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.

By Terri Rupar  |  June 11, 2008; 1:10 PM ET  | Category:  Media
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Comments

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One has to wonder of the wisdom of paying top dollar for AM radio stations when the trend is moving to satellite and HD radio. There is also now for Snyder and Red Zone the inherent problem that his original stations still have pretty weak programing (locally) along with their weak signal. If they keep Coach Thompson, Doc Walker, Czaben etc. with Dan Patrick in the morning instead of converting all of the new stations to ESPN then they won't have improved the problem of a weak signal for their orignal stations with Riggins in addition to the regular ESPN coverage. So I don't quite get buying all these new stations but keeping their current programming.

Posted by: Chris | June 11, 2008 2:17 PM

"...WTEM, which has one of the strongest signals in the region, according to those sources." WTEM has one the 3 strongest AM signals. But not one single AM station in DC covers the full market as well as most FM radio signals. WBIG, WTOP, WAMU, WETA, WASH, WMZQ and others all cover a vastly larger area. Plus WTEM has to seriously reduce power at sundown each day.

Posted by: Jif | June 11, 2008 2:27 PM

I wonder if Shapiro is aware of the irony in his statement that Gilbert built his reputation on "fair and balanced" commentary. The blogger seems to find it funny also as they have quoted two uses by Shapiro of this FOX News' phrase. It will be unfortunate to see Czaban and Pollin go -- though I expect Czaban will land on his feet given the growing reach of his nationwide morning show.

Posted by: dcbroncofan | June 11, 2008 2:31 PM

"Gilbert, who managed 300 radio stations at ESPN" That's not true.
ESPN only owns 5 radio stations. There may be 300 ESPN radio affiliates, but they are owned and operated by others.

Posted by: Mort | June 11, 2008 2:31 PM

Apologies, but given my lack of belief in current ownership, this really sounds like a way to muzzle warranted criticism of the team.

Posted by: disbelief | June 11, 2008 2:34 PM

Snyder and the Redskins would have been much better off with their original plan to buy 104.1 FM. That has a better reach than this collection of 4 weak AM signals plus two far-out exurban rimshot FM's.

Posted by: Mike | June 11, 2008 2:34 PM

Snyder can't put together a winning sports team but he can sure make a business run well. Do you think that kiss @$$ Steve Czaban or Rick Walker are going to criticize Dan "Napoleon complex" Snyder on his airwaves? NOT! Maybe Sonny "never pick the Skins to lose" Jurgenson will get his own show, too!

Posted by: Henry | June 11, 2008 2:56 PM

Thanks for the comments.
We've updated the story to reflect that the 300 stations are affiliates as well as added in some analysis from radio guru Tom Taylor.

Posted by: Terri Rupar | June 11, 2008 3:24 PM

July 1 will be the last time I listen to WTEM. Hopefully some other new maverick will move to town on create a new sports radio station. Thank goodness for the internet.

Posted by: H.B. | June 11, 2008 3:53 PM

I don't believe Mr. Snyder will act in accordance with Mr. Gilbert. Snyder has a reputation for overpaying for assets and then trying to get as much revenue as possible, to the long-term detriment of the business involved. Mr. Snyder is also intolerant of criticism beyond what he sees as a reasonable level. We think that the result will be that WTEM will be nothing more than Redskins Radio with a stronger signal. We don't expect to hear decent baseball, basketball, hockey, or college sports coverage on these stations because of the restrictions there will be on expenditure.

I've spent many years listening to propaganda on the international level. I fear the only difference between Redskins Radio and Radio Havana will be that Havan has a stronger signal in most of the DC area. I don't like propaganda from a local organization, except the type of propaganda that is "warts and all." It would be refreshing, and it probably wouldn't hurt the revenue stream at Red Zebra.

This purchase is a very strong argument for reregulation of radio station ownership in one area. I wish the Redskins as many victories as possible, but I won't be listening to WTEM when this sale comes through.

Posted by: GAB in Odenton | June 11, 2008 3:54 PM

sorry to hear about the demise of a.m. sports radio in Washington. I can't believe that Snyder will be hands-off.

Posted by: demetri | June 11, 2008 4:20 PM

Pollin and Czaban are the only ones who make it personal with their "Danny boy"
comments I'd fire them in a minute and keep Doc and Mitchell who have been extremely critical at times but not personal

Posted by: MIKE | June 11, 2008 6:03 PM

i think we should all sit back and watch. everything and anything that happens will be played out in public. either radio remains independent, or it doesn't. in either case, my guess is the listener base will stay. as portrayed in the howard stern movie "private parts," the audience who loved it stayed "to see what they'd say next"...the audience who hated him stayed "to see what they'd say next."

that about says it all.

Posted by: radiofan | June 11, 2008 9:47 PM

I thought Czaben and Polly were gone for shore. But now that I think about it, they have to keep Czabe. He's the best local sports talker when ratings are the main concern.

I can see Andy Polly getting a job with TK doing something on MNF or PTI. I would see that as a step up......

Posted by: 4th | June 12, 2008 6:41 AM

I used to work at WTEM and was a long-time listener; I couldn't be more disappointed that Snyder bought the station. This was truly "The Voice of the Fan" for years, but now it's going to be "The Mouthpiece for Snyder".

I hope Snyder has better sense with this station than he does the Redskins. SportsTalk 980 has a good thing with Czabe and Andy. However, they are the ones most likely to keep things status quo and since Snyder's so sensitive to criticism, they might be in trouble. Hope I'm wrong...

Posted by: brownwood26 | June 12, 2008 7:30 AM

Sorry to see this sale go through, but let's not turn Czaban and Pollin into Mike and the Mad Dog. They are limited in their sports knowledge, largely contemptuous of baseball and hockey, and are more geared to the Maxim-reading, beer-swilling twenty-something male who wants plenty of "attitude" than to genuine sports fans.

Washington is becoming a multidimensional sports town; it's not just the Redskins anymore. Too bad our sports media can't follow suit.

Posted by: Vincent | June 12, 2008 9:25 AM

As I am in NYC and subjected to Mike and the Mad Dog, please don't use them as an example of "good" sports talk....gross..

I find it laughable that the example of Murdoch and the WSJ is used as an example of not twisting a new media purchase to fit goals of new owner.

Posted by: chris larry | June 12, 2008 9:44 AM

This is all very interesting but, really, does anyone listen to AM radio anymore? If Dan wants to buy radio stations should anyone really care? In the end the team's record will always speak for itself and commentators etc have nothing to do with the outcome.

Posted by: David | June 12, 2008 12:21 PM

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