WASHINGTON – It’s the end of an era in Washington radio. WTOP FM’s Jim Farley is retiring after 17 years at the helm, improving and nurturing what has become the most popular station in the area and the most prosperous in the country.
Yes, we’re tooting our own horn a bit, but on his behalf.
Farley is known for his one-liners that have inadvertently become his legacy. Sayings, such as, “Get it right, then get it first,” have become the mantras of the newsroom.
“It’s what I’ve been preaching: Radio is the medium of the here and now. You’ve got to reach out through the microphone and grab people by the lapel and say, ‘Hey buddy listen to me!’ It’s storytelling. It’s not reporting, it’s storytelling,” Farley says.
Farley’s support of the staff is well-known. After making a mistake when cutting up tape for a story, WTOP reporter Kristi King remembers Farley telling her, “Kristi, that’s why pencils have erasers.”
“One of the first things I told the newsroom in a meeting was that if you’re going to get your a** in a sling, get it there for something you did, not something you didn’t do,” Farley recalls.
When asked if he’s proud of the WTOP newsroom, his answer is, “Hell yes.”
“I come in on a Christmas morning and bring in breakfast and there’s nobody goofing off. They’re people working flat-out hard. Because they understand there are people that are counting on them. They don’t take the attitude, ‘Well it’s Christmas, nobody is listening,” Farley says.
Farley prides himself on creating a newsroom that feels like a family and is devoid of the personalities you might expect to find in news.
“One of the early rules I told people is that we’d have the N.A. rule. That no matter how talented somebody was, we wouldn’t hire an a**hole,” he says.
Farley is also famous for wishing for inclement weather, which is when many listeners turn to WTOP and WTOP.com.
The door to Jim Farley’s office says it all.
Naming the Glass Enclosed Nerve Center
Back when radio ratings were based on Arbitron listener diaries noting which stations listeners tuned in to, WTOP was having an identity problem, Farley says.
He explains listeners remembered music stations, but didn’t think to list news stations to which they listened on the reports.
“It was a memory test. That’s when we came up with ‘Your favorite radio station doesn’t play songs.’ It would annoy people. I used to get calls … But when we say that a lot, our ratings go up,” he says.
Next, was naming the studio, itself, to further infiltrate listener’s memories.
“It was actually Bob Marbourg who referred to it as the Glass Enclosed Nerve Center, which was tongue-in-cheek, and I thought, ‘Why not?’ It gets people to remember us. So we started saying every hour … And sure enough, people remembered us. And the newsroom staff disparaged this. But we did it for years,” Farley says.
Farley came to WTOP from New York in 1996 after eight years with ABC News as Managing Editor at the ABC Radio Networks. Prior to that, he spent 13 years with NBC News. At the time, the station was not doing well with ratings.
WTOP afternoon anchor Shawn Anderson describes the group at the time as talented, but demoralized.
“Jim stands in the middle of the newsroom and just comes out and says, ‘We’re going to win. That’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to win.’ And he had a boom box and he played the sounders that you essentially hear on the radio today,” Anderson says.
Farley says becoming Washington’s No. 1 rated news station was about investing in the staff.
“We turned that around and changed it not by getting rid of people and bringing in new people, we did it with the same staff. It was simply by empowering them,” he says.
Not taking ourselves too seriously is important, Farley says. Nearby, stands the Windex bottle labeled specifically for use in the Glass Enclosed Nerve Center.
Farley recalls calling a meeting on his first day and telling the entire staff one thing:
“If you go too far, if you push the envelope, I’ll tell you nicely that you went too far. But no one is going to land on you for being creative or taking initiative,” he says.
During his time at WTOP, Farley also stood up for the station. He recalls a time when The Washington Post was not giving WTOP credit for stories its reporters were breaking.
“So we typically we use a lot of stories from The Post, which we’re entitled to as members of the Associated Press. So I started having the staff say, ‘In a story reported by a newspaper in the Washington region.’ And then when somebody from The Post called to ask why were were doing that, I said, ‘Because that’s how you describe us in news stories, as a local radio station. When you give us the recognition, we’ll give you the recognition,'” Farley says.
At the time, The Washington Post was one of WTOP’s biggest advertisers.
For the last two years, Farley has been working with WTOP Programming Director Laurie Cantillo with the intention of passing her the torch.
Farley will remain a consultant for WTOP for two years and plans to eventually move with his wife to Florida.
“It is surreal. I don’t know how to stop. On Sunday last week, first thing in the morning, I do what I always do, I turn ‘TOP on and my wife asks, ‘When are you going to stop doing that?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ I’ve been doing it for 17 years. I don’t know how to stop,” he says.
While his time at WTOP has come to an end, there are many colleagues from throughout his career that continue to remember his reputation of calling it like it is, and wish him well.