#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.

A (Nearly) Perfect Day For Boston Sports

There was a triple-header on tap for Boston sports fans yesterday, with the Patriots, Bruins and Celtics all in action, one after the other. From noon until midnight, it was a perfect day for Boston fans, as the Patriots and Bruins won, the Colts decided to not go for the undefeated season, and the Celtics looked ready to put away the Clippers (more on that later).

The Patriots looked strong in a 35-7 pasting of the Jacksonville Jaguars that wrapped up the AFC East for New England, and put them back into the playoffs, where they will host a wild card game in two weeks.

Adam Kilgore has the Patriots bouncing back from adversity uncommon in Foxborough to wrap up the division and get back to the postseason. Ian R. Rapoport has the Patriots using perhaps their most complete game of the season to wrap up the AFC East. Shalise Manza Young says that despite the AFC East title, there wasn’t exactly a celebratory mood permeating the bowels of Gillette Stadium. Tim Whelan Jr. has fun times returning to Gillette yesterday. Glen Farley says that it was business the way it used to be at Gillette yesterday. Jennifer Toland says that All’s Well in New England. At least for now. Mark Farinella says that the Patriots actually looked like a team deserving to be in the playoffs. Jeff Howe has the Patriots wrapping up the East and getting the dirty work out of the way. Tom E. Curran says that these Patriots might have a shot at being pretty good after all. David Pevear says that the season still doesn’t seem like much fun. Tom King has the Patriots reclaiming their throne atop the AFC East with a physical beating of the Jaguars.

Bob Ryan says that success is relative, as 11-5 couldn’t even get the Patriots to the playoffs last season, while 10 wins is enough to win the division this season. Ron Borges says that this team has reached its fullest potential – anything it does after this point should be viewed as a bonus. Bill Burt says that the Patriots were awesome yesterday, resembling the “December Destroyers of Patriots Past.” Jim Donaldson has Randy Moss and the Patriots finding redemption in the big win. Kirk Minihane looks at the reasons why we might be optimistic that the Patriots could be gearing up for another title run. Chris Warner on Patriots Daily has the Gut Check for this one.

Albert R. Breer asserts that it is time now to give the players who need a rest the week off against the Texans next Sunday. Karen Guregian has Tom Brady with a look of contentment rarely seen this season following the division-clinching win. Mike Reiss says that suddenly, the Patriots postseason chances look a lot brighter. Christopher Price jots down the ten things we learned from yesterday’s win, including the fact that Voltron is now fully reconnected. Danny Picard has the Patriots happy to be ruling the AFC East once again. King says that after a rough patch, Everyone’s smiling now for the Patriots.

Brendan Hall has Brandon Meriweather and the secondary making some big plays to spark the Patriots. Dan Ventura has James Sanders again making an impact alongside Meriweather. Andy Vogt looks at a dominant day for the defense. Rich Garven has the division title very satisfying for Leigh Bodden, who came over from the 0-16 Lions. Farinella has the Patriots starting safeties standing tall in this win.

Monique Walker has Wes Welker with 13 more catches yesterday, adding to his own team record for catches in a season. Welker currently sits at 122 catches, despite missing two games early in the season. Dan Duggan has another extraordinary performance just becoming the norm for Welker. Robert Lee has Welker continuing to defy the odds. Forsberg has more on the receptions record set by Welker yesterday. A Gatehouse news story says Welker should get a Gold Glove following his 13-13 performance. Farinella has 13 as a lucky number for Welker.

Steve Buckley has a fan with a Randy Moss mask and afro getting the attention of Moss, and the entire stadium. Gregory Lee Jr. has Moss enjoying himself during and following the win, in which Moss hauled in three TD passes from Tom Brady. Chris Forsberg has Moss winning the fans over with his performance. Tim Weisberg has Moss making amends for his lackluster performance in the Patriots previous home game. Steve Krause has Moss removing his mask of unhappiness following the win.

Dan Duggan has the offense not skipping a beat when Sammy Morris was inserted into the game. Reiss notes that the tight ends were featured prominently in the passing game after being ignored for much of the last few weeks. Brian MacPherson has the offensive line enjoying the renewed emphasis on the running game. Farinella says that the other members of the Patriots stable of running backs were ready to go after Maroney’s fumble. Michael Hurley says that there is reason for excitement after the peformance of the offense yesterday. Picard has Maroney stepping out and Morris taking over following the fumble.

Borges selects the Best and worst from yesterday. Ventura’s Play of the game was the Meriweather interception following a huge hit from James Sanders. In Hector Longo’s Two Minute Drill, he’s glad that Jerod Mayo finally decided to show up for a game this season. Robert Lee’s analysis is that It was all Patriots yesterday. Curran gives us his top five from yesterday.

Walker’s notebook has the backup running backs picking things up after Laurence Maroney dropped the ball on the opening drive. Rapoport’s notebook has the hard work by the defense paying off with big plays in yesterday’s game. Young’s Patriots journal has Fred Taylor getting the better of his old mates. Whelan’s notebook has more on Taylor facing his old team. Farley’s notebook has Maroney dropping the ball once again. Toland’s notebook has Moss getting some vindication yesterday. Weisberg’s notebook has more on Taylor facing the only franchise he had played for prior to this season. Krause’s notebook has Belichick saying that success is all relative. King’s notebook has Taylor returning just in time to face the Jaguars.

 Bruins

Fluto Shinzawa has Tim Thomas and the Bruins starting slow but finishing strong in their 2-1 win over the Panthers yesterday. Joe Haggerty has the Bruins waking up after a sleepy first period. Stephen Harris has the Bruins going to work over the second half of the game to get the win. Matt Kalman has a balanced attack paying dividends for the Bruins. Neil Keefe has Tim Thomas and the Bruins getting the job done. Graig Woodburn says that this was far from a classic for the Bruins.

Shinzawa’s notebook has Derek Morris returning after missing the previous three games. Harris’ notebook has Milan Lucic hoping, though not confident, that he’ll be on the ice for the winter classic at Fenway on Friday.

Celtics

The Celtics found themselves tied with the Clippers at 90, with 1.5 seconds remaining. Rajon Rondo was at the free throw line for two. He missed both. The Clippers grabbed the rebound and called timeout with 1 second remaining. Despite Mike Gorman’s warnings, the Celtics let Baron Davis get the ball, and he had exactly enough time to nail a turnaround jumper at the buzzer, giving the Clippers a 92-90 win over the Celtics, ruining the perfect day for Boston fans.

Gary Washburn has Rondo getting the better of Davis for much of the night, but Davis getting the last laugh. Steve Bulpett has the Celtics going from ecstasy to agony in a Hollywood minute with Davis’ shot. A. Sherrod Blakely says that this loss is not all on Rondo’s missed free throws, the entire club did not execute down the stretch. Jessica Camerato has a few other things to take away from this one. Chris Forsberg has Doc Rivers lamenting his team’s complete lack of mental focus down the stretch.

Tim Weisberg says that the last 10 years have seen it all from the Celtics.

Washburn’s notebook has the Celtics depth paying off right now. Bulpett’s notebook reports that Paul Pierce will not be joining the club on the road trip.

Misc

John Tomase has the Red Sox putting themselves in position to do things their way this offseason. He also says we need to blow up this “bridge talk” in 2010. In the greatest decade of Red Sox baseball, Jon Couture looks back at the 10 worst Red Sox of the last 10 years.

Mark Blaudschun has Boston College looking to build on this football season, and remain one of the better programs in the country. Eric Avidon has BC laying a foundation for the future this season. Steve Conroy says that BC has the pieces in place for an ACC title next year.

A Decade of Sports Media Change

I’m pleased to present this guest column from Roy Reiss.

There’s an old saying that nothing ever stays the same. Over the last 10 years the local sports media has undergone many, many changes that has dramatically affected the local media landscape in a myriad of ways. Let’s look closer at some of these developments, what’s happened, and what it means to the information hungry sports public in Greater Boston. .

Sports on local TV News programs.

Back at the turn of the century this was the way most fans got their latest news. Bob Lobel, Mike Lynch, and Gene Lavanchy were the envy of most young aspiring sports broadcasters. They would deliver the latest up to date scores, highlights and breaking news. Lobel, in particular, would be a power broker in the Boston sports community with sources developed over a 20 year career. As the decade moved along, these positions became less and less important as cable developed their own sports related shows with local highlights. You didn’t have to wait until 11 to get the highlights, you could watch 30 minutes of all sports highlights, scores, and interviews on NESN and in November 2009 Comcast threw their local sports program into the ring. Special shows were created to satisfy the sports crazed fan for late Sunday night over and above the regular news show. The truth is with the “new sports” media evolving, most of the highlights on news shows were “old news” by 11. And with the departure of Butch Stearns from Ch. 25 earlier this fall as well as the redesign of NECN news and sports in November, you might be seeing the start of a bold move by the other local affiliates to de-emphasize the sports portion of their local news programs. What used to be a dream job could become an endangered species.

The downhill trend of print journalism.

For a whole generation of sports fans, there was and is nothing like getting that morning Globe or Herald and devouring the sports sections. Box scores, game stories, strong opinions in columns would satisfy the appetite for this sports starved generation. Back in 2002 you couldn’t wait for the February 2nd edition to read everything about the Pats first Super Bowl title. Ditto for 2004 when the Sox finally won the World Series. Trouble is the newer generations of sports fans aren’t as dependent on the print media as that older generation since new technology and means of disseminating material has made sports a “real time” business. Game stories are much less relevant because now you may see highlights and have opportunities to discuss what happened almost immediately following the action. Insight and unique value added information has trumped details of how things happened and pushed game stories to the back burner. Late start times for maximum TV exposure further hinder the print media as they struggle to have 100% of their readership receive the latest news. Newspapers nationwide face some difficult decisions on how to cover their local teams in this new era given all the different media forums, the spiraling cost of travel, mixed in with the loss of circulation and advertising dollars. That along with the challenge to develop a multi level media platform (video, audio, print) remains giant obstacles for the print industry as they try to stay relevant in the changing world of sports coverage.

The continued growth and impact of sports talk radio. 24/7.

Entertain. Shape perceptions. Rush to judgment and paint a picture as quickly and decisively as possible. Never has sports talk radio been as powerful a resource as it is today. Hosts are entertainers who succeed or fail based on how many people listen to them. They need to get people engaged, tap into their emotions, develop controversy, and keep people tuned to their particular station. Talkers like Glenn Ordway are masterful at their craft. And latecomers to the talk radio field like Mike Felger epitomize the new wave of pot stirrers. As we reach the end of the 10 year run, these stations have become more important than the local TV stations sports segments, and one could argue they’ve even replaced the print columnists. They’ve become the power brokers in the sports community. If you need proof look at the number of sports talk stations in each major market. The common thought used to be Boston could only support one sports talk station, but with the emergence of WBZ FM, WEEI now has a very formidable opponent. Down the road there’s even speculation that ESPN will enter the sports radio battle in Boston. Who would have ever thought 3 sports stations could survive in this sports crazy region? Need any more proof of this powerful force and where it stands in sports coverage in Greater Boston.

The emergence of the multi faceted internet.

This is all 3 of the above rolled into one powerful platform. Real-time information. Analysis. Insight. Video or audio easily seen or heard. Plenty of print and entertaining data with no space requirements. Interactive capabilities like chats and mailbags to allow the fans to have a powerful voice. And who knows what else future technology will bring to this intriguing tv/radio/print triple threat combination. There’s growth potential that will be determined by how quickly technology develops, and thus the rush to be on board in this rapidly developing media. In the last 20 months, Boston has seen the emergence of competing local websites, WEEI.com, ESPNBoston.com, and CSNNE.com, join the battle for the local sports fans eyeballs. Throw in the Globe, Herald, NESN, plus the individual pro teams sites and you have a plethora of destinations to cull news from. There’s never been a better job market for aspiring journalists or sportscasters who seek employment in this ever changing media business. If history teaches us one thing, the only constant in this sports media business is that by December 2019 the landscape will be dramatically altered again!

Roy Reiss is a former Channel 7 sportscaster who started in radio working for Curt Gowdy Broadcasting. He is also the father of Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com.