Longtime broadcaster Chris Core ‘Values’ just about everything, and for good reason.
By Buzz McClain • Photography By Erick Gibson
Just who does Chris Core think he is?
Every day, three times a day, five days a week, Core rants, raves and rails about something on his mind for one solid, well-constructed, award-winning minute on the all-news radio station WTOP. The bit is called “Core Values.” If the station were a newspaper, “Core Values” would be the editorial page amid the breaking international, national and local news, the sports and the weather.
Core addresses politics, to be sure, but he also comments on the wacky weather, the fates of the local sports teams, school reform, the practices of the TSA, personal finance, the usefulness (or not) of emerging technology, the cost of college (it’s personal), the vagaries of whatever holiday is impending and anything else on his mind, or your mind, or what should be on your mind.
So who does Chris Core think he is, telling us what he thinks whether we like it or not?
Core rocks back in a padded desk chair in a side studio at WTOP’s newsroom in Northwest Washington and considers the question. The small studio—really just a microphone and a control panel—is where he tapes his daily takes, and it’s a good thing it’s soundproof because just outside the door is the bustling, humming newsroom of the country’s top-rated all-news radio station.
“I get a lot of that,” he says of the question. “But that’s the nature of commentary.”
Naturally, not everyone agrees with Core’s values. He understands that. But a careful listen to his one-minute takes shows he’s not trying to make you agree with him; he’s just illuminating how he’s processed the topic and filtered it through his 66 years of paying attention. Still, some people gripe, and a few call him names.
“People say, ‘oh, you’re an idiot,’ or they email me negative things, or they post it on the Internet,” he says. “But when you’ve been doing this as long as I have, you’re not going to hurt my feelings. It’s just not going to happen.”
This is Core’s 40th year as a broadcaster in Washington, something that few can claim. And given the dynamics of the industry, the odds are even better that fewer, if any, will ever be able to claim it in the future.
Core is one of the last broadcasters on the airwaves who started when radio was a dominant form of media. It’s still pervasive, but not as much as it was in the middle and late years of the 20th century, when a program such as “Harden and Weaver” scored a whopping 28 percent of the market share whenever it came on the air on WMAL-AM. “That,” says Core, “will never happen again.” For comparison, WTOP, the region’s most listened-to station, scores a 10 percent market share.
It helped that there were fewer radio stations to compete with, but there also were fewer entertainment diversions. Entertainment “has become diluted, if you will,” Core says, ticking off an endless litany of electronic distractions for the masses. “There are just so many places for people to go.”
But there was a time radio personalities had a unique hold on a captive and attentive audience, with a few of them so familiar to their fans they seemed like members of the family. Blame it on longevity.
Not only was there Frank Harden and Jackson Weaver—on the air for 32 years with the same station until the show finally ended in 1992—but there were “The Joy Boys” in the evenings on competing WRC-AM, starring Willard Scott and Ed Walker. They were on from 1955 to 1972, an astounding run that ended when Scott got called up to the big leagues to do the weather on NBC’s “Today.” Walker, to his great credit, is still on the air at WAMU-FM doing his retro-radio “The Big Broadcast” each Sunday evening.
By comparison, Core is a latecomer to the radio-duo game, but WMAL’s “Trumbull and Core” program of mirth, music and news continued the tradition that began in the ’50s and carried it into the ’90s. Their rush-hour time slot gave listeners easygoing companionship as they sat in traffic backups or started dinner.
How Core landed in the seat with the microphone next to Bill Trumbull, who had already been a Washington broadcasting fixture for a decade when they met, is a portrait of a driven young man who enjoyed what he was doing. But to do it, he had to make a life-changing decision.
Diplomacy? Politics? Nah, Radio
Core stands 6-foot-2 and keeps trim at 66 by swimming for 30 minutes every day at a gym near his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. He was an avid runner for years, but arthritis in the knees and worn cartilage in his ankle put a stop to that but gave him a fitting swagger when he walks.
Does Chris Core like anything?
As a matter of fact, yes.
Music: I’m sort of eclectic. I like country music; I like the more modern country like Zac Brown. I like Taylor Swift a lot although she’s not very country now. Kacey Musgraves is really good. Toby Keith. Country music is really fun because the lyrics are really clever. I like Jimmy Buffett; he’s country in a way. I got turned on to country by my daughter when she was in about seventh grade. She’s got a very good ear for good music. I like Top 40 stuff, too. I don’t like oldies stations. They don’t do anything for me. I like Springsteen—I can always listen to Springsteen. But if I buy CDs, they tend to be country.
Books: Stephen King would be No. 1. He’s a great writer, and people who don’t read him think he’s a horror writer—the earlier stuff was horror, and I don’t like it as much—but his are suspenseful books and very interesting. The best one recently is “11/22/63”; if you could travel back to November 1963, would you prevent the assassination of President Kennedy? And if you did, what would be the consequences? I really like that. I read everything by Vince Flynn before he died. He’s got a CIA character named Mitch Rapp; his books are page-turners like Tom Clancy, but I think he’s much more entertaining. I just read “The Girl on the Train” and really liked it.
Movies: The best movie I saw last year was “Gone Girl.” In fact, I hated the movies that were nominated for Oscars this year. I hated “Birdman”—I couldn’t watch it all the way through; I thought it was awful. I did like “The Imitation Game” quite a bit. And I liked “The Theory of Everything.”
Listeners to “Trumbull and Core” know Core was a bachelor longer than most, and his lifestyle, tame for the times, was fodder for many on-air conversations with Trumbull, “who was the married guy with kids in the suburbs, and I was the single guy in the apartment,” Core says.
Listeners were amused, if they were paying attention, when Core finally met someone on a blind date—a setup by a prescient WMAL receptionist—who, as he says, shared his values. “It takes time to find the right person you can trust your life to,” he says. He was 43 when he met Anne.
At 45 he was a dad, and Anne was a mom. Talk of their daughter, Tabitha, lights up Core’s face as he describes her career as a rising senior at Elon University in North Carolina, where she’s an honor student studying to be a teacher. “She’ll be great at it, too. She’s in Phi Kappa Phi, the national honor society for education majors.” He pauses. He grins. “I’m just stunned.”
Core’s broadcasting career began in his hometown of Clinton, Iowa, in the summer of 1968 as a part-time sports and news reporter at a local radio station, KROS. “I went in to look for a relief job, and I got it. I worked seven days a week; I worked nights. I went to the police station to check the records to see who got arrested, and then I would put together a newscast and a sportscast.”
In 1969 he landed the late shift and held down the airwaves from 10 to midnight seven days a week, a job he had for two summers. He also worked at “the big all-purpose station and NBC affiliate” WIBA in Madison.
But as a student at the University of Wisconsin, he was recruited to join the State Department’s Foreign Service, a highly selective unit of the federal government that sends American representatives around the world to be everything from visa-stampers in dusty outposts to ambassadors in glamorous postings.
The Foreign Service brought Core to Washington, where his radio experience landed him a role with the Voice of America. He was at VOA from 1971 to 1975.
But then things got serious. He was offered a posting in Mexico, “a kind of fast-track job,” he says, “and at age 25 I would have been the ranking diplomat. I would have a house, a maid, a car, all of that, and believe me, it was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make.”
Politics and Washington were appealing to Core, but he didn’t want to be the tall, single, blond American in Mexico where his personal life would be under scrutiny. He thought about working in government but decided to stick with “the media thing, with a life expectancy of, what, five years? I thought it would be a blast and I’ll do it a while and then when it inevitably goes away, then I’ll do something else.” But it never went away.
Core landed a spot at WMAL as the sports guy, another seven-days-a-week job, but, he admits a little wistfully, the potential to have been an ambassador is something he wonders about even all these years later. “I can’t complain about the way things worked out,” he quickly adds.
He was reading the sports for the popular show “Two for the Road” hosted by Trumbull, who had been on the air since 1960, and Ed Meyer. Meyer eventually went back to doing news, and Core was asked to sit in with Trumbull. The combination worked in spades. In 1976 the name of the show was changed to “Trumbull and Core,” and the rest is Washington broadcasting history.
“When you talk about luck, being matched with Bill Trumbull, to have the chemistry that we did, what are the odds of that?” Core says, still counting his blessings. “We obviously had good chemistry from day one; I knew what made him laugh, and he knew what made me laugh.”
When Trumbull died in 2012, Core provided the eulogy at the funeral. “It was a great honor, and it was hard as hell to do, but the family asked me to do it, so I did it,” he says, adding he’s still friends with the surviving Trumbulls in Bristow.
Fired, for the First Time
The end at WMAL did come, but years beyond the five Core thought it might last. In March of 2008, new ownership fired 200 people at stations around the country in a calculated tax write-off. Core was one of them.
Cue the violins?
Not quite. Citadel Broadcasting paid off 10 months of Core’s contract, and he was only too happy to leave “The Chris Core Show,” a right-leaning talk show he says “was not very intelligent,” full of mandatory bile and conversations with not-very-informed listeners.
Not long after the firing, Jim Farley, the legendary vice president of news and programming at top-rated WTOP, offered Core a “handshake deal for three months to see if it’s working,” he says. Talk about anything you want for one minute a day, every day, was Farley’s mandate.
That was seven years ago. Before Farley retired in 2013, the men agreed, “Gosh, we hit a home run,” Core says. “It’s a great job and the most fun I’ve had in years.
“I know this sounds kind of silly, but getting fired was the best thing that happened to me. It was wonderful.” Core is rightfully proud that he has never missed a day on the air in 40 years, including after getting canned: WMAL continued to run prerecorded spots months after he was released. These days he prerecords bits before vacations, or he does it from the road or from his getaway in Tampa, Florida. “They say I can take days off, but no, that’s me.” He throws up his hands. “There’s nothing I can do about it. It’s just the way it is.”
WTOP is not only the top-rated station in the region, but until recently it was the top-billing station, news or music, in the country, for three years running. (Pop music KIIS-FM in Los Angeles is No. 1 this year.)
The “glass-enclosed nerve center,” the oft-repeated self-description of the broadcast booth at the Idaho Avenue station, truly is behind a glass window; those announcers look out onto an open suite that buzzes with energy and collaboration, and the desk-to-employee ratio seems to be overwhelmingly in favor of employees looking for an open computer or recording studio.
“I love the people who work here,” Core says. “And this isn’t puffery. I’m just proud to walk into WTOP every day. This is a great radio station, one of the last great ones in the country.
“When you come into a radio station that has double-digit ratings and is No. 1 in virtually every book, it makes you proud. And the people here take enormous pride in the product. This is a place where everybody here knows we’ve got to get this right. I walk through those doors and I go, ‘Well this is WTOP. What a wonderful way to wind up my career.’”
Core says his “Core Values” topics, which air at 3:40, 6:10 and 8:40 p.m., come to him in the morning when he’s reading the news “and I see what everybody is talking about, and if it is something everyone is talking about you have no choice—that’s what you have to talk about.
“But there’s not something someone’s talking about every day, so you have to hunt for other stories. Sometimes listeners send suggestions, or it’s just things I’ve noticed.”
As for the feedback, even the nasty notes, Core says he replies to every one.
His political leanings are an easy target, especially in Washington. He comes at it from “center-right,” he says. “Certainly not tea party; some libertarian. I grew up as a Republican, but I’ve voted for Democrats and I’ve voted for Republicans. Right now I’m a registered Democrat because it I vote in Maryland and there’s not much action in the Republican primaries. But I may change my mind.”
So at age 66, is retirement in the offing?
“I’ve told them they’re going to have to fire me because I’m not going to retire,” he says. “I could, but I don’t want to. I just like doing this. It’s great fun.”