Cumulus talk outlet regaining prominence in nation’s Capital Region
By Mike Kinosian
LOS ANGELES — Even if not somewhat excusably misused, “heritage” is among the buzzwords many broadcasters hyperbolically invoke when proudly discussing their station and/or a particular on-air talent.
Not limited to a particular genre, it could apply to any format, although scores within the industry still choose to link “heritage” to dominant, institutional, full-service stations with larger-than-life personalities.
In the nation’s capital, for instance, the mighty morning team of “Harden & Weaver,” who beginning in 1960, prevailed in DC for approximately three decades, reinforced WMAL as “heritage” calls there.
Simultaneous with “Harden & Weaver” solidifying their own place in radio history (Frank Harden is now 92 — Jackson Weaver passed away in 1992), they were largely aiding to foster the station’s legacy — the Cumulus Media-owned talker is flourishing in 2014.
Morning mall entertainment
Overseeing then Citadel-owned WMAL from Chicago, where he programmed sister talker WLS-AM, Drew Hayes in August 2010 brought in former Air America programming honcho Bill Hess as assistant program director. Approximately one year later, Cumulus acquired Citadel and Hess was elevated to program director.
Although Hess was New York-based in his Air America tenure, the former PD of Washington adult contemporary WASH and classic rock WBIG fortuitously had not sold his DC-area house. “When I got to WMAL, the morning person was [former ‘Love Boat’ co-star] Fred Grandy,” Hess recalls. “Chris Plante was doing mid-days and he was followed by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Mark Levin. Chris is doing a great job as 9:00 am – 12:00 noon host. Rush gets great numbers [12:00 noon – 3:00 pm] and we continue to run Levin at night, so there were no changes in terms of talent in those day-parts.”
Some morning drive modifications, however, have been instituted along the way, including importing Brian Wilson, who spent about 12 years at Fox News Channel. “Before going there, he had done 10 years of local news in Washington,” Hess points out. “I felt the station had not done a good enough job in recent years covering local news and local events. Brian had local experience and he is very tied-in with the local scene. We juggled in some other people, including Brian Nehman, who had been a longtime newsperson and co-host here. He was a co-host with Brian Wilson.”
For a roughly one-year span, Mary Catherine Hamm was added to the wakeup program and after she departed WMAL, the show became “Brian & Brian.” Just over two years ago, Nehman exited for morning drive duties at Hearst Corporation’s WBAL, Baltimore; Larry O’Connor was paired with Brian Wilson. “Larry has a theater, comedy, and advocacy journalism background,” Hess notes. “With Brian and Larry, we have been able to build a 5:00 am – 9:00 am ‘Mornings on the Mall’ show that is topical and deals with all the water-cooler issues of the day. The focus is to be entertaining in the morning. We want people to know what is going on, but also to have a smile, or to get an opportunity to participate. We do many phone segments in the morning. The most popular ones are sometimes those that happen to be the most fun.”
Locally-originated day-parts have surfaced as the station’s main focus. “One year ago when the Hannity deal ended, we put on [Michael] Savage and Cumulus allowed us to create a local hour at 5:00 pm,” Hess discloses. “It is the first time WMAL has been live and local for any part of afternoon drive in quite some time. That has been very helpful in our growth because we can update stories that have been happening during the day. With no syndication clock that hour, we can do traffic and weather every 10 minutes, just as we do in the morning. Larry comes back and does that hour.”
Enjoying 25 – 54 growth
Boston’s WBZ-AM and Sacramento’s KFBK are sterling examples of genuine hybrid news-talk stations, in that, they schedule extended news hours in addition to talk blocks; however, Hess stresses WMAL is a typical talk station that does news. At the same time though, he adds, “We do much more news than the station did five or six years ago. You can report/update the news and have reporters in the field, but talk radio gives listeners a chance to vent. It allows us to extend the conversation to people hearing the coverage. If we are covering a breaking news story, we will add updates but we will open up the phone lines. Our listeners are used to calling in and, in some cases, they will share what they have seen or what they know.”
This past May among persons 6+, WMAL ranked 14th in Washington with a 3.4. Ever since then, it has neatly strung together six progressive or flat monthlies for a cumulative +1.0 (3.4 – 3.6 – 3.6 – 3.7 – 3.9 – 4.2 – 4.4) and has propelled to sixth-place, the highest ranking in its PPM history. For further context, 4.4 is the most potent (6+) share for WMAL since August 2011 when WMAL-AM registered 3.3 and WMAL-FM added 1.7 for a combined 5.0.
Albeit down for the third successive sweep (8.5 – 7.8 – 7.5 – 7.4), cross-town Hubbard all-news WTOP is the market’s (6+) pacesetter for an impressive eleventh consecutive time. Public WAMU is a consistently solid performer: Second-ranked April through August; third in September; and fourth in both October and November. Clearly, a heavy appetite for spoken-word programming exists in the country’s seventh-largest metro. “We focus on what we do well and what we can continue to do better,” Hess states of WMAL. “Our ratings have been increasing on a consistent basis.”
Evidenced by the past six above-noted ratings sweeps, there are no wild fluctuations for WMAL, but rather a slow, steady increase to the point where Hess boasts, “We have had our best-ever 25-54 share for three months in a row. The goal here is to build 25-54 numbers. WMAL was always strong 35-64 but what has been rewarding over the past couple of years is the growth among 25-54s. In planning our shows, we are constantly thinking 25-54. By thinking that way, we make decisions on guests, topics, and bumper music that will help us grow that demo.”
By the same token, however, the station has no desire to forfeit any of its 35-64 audience. “WMAL is certainly more male than female,” Hess remarks. “Especially on our morning show topic selection though, we make sure that we are opening ourselves up to things that have across-the-board appeal.”
Considerable corporate cooperation
Paramount for Hess over the last four years has been re-inserting WMAL to local news, local issues, and the local conversation. “There was a time when this radio station was down to two news people and no field reporters,” he laments. “WMAL had a grand tradition ‘back in the day’ and, years ago, it was the news leader in this market. We have been very focused on utilizing whatever resources we could put together to build our news gathering and reporting organization. With support from the company, we have done that. We are in constant communication with [Cumulus executive vice president of content & programming] John Dickey, [the company’s senior vice president of programming] Mike McVay, and [corporate news-talk PD] Randall Bloomquist; [Cumulus president, chair, CEO] Lew Dickey comes through from time to time, as well. They have all been very supportive of what we have been trying to accomplish here. I like to say that we are ‘feisty.’ We do not have a huge staff but we are out in the field covering stuff. When it matters, we are there and that is what is important. People notice when there is a big story. If you do not show up for a big story, you are not in the game.”
As recently as this past Monday (12/8), in fact, WMAL was up to the task of being a vital “game” player after a small, private jet crashed into a Gaithersburg, Maryland house. A woman and her two young sons inside the home were killed, as were three people on the aircraft. “We added additional news updates throughout the day; had a reporter at the scene all day; and preempted some programming by starting our 5:00 pm ‘Drive at Five’ early in order to carry NTSB press conferences,” Hess recounts.
Aside from such tragic developments, traffic and weather updates are generally incorporated within syndicated programming and Hess opines that talk programmers “have to be smart” in knowing when to expand those elements. “Listeners are coming to the station primarily for the talent, so if you interrupt [them], it had better be for the correct reason. This is somewhat of a transient market, yet many residents have lived here for a long time. WMAL has been part of the lives of Washingtonians for many years. As we focus more and more on in-depth breaking news coverage, both through our news department and talk shows reacting to breaking stories, it melds nicely with the history of WMAL.”
Benefitting on both bands
Over and above broadcasting on Class B WMAL-AM (10,000 watts day/5,000 watts night at 630), WMAL’s talk format airs on 28,000-watt WMAL-FM. Adding 105.9 WMAL-FM occurred a bit more than three years ago (mid-September 2011), when Cumulus jettisoned classic hits on WVRX in favor of a WMAL-AM simulcast. More specifically, the flip eventuated following the playing of “The Song Is Over” (The Who) and “Hello, Goodbye” (Beatles). It provides equal status of an FM signal with WTOP, whose expansion to that band actually started considerably earlier and involves two such frequencies (103.5 and 107.7).
Furthermore, CBS Radio all-sports WJFK-FM “The Fan” is there as well, thus, there is significant spoken-word cume on Washington’s FM dial. “It has been helpful in our case to be on FM,” Hess observes.
Other than home-team scores within newscasts, WMAL does not engage in considerable sports coverage, leaving that position instead to “The Fan” and Red Zebra’s WTEM “ESPN 980,” an entity of the Daniel Snyder company that owns Washington, DC’s NFL franchise. “We do talk about the teams when it is ‘news,'” Hess affirms. “If the Nationals are making a playoff run, or if [Nationals outfielder] Bryce Harper is in the news, we will talk about it. The soap opera that is the Washington Redskins gets some attention.”
Social media has proven to be an exceptionally crucial component in the WMAL arsenal and Hess acknowledges that his station is “consistently looking” at ways to do “an even better” job with it. “When there are breaking stories, we ‘tweet’ and post on Facebook. The primary responsibility for our desk assistants is to update news on the website and to tweet updates. It is a very competitive market to be doing that and we feel it is important. It is one more way to touch prospective — and often younger — listeners. We have some very experienced people in our newsroom and a great managing editor — John Matthews. He has been here a long time and is a former news director. By title, that job does not exist here now. John is able to oversee some newsroom operations but his primary responsibility is website content. He drives that aspect of what we do. When there is a breaking news story, everyone on our team is involved. Those are tough days, but it is rewarding when you do a good job.”
Precisely two years in advance of joining WMAL, Hess was appointed senior vice president of programming for the now defunct liberal-leaning Air America Radio. These days as a hands-on, station-level programmer, he has a much closer relationship with the audience, whereas at the network level, “You work through your affiliate stations. It is much more nimble this way. You can act quicker and react more personally to the audience. Today’s top ‘local’ story could be a ‘national’ story, but we are making that decision for this market as opposed to a more global decision.”
Centerpiece regarding WMAL’s community involvement is its annual radio-thon for The Fisher House Foundation, with the relationship between the two principals going back almost a dozen years. “The work the Fisher House Foundation does is just fabulous, and over the years, our listeners have responded spectacularly,” Hess enthuses. “When I first got here, WMAL did a one-day, Saturday radio-thon.”
Given the vital task Fisher House performs, Hess felt the station should step up its involvement, so he expanded the on-air project to two days – Friday and Saturday. “Making the radio-thon part of the station on a weekday sent an important message,” he maintains. “In 2010, we raised $95,000 in our Saturday radio-thon, but when we went to two days in 2011, the total increased to $255,000; in 2012, it was $290,000.”
Last year, WMAL bettered the 2012 figure by $40,000 (to $330,00) and this year’s Fisher House radio-thon, which was held last Friday and Saturday (12/5 and 12/6), collected $350,000, prompting Hess to declare, “I am in awe of the way our listeners have supported this organization. Before my involvement, I never thought this through. Servicemen and servicewomen come back injured or have lost limbs. You assume we are taking care of them medically, but you do not think of the families. If you are hospitalized, imagine how much better you feel if a loved one is next to you. [Before there was a Fisher House Foundation], families had to fly themselves to their ‘wounded warrior’ and pay for their own hotel rooms.”
These facilities (“houses”) are now at bases with military hospitals, so families can stay rent-free and eat without incurring food costs. “In many cases through the ‘Hero Miles’ program, we can donate our leftover [frequent flier miles] to Fisher House, so a family member doesn’t have to pay for that, either,” Hess explains. “It is an amazing thing; very rewarding for the radio station to be involved; and doubly rewarding to see how our listeners respond.”
Owing to the unique factor that WMAL is in the nation’s nerve center, a variety of remarkably influential individuals at the highest level of government could very well be listening to the radio station on any given day – and Hess proclaims, “They often are – that is very neat. I am incredibly fortunate to be working in the business that I always wanted to work in and to be doing this format in this market. It is a lot of fun.”
Managing editor Mike Kinosian’s email address is Kinosian@TALKERS.com.