September 1, 2012
Top 10 Most Interesting People 2012
When Steve Swenson, the vice president and market manager of CBS’ two all-news radio stations in New York, was asked to start the all-news radio station WNEW 99.1 in Washington, D.C., there was only one person he wanted as the station’s news director: Michelle Komes-Dolge.
More than a decade ago, the Dolge and Swenson had worked together at Washington’s all-news radio station, WTOP, turning the then-struggling station into the most listened-to frequency in the metro area. In 1998, however, Swenson relocated to New York and Komes-Dolge opted to leave radio news to raise her family.
Last year, when the invitation from Swenson came to join WNEW, Komes-Dolge jumped at the opportunity, eager to re-join Swenson and place her unique signature on radio news in DC.
“Since I was at WTOP years ago with Steve, I was out of the business for a while and so I became a listener,” said Komes-Dolge. “I like to think of myself as a professional listener. I know how the sausage is made and I would stand in my kitchen and go, I can’t believe they’re leading with that story!”
“Over the years I felt very strongly that we got away from that message,” added Komes-Dolge, “that Washingtonians were always hearing the top news, the best news stories, that the reporters weren’t always in people’s neighborhoods talking about what I cared about. And now I was a listener and I had new cares.”
Komes-Dolge viewed WNEW as the perfect platform to help change what she felt was wrong with news radio. That process began in January when the new station premiered for the first time.
“When [Swenson and I] started talking about this new process, it really became getting back to the basics of news radio,” admitted Komes-Dolge. “Not making it a magazine with lots of click-throughs that people like because it’s shiny and well-produced. It’s really about news happens, we produce it, we tell you what’s going on and when it’s over, we move to the next story, and that’s what we’re about.”
“When [WNEW] started, we really had this great moment where we actually all got to sit together and talk about who we are, what our mission is [and]what our identity would be,” added Komes-Dolge. “You rarely get a chance to do that. You don’t ever get to start something fresh like that, especially [in]news radio.”
Starting fresh, however, also meant that the new radio station would experience growing pains. The station hired nearly 45 reporters when it first launched at the beginning of the year, and of those 45, fewer than five had previously worked in all-news radio. Mistakes were common in the first few months, but according to Komes-Dolge, the station is finally running smoothly—a testament to the hard work of the station’s employees, and to the guiding hands of Komes-Dolge.
“I think that they all have this sense of comfort in doing what they’re doing,” said Komes-Dolge, who referenced the period in June when the destructive derecho storm hit the Mid-Atlantic, knocking out power at the station for two days. “In [the]derecho, we lost power and we were concerned about our staff, because we had no air conditioning. We wanted to take everybody and put them in a different studio … and everybody said, ‘No, we are so comfortable working together, doing what we do together. We’d rather sweat together.’ It was bonding.”
WNEW’s early triumphs lead Komes-Dolge to believe that the young station can achieve success similar to what she and Swenson reached at WTOP. However, she dismisses any talk of a war on the airwaves between the two rival all-news radio stations.
“Everybody’s looking at who we are and what we are and what we do and I can tell you, I do not believe many of our staff actually listen to WTOP or any of the competition … because [it is]so clear in their minds what our mission is, what we want to do, the kind of stories that we want to do, the way we cover them. Nobody in our newsroom thinks there is a war,” Komes-Dolge said emphatically. “They just think, this is what we do. I think, really, the war is external. Internally, it’s really all about being who you are.”
“It’s an incredible challenge,” added Komes-Dolge. “There’s not a lot of sleeping, but that’s what you do when you have a passion.”