News & Politics

How the Washington Post Failed in Radio

A play-by-play demise of the Washington Post's “good experiment” and foray into radio.

To the very end, the relationship between the Washington Post newspaper and Bonneville International radio was mired in misunderstanding and dysfunction.

Which helps explain why the Post’s golden opportunity to expand its brand and its reporting to radio has failed.

Responding to today’s Post story that said WTWP “would go off the air next month,” Bonneville senior vice president Joel Oxley sent a note to his staff noting “a couple of problems” in the article. For one, Bonneville’s three stations “are not going off the air.”

Oxley wrote: “There’s more speculation than fact out there right now. We will be broadcasting talk, news, and play-by-play sports round the clock on the stations.

“The Post had a number of things wrong,” Oxley continued. “Like the frequencies of our radio stations. Stay tuned. Facts to come as details become official.”

News leaked yesterday that WTWP would go off the air next month. The Washingtonian had reported in its August issue that the station’s demise was imminent. Bonneville and the Post are midway through a three-year deal, in which the radio company paid the newspaper to lend its name to the radio station and provide content in the form of its reporters going on air to talk about the news.

How did the paper blow its chance to become a radio power in the Washington region?

The simple answer, according to reporters and radio executives, is that the Post never devoted time, money, and attention to the task of turning news reporters into radio personalities. 

At least one Post journalist asked for pointers on becoming a radio personality, but her request was rebuffed.

The Post was cavalier in compensating reporters. Some were asked to do radio spots for no extra pay. Some were paid $50 for 20-minute appearances; some were paid $25 for five minutes.

The format never gelled. The station started broadcasting long interviews with reporters, who tried to expand on their newspaper and Internet reports. Once the radio pros realized that reporters not trained for radio could drone on or lapse into radio silence, they ordered up shorter appearances. Reporters wound up regurgitating stories they had published that morning.

Listeners would get comfortable with a host, who would then disappear. Longtime pro Sam Litzinger drew a loyal audience before he left for CBS Radio.

Most reporters saw radio appearances as a chore rather than an opportunity. Some writers did shine on WTWP. Eugene Robinson, Stephen Hunter, Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, Annie Groer, Dana Milbank, and a few others came across with entertaining radio personalities. But most weren’t very good.

“It became something people had to do,” one reporter told The Washingtonian.

The result was that WTWP drew few listeners; its ratings remained at the bottom of Washington-area stations, and Bonneville kept losing money.

The only rise in ratings came last spring when former Post sports columnist Tony Kornheiser agreed to host a morning show on WTWP. Even with Kornheiser, WTWP was 18th among local stations, with 1.2 percent of the audience.

Post executive editor Leonard Downie declined to comment for this story. He told his own reporter that WTWP had been “a good experiment.”