#3 The Dominance of WEEI, the Decline of Newspapers

Continuing my series on the top 10 Boston sports media storylines of the decade.

They’ve dominated the ratings book, shrugged off all challengers thus far, and used their bully pulpit to sneer at critics.

WEEI has enjoyed unprecedented success as a sports radio station in a sports-mad town. With the success of the local professional teams this decade, they’ve ridden high, and benefited from a fan base that can’t get enough of their teams.

They’ve been challenged three times by rival sports radio stations this decade, two of them were KO’d and the third just started up a few months ago. Both 1510theZone and ESPN850 made a lot of noise as they got started up, but neither really made any sort of impact in the ratings book. Ultimately, they were both doomed by poor signal and with few exceptions, lackluster programming. WBZ-FM has had the most initial success of any challenger, but having been on the air only a few months, they have to prove they can keep it going.

WEEI has a power few media outlets can boast. In many cases, they create and dictate the coverage and storylines, and should anyone challenge or criticize them they can simply rant on air about them, or yell over them and hang up should the hapless challenger actually dare to call them up.

It’s really about entertainment first, and sports second, this is evidenced by their ability to milk a single storyline for weeks at a time. Remember the time in June, 2005 that Edgar Renteria bunted for a base hit with two out in the bottom of the ninth? He was successful, and it set up David Ortiz to be able to get to the plate and knock in Mark Bellhorn from second base for the win, yet WEEI killed Renteria over it for weeks. (Kevin Millar even called up to defend Renteria – over two weeks later, and they were still talking about it. Ordway blamed the callers.)

More so in the early part of the decade, WEEI’s success also forced the sportswriters who appeared on their airwaves into tough decisions. If they were a guest of the show and had gotten some information that day, did they divulge it on the WEEI airwaves, or sit on it for their newspaper the next day? (The addition of blogs to newspaper websites around the middle of this decade took out some of those situations.) Were they more loyal to WEEI, hoping for additional appearances, or to their newspaper?

In 2008 WEEI extended their online presence by re-launching WEEI.com with a number of high-profile reporters, hiring some away from their newspapers, such as Rob Bradford and Alex Speier. Now they were competing directly with the newspapers for content and getting news stories themselves rather than mostly relying on the newspapers to get the information first.

The rise of WEEI this decade coincided with the decline of the newspaper industry, as news became more instantaneous rather than waiting for the morning paper. More and more stories were being broken on the air, and online, rather than in the newspaper. While the sports sections of newspapers here in New England were still devoured by sports fans, the nature of the content changed. Since most people had already seen the game, and listened to some analysis of it, there was more emphasis on opinion, and getting noticed amongst all the noise.

WEEI has the power to make and break sports media people in Boston. If you get on their airwaves, you’re going to benefit from the recognition that comes with that. Larry Johnson and Fred Smerlas are among those who have benefited greatly from their association with the station. 

This power, along with the dominance of all competition and their ability to shape discussion about sports in Boston makes WEEI’s  presence one of the top stories of Boston sports media this decade.

  • joe

    Bruce,
    I would like to hear you comment on commuter radio. Do you feel like there is a place in the world for a host who knows there will be a talking point in advance (aka Moss loafing) and asks his listeners to opine on that? Or do you feel that a guy whose job is to get callers in should stick to the Mike Reiss talking points? Seriously, I want to hear your opinion: what should a talk show host (whose goal is to garner a max listenership) do? Waiting for your response.

    • Bruce

      I don’t see the need for callers at all. Seriously, what do they have to offer? Why can’t the hosts intelligently talk about topics without them? Does the fact that a show takes callers bring in more listeners? I don’t know, but my gut tells me that people aren’t tuning in to listen to Frank from Gloucester and John from Medford. Some of the ESPN radio shows that don’t take callers are terrific. I’d rather listen to that type of radio, to be honest with you.

      • late to dinner

        Bruce you are so funny. For years Chuck Wilson did a no caller show on ESPN. Some of us claim that to this day it was the best radio sports show ever. However other ESPN shows that do not take guests can drag for hours as the hosts are not nearly as articulate or as great as Chuck WIlson.The real problem was Wilson’s show and its ilk never got great ratings…solid ones sometimes…but never great…not like the numbers Ordway gets in Boston or Mike and the Mad Dog got in NY. The true secret to those shows is that the hosts do not preach, teach, talk down to or disengage from the callers…instead they include them as part of the show. Listeners tune in because in part they think they are part of the show. The smarter the listeners the better the sportstalk radio…it is why WEEI has been so successful…Boston Sports fan are more intelligent than the rest of the country’s fans. Heck, it is what Rush Limbaugh figured out 20 years ago…no need for guests…let the audience be part of the show and they will be forever loyal.

        Regarding 98.5 as far as I can tell other than DA they all want to be part of WEEI. On the other three shows there are daily allusions and inside jokes that only a WEEI listener would pick up. It is not going to dethrown WEEI. It might generate solid numbers and with the Patriots it should generate enough revenue to stay on the air, but until someone over there decides to program a unique station it will be nothing other than a bastard step child.

        • Brian

          When I think of WEEI callers, I definitely think intelligence.

        • Rick Mc

          What does that mean?

          T&R certainly do not want to be part of WEEI. They do not like traditional sports talk radio.

        • http://www.jonvssports.blogspot.com Jon

          can you blame them? Most sports radio callers make less sense than the Chili Guy.

        • late to dinner

          And yet every few days they talk about how much of an ass John Dennis was to Jon Wallach or they will talk about how much they like Mike Holley. My point is you never hear WEEI hosts talking about anyone on the Hub except to occasionally take a shot at Felger or Zolaks TV work…not their radio work. The thing about 98.5 is that it is not so much as trying to be WEEI lite, instead I get the feeling it wants to be an extension of WEEI. I certainly feel that way with all of the shows except DA show at night.

          As for the comment that Boston callers are not intelligent…go spend an afternoon in Charlotte, St. Louis, Omaha or Seattle and I promise you will come back begging for 4 minutes of Danny from Quincy.

        • kevin

          I would not go that far I have heard many shots at Felger and Zolack at the “other station” and I hardly listen to EEI so I can only guess that is a small sample.

          Callers are often the worst part of a show but anything that keeps Smerlas, Meta and LJ from talking can’t be all bad.

          ANd T&R are nt a traditional sports show but neither is D & C.

      • Steve

        Bruce
        Thank you! Finally, someone that makes sense. What do callers bring to the table? There is no need to field calls as all they do is show our ignorance and slow down the show.
        Happy New Year!

    • Classless

      Bill Simmons’ podcasts on ESPN.com is just 2-3 guys talking with no townie callers asking “hey watcha think we trade JD Drew for Albert Pooholes”. The best radio (if you can call it that) i listen to every week.

      If you really feel Ordway and his bands of fat guys talking over each other offer things you’ve never heard, please refer to the ESPN feature which they openly admitted they are there to entertain and say provocative things.

  • J.R.

    With its obviously contrived story lines and manufactured outrage at the most benign things — and then having the incredibly annoying ability to beat these things into submission for days and weeks on end, WEEI in general, and Fraudway in particular, is the king of lowest common denominator DB radio.

    I was hoping with a great signal on the FM dial, the Patriots and Bruins radio rights, and some chops to hang in there and go head-to-head with ‘EEI for an extended period of time, that 98.5 would eventually emerge as a bonafide contender to the azzclowns on the AM station. After four months, there is some hope that this still might happen. T&R are better than decent alternatives to D&C in morning drive and DA is light years ahead of “Mikey” at night.

    Where the disappointment comes in is 98.5 using Tanguay, complete with his phony Ted Baxter voice and sky is falling mentality, and Felger (“I hate Randy Moss”) and Maz (“You’re absolutely right, Mike”), who learned their radio “craft” at the knee of Fraudway, in the mid-day and afternoon drive slots, respectively. Remove these ‘EEI clones and replace them with hosts that are capable of conducting an entertaining and intelligent sports discourse and then let’s see what happens.

    C’mon 98.5. There are a LOT of listeners (and, as an extension, advertisers) eagerly awaiting the day when ‘EEI has to actually, you know, work for their audience and paychecks.

    • WDRIII

      Concur.

      The mid-day programming is awful.

      Right after the station launched Chronicle did a piece on Felger/Mazz.

      When asked if he was going to be differenent from the big show Mr. Underwood responded with somehthing along the lines of, “why be different it works.”

      Last week Mazz spent the week whining that the Patriots can’t stop the run – this week it’s they can’t stop a decent passer (never mentioning the fact that they did a very good job of shutting down Maurice Jones-Drew who’s arguably one of the best backs in the league.

      When Scott Zolak talks football rationally he brings up some good points and provides some insight. The rest of the time he comes across as a morning zoo castoff.

      Listen to any onesegment when Tanger returns and count the plugs/cross promotions in it – they are laughable.

      Today with Dan Roche co-hosting the show and Zolak analyzing football it was a pretty good show.

      The management over there (WBCN – whoever) singlehandedly destroyed the pre-game show on Patriots broacasts – I used to like to listen to it while out and about on Sundays doing errands or whatever.

      Now, it’s just a plug fest for Patriots Place and all things Kraft.

      Jaw Jackin’ Andy Gresh and the rest of the cast give Jonathan Kraft a tongue bath before each and every game that would make the most jaded Vegas Hooker blush.

    • Chris

      LOL @ Tanguay and his ‘Ted Baxter’ voice. That is so true, and I’m inclined to believe that the two share more than a similar voice.

  • MarkB

    Larry Johnson and Fred Smerlas benefit, but it’s hard to imagine how WEEI or the listeners do. Do Johnson and Smerlas have pictures of someone with little boys? Both are so stunningly bad that it’s difficult to imagine how they lasted past a week. Felger and Maz are both annoying, but they bring something even while driving you away. Johnson is totally empty of content to offer, and Smerlas’ one trick is the dumb jock. The station carries them like an anchor around it’s neck, and I’ll never understand why.

  • gort

    How can anyone listen to the dale & holley show for more than 21 seconds ?? Just awful . Replace it with screaming babies from a vegas red eye flight & I d rather listen to that

  • Jim C

    Oh, where to begin? Bruce is correct in saying that a good sports radio show doesn’t need callers. Ironically, EEI uses a cut from Upton Bell (I believe it’s Mr Bell) saying the same thing during one of the whiner line opens; clearly they feel that their bread is buttered with the likes of Frank, John and Mike (all of whom may actually get more air time than Ordway does with all the vacation time he takes).
    Personally, I’m not a fan of either morning show, although if I had to listen to one, it would be 98.5. I just can’t stand the appalling lack of sports most of the time, particularly through the prime drive time period of 730-830. Dale and Holley are generally better than Tangway and Zolak, but again, it’s not appointment radio. The saving grace for EEI in the afternoon is the appearance of people like McAdams, who knows his stuff and rarely becomes bogged down with the screaming and such. I was hoping that Mazz might give Felger a kick in the ass, but alas, he spends more time saying “gee Mike, that’s a good point” (even if the point is inane and not worth repeating). DA in the evening is outstanding, head and shoulders above Adams.
    The problem I see going forward for 98.5 is that the 2 team broadcasts they control don’t help them much. The Pats are good for a maximum of 20 broadcasts (no one listens to pre-season, not really) and hockey on the radio just doens’t work. Meanwhile, the Sox are on 160ish times a year and the Celts another 80. I’d love to see the station ratings if the teams switched broadcast partners.

  • mandb97

    I partly agree with Bruce. I personally enjoy Colin Cowherd and SVP. Both have very few callers and are great to listen to. The one person who would not fit in this group is Dan Patrick who creates radio for those who wish to be comatose. He and his crew are simply dreadful. Another issue with non-caller driven radio is some of the guests. I’m sorry, but athletes are the worst interview around. They are completely boring. There maybe three athletes that I could listen to.
    As far as Boston radio goes, I have pretty much given up on it. D.A. and D&H are still good radio to me. But when on the road I listen to either WJAB 96.3 in Portland, ME or, yes I know the sacrilege, Steve Somers at WFAN in the evenings when I am not interested in a D.A. topic or a Bruins game is on.

    P.S. How in the hell is Mike Adams destroying D.A. in the ratings?