Since the spring of 2006, WBAL-AM—the city's top-rated talk and news station—has lost some of its highest-rated and most hyped hosts and programs.
WBAL announced the cancellation of Rush Limbaugh's syndicated show in March 2006 (the program shifted to chief talk competitor WCBM). The Orioles decamped to FM's WHFS (owned by CBS Radio) prior to the start of the recent season. And this summer, hosts Chip Franklin and Rob Douglas flew the coop, with the relentlessly contentious Franklin joining KOGO in San Diego after more than seven years at WBAL; the less-confrontational Douglas headed to Colorado to run a business.
Simultaneously, by mid-September, WBAL's Arbitron ratings dropped it to number five in the local market.
Is Baltimore's 50,000-watt megalith suffering a major meltdown, or merely experiencing a periodic convulsion? "Programming changes occur sometimes in dribs and drabs," notes WBAL's Vice President, Program Director, and Station Manager Jeff Beauchamp, "and sometimes they occur in a more significant way—it's just the way of the world in media. The Orioles left BAL and went to CBS Radio; the Ravens left CBS Radio and came to BAL."
In addition to the Ravens, this past spring, the station snagged former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich and his wife, Kendel, for a Saturday-morning call-in show. They granted Franklin show co-host—and ex-state Senator—Clarence Mitchell IV his own show. In an audacious move, WBAL filled Franklin's slot with Shari Elliker, a long-time regular on her predecessor's show who has steered the proceedings from political rancor toward lifestyle banter.
As for the loss of market share, Beauchamp acknowledges that "there's been some audience shifting," but considers it temporary. "New people are coming now that every Ravens game is on the station, and I think that Shari is going to bring a new audience."
Dave Hughes isn't so sure about that last claim. "The core audience there [WBAL] is angry white men," says Hughes—who, as the Northern Virginia-based owner/operator/webmaster at dcrtv.com, assiduously tracks the Baltimore/Washington radio and television markets. "Putting a woman on in that spot at an angry white male station, I don't know if it's gonna work."
Still, Hughes applauds other WBAL decisions. "They're really trying to make the station local," he says. "One of the big complaints about talk radio today is that you just plug into the satellite [nationally syndicated programs]. WBAL is saying, 'We're all locally produced shows.' The problem they have is that Limbaugh was a huge draw. All of a sudden, instead of being the number two or number three station, they're number [five]. Now with Chip Franklin gone, they're probably going to be sinking even a little lower."
Beauchamp shrugs off such worries. "We're still the station of record, the station that people come to when they want to find out about news and weather and traffic and sports and to talk about the issues [of the day]," he says. "We're confident that we can . . . remain a very, very successful and viable media property."