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WBAL Radio rides news, Orioles back to its roots

When WBAL Radio broadcasts the Baltimore Orioles home opener Monday, it will mark more than just the official reunion of two major Maryland institutions that had been synonymous for most of six decades.

The return of Orioles baseball to WBAL after four years on the FM dial is also part of a larger move by the 50,000-watt station. It's re-emphasizing its news-and-sports roots after more than a decade featuring highly political talk with the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Chip Franklin.

"They certainly went talk-heavy for a little while," says Mike Skandalis, who analyzes radio ratings trends for the Baltimore advertising agency MGH. "And the station became very opinionated."

But Ed Kiernan, WBAL's general manager, describes the station's identity today as "news and information" featuring "news with a capital 'N.'"

 And longtime WBAL news director Mark Miller defines the WBAL Radio brand as "local, local, local, local, local news."

While the station still has two daily talk shows hosted by Ron Smith and Clarence Mitchell IV, it has gone to all-news in its most important time periods — morning and afternoon rush hours.

In the past year with that format, the station has increased its audience overall by a third and moved locally from eighth place to fourth with viewers 18 years and older.

WBAL made the change to all-news during morning drive in August 2009. And its "Maryland Morning News" show is now No. 1 with adult listeners in its 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. period. The audience accounts for 9.1 percent of all radio listening in Baltimore during that time.

While the Hearst-owned broadcaster has been doing all-news in afternoon drive-time only since July, its audience was up by 23,500 adults or 18 percent in January over its average monthly audience in 2010.

And those ratings increases are in line with what all-news and news/talk formats are doing in cities across the country — particularly on established, big-watt stations in big cities that have large newsrooms. WBAL's 19 newsroom employees make it the largest radio news operation in the state by far.

(Pictured Brett Hollander, host of WBAL's "On Deck" show. Photo by Steve Ruark special to the Sun.)

In Washington, all-news WTOP is the No. 1 station, and it now boasts ratings that show one out of every 10 listeners in the market tuning in regularly at some point during the day.

Philadelphia's KYW and San Francisco's KCBS are having almost as much success with all-news in their markets.

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, KDKA, a station that goes back to the earliest days of American radio, has been winning new listeners in the afternoon drive with all-news since 2009. Like WBAL, it is using a hybrid news/talk format overall.

Six of the top 10 stations in billings nationally for the most recent figures available are all-news or news/talk hybrids.

The primary reason for such success is not some sudden interest in radio news, analysts say, but rather a new methodology from the Arbitron ratings service that is capturing how listeners actually use radio, rather than how they think they do.

"All-news blocks like the ones WBAL is doing, or all-news stations like the ones CBS has in a lot of markets, are doing so well because of the change in methodology that is really reporting how much listening is actually being done to them," says Mike Stern, who recently chronicled the trend for the trade publication Media Life Magazine.

In 2009, Arbitron switched its Baltimore audience measurement system from users recording their listening habits in diaries to the use of Portable People Meters. While the similar Nielsen technology had only a minimal impact on TV, Arbitron's meters made a big difference for radio stations featuring news.

"Under the old diary system, which relies on listeners remembering and later writing down what stations they listened to, all-news stations got shortchanged," Stern says. "Typically, people tune in and out of all-news stations in short bursts to get news, headlines, traffic or weather — and then they tune somewhere else."

The short periods of listening were often not remembered when the listener later filled out the diary, resulting in chronic under-reporting for all-news and news/talk formats. The Arbitron meters measure listening as it occurs — not as it is often incorrectly remembered.

Beyond any ratings benefits the station might be enjoying because of new, more accurate research tools, WBAL management believes there will be more listeners to measure this year at AM 1090 thanks to the Orioles. And industry analysts, who like the synergy between local news and live sports, agree.

"The Orioles are a magnet for listeners as far as we are concerned," says WBAL's Kiernan, who declined to say what Hearst is paying for broadcast rights."The way we see it, we have an exclusive format called Orioles baseball. It's an extraordinarily popular local team, and there's only one place to get the play-by-play. And that drives listenership. The Orioles will help put us on car radios where we otherwise might not be."

According to Skandalis, 105.7 The Fan, the CBS-owned sports/talk station that had the Orioles the past four years, had about twice as large an audience during the Orioles season as it did otherwise — and outside of the tail end of last season, those were some pretty lean times in terms of wins for the O's.

And some of those new listeners are going to be young, according to Stern.

"In the case of a station like WBAL, younger listeners don't have many occasions to go to the AM band. A lot of them don't really know what that AM/FM button means on the car stereo," he says. "So baseball definitely brings in new audience members."

One way WBAL will be trying to make younger listeners feel at home is through the use of 26-year-old Brett Hollander hosting the "On Deck" pre-game show before Orioles broadcasts and appearing every 30 minutes from the ballpark during afternoon drive time from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on game days. Hosting the Orioles' pre-game show on a 50,000-watt station is a huge showcase for someone that young.

Another key part of the package involves executive producer Mike Wellbrock, who has been with WBAL for 27 years, in charge of re-creating what Kiernan refers to as "the sound" of Orioles baseball — a mix of ambient audio from the park and chatter and narration of on-field events from Fred Manfra and Joe Angel that can transport listeners away from their everyday world when it works.

"Having the Orioles back on 'BAL this year is really all about what this station has stood for since its creation," says Miller. "And that was being a voice of news and information, sports and entertainment — and pride. Pride not just for the station, but for the city — and the Orioles are a big part of that."

As news director of the station, Miller acknowledges that he might not be the most objective analyst.

But recounting summer nights from his own Baltimore childhood spent listening to the O's on WBAL in his bedroom when he was supposed to be sleeping, Miller also believes he speaks for many lifetime area residents when he says, "I grew up with the sound of WBAL-Orioles baseball in my ears, and listening on Opening Day, I know it is going to seem like something is right in the world again — the world is back in balance."!/davidzurawik

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