8.31.2007

The Failure of Post Radio

by Rick Rockwell

Questions are hanging in the air after the announcement this week that Washington Post Radio will call it a wrap next month.

How is it that two savvy media corporations, the Washington Post Co. and Bonneville International could fail so miserably?

Washington Post Radio basically allowed Bonneville to rent The Washington Post’s brand as a way to sell talk radio. After 18 months though, the experiment could get barely one percent of the metro area in and around Washington, D.C. to listen.

There are many reasons why this joint venture failed. But it really boils down to one word.

Arrogance.

Some of it was arrogance at the Post and some of it was arrogance at Bonneville.

The arrogance at the Post was classic newspaper arrogance. The Post is the king of newspapers in a town with one-and-a-half newspapers. (And even calling The Washington Times half a newspaper is a compliment.) So perhaps there is reason for the arrogance.

Nevertheless, broadcasters encounter this arrogance often: newspaper journalists say they know how to do broadcasting better. If only those broadcasters would just move over and let some journalists with depth do the work (as if there are no journalists with depth in broadcasting: there may be fewer than ever, but they still exist!) you’d see a better product and a more informed audience. That arrogance says newspapers are the superior media product (even though television has attracted a bigger audience for decades) so of course newspaper journalists know best.

That arrogance carried over to the air, where even reviews in the Post took note of how clumsy newspaper journalists sounded on the radio and how some of them even tried reading their material from the newspaper verbatim. (So much for all the books available that could have told those all-knowing newspaper folk that the style of writing for broadcasting is very different.) Besides a book on broadcast writing, maybe some of the reporters at the Post and their bosses needed to pick up a history book or two. In the 1920s and 1930s, such experiments blending newspaper and radio operations either evolved into professional radio operations with separate staffs or they died, just like Post Radio. Of course, we know what happens to folks who don’t read history.

More arrogance: the Post has an entire broadcasting arm to its corporation and that broadcasting wing didn’t have much if anything to do with Post Radio. That’s because, Bonneville basically paid the Post for access to its columnists and reporters as a way to fill this attempt at talk radio. Bonneville still controlled the editorial content though which set up some angry editorial clashes as Bonneville’s producers opted for ratings grabbers while Post editors wanted more substantial fare. When Bonneville started discussing leavening Post Radio with talk radio programs from Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck as a way to boost ratings, the marriage was over. (Bonneville will use the radio frequency to launch a talk format with those syndicated shows after Post Radio is closed.)

Bonneville’s arrogance was thinking it could dominate the information airwaves in Washington and beat National Public Radio (NPR) in its own backyard. Bonneville saw an advantage because its highly-rated WTOP is the top news and information station in D.C. WAMU* the top NPR affiliate looked vulnerable to WTOP because its news team has been in transition. When another NPR affiliate, WETA fielded a new and aggressive public affairs and reporting staff, Bonneville engineered a complex format swap to make WETA an all-classical music station and change Bonneville’s WGMS from classical to pop and eventually to gospel. In effect though, the move closed a feisty news competitor for WTOP. Washington Post Radio was designed as the knockout punch to lure NPR’s audience to one of Bonneville’s stations.

The final piece of arrogance was thinking that by stretching a news product from another medium, Post Radio could somehow beat NPR, one of the quality broadcasting operations in the U.S.

But the audience was too sophisticated to fool.

Of course, the audience realized that with the exceptions of a few programs (including the sports talk of Tony Kornheiser, which was a major ratings draw) Post Radio was just a warmed over version of the newspaper instead of fresh and aggressive news.

This was one of those projects where media executives piled into a room chanting their favorite mantras about synergies, added values, convergence, multi-media, and of course their favorite topic: building profits without investing in sufficient personnel. After almost 18 months, a few million dollars in losses and some tarnished reputations, they are about to get what they deserve. Dead air.

*WAMU-FM is licensed to American University, which employs the author of this piece.

(Photo by Takomabibelot via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)









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