Snyder's Executives Talk Sports Talk Radio
By Thomas Heath
Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder hopes to double the ratings of his Red Zebra radio network with the $24.5 million purchase of WTEM (980) and two other stations from Clear Channel Communications, his executives said in an interview this week, the first time they have spoken about the deal.
"This is about improving our reach," said Mark Shapiro, Snyder's protege and chairman of the board of Red Zebra Broadcasting, the holding company for Snyder's radio network. "The end game is about improving our ratings."
Snyder is purchasing WTEM from Clear Channel along with WTNT (570) and WWRC (1260). WTEM is the dominant sports talk station in the Washington region with 180,000 listeners per week and a 1.3 percent market share.
The purchase gives Snyder control of six stations in the region, all of which will carry Redskins games starting this summer.
Snyder's current radio stations has a 0.7 market share, about half that of WTEM. Observers and former employees who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by Snyder said Snyder overpaid for Red Zebra's three stations and their relatively weak signals. He is now trying to correct the situation through WTEM, which has one of the strongest signals in the region, according to those sources
Tom Taylor, who writes a newsletter on the radio industry at Radio-Info.com, said Snyder's foray into radio has been expensive.
But, he said, the Redskins are now back on 980 AM. There are still problems with WTEM's signal at night, but fans have better access to the games than before.
"This puts the universe back to the way Redskins fans are used to it," Taylor said. "It's been an expensive education for Mr. Snyder. But he has the assets that he wants, now."
Shapiro and Bruce Gilbert, chief executive of Red Zebra, said the content produced by WTEM hosts such as former Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson, Rick "Doc" Walker and Brian Mitchell, and Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin was pivotal to the strategy of expanding Snyder's radio presence "in a big way."
"WTEM is extremely opinionated, and fairly so, about the Redskins and every other sports franchise in town," said Gilbert, who worked for Shapiro at ESPN. "We wanted these guys and their ability to have strong opinions about things."
Sports fans and others have expressed concern that Snyder's purchase of WTEM will turn it into a mouthpiece for the Redskins.
WTEM hosts Czaban and Pollin in a recent interview questioned whether they'd be able to criticize the team once Red Zebra takes over July 1. Czaban, Pollin and other WTEM hosts, including former Redskins players Walker and Mitchell, have often lambasted the team and its owner in recent years. Shapiro said censoring Red Zebra or using it as a propaganda arm of the Redskins would devalue the purchase.
Snyder "inherently knows, just as Rupert Murdoch knows with his acquisition of The Wall Street Journal, that if your content is slanted, biased, prejudiced or agenda-driven, you will scare away listeners," Shapiro said. "Dan knows that if a radio station was going to serve as a platform for his own views, listeners would see right through it. They want criticism, fair and balanced commentary, and we will not stand in the way of that. Sports is argument."
Snyder has been criticized by media observers in the past for micromanaging his team, but Shapiro said the owner will have no direct involvement with WTEM. Shapiro said Gilbert, who managed 300 affiliate radio stations at ESPN, "built his reputation on fair and balanced commentary."
Snyder's Red Zebra is part of a broad entertainment empire that the Redskins owner has cobbled together, with the team as its flagship. His holdings include a private-equity arm, Red Zone Capital, which has purchased Johnny Rockets chain of restaurants. A year ago, Red Zone bought Dick Clark Productions, which produces the Golden Globe Awards and Dick Clark's "New Year's Rockin' Eve," for $175 million. Snyder* is also chairman of Six Flags, which Shapiro runs.
The purchase of the stations must be approved by the Federal Communications Commission. Gilbert said such approval could come within 120 days.
*Correction: This used to say Shapiro; it's actually Snyder. We apologize for the mistake.
June 11, 2008; 1:10 PM ET
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