Radio news (and vice versa) in DC and Baltimore

A few days ago RadioInk reported that WTOP, the all-news radio station in Washington, D.C., is now the top-billing station in the nation. Two surprising things there. One is that Washington is the #7 market (behind New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston-Galveston), and that in the latest ratings WTOP is #2 overall, behind WAMU, the top local public station. (WAMU gets an 8.2% AQH, or Average Quarter Hour share, to WTOP’s 6.9%,)

One non-surprise is new competition, from WNEW — “all-news 99-1,” created by CBS, which owns the top news stations in New York (WCBS and WINS), Chicago (WBBM), Los Angeles (KNX and KFWB), San Francisco (KCBS) and elsewhere. Of the ten top billing stations (according to that same RadioINK story), five are all-news, and all but WTOP are owned by CBS. So clearly CBS would like to compete in a town that makes more news than any other.

So far, however, WNEW has been all but nowhere in the ratings. WTOP has slipped a bit (a month earlier it was #1 with a 7.5% AQH share), but WNEW went from 0.3% to a “-”. Not good. Still, according to this piece by Ben Fischer in the Washington Business Journal, CBS says things are going “according to plan.”

wnewAs an old radio guy with a transmitter obsession that I’ll never fully repress, I’m wondering if the signal is an issue. WNEW, which is licensed to Annapolis, transmits from a tower in the woods near near Patuxent River Park, between Bowie and Crofton, in Maryland, about four miles east of the 197 exit off the Baltimore-Washington Expressway (295). The maxium power allowed for FM stations in the Northeast is 50,000 watts at 500 feet (above average terrain), and WNEW puts out the equivalent of that with 45,000 watts at 515 feet. (Coverage results from a combination of power and height. You need less power at higher antenna heights to achieve the same coverage. Most FM stations in New York radiate from atop the Empire State Building with 6,000 wats at 1361 feet.)

Could be the idea is to cover both Washington and Baltimore, which it does, as you can see from the Radio-Locator.com map on the right. The red line is the calculated extent of strong signal coverage. But signal strength still falls off with distance from the transmitter, and it helps to be in the middle of town, as WTOP is.

Recently I drove around both cities, and WNEW sounded fine there in a car. Homes and offices are another matter, though. Car radios tend to be pretty good. Home radios and portables much less so. On a kitchen radio in Baltimore, about the same distance from WNEW as, say, Arlington, Virginia, WNEW was all but inaudible.

Some history.

WTOP began life at 1500 on the AM dial, with a powerful directional signal pumped out by its three-tower 50,000-watt facility in Wheaton, Maryland. The signal on the ground covered most of the metro area by day, though it left out places to the west, especially at night. (Thanks to the reflective qualities of the ionosphere at night, the station could also be heard well from North Carolina to the Maritimes.) The Washington Post, the primary owner of the station back then, made WTOP all-news in the mid-1960s. (Around that same time, the Post also made a royally dumb decision to donate its FM station, on 96.3fm, to Howard University, where it thrives today as WHUR — because the Post didn’t believe people were going to listen much to FM.) Then, to make a long story short, the station went through a series of ownership changes and facilities proliferations until it arrived at this current state (first links go to coverage maps):

  • WTOP, the namesake, radiates on 103.5fm, with 44,000 watts at 518 feet above average terrain, from the American University tower it shares with WAMU, WKYS, WMMJ and WPFW. This is equivalent to the legal maximum of 50,00o watts at 500 feet; except that the station has a directional signal, with a dent to about half that power in the Baltimore direction.
  • WTLP, on 103.9, with 350 watts at 950 feet above average terrain, on a ridge alongside Gambrill Park Road, overlooking Frederick, Maryland.
  • WWWT, on 107.7, with 29,000 watts at 646 feet, also equivalent to the legal max of 50,000 watts at 500 feet. on a hill overlooking Warrenton, Virginia.
  • W282BA, on 104.3, a 100-watt translator on a tower in downtown Leesburg, VA.
  • All four simulcast and identify as WTOP.

Meanwhile the old signal on 1500 is now WFED, called FederalNewsRadio. It is simulcast on WWFD on 820am in Frederick, MD. That transmitter is a two-tower rig, alongside I-70 just west of Frederick. It’s 4,300 watts by day and 430 watts at night, when its signal is aimed east over Frederick. Both WTOP and WFED are owned by Hubbard Broadcasting, which recently bought them from Bonneville.

Maybe CBS will buy up a fleet of secondary stations around the edge of the market(s), like WTOP did. That might help. Meanwhile, I think that signal is a problem.

I could say more, but I’d rather just put this up. It’s been languishing in my pile of drafts for long enough, waiting for me to say more. Rather than that, I’ll just leave the rest of that up to those of you who care.

4 comments

  1. Andrew Leyden’s avatar

    I lived in DC about 10 years and never once listened to WTOP.

    I then moved to my beach house out by Annapolis and listened to WTOP nearly every day in the car.

    Why? Traffic. DC’s traffic is horrible if a commuter (but generally not much of an interest for ‘in-town’ folks. WTOP’s traffic reporting is actually probably considered one of the best, with a few ‘traffic wonks’ who live and breathe traffic and whatnot (remember, this is a town where the Dr. Gridlock column in the Washington Post is more read than many of the political commentaries).

    Often I’d switch off the iPod every 10 minutes to catch the traffic on the 8s as I drove into town. WTOP was tuned in by basically everyone who was driving, at least every 10 minutes.

  2. Andrew Leyden’s avatar

    And more to your point, the other thing about WTOP is that it blew out your speakers. If you couldn’t get it on one of the main frequencies there were repeaters out in Manassas and Braddock Heights that carried the feed. Was a big chunk of the dial.

  3. Marktropolis’s avatar

    A quick correction: the WTOP tower is at American University (not Washington) also home of WAMU. At the same time, those stations listed are some of the biggest in the area. I’m a PFW fan, and recall there being a bunch of times when their signal was down – and not “their” fault. Didn’t realize KYS was on the same tower as well.

    And I think Andrew Leyden has a point: because of the traffic in the metro area, LOTS of folks pay attention while they’re driving. And WTOP probably has one of the more extensive networks of traffic info. That, and DC is a very news-heavy town, what with all the govt and policy stuff going on, talk radio is a BIG deal around here.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Woops, thanks Marktropolis. The error is corrected.

    If you want to see who’s on what tower, check out this link to a distance-sorted search at FccInfo.com. It shows all the FM transmitters, sorted for distance from the center of Washington.

    The closest are at the NBC site at Cathedral Heights.

    Next are the ones at the University campus.

    Next are the ones at the intersection of Wisconsin NW and Chesepeake NW.

    Several auxiliary transmitters are on a tower at the corner of Riggs NE and a railroad. WCSP (the C-SPAN startion) is on an ordinary tower next to the very pretty three-legged DC police dispatch tower you can see here.

    Four more (including WETA) plus many AUXes, are on a tower in Big Walnut Park in Arlington.

    Two more (94.7, 99.5) are off River Road/190 just outside the District to the northwest.

    Three more AUXes are in a golf course a bit farther out from there.

    Next is WPGC near Marlboro Pike southeast of the District line.

    Next is WWDC and a bunch of AUXes at an antenna farm around the WWDC facility next to Jones River Road Park near the Chevy Chase/Silver Spring boundary, north of the District.

    Two more (98.7 and 100.3, plus a bunch of AUXes) are to the west in Falls Church, inside the Beltway and south of 66.

    Next, farther west, overlooking the Beltway south of 66, are 106.7 and 105.9 (WJFK and WMAL), both with very directional signals — away from DC. Directional on FM does not mean stronger in some directions and weaker in others. It means dinged in some directions. That is, a signal intentionally reduced, usually to protect other stations on the same or nearby frequencies. If you notice that one or both of these signals seems sub-par, that’s the reason, in addition to their outlying location.

    Finally, there’s WNEW, way out there, as I say above.

    That’s what you get within 30km of DC’s center.

    Note that nearly all those stations are Class B, or equivalent to 50kw at 500 feet. That includes the directional ones. The only station with a higher power/height combination is WETA, with 75kw at 615 feet. It was grandfathered at that level. Note also that 50kw at 500 feet is not big at all. Class C stations can be up to 100kw at 2000 feet, covering much larger areas. When the FCC set up FM in the U.S., it put most urban areas in Class B territory, in Zone I. That includes the whole Northeast, the rust belt and all of California. (Here’s a map.) In California many stations got on the air early at much higher powers, some exceeding even the Class C limits. (KPFK in Los Angeles is 110kw at 2831 feet, atop 6000-foot Mount Wilson.) Same with a few more in Michigan and Ohio. But relatively few stations in the midwest and eastern Zone I got grandfathered at higher levels. (Two are WGBH in Boston and WFMT in Chicago. None in DC, NYC, CT, PA, RI and MD.) Here is the FCC’s list of classes and zones.)

    There is also a slight advantage to lower frequencies, because they bend better around buildings and over terrain. That’s one reason I used to listen to WAMU for the bluegrass show every Saturday morning both from my house in New Jersey’s northernmost county (Sussex), and from several homes in Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I lived in the first from ’71-’74, and the second from ’74 to ’85. In both cases I used a highly directional outdoor antenna. Both locations were well over 200 miles from WAMU. It helped that there wasn’t much else in those days on 88.5. Now, of course, we have the Internet, and all that hard work seems ancient and quaint. But we did what we could, back in the Antenna Age. :-)

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