FORGET LIMBAUGH AND NPR: There is no higher form of radio than sports talk. I grew up in Philadelphia where I was spoiled by America's best such station, the all-local WIP. The station played an important part in my adult formation. As a young boy educated by Quakers, I was confused by the strange emotions I felt when Eagles running back Ricky Watters deliberately failed to catch a pass in a losing game rather than be tackled, asking "For who? For what?" WIP taught me how to hate.
When I was exiled to D.C. 12 years ago, it was the sports talk I missed most. Washington had only had one station to choose from, WTEM. It was no WIP, but it wasn't terrible. Owned by the national radio giant Clear Channel, WTEM at least offered mostly local programming, which is always better than the homogenized babble of nationally syndicated shows. No more. The billionaire owner of the Washington Redskins, Daniel Snyder, has now gobbled up WTEM along with every other sports broadcaster on the local radio dial. His franchise will undoubtedly get worshipful coverage, even as he continues to run it into the ground, but quality sports talk is now an endangered species in the nation's capital.
Snyder decided to get into the radio business in 2006. The local station which had previously held the broadcast rights to Redskins' games didn't want to renew the deal. Probably because Washington is a lousy, front-running sports town and the franchise had been mired in mediocrity for more than a decade. Snyder decided that since no one wanted to buy the rights, he would create his own radio network to broadcast the games.
Snyder's tenure as an NFL owner has been marked by a penchant for spending scads of money on dubious prospects with little return. His adventures in radio were of a piece. He paid a whopping $33 million to acquire three weak-signal stations in the D.C. area. He then established them as a network affiliated with ESPN Radio, airing mostly ESPN's brain-dead, nationally syndicated programming.
The ratings have been dismal. According to Arbitron the three stations combined to pull between a 0.5 and 1.0 percent share. It was about the same rating they garnered before Snyder bought them--when they were Spanish-language music channels.
So Snyder doubled down. Earlier this summer he bought WTEM (and two smaller stations) for $24.5 million. WTEM had been crushing Snyder's network in the ratings. Naturally, his first move was to replace much of WTEM's popular local programming with the unpopular, syndicated ESPN product he was airing on his failing network. That's one way to beat the competition, I suppose.
But for Snyder, there's a hidden bonus: His new monopoly will allow him to discourage the local talkers from criticizing him and his team.
WTEM's star personality is a fellow named Steve Czaban, who hosted both the morning drive program (which was itself syndicated to other stations) and a local-only afternoon drive show. The Washington sports establishment is notoriously sycophantic toward the Redskins, in part a hangover from the Jack Kent Cooke/Joe Gibbs glory days of the 1980s and early '90s. But Czaban was one of the few guys with the sand to criticize Snyder and the Skins.
So Snyder's next big move was to axe Czaban's morning show. The decision made no business sense. Czaban's show was doing double the ratings among the key advertising demographic (men aged 25 to 54) as the ESPN show that replaced it (which Snyder had been running on his original network). But it did make a certain kind of sense when coupled with another change: Shortly after taking control of the station, Snyder had Czaban's afternoon show do a stint broadcasting from the mothership of Redskins Park, with a parade of Skins personnel as special guests. The resulting state-sponsored pageant played out like a scene from Animal Farm. And the message was clear: Criticize Snyder and the Skins at your own risk; management is watching.
All of which leaves D.C. without a single good sports talk station. It's a strange turn of events that has local ownership gutting the local programming. And the conflict-of-interest monopoly has created a stifling atmosphere where hosts have to tip-toe around the biggest subject in town.
As for me, I'll muddle through. I'm hoping to figure out how to pull in Czabe's morning show from AOL Radio's online service. Meanwhile, thanks to my iPhone, I can now listen to my beloved 610 WIP from anywhere in the country. Maybe I'll call in to let them know about Snyder's destruction of sports talk radio in Washington. That's the kind of hate they can get behind in Philly.
Jonathan V. Last is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.