For the better part of the past two decades, one name and four letters have been synonymous with Boston sports radio – WEEI. Unchallenged and unrivaled, the “#1 sports radio station in America” essentially monopolized one of the most passionate sports fan bases, dominating the airwaves in a city where its fans can’t get enough of its coverage. Led by a workday’s load of heavy-hitters and tremendous programming, it established itself as the biggest of big dogs, taking down any ragtag station willing to try and threaten its supremacy.
Where WEEI broadcasted the Red Sox and Celtics, the other stations broadcasted Harvard. WEEI might not have held the Patriots, but they were entrenched on rock station WBCN, and the Bruins were held by WBZ-AM, which was long regarded as a news station and not a competitor. The situation lent itself to a scenario where there was virtually no competition in a city that loved its sports coverage.
But that was before 2009, when WBZ consolidated its sports coverage and tapped into the market with its financial backing. Creating 98.5 FM as the home for The Sports Hub, they used the Patriots and Boston Bruins as driving forces to compete with the WEEI machine, eventually breaking through and challenging them for top ratings spots. In 2011, they finally overtook the giant behind the coverage of the Bruins, their championship run, and the ensuing madness and delirium that came with it. They used their shows as driving tools for the fans in the right way, becoming a monster giant in the process and creating a scenario where Boston fans finally had true options. It set up a 2011 where stations made radical and unforeseen changes, but at the same time, benefitted the sports radio listener in ways never before seen in Boston.
As mentioned the other day, the Boston Bruins’ sports radio coverage was reduced to a couple of minutes’ segments during the midday programming. Michael Holley used to have this thing called “The Holley Hockey Minute” during the lunch hour of his show with Dale Arnold, and it would last roughly five minutes, with Holley extolling the virtues of the Bruins roster. Arnold, a former play-by-play guy for the team, would make a couple of points on his own, and maybe there’d be a call or two. Then there’d be a station break and that would be it until the next game day.
Callers calling in for Bruins talk on the station’s other two flagship shows during the morning and evening commutes – Dennis and Callahan and The Big Show with The Big O – were either laughed at or “blown up,” an action that resulted with the station hanging up on the caller before ridiculing him on air. It largely segregated a segment of the population who still wanted sports coverage but didn’t quite have it. And even as the Bruins made a couple of playoff runs, their ability to choke out in the conference quarterfinals made them less of an attractive option, especially since their games weren’t covered by WEEI.
The Sports Hub was able to use that against WEEI in 2011 to the extent never before seen. As hockey’s popularity soared to the levels seen last in the 1970s and the Bobby Orr era, 98.5 was the station that capitalized the most. They were able to do it by fostering the community, old-town crew feel of the fan base. Sending their street teams out into the middle of the crowds, they essentially told die-hard fans to congregate together and drunkenly scream into a microphone on a nightly basis. While it was essentially a low-brow attempt by Toucher and Rich to get ratings in the same fashion they did on WBCN’s rock station, they tapped into something else, and that was the loyalty and feel of being at a Bruins game. For fans who weren’t able to get drunk and scream while walking to the train after a game, it gave them a chance to congregate through the airwaves with their in-arena counterparts.
Their other segments, including “Ask a Pink Hat,” ridiculed bad fans and gave energy to real fans that there was some sanity out there. That’s not unlike what WEEI did, but where WEEI just complained, WBZ-FM actually went out and got audio on these people and then made fun of them in a different light. It endeared the station to its loyal listeners, who for years felt this way but had someone who sympathized with them instead of antagonized them.
But that’s not even how WBZ changed the game. In 2011, coverage of sports on radio completely changed. Pregame coverage became more of a call-in show, with the stations using their programming in place of in-arena pregame coverage. Damon Amendolara led into Boston Bruins games, and the success of his show before and after led WEEI to do the same for Sox games with Mikey Adams. WEEI countered the success of Toucher and Rich by using its partnership with NESN to simulcast Dennis and Callahan on television, using the foundation of success built on by ESPN Radio and Mike and Mike in the Morning. Months later, The Sports Hub did the same in the afternoon with Comcast Sports Net and Felger and Mazz.
It became an outright ratings war this past year, with Sports Hub shows soaring to the top of the books on the heels of the Bruins and their Stanley Cup run. Controversies over the inclusion of the Providence numbers into WEEI’s ratings led to sniping on the air between the shows, and it created an atmosphere that rivaled professional wrestling in the late 1990s. There were miscues on both sides, namely by John Dennis with his infamous tweets at people that insulted how much money they made and by Michael Felger, who relentlessly dumped on the Bruins even as they continued to run through the playoffs (“Suck it Felger, I guess we’re not so bad after all” from Shawn Thornton was by far one of the moments of the year after they won the Cup). But each miscue seemed to boost ratings even higher, and the ability of the shows to get better just kept reaching new ceilings.
So where exactly am I going with this? All I’ve done right now is said “well this guy did this and this guy did that” and provided you without any real direction as to where I was headed. But my point is this – in 2011, the city transformed fully from a one-station town that forced its listeners to tune into one station into a two-station city that had an outright media war.
Passion and opinions matter in this scenario as much as they do with politics. I have friends who occasionally work for WEEI; I consider myself a Sports Hub guy when it comes to fandom. Whenever we talk about the stations, we always have spirited conversation. That wasn’t the case three years ago, and no matter what someone’s opinion is about how political or asinine WEEI is (likewise about how juvenile 98.5 is), we’ve reached a juncture where there is a legitimate ratings war that rivals New York or Dallas or any other major media market.
If the Bruins coverage wasn’t enough, Red Sox owner John Henry got fed up with what Felger was saying when he was outright bashing the organization’s front office. He drove to 98.5′s studio and demanded to sit in with Felger and Tony Massarotti. He did, confronting Felger and getting hammered by the evening drive’s hosts. The exchange was real and heated, and it happened on the station that does NOT broadcast Red Sox games. John Henry essentially went to his flagship’s rival studio and hand delivered them the moment of the year. All of this happened because he was listening. Would this have happened on other stations in the past? Absolutely not. In 2011? This is what being a two-station town is all about.
2012 will present a new battle, with new controversies that brew out of sports radio. There will be programming changes, and there will be new segments. There will always be new ways to tap into audiences and make them more and more loyal. But no matter what, as the two jockey for ratings and lob grenades at each other, for the first time in years and possibly ever, Boston finally has a sports radio market that its listeners can truly love, one where on any given day, there’ll be material worth listening to.