Radio news veteran John Matthews looks back at his 30-year career at WMAL Radio in Washington, D.C.
In the radio industry, life can be short. On-air contracts are sometimes only16-weeks long and anyone who’s been at a radio station more than two years is often referred to as “the old-timer.”
With that in mind, John Matthews is truly a survivor.
Matthews, now 51-year old and living in Burtonsville, Md. won a radio college internship in 1982 at WMAL-AM – at the time the most prestigious radio news operation in Washington, D.C. — and he basically never left.
“WMAL, back in the day, was the place to be if you wanted to be in radio,” Matthews says, “Why would anyone ever want to leave what was really a dynasty in Washington?”
To better appreciate Matthews’ three-decade-plus accomplishment, take a look at some data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Radio jobs have been in a steady decline, falling from 106,000 in February 1982 to nearly 92,000 in February 2013 – with a steep drop-off beginning in May 2006.
Radio Broadcast Employees
Courtesy: U.S Bureau of Labor statistics
To be fair, Matthews never left WMAL of his own accord, but there was a brief … hiatus.
He was let go in the recession days of 2008, “but as soon as my severance expired they brought me back in a part-time capacity.”
Matthews credits his quick comeback to his ability to evolve with the radio business.
“I am now the website manager for WMAL,” he says, “I’m the managing editor, which is really kind of the same as being the news director, but it pays less.”
Matthews’ change in job focus also meant other alterations.
“I’ve had to develop new skills,” Matthews says, “I went the first 25 years of my career without ever having to have spelling count or punctuation … where the quotation marks go, whether it’s before or after the period or the exclamation mark. I’ve had to learn all that stuff because it never counted in radio.”
Matthews’ kind of change is good in radio, says Jim Farley, the vice president for news at WMAL’s long-time competitor, all-news WTOP. Farley’s been in the news business since 1966 and has programmed WTOP since 1996.
“We decided years ago that WTOP is not a radio station,” says Farley, “We are a Digital News Organization … Our Mission is to inform and engage as many people as possible as often as possible across as many platforms as possible: web, mobile, Facebook Twitter, e-mail and text alerts, streaming audio, TV and Radio.”
If you want to make a living as a reporter who does radio today, Farley says you need multimedia skills.“If you can find a radio station that embraces the changing digital world and invests in resources, hitch your wagon,” Farley says, “Otherwise, forget it.
Len Deibert was the man that hired Matthews back in 1982. Deibert’s 20-year stint as news director at WMAL saw more awards for broadcast journalism (including two Peabodys) than all of Washington’s other stations combined.
Deibert’s not surprised that Mathews’ versatility, adaptability and creativity have kept him in the news business.
“He (Matthews) showed an early self-interest in learning about and mastering the computerized newsroom,” Deibert says, “understanding how it would change both news-gathering and reporting.”
The website isn’t the only thing different for Matthews and WMAL these days. The station is now considered a news-talk format and offers a heavy dose of syndicated conservative talk shows that are simulcast on both the AM and FM dial.
The Washington Redskins football games, a big part of what drew Matthews to the station as an intern, left the station long ago. The current local news staff, including Matthews, numbers three full-time and five part-time staff. That’s a big drop from the nearly 20 full-time and one part-time staff working at WMAL in 1982, and well below the average 7.9 full-time and 4.2 part-time employees the 2012 Radio Television Digital News Association annual survey found working at major-market stations nationwide.
The radio research firm Arbitron also reports only 3.3 percent of all Washington radio listeners now tune into WMAL. When Matthews signed on at WMAL, that Arbitron number was regularly over 10 percent.
Arbitron’s data meshes with the Pew Research Center’s “2013 State of the News Media” report, which shows digital news readership rocketing past falling radio news and newspaper numbers, with local news on the radio further eroding in recent years.
According to Pew, only one-third of adults now say they listened to “news radio yesterday,” — down considerably from 43 percent in 2000 and 52 percent in 1990.
Percentage of Adults Who Yesterday…
Part of that audience drop can be attributed to the fact that Arbitron now rates public radio stations, making news-talk station WAMU the overall ratings leader for the month of March 2013. Also, Washington is one of the few radio markets in the U.S. that can boast two all-news radio stations – WTOP and WNEW.
If you consider peer review, Matthews’ tenure at WMAL has been extremely successful. Under his leadership, competing against an all-news station with ten times the staff, WMAL has garnered numerous journalism national awards for its news coverage. Among them, Matthews’ own DuPont-Columbia University “Silver Baton” award – regarded as the broadcast equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize.
(You can watch Matthews accept his DuPont award on his YouTube channel.)
And though he is the station’s website master, he laments, but accepts, the emergence of “citizen journalists.”
“Everyone can use YouTube, everyone can have their own blog, everyone can lay claim to covering news when they are not really covering news whatsoever,” says Matthews, “When our work can be challenged by people who really don’t know what they’re doing, we deserve the results that we get.”
Despite the competition from the Internet, the drop in radio listenership and decline in job opportunities, Matthews remains optimistic about radio news.
“I do think radio news still provides an immediacy that no other form of media can provide,” Matthews says, “Places that choose to have radio news will continue to have it and those that find it too expensive will … probably find other ways to go.”
Still, looking back at three decades, Matthews says he has no regrets.
“If this is the only job I have the rest of my career,” he says, “I’ll be happy with that.”