Baltimore is going to have a new all-news radio station. Or part of one, anyway.
WNEW-FM (99.1), a CBS-owned Washington-oriented station, is repositioning itself as a Maryland station focused on Baltimore, Annapolis and Washington as of 5 a.m. Monday, according to Steve Swenson, senior vice president and market manager for CBS Radio in Washington.
Will the change really mean more and better information for listeners in Baltimore, which does not have a 24/7 all-news station? Or is it mainly a matter of rebranding by a Washington station with a big signal that has failed in its two years as an all-news outlet to put a dent in WTOP's dominance in the D.C. market?
Behind the scenes, the change will involve WNEW opening a seven-person bureau on TV Hill at WJZ-TV's facilities, as well as a one-person bureau in Annapolis, Swenson said.
Like WNEW, Baltimore's WJZ-TV is owned by CBS. Because of that, the Washington radio will also be carrying audio of Baltimore stories reported by Channel 13. (WJZ-TV and The Baltimore Sun have a content-sharing agreement.)
On air, the change will include "Beltway to Beltway" traffic reports every five minutes from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, as well as weather reports covering Washington and Baltimore, along with Howard, Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, every four minutes, Swenson said.
There will also be a shift in the way anchors address the audience. Instead of "D.C." this and "D.C." that, anchors will be referencing "Baltimore, Annapolis and Washington" in their introductions to weather and traffic. Each weather report will end with current temperatures in the three cities.
Starting Monday, listeners will also hear promotional pieces featuring on-air personalities talking about the Maryland cities where they live.
Swenson and Bob Phillips, senior vice president and market manager for CBS Radio in Baltimore, characterize the changes at WNEW, which has its studios in Lanham, as a logical reaction to demographic shifts in the region, as Washington and Baltimore become more like one major metropolitan market.
"The Baltimore-Washington corridor is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country," Swenson says. "It is where a lot of people are moving to, and their commutes are getting longer. And that's where we've got to be."
"You think about the traffic between the two markets now, and it's just gotten ridiculous," Phillips says. "We have the ability to allow commuters who are going from Baltimore to Washington and vice versa, to not have to change back and forth between the two markets on radio stations as they go. … The signal reach of this station is about 5.3 million listeners. This is a large, large signal."
The number of people commuting between Baltimore and Washington is large. And it seems wise for CBS to try to take advantage of WNEW's signal, which can be heard clear as a bell in the northeast part of Baltimore City, where I live.
There is also no question of the vast resources a big broadcasting corporation can provide to one of its stations.
In addition to stories gathered by reporters for WJZ-TV, WNEW will also have sports reporting and commentary provided by sports-talk stations 105.7 The Fan in Baltimore and 106.7 The Fan in Washington.
The all-news station will also have music and pop-culture reporting from Mix 106.5, a Baltimore music station, Swenson said.
But as promising as all of that might sound, there is the question of why WNEW ranked between 18th and 27th in the Washington market last year, while WTOP, the Hubbard-owned all-news station, ranked first or second.
Swenson's explanation: the contour of its signal.
"Our transmitter site is located near Annapolis, while most D.C. radio stations are further west in the District," Swenson wrote in an email Friday. "As a result, those stations' signals cover more geography in the DC metro than WNEW."
According to Swenson, the portion of WNEW's signal that can be easily heard in a car and in a building "only reaches 38 percent of the DC metro population while it covers more than 75 percent of the Baltimore metro."
Beyond signals, though, maybe the Washington audience simply doesn't like the way the CBS-owned station does news and information.
I have a bias in favor of all-news radio. But that's based more on theory than the reality of much of it today. Amid all the confusion that besets the media in this time of vast technological change, the one thing I do know is that the first job of journalism is to provide citizens with reliable information they can use to make informed decisions about their lives.
And all-news radio generally does that — whether it's traffic on the beltways as you drive from Towson to Capitol Hill, or how a winter storm is affecting Interstate 95 or 295 as you try to figure out your best track home to Canton from College Park as darkness falls.
In fact, that is generally the focus of all-news stations — along with one or two major sports and pop-culture stories and a few city hall, statehouse or congressional reports. And God bless all-news radio for doing some government reporting.
But all-news radio tends to repeat that information. And if you are driving from Baltimore to Washington, you might go through the rotation and find yourself looking for something else by the time you hit the I-195 cutoff to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
In a more cosmic sense, all-news radio doesn't seem so all-newsy anymore if you're jacked up on social media most of your working days and nights. Shifts in media technology and consumption have rewired my brain, anyway, to the point where nothing on radio can compete with an online stream. (On the other hand, if I am looking at an online stream while driving on I-95, I am probably headed for big trouble with a big rig.)
After several days of listening to WNEW, I do like its polished sound. And it does pay attention to government reporting — even if it tends to be superficial.
But until I hear how much Baltimore and Maryland are in the mix, it is impossible to predict how the new version of the station (whose 99.1 frequency once belonged to the legendary WHFS) will fare.
Having access to WJZ's reporting will likely help a lot. But covering a city the size of Baltimore with seven people — not all of whom are reporters — is going to be a challenge.
When asked whether WNEW will have a full-time City Hall presence in Baltimore, Swenson wrote, "We, along with JZ, will make day to day decisions on what is going on at City Hall and whether we will rely that day on JZ or send our own person."
That's the other thing about all-news: the importance of the decisions managers have to make every day about where to deploy limited resources. That's not a problem with music or even sports-talk stations, where the content is essentially scheduled and locked. News happens, and you have to react — often on the run.
Let's wait and see how WNEW does at that when a big story breaks in Baltimore.