I’ve had my issues with Glenn Ordway and his show over the years. It’s no secret. But there is another side, which needs to be told as well.
Warning: I’m about to go into “old bastard” mode and reference things that I remember that happened before some current members of the Boston sports media were even born.
I think I’ve also mentioned before that Ordway was the first media person I ever “followed.” I’m dating myself here, but I was kid back in the 1980′s when Ordway was doing the Celtics games with Johnny Most. I listened to just about every single game. My parents didn’t watch sports, so catching the Celtics on TV was a very rare event. Instead, I had to listen to the games on WRKO.
The first season I followed every game was the 1982-83 season. Johnny Most actually missed a chunk of games that season due to illness and Ordway took over the play-by-play. (Chris Ford stepped into the analyst role.) The games with Most and Ordway were true theater. Each night was good vs. evil, a morality play with the Celtics the valiant warriors fighting off their villainous foes. Glenn would attempt some objectivity, but he too would get swept up in the drama. When Larry Bird hit a game-winning buzzer-beater at Phoenix (Celtics down by one, Bird hits a three with one second left) that season (2/26/83 – 30 years ago this month?????) I can still hear Glenn hooting and hollering in my head after that one.
While there has been much talk over the years (which I’m skeptical of) about the relationship between Ordway and Most – whether they got along, and how things ended - their chemistry on the air was terrific. As the decade went on, and Johnny’s health went downhill steadily, Glenn picked him up more and more. They had moments of tension, sure, but there moments of complete hilarity. Most catching his pants on fire with a lighted cigarette (a clip that was played yesterday) chief among them. The times Johnny would knock his cup of scalding hot coffee over the edge of the balcony were always good times, too.
During that same period, WRKO having just recently moved into the talk radio format, was experimenting with a number of shows, including a sports call-in show. The show, creatively named “Sports Call,” featured Ordway with Guy Mainella. (Mainella was already a sports talk veteran, having started “Calling All Sports” in 1969.) The show was on generally from 6-8PM and while there was plenty of Celtics talk, I recall possible Red Sox trades being as much a topic as it is now. On nights that the Celtics weren’t playing, I always tried to listen to this program as well.
Early Days of WEEI
The Celtics broadcasts moved to WEEI in 1987 on AM 590. The Celtics bought the station in 1990, and for a time they kept the all-news format. But by September of 1991, WEEI had made the switch to all sports. It might be surprising to learn that Ordway was not the star of the station. Eddie Andelman was the drive-time host from 4-7PM. Ordway, started out as a midday host, paired with Janet Prensky from 1-4PM. Dale Arnold was on from 10AM-1PM and Craig Mustard from 7-11PM. Andy Moes was the morning show.
Ordway’s show with Prensky (Glenn and Janet) was largely forgettable. The show lasted a year, and Prensky’s contract was not renewed. Ordway then spent time with Dave Shea, among others. By this time, Ordway was also the fulltime play-by-play voice of the Celtics, after Most was forced to retire due to health reasons in 1990. In August of 1994, WEEI moved from 590AM to 850AM.
In early 1995, Ordway agreed to a four-year deal with WEEI to continue as voice of the Celtics. However, the team, which had the right of refusal, declined the contract. (If you wondered why Ordway was so negative about the Celtics for years on WEEI, other than the fact that they were terrible, there you go.) Speculation was that they felt that Ordway and partner Jerry Sichting were too harsh on the team during their broadcasts. Ordway then accepted the position of program manager for WEEI, a move that would change the very shape and direction of sports radio.
Ordway’s Moves Pave Way For Record-Breaking Ratings
In July, Ordway fired Michael Andelman from his weekend show, citing poor ratings. In August, he announced that the station would be radically changing up their lineup. Starting on September 11th of 1995, the WEEI lineup would consist of the Fabulous Sports Babe from 10-12, The A-Team with Eddie Andelman and Dale Arnold from noon to 3PM and The Big Show, featuring Ordway himself, from 3-6PM. Ordway reinvented himself as “The Big O” and thus an 18-year run began.
Among the original co-hosts on The Big Show were Gerry Callahan, Dan Shaughnessy, Steve Nelson, Lyndon Byers, Cedric Maxwell and Fred Smerlas.
WEEI dropped The Fabulous Sports Babe in October 1997, (Jason Wolfe by then had replaced Ordway as Program Director) replacing her in the 10-12 spot with John Dennis and Gerry Callahan. That duo become the 6-10 morning show in September of 1999, and the A-Team moved from 10-2 and The Big Show from 2-6.
In retrospect, the moves by Ordway beginning in 1995 were brilliant. They set up almost 15 years of ratings dominance. The pairing of Arnold and Andelman was one of two diametrically different men who saw eye-to-eye on very little. Ordway saw that the endless debates on all subjects would make for great radio. The Big Show format, while tough to listen to at times, brought a plethora of different voices together, with Ordway the chuckling ringleader tweaking his co-hosts and pushing the envelope each day.
Ordway made media stars out of pedestrian reporters and personalities. He also could see talent and get the most out of it. While there were some co-hosts who had no business being on the show (Steve Burton, Butch Stearns, Larry Johnson) there were stars like Dennis Eckersley, Dick Radatz, Rico Petrocelli, Bob Ryan, Jackie MacMullan, Michael Holley, Ron Borges (The latter four found themselves on the outs when the Globe infamously banned its reporters from the station.) Michael Felger, Tony Massarotti, Steve Buckley, Steve DeOssie, even Sean McDonough was an earlier mainstay on the show. Ordway even made stars out of flashguys Sean Grande and Pete Sheppard.
The station brought in ratings never seen before. I’m going to sound like a WEEI spokesman here, (imagine that!) but it is true. They weren’t just winning their targeted demo, they were winning all adult demos. They were the top station in the city. No sports station in the country had seen these types of numbers.
Granted, there was an element of good timing associated with this run. Boston sports in the 2000′s, starting with the 2001 Patriots, went on a professional championship run that no city had ever seen before. Three Super Bowl Championships, two World Series Titles, and an NBA Championship had an already sports-crazed city craving more and more. Ordway was the most powerful media personality in Boston.
Competitors Fall and Rise
The station successfully fought off challenges from weaker signaled sports talk efforts from 1510 and 890. Both of those stations attempted to use former Ordway co-hosts to challenge him in his own timeslot, 1510 using McDonough and 890 using Felger. Neither station mounted any sort of lasting challenge.
When 98.5 The Sports Hub launched in August 2009, they too built their programming around people that Ordway had groomed in to the radio business. Former Herald reporters Michael Felger and Tony Massarotti owe their starts in radio to Ordway and The Big Show. Bolstered by a strong FM signal and corporate backing of CBS, The Sports Hub finally knocked Ordway off his ratings throne.
Still, he wasn’t dead yet. Last spring, as the Celtics went on their unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Finals, Ordway’s by-then revamped show beat Felger and Mazz in the ratings, thanks in part to several Red Sox day games, and incessant Celtics-bashing by Felger.
The Legacy, And The Future
While Glenn Ordway certainly didn’t invent sports talk radio in Boston, (Eddie Andelman, among others, can lay claim to making it a viable medium.) he is nonetheless a pioneer and yes, a legend. He saw where sports talk radio was heading, and what it could be. He put the pieces and format in place that has largely endured. He made stars in the local market, and you saw many many people acknowledging this on Twitter and elsewhere yesterday.
What’s next for Ordway? His comments to the Herald today seem to indicate internet radio or something along those lines may be in the offing. Couldn’t you picture Ordway doing a local version of Bill Simmons’ “The BS Report?” A podcast with endless big-name guests, and going after specific topics, no commercials.
Could he surface on another radio station? There have been recent, quiet rumblings that Greater Media might be interested in dipping a toe into the local sports radio market. Their Boston-area stations include 92.9, 96.9, 102.5, 105.7 and 106.7.
Heck, a station could replicate the entire late-1990′s WEEI lineup if they wanted. Imus, Dale Arnold, Ordway and Ted Sarandis are all available! (That’s entirely a joke, by the way.)
Could he be interested in going back to play-by-play and trying out with the Patriots? Seems an unlikely longshot, but you never know.
Ordway turned 62 last month. He’s not done yet. If he wants to work, there will be a job for him. The show yesterday was the best Big Show I’ve heard in a long time, and showed that he still has that sense of taking the right angle on a story, and presenting in a compelling manner.
While I haven’t always been a fan of the Big Show and the “character” of “The Big O,” I’m a fan of Glenn Ordway. I hope to continue hearing and seeing him.