WMAL to crank it up by adding FM in DC


RBR-TVBR News Analysis:

Cumulus didn’t take long to make the move—it was just under three days after DOJ and FCC approved its $2.2 billion purchase of Citadel Broadcasting.

Now WTOP has a bit of added News competition in DC with Cumulus’ simulcast (9/19 Noon ET) of WMAL-AM on its Classic Rock WVRX-FM 105.9.

They’re not competing head-to-head, per se, as WMAL is Conservative-leaning News-Talk and Hubbard’s WTOP is pretty much All-News. But the added FM signal will pick up plenty of spoken-word-hungry folks in DC, as this market’s government and lobbyist workers thrive on it. The timing is good for WMAL with the 2012 Presidential election coming up.

The DC market also has—just on FM—WAMU-FM, C-SPAN Radio, two Sports talk stations (Red Zebra’s ESPN Radio via two FMs and one AM transmitter) and CBS Radio’s WJFK-FM. This is a political city too—and politics and radio mix very well. On AM, Hubbard has Federal News Radio and there are other spoken word AMs in the market, like Metro Radio’s Talker WTNT, Red Zebra’s Sports Talker 570 WSPZ and Salem’s WWRC-AM. And these are just some of the English-language spoken word AMs in DC, there are plenty in other languages as well.

The trend is undeniable in the past year—spoken word to FM. And we seem to see Rock stations taking the biggest sacrifice on that altar. But numbers don’t like—Cumulus picked WVRX because of its mediocre ratings. It was #21 in the market in the latest book with a 1.7 AQH. In the last three books, it made it only to a 1.8. Cumulus’ Hot AC WRQX was tied for 11th. WVRX HD-2 remains Smooth Jazz; WRQX-HD2 remains a simulcast of WMAL.

Pulling WVRX off of the main signal will undoubtedly help former Classic Rock/Classic Hits competitor, Clear Channel’s WBIG-FM 100.3. It was tied for 11th place as well in the latest Arbitrons.

It will be a tough challenge for WMAL, which was #14 in the last book. WTOP was #1 in the market and remains the highest-grossing station in the nation. It’s really a network of stations has a full-market FM on 103.5; a fairly strong station on 107.7 (WWWT Manassas, VA) covering Northern Virginia all the way south to Richmond’s northern suburbs and a local FM on 103.9 (WTLP Frederick, MD) covering DC’s distant Northwest suburbs, including Frederick and Hagerstown, MD.

WMAL covers the market and beyond well, with its low-dial position and 10,000 watts daytime power. But yes, at night they are down to 5,000 watts and the suburbs won’t hear the station as well at night. So the FM will pick up a good number of listeners.

The only down side of WVRX’s signal is it is first-adjacent to WJZ-FM in Baltimore, which is on 105.7 FM. WVRX is licensed to the southern suburb of Woodbridge, VA, so the folks in DC’s northern suburbs are going to get interference from WJZ and one of its HD Radio carrier signals, placed on 105.9. Over the years, this frequency has had issues covering the entire market and has flipped formats and owners numerous times because of it.

A real estate play?
That being said, looking at the map of where WMAL’s transmitter site is, and considering the DC area real estate market, the land (56 acres) could be worth $50,000,000 or more. That pays off a LOT of debt. The zoning in the area of the site (Bethesda, MD) – should be quarter acre. Using 50 acres as an estimate that’s 200 building lots – you need to reduce that by about 30% for infrastructure (roads etc) so Cumulus could get 140 building lots. At only $300,000 a building lot in Bethesda it could get $42,000,000. They could move WMAL-AM to co-locate with another station’s tower site, or just keep it FM-only.

RBR-TVBR observation: WMAL has 85 years of award-winning programming and community service under its belt, but has cut the local news coverage over the years. That may soon change, as obviously in DC, local news/traffic/sports and weather coverage brings in the big bucks. Cumulus CEO Lew Dickey also noted that he has told his team there to “be creative at using innovative ways…to bolster our community involvement.”

While WMAL has the nationally-syndicated stalwarts like Rush, Levin and Hannity, it also has live and local hosts such as Chris Plante, and “Morning Majority,” hosted by former Fox News anchor Brian Wilson, “The Daily Caller’s” Mary Katharine Ham and WMAL veteran Bryan Nehman. These local hosts will compete with WTOP via their interactivity with call-in listeners.

Another reason WTOP is #1 is because of its three transmitters that cover the entire market and beyond. No doubt, adding 105.9 will add listeners, especially those listening in offices where AM radio is often destroyed by florescent lighting and PCs. Of course, there are some listeners that don’t even go to the AM band.

Another factor will be how well WMAL capitalizes on its online presence. WTOP is a well-visited site and has all of its apps and social media ducks in a row. There is a lot of headline news on WMAL’s site and it does have mobile apps, Twitter and Facebook, but to make it the go-to place (like WTOP) for local news, weather, traffic and school closures will be a challenge.

In the end, the ratings will tell the story both Arbitron and the Comscore besides the meterics.  The ad revenues will, of course, follow. But for sure, the WMAL AE’s have a new story to tell when calling on clients.