Residents of the Washington, DC area received a bit of sad news today. Venerable classical music radio station WGMS, a small island of civility, will likely meet its demise within the next few weeks. This in and of itself is not surprising. Classical music stations, especially those commercially owned, are a dying breed. It was only a matter of time before somebody with deep pockets snapped up this precious FM slot. WGMS already had been pushed out of its familiar place (103.5) into a weaker frequency band by a Washington Post media venture.
What is noteworthy is WGMS’s executioner: Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. Snyder bought the station in order to further his growing sports-talk-Redskins radio empire. His current outlets have poor signal coverage in the Washington area and he had been looking to upgrade. In typical Snyder fashion, he overbid to be sure he closed the deal. “They made an offer that can’t be refused,” the Washington Post quotes an executive involved in the negotiations. “If someone wanted to buy your house and was willing to pay 50 percent more than it was worth, you’d do it.”
Do the names Deon Sanders, Bruce Smith, Steve Spurrier and Jeff George come to mind? To say nothing of Adam Archuleta, Andre Carter, Brandon Lloyd and Al Saunders.
Madison once wrote that he hoped never to have to choose between liberty and republican government; but if he did, he knew which one he would choose. I hope never to be forced to decide between classical music and football. I know how I would come down – I don’t blog on Bach – but Snyder makes the choice difficult.
When I first heard that Snyder, a wealthy young entrepreneur and lifelong Redskins fan, was going to buy the team in 1999 from the estate of Jack Kent Cooke, I thought it might be a good thing. That is, until I found out the source of Snyder wealth. I had assumed it came from something real, or at least quasi-real: technology, the dot.com boom, or maybe real estate. Uh, no.
OK, perfectly fine people work in advertising. But as I understand the story, after two or three business failures, Snyder, through hustle and chutzpah, assembled a paper advertising empire based on outsourcing and corporate acquisitions during the go-go 1990s. Then he actualized his virtual assets by selling out while the economy was still booming. Most of those assets (heavily leveraged) went into the purchase of the Redskins and their Stadium, for about $750 million.
Since then, Snyder has gone through five coaches. The team’s overall record is mediocre, even after he persuaded Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs to return. The Redskins have made the playoffs exactly once since Snyder’s first year. High-priced free agents, brought in well above market value, routinely prove to be busts. The draft has been disappointing. Ticket prices and amenities at FedEx field are out of sight.
So Snyder’s tenure has been disastrous, right? Not if you are his accountant. In 2005 the Redskins were valued at $1.3 billion, the highest in all American professional sports. More than the Yankees or the Cowboys and just below Manchester United. Snyder now looks to make a further killing through his Red Zebra Broadcasting Corporation, which is buying up radio stations in the mid-Atlantic as outlets for sports programming and live broadcasts of Redskins game. Sayonara WGMS.
A critical point – Snyder really is a die-hard Washington fan. He desperately wants to win. He is no Bill Bidwell – he spends money on the team and he’d spend more if the league allowed it. But Washington’s lack of success is surely no accident, even allowing for the vagaries of human fortune. The team’s direct and ancillary value skyrocketed because of Snyder’s promotional genius in a market with near-perfect brand loyalty (Redskins mania) – not because of the intrinsic, on-the-field value of the product. Snyder’s ethos seems to permeate the organization. And he refuses to hire and provide full authority to an experienced and knowledgeable front office type like the Colts’ Bill Polian. Every year there is a new plan, new faces, a new story, and virtually the same sorry results. To be sure, there are no guarantees in life or football. The highly-regarded Charlie Casserly, who Snyder pushed out as GM when he bought the team, was a complete bust in Houston’s front office.
Maybe Gibbs, a fine man and once a great coach, will turn it around next season. Maybe Snyder will decide to let professionals make the big decisions. Maybe the luck will turn.
Then I think about poor WGMS, a bug on the windshield of Snyder’s empire.