  • Washington's WNEW-FM (99.1) "repositions" itself starting Monday with a hard look south toward Annapolis and Baltimore in search of listeners.
Washington's WNEW-FM (99.1) "repositions"… (WNEW Facebook image )
February 28, 2014|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore is going to have a new all-news radio station. Or part of one, anyway.

WNEW-FM (99.1), a CBS-owned Washington-oriented station, is repositioning itself as a Maryland station focused on Baltimore, Annapolis and Washington as of 5 a.m. Monday, according to Steve Swenson, senior vice president and market manager for CBS Radio in Washington.

Will the change really mean more and better information for listeners in Baltimore, which does not have a 24/7 all-news station? Or is it mainly a matter of rebranding by a Washington station with a big signal that has failed in its two years as an all-news outlet to put a dent in WTOP’s dominance in the D.C. market?

Behind the scenes, the change will involve WNEW opening a seven-person bureau on TV Hill at WJZ-TV’s facilities, as well as a one-person bureau in Annapolis, Swenson said.

Like WNEW, Baltimore’s WJZ-TV is owned by CBS. Because of that, the Washington radio will also be carrying audio of Baltimore stories reported by Channel 13. (WJZ-TV and The Baltimore Sun have a content-sharing agreement.)

On air, the change will include “Beltway to Beltway” traffic reports every five minutes from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, as well as weather reports covering Washington and Baltimore, along with Howard, Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, every four minutes, Swenson said.

There will also be a shift in the way anchors address the audience. Instead of “D.C.” this and “D.C.” that, anchors will be referencing “Baltimore, Annapolis and Washington” in their introductions to weather and traffic. Each weather report will end with current temperatures in the three cities.

Starting Monday, listeners will also hear promotional pieces featuring on-air personalities talking about the Maryland cities where they live.

Swenson and Bob Phillips, senior vice president and market manager for CBS Radio in Baltimore, characterize the changes at WNEW, which has its studios in Lanham, as a logical reaction to demographic shifts in the region, as Washington and Baltimore become more like one major metropolitan market.

“The Baltimore-Washington corridor is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country,” Swenson says. “It is where a lot of people are moving to, and their commutes are getting longer. And that’s where we’ve got to be.”

“You think about the traffic between the two markets now, and it’s just gotten ridiculous,” Phillips says. “We have the ability to allow commuters who are going from Baltimore to Washington and vice versa, to not have to change back and forth between the two markets on radio stations as they go. … The signal reach of this station is about 5.3 million listeners. This is a large, large signal.”

The number of people commuting between Baltimore and Washington is large. And it seems wise for CBS to try to take advantage of WNEW’s signal, which can be heard clear as a bell in the northeast part of Baltimore City, where I live.

There is also no question of the vast resources a big broadcasting corporation can provide to one of its stations.

In addition to stories gathered by reporters for WJZ-TV, WNEW will also have sports reporting and commentary provided by sports-talk stations 105.7 The Fan in Baltimore and 106.7 The Fan in Washington.

The all-news station will also have music and pop-culture reporting from Mix 106.5, a Baltimore music station, Swenson said.

But as promising as all of that might sound, there is the question of why WNEW ranked between 18th and 27th in the Washington market last year, while WTOP, the Hubbard-owned all-news station, ranked first or second.

Swenson’s explanation: the contour of its signal.

“Our transmitter site is located near Annapolis, while most D.C. radio stations are further west in the District,” Swenson wrote in an email Friday. “As a result, those stations’ signals cover more geography in the DC metro than WNEW.”

According to Swenson, the portion of WNEW’s signal that can be easily heard in a car and in a building “only reaches 38 percent of the DC metro population while it covers more than 75 percent of the Baltimore metro.”

Beyond signals, though, maybe the Washington audience simply doesn’t like the way the CBS-owned station does news and information.

I have a bias in favor of all-news radio. But that’s based more on theory than the reality of much of it today. Amid all the confusion that besets the media in this time of vast technological change, the one thing I do know is that the first job of journalism is to provide citizens with reliable information they can use to make informed decisions about their lives.

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