Five Years Of 98.5 The SportsHub – How The Landscape Has Changed.

Five years ago, WEEI was still riding high. They had stomped attempts to challenge them in the forms of 1510 the Zone and ESPN590.

In February of that year, Chad Finn wrote a column for the Boston Globe OT that was eerily prescient in what it had to say about WEEI and its future.

Maybe the average Boston sports fan is less sophisticated than I want to believe. But I’m convinced that provided with an equal signal, some savvy program director could build what WEEI claims to be: the premier sports radio station in the country.

Then in July of 2009, it was announced that the new 98.5 The SportsHub would be starting up. WEEI had no reason to be concerned, and even issued statements saying they were prepared to beat this challenge as well.

Five years ago today, on August 13th, 2009, WBZ-FM, 98.5 The Sportshub came on the air. Everything changed that day. Unlike previous competitors, 98.5 had a strong, FM signal. They also had the Patriots and Bruins radio rights. This wasn’t static-filled AM radio with limited signal reach and lesser known talent.

The new station was competitive right away, and while WEEI tried to keep up their air of superiority (Who can forget Gerry Callahan telling Jessica Heslam when asked about Toucher and Rich that he had never heard of them and that ““I am speaking to you from under my desk right now because I am so scared”) but within two years 98.5 overtook them in the ratings, particularly on morning and afternoon drive, time slots which WEEI had dominated for 15 years.

WEEI then made a series of panic moves, none of which really panned out, including ditching the one show that was still winning its time slot – Dale and Holley – and replacing it with Mut and Merloni, which quickly fell behind Gresh and Zo in the ratings.

The station fired or reduced the roles of  the likes of  Pete Sheppard, Glenn Ordway, Jason Wolfe and Dale Arnold, while going through the disastrous Jeff Brown era. They changed management again, and have somewhat stabilized things finally, with Dennis and Callahan topping Toucher and Rich in this past month of July. (which doesn’t mean they’ll win the ratings period, but it is a start.)

Meanwhile 98.5 rolls on. Interestingly, they’ve enjoyed success, not on smart sports talk (for the most part) but on taking what WEEI did and bringing it to another level. The Felger and Mazz show and nightly Adam Jones show thrive on being incessantly critical of every single local team and player, and coming up with “sky is falling” scenarios on a daily basis. Listeners love it, as the ratings bear out.

What do the next five years bring in terms of sports talk radio in Boston? Does 98.5 fall into the same trap that WEEI did? Does another station give it a try? Does Glenn Ordway’s Big Show Unfiltered get picked up by terrestrial radio?

  • Andy Dursin

    “The Felger and Mazz show and nightly Adam Jones show thrive on being incessantly critical of every single local team and player, and coming up with “sky is falling” scenarios on a daily basis. Listeners love it, as the ratings bear out.”

    And that really sums it up right there. I can’t stand the mantra or the programming, and it’s just as easy to listen to static instead of listening to Mazz literally scream no matter what issue he’s talking about. But, apparently they’ve channeled into the core that loves it. IMO the bar was lowered by their arrival and WEEI’s programming is a shadow of what it used to be on top of it. Even with two competing stations, it’s hard to say the actual quality of the programming in this town has gotten any better.

    • Babyatskiy

      Over on WEEI, Benz and Merloni, like Mutt and Merloni before them, have completely embraced “The Sky is Falling”, super-cynical, phony contrarian, outlook. It’s very tiresome. Everything is bad. Every person acts only on the most selfish of motives.

      Free Fauria!

      • Linda Austin

        Fauria is brutal. Hope WEEI will free us from having to listen to that potted plant. That boy is dumb as a stump.

  • daver

    I think what the last 5 years have shown is that the average Boston sports radio fan IS less sophisticated than Chad believed, and that EEI was, in fact, giving them what they wanted, just not in the right way. 98.5 made moves towards giving them something different, but ultimately realized that the audience wants exactly the Watergate-like mentality that Bruce talks about — the teams are secretly bad, the leadership of said teams is blind/incompetent/outright hostile to fan interests, and only the Wise Ones who Speak Truth To Power and call them out on that can save us.

    At the risk of sounding a bit elitist…. I think the vast majority of the sports radio audience isn’t composed of Harvard-educated attorneys sitting in their offices and calling in to discuss Lester’s projected VORP in 2015. I think it’s predominantly working class males. (Not entirely, but predominantly.) And a good percentage of that group is probably not particularly smart, per se, but wants to feel like they’re smart. And the best way to pander to that audience and make them feel smarter than the poor saps who Buy Into Whatever Mike Reiss Is Told By The Krafts To Feed You (tm Felger and Mazz), from the station’s perspective, is to be contrarian, not analytical. If the teams fail, you (and by proxy your audience) were smarter than everyone else and saw it first. If the teams succeed, it was your (and by proxy your audience’s) sage warnings that helped them avoid the cliff they were going to drive over. Either way, you’re smarter than they are.

    TL;DR summary: You’re nuts if you think people listen to sports radio to learn something. They listen to sports radio for the same reason other people listen to talk radio — to feel smart by ensconcing themselves in an echo chamber that reinforces their own righteousness. EEI had figured that out, and 98.5 figured that out quickly. Expecting ANYTHING to ever be different is 100% unrealistic. In my humble opinion.

    • HighWireNickEsasky

      Yes, it really is the political talk radio model (although Sports Hub is smart enough not to discuss actual politics). There will always be examples of government corruption, incompetence, or conspiracy, someone hating ‘murica or Christmas. If not, embellish or just plain invent examples of it.
      Same for sports radio. Did you know the so-called World Champion Red Sox lost 70 games last season (70!), including two of the first three in the World Series?! John Henry sold bricks from Fenway Park! Bricks! Bill Belichick intentionally drafts bust DBs to show that he is a genius coach! The arrogance!!!

    • mallen

      Sports Media is really not much different than almost every other form of Media these days. In a world where Jon Stewart is considered a valid “news” source, WEEI and 98.5 fit like a hand in glove. It is all dumbed-down and numbed-down sound bits and talking points devoid of analysis or real discussion.

      • bsmfan

        Well, proper analogy, as much as many in this area disagree with it due to his political leanings (and, I liken this to any comedian who masquerades as something other than that). I just liken it to asking my proctologist for stock tips; or, my dentist for advice on hanging drywall.. just my thoughts.

        “Sports Journalism” ? Entertainment these days.

        Sad but true.. said Metallica

      • denzack157

        Jon Stewart, a news source??? C’mon. That’s a bit of a stretch.

  • Mgar6577

    I just think it is amazing how the hub came on the scene and challenged the standard of Boston spots radio for the first two years, and right when WEEI fell from the top, the Hub decided to become exactly like WEEI (except for the morning show). Felger and Mazz are basically like Dennis and Callahan in the afternoon. Old, out of touch, stubborn douches. They are never wrong, bring up the same arguments and subjects at the same time of year. Get ready for the “window” talk all football and hockey season. They constantly crap on their callers and act like the white knights of sports media. The ‘Everyone else is a homer and has an agenda, but they don’t’ act is so tiresome. Tony Mazz might have the biggest agenda in all of sports against David Ortiz but the beat writers don’t’ know anything!

    The only difference is they are a bit smarter then D&C and much much less political. I loved how they came in and changed sports radio in Boston but so dissapointed how they so quickly sold out and just turned into WEEI,

    Is there anything worse then Tony Mazz laughing at his own terrible jokes?

    • guest

      During the 2008 Presidential Election Joe Biden had one of the greatest lines ever when talking about Rudy Giuliani “Every sentence Giuliani says includes a verb, a noun, and 9-11″

      Well applying that to Mazz its” a verb, a noun, so-so team/player blows, sucks, or is crap. Mazz has killed Boston Sports Radio he is biggest waste of a host in the market and because he YARMs Felger won’t touch him.

      Felger is a professional he knows how the muster faux outrage with the YOUs vs. THEM. However, deep down the guy is a sports fan and just markets his show in that manner because it works. He is surrounded by Yesmen Mazz/Bertrand/Stewart and they are destroying this market. Felger is the King AND NONE OF THEM challenge him.

      Give Felger a legitmate co-host who would disagree with him or challenge him and you could have the Boston version of Mike and Mad Dog. However, we have a spineless jellyfish as his co-host and the sports radio in scene in Boston sucks.

      I try to listen to Adam Jones at night, but I end up listening to music because the guy is a smug host WHO IS NEVER HAPPY and ALWAYS DRUMS UP THE NEGATIVE. Calling him a douche is an insult to actually douches who know sports like Minihane the guy NEVER PRAISES the Boston teams. If the Pats would go 16-0 he would come up with a reason to complain. I hate the Boston Sports Radio scene its a joke.

      The Sports Hub is just as arrogant as WEEI was years ago.
      T&R are awful for sports conservation
      G&Z aren’t bad they know football well, and Zo plays the frat guy really well. They are okay
      F&M Mazz just kills the show, Felger is smart and is okay getting his ass kissed
      Jones- unless your a 12 year old NY sports team fan SUCKS as he just kills Boston teams like Captain Hindsight on everything that happens.

      Johnston & Flynn would be good for the morning spot.

      WEEI isn’t much better. D&C&M is the only show that is listenable too and they venture in politics too much, but they talk spots are good.

  • daniel mateus

    985 will never be as arrogant as WEEi is. WEEI’s ultimate failure was believing that their audience in a blue region really wanted to hear right wing propaganda mixed in the sports discussion. 985 does not do this. No matter how big they’ve become they still don’t use the airwaves to promote their personal political agendas. For that 985 will always be a notch above.

    • WIP

      985 will never be as arrogant as WEEi is.

      Really?

      • bsmfan

        “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”

        Famous philosopher?

    • HighWireNickEsasky

      The political talk was a factor but so were the three hour commercials in the afternoons for Fred & Steve’s Steakhouse and All-Pro Celebrity Tailgate.

      • bullock

        The use of the term “celebrity” was thrown around a little too loosely.

        • Babyatskiy

          Pete Sheppard!!!!

        • bsmfan

          Steve from Fall River begs to differ.

        • bullock

          Larry Johnson!

      • Babyatskiy

        Yes, absolutely brutal radio.

    • Linda Austin

      985 will never be as arrogant as WEEI is???

      What?? Hate to tell you but they are now. There is no one in the Boston media as smug and condescending as Mike Felger. No one in the Boston media as obnoxious as Tony Mazz. Why do I know Toucher and Dick are flaming libs?? Same for Felger and Mazz. Why do I know Gresh and Zo lean right politically?? Daniel you’re a sycophant. Grow up!!

      • HighWireNickEsasky

        Felger is a pompous prick, no doubt. But there is a difference between employing egotistical hosts and fostering an institutional arrogance. After swatting away two challenges, EEI thought it was invincible and stopped taking seriously the responsibility of respecting its audience. With EEI still in the picture and relatively strong, Sports Hub won’t make that mistake.

    • Brian Shea

      Its the discussion of politics at all that I don’t want to hear; the whole point of listening to sports radio is that I want to listen to sports, not politics. Right wing radio can and has done fine here, on shows that are political shows. Felger and Mazz have expressed their political beliefs on the show to my dismay before and have been just as out of bounds as Dennis and Callahan have been on some of their takes. For example Mazz demanding Tim Thomas leave the country because he doesn’t support Barack Obama, and numerous subsequent instances of bashing Thomas to death over his politics. The big difference being that you don’t hear politics too often on F&M where you would often hear it on D&C.

  • Ryan

    Christian Fauria will continue to be a college football analyst for CBS Sports Network: http://bit.ly/1oNnqpQ

  • DryHeave

    “… and coming up with “sky is falling” scenarios on a daily basis. Listeners love it, as the ratings bear out.”

    AND THAT…that, is what constantly continues to amaze me.

  • nsbombers

    One thing that is overlooked is EEI took to long to make the switch to the FM dial.I would have put them at 97.7 instead of AAF.To quote The Who “Rock is dead”.It also didn’t help co hosts pulling “You didn’t play game”and come down down to the parking lot and I’ll punch you in the mouth

  • showaboutnothing

    sports radio in boston is a joke..what a bunch of frauds..they kiss the pocketbook that feeds them..and not a ONE of them will leave the airwaves and tell their station to shove it when they are “censored”.. they will complain/whine, wink, wink, about their plight for speaking their mind..(hope the ratings go up..puke)..which is the new bad of courage in their sorry eyes..who could have imagined a world where an athlete has to answer questions about their toughness to a pile of, for lack of a better, wussies to the nth degree. absolute pond scum..i would give my eye tooth (love that expression) to debate any of these phonies on the air..

  • Leo

    Ordway still works? I thought he retired because he’s in his 60’s. Good riddance to Pete Sheppard, and here’s hoping Dennis,Kallahan, and Squeaky suck-up join him

  • dick bupkis

    If you think you’re bitching now . . . give it another five when the petri dishes in academia produce the next wave of wannabes in a scrum for their piece of the media pie. Herr Felger has transformed the landscape these last five years,and the hair apparent (yes, I know what I did there), in influence, my boy
    Minihane, will be replicating at a rate that only an exterminator could
    appreciate. The genie is out of the bottle, and a future of sports talk radio centered around over sharing about bodily functions and some sexual
    misadventure featuring the usual verbal degradation of women will over-
    shadow anything resembling the good old days when Cliff and Claf belittled callers and made not so veiled references to black athletes not having a clue. Bring back Ordway and Big Pussie and that sideshow, with more overweening
    self-satisfaction from Fred & Steve, self-promoters like Stearns and whatnot,
    and it will be just more of the same only different because we’ll all be that much
    older and obsolete and looking back with rose-colored to a time when real sports
    talk show hosts roamed the earth. Or can you say, Hot Dog Safari?

    • majorMudd

      Though you missed mentioning Guy Maniella, Upton & Lobel, Tim Horgan and the 3 guys who did the Sports Huddle clone show @ the upper end of the AM dial, you really did give a great synopsis of the history of Boston sports radio personalities. The overt racial stereotypes and overall fan distaste that Cliff & Claff displayed in their day make D & C look like radical progressives today. Also the Cliff & Claff lodge generational mindset explains a lot about why the 2nd division Yawkey RS were the last MLB team to integrate. Thanks for the reminder of Boston’s media darker past.

  • dick bupkis

    “rose-colored glasses” Sometimes I get very nostalgic for those missing
    brain cells of yesteryear.

  • GStill45

    As someone who lived in North Central Mass, I never got to listen to WEEI unless I was traveling and could pick up a signal. CBS had the foresight to see Rock was dying and Sports was rising. The AM signal harmed WEEI more than anything else.

    I started out as a big Felger fan, but his act has grown tired and Mazz is completely useless. I can see why WEEI went overboard to lock up Holley when they did, I think if TSH could have gotten him, he would have been a good fit with Felger.

    Side note, as a casual NASCAR fan (yes, those exist), Felger started to piss me off. He starts off by admitting his ignorance of all things racing, and then starts screaming for Tony Stewart to be arrested. He reminded me of a Canadiens fan calling 911 when Chara injured Pacioretty. I can see why Patriots Superfans get so angry at him.

    • Tony C

      To be honest, you don’t have to be a Patriots SuperFan to get annoyed with Felger. He manages to spin everything about the team in a negative light. Classic example: a few years ago the team signed their two young TEs, Hernandez and Gronk, to long-term deals early in their careers. Of course, no one knew at the time that Hernandez was going to go all Ted Bundy shortly thereafter, but I digress. At the time those were cleary very smart signings by the organization. Felger’s response to those deals wasn’t, “Gee, what a great move by the organization to lock up these two great young players early.” Instead, he chose to play up the “Well, the ‘cheap’ Patriots’ organization really pulled another fast one on these two gullible young players, signing them for below market value. They should sue their agents for malpractice!!” And yadda, yadda, yadda. That’s the Felger way. If it’s good news and a good move, you still have to identify some kind of negative angle, beat it to death, and make certain segments of the fan base actually care about it. You don’t have to be a SuperFan to get aggravated at that tactic. What puzzles me is why it continues to be so effective.

      • GStill45

        I agree that you don’t have to be a Superfan to get annoyed by Felger. You can sit back as an impartial observer and get his contrarian trolls shtick. His trolling during the Tony Stewart rant, struck a nerve with me and for the first time I started getting angry at him. I’m just guessing that Pats Superfans feel that frustration and anger on a regular basis.

  • bullock

    Is it fun to listen to sports talk radio anymore?

    I posit this question, as I was on a long road trip with some buddies (non-Bostonian, non-sports fans) earlier this summer and happened to be streaming Felger and Mazz at the time.

    After about 10 minutes, the questions came fast and furious: “Jeez, aren’t your teams really good? Didn’t the baseball team win it all last year? Why do these two guys sound so miserable? Why are they yelling? Do you actually like listening to this?”

    I had no answer. since frankly, they did sound like a couple whiny old men, crafting crude mountains out of molehills. Since that trip, I really do find myself only able to get through about 20-30 minutes of #HotSportzTakes before I give up.

    Epilogue: Shortly after my buddies’ comments, I switched to my Van Halen Pandora station. Everyone was a winner.

    • Early_Riser

      No. T & R made it fun for a little while, but their schtick is wearing thin. I don’t listen to midday or afternoons anymore, save for the occasional run through of Ordway’s on demand stuff. I started listening to ‘ZLX or Rock 101 in the mornings. At least those shows bring some humor and entertainment. Sports radio is not fun anymore.

  • Brian Shea

    At the time the Sports Hub premiered 5 years ago, WEEI was just asking to be tossed off their throne with how absurdly arrogant they were and for the most part got exactly what they deserved.
    -The commercial breaks, especially on the Big Show tended to be 15-20 minutes long.
    -The shows would go wildly off topic. I recall numerous Big Shows that kicked off with Glenn, Fred and Steve talking about their personal lives for the first 20 minutes of the show instead of talking sports.
    -The refusal to talk certain sports (hockey in particular) at all, blowing up and making fun of any callers who tried to discuss such things.
    -Putting the Sox on WRKO, and mixing it up across various days, making it very confusing at times to figure out what station the game was on.
    -Refusing to move from AM to FM for as long as they did.

    I don’t think the Sports Hub has any of those problems and ultimately won’t fall into the same trap, as WEEI did. The shows as a whole tend to be a lot more entertaining than the WEEI shows were and are. That’s not to say that the station is a high quality one or deserves the ratings it gets though. The over the top negative vitriol spewed by the shows, Felger and Mazz in particular is a really big problem and makes me more apt to turn off the station than I would otherwise. Its not that unusual to turn into F&M and hear them say that Tom Brady is on steroids, Belichick only won with Parcells players, Brady being on this team is a total fluke, Robert Kraft is cheap and other assorted nonsense. Mazz spent the entire 2013 season crapping on the Red Sox, a year they won the World Series. They have been trying to run Rajon Rondo out of town for years. And so on. If they could only find someone to challenge Felger instead of someone who is a yes man and arguably even more negative than him in Mazz than things would be so much better in this market. But even if that doesn’t happen, I have a hard time seeing the Sports Hub fall into the same position WEEI got itself into.

    • Moon

      I tend to disagree somewhat. I think that TSH is falling into some of the same habits. We all know the issues with F&M around the negativity and how if we don’t feel the same then we are footie pajama wearing stools of the team(s), but the arrogance and pompousness that befell EEi, is starting to overtake F&M. Rude to callers (God forbid you ask them how they are doing when you start your discussion!), straw man arguments and I’ll never forget how they treated Mike Reiss after Welker signed with the Broncos last off-season basically saying that he was a shill for the team. It was despicable. I can only handle a few minutes of their show now. What once was a promising alternative has now disintegrated into Kardashian like radio.

  • smack_libs_around

    Imagine the inner angst with the morning hacks at weei, losing out on NESN to the newest vacuum cleaner infomercial (“Order now and we’ll send you TWO replacement bags…FREE!!!”)

  • majorMudd

    On a real time note:
    NESN just cut away from the on field RS HOF ceremony with about 3 minutes left in the event. In mid sentence, just as The Jimmy Fund was being mentioned we, the viewers, were transported to a car, an insurance and a NESN self promo commercial. Stunning lack of reality on NESN’s part. Another feather in the already colorful hat of SoCal D-lister Tom Werner. Werner for commissioner? Endless paid promotions interrupted by snippets of games? The dark days of MLB will lie ahead.

    • daver

      Are you sure it was NESN that cut out, and not your local cable provider? Because that’s what it sounds like — an automatic switch in a previously-designated local ad window.

      • majorMudd

        I’m Directv and they would not show a NESN produced self promo commercial on their specific satellite breaks. Also when the live feed came back, it went right to the beginning of a 10 second Orsillo tease and then back to 5 minutes more of advertising. Were you watching this ceremony? Or just giving a quite sensible possibility (if I were a catv sub) on what could have occurred?

  • jwol16

    Has anyone heard what Jermaine Wiggins’s plans are?

    • StoJa

      Has to either be a national gig on Sirius or something TV related. Doesn’t seem like he’s staying local or jumping ship to ‘EEI.

  • Oswee Larvey Hald

    You’re clearly a Felger fan, which is fine. But the guy LOATHES callers. I mean, he came up with rules for calling in. I think he backed off of it a bit, but I’m not sure. Still, the guy has NO patience for callers. How often does he have discussions with them? Very rarely. And he used to give that guy from Las Vegas 5 minutes to give his picks for the week. As if anyone wanted to hear that? Did The Big Show crap on callers? Sometimes, yeah. But it was usually deserved and almost always entertaining. You can’t say the same thing about Felger’s attitude toward callers.

    On top of it, you have the short, bald, wonky eyed, nasal-squeak voiced Echo making fun of ANYONE and EVERYONE with a NE accent. The irony is mind numbing.

  • StoJa

    Listening to Felger lose his mind over this Tony Stewart situation makes me want to drive into oncoming traffic. He went to screaming he should be arrested and charged on Tuesday to arguing semantics with Bertrand over “he either saw him or didn’t, you can’t have it both ways!!!” by Thursday. And of course Mazz tried to side with Beetle but not really arguing against Mike at the same time. SMH….oh, and let’s create controversy by trying to stir the pot about Jeremy Maclin beating Derelle Revis in a scrimmage, like it’s panic time.