UPDATED: Washington, DC’s 107.3 WRQX to flip to Christian Contemporary in major multi-market station deal

Updated 5/31/19 – WRQX has flipped to “K-Love” and is now WSOM.  The callsign will change to WLVW soon.  Click here to read my full story and to hear the format flip.

Updated 3/2/19 – Some new developments in the WRQX/EMF sale, according to online reports:

  1. The actual format flip will apparently happen in summer 2019 when the transaction closes, not March 1 as previously thought.
  2. WRQX and the other stations below will very likely get the “K-Love” format instead of “Air 1” or “K-Love Classics.”
  3. The “Mix” branding and WRQX calls will stay with Cumulus, meaning they could reuse the combination in another market, or they could resurrect WRQX as “Mix” on co-owned 105.9 WMAL in DC after the deal closes.  This also guarantees that 107.3 will get a new callsign this summer, the first new callsign for the station in over 40 years.

A radio deal between Educational Media Foundation (“EMF”) and Cumulus Media will result in six major United States cities getting a new Christian radio station.  Among the stations announced February 14 include 107.3 WRQX Washington, DC, a local radio station of mine.

The move also marks the second time within a year that a radio station in the Washington market has ditched the hot adult contemporary format, after cross-town 94.7 WIAD flipped to classic hits in October.

WRQX, along with five other stations in New York, NY (95.5 WPLJ), Atlanta, GA (106.7 WYAY), San Francisco (97.7 KFFG), Savannah, GA (102.1 WZAT), and Syracuse, NY (105.9 WXTL), will become EMF stations this summer, according to press releases from both Cumulus and EMF, linked here from RadioInsight.com.  Although seemingly not related to the EMF deal, Cumulus also said in their release that they will swap ownership of stations in Indiana, Massachusetts, and New York with Entercom.

EMF runs three Christian Contemporary networks: AC-leaning “K-Love”, CHR “Air 1,” and “K-Love Classics,” which airs recurrent songs from previous decades.  It is unclear exactly which network WRQX and the other signals will pick up.

RadioInsight.com did a great job of reporting on how the shockwaves from this deal will reverberate throughout the radio industry.  I decided to take a look at the deal’s immediate effect on the Washington, DC radio market, as well as how it will affect DXers in the Mid-Atlantic area in range of WRQX.

HD Radio decoded from WRQX, 4/15/18

For years, the main Christian Contemporary (“CCM”) radio outlet in the Washington, DC area has been 91.9 WGTS Takoma Park, MD.  Listeners in Northern Virginia also had access to the “Your PER” network of simulcasted CCM signals (89.9 WPIR Culpeper, VA, 90.5 WPER Fredericksburg, VA, and a chorus of translators throughout Virginia), while those in the Maryland suburbs of DC can hear nearby Baltimore, MD’s “95.1 Shine FM” WRBS.  DC’s 105.1 WAVA Arlington, VA, which airs spoken religious programming, occasionally airs CCM music.

Even with suburban and distant signals offering the same format, WGTS was the go-to place for Christian music in Washington.  I always see WGTS bumper stickers on cars and advertisements on buses, a nod to the station’s popularity.  Introducing K-Love to this “one-horse town” will likely drive listeners away from WGTS, WRBS, and the “PER” network, especially if listeners are familiar with K-Love from being in other cities where it can be heard.

Once WRQX flips, there will be no hot AC radio station in Washington.  The closest the city will have to the format will be adult contemporary 97.1 WASH, which airs more 80s music and less upbeat songs compared to what Mix plays.  It will be interesting to see if another station in Washington picks up the hot AC format to fill the void.  The closest stations with an hot AC format are 101.9 WLIF in Baltimore, MD (42 miles from DC), Fredericksburg, VA’s 101.5 WBQB at 45 miles, and Winchester, VA’s 92.5 WINC, at 54 miles away from the city.  Neither WLIF, WBQB, or WINC make it into office buildings and businesses in downtown Washington, where many doctors offices and businesses play the format in waiting rooms.  I predict WASH will win this battle, unless offices migrate to more upbeat signals, like CHR 99.5 WIHT.

WRQX has had a long span of consistent formats over the years.  From 1979-1990, the station was CHR “Q107.”  It was hot AC “Mix 107.3” from 1990-2013, and again 2015-today.  The signal was CHR with a slew of names (“All The Hits 107-3” and “DC’s 107-3,” to name a few) between 2013-2015.  Ironically, after the flip, WRQX will be in competition once again with WAVA, something that hasn’t happened in the market since WAVA was also CHR in the 1980s.

EMF purchasing WRQX makes sense.  Save for a translator here and there, K-Love was largely absent from the Washington, DC region until 2017, when EMF bought nearby 94.3 WWXX and flipped it to K-Love.  The station, now WLZV, broadcasts 2 KW in a rural area 45 miles southwest of Washington and cannot be heard in the city due to a local LPFM on 94.3.  If EMF wanted to penetrate the DC market, they needed to do it on another signal, and WRQX was a logical choice, given how its 19.5 KW signal reaches the entire DC area, including the mountainous areas to the west, with ease.  I’ve seen WRQX’s ratings slip over the years, so if a sale was to happen, it likely would’ve been a station like WRQX, instead of high-rated 103.5 WTOP or 96.3 WHUR.

From a DXing perspective, WRQX’s flip is actually good news.  I often get K-Love signals via tropo or Sporadic E propagation, and it is good to have a local signal to quickly compare songs heard on distant signals to during DX events.  It saves me from having to tune in the K-Love audio stream each time a suspected K-Love signal is heard.

The downside is that since K-Love is a nationally-broadcasted network of stations, the only local content heard is the top-of-the-hour legal ID.  This is in stark contrast to the current WRQX, which has local DJs and other local content after every song.  And, of course, the fact that employees both on-air and behind-the-scenes at WRQX will likely all lose their jobs after EMF takes control is unsettling.

It is unclear if WRQX will get new call letters with the format flip, but several online sources have hinted that the calls will change next month.  My prediction is that WRQX will air K-Love, and the call letters will be something like WLVD or WLVW (the latter being currently on a K-Love station in Maryland, but the calls can always be moved).  We’ll see how right I am in the coming weeks.