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Access, at what price?

Sports information highway is now a two-way street

Curt Schilling spends Tuesday mornings on WEEI and has been known to drop in a news item or two on his recovery from injury. Keith Foulke, who often chooses not to speak before or after a game (Monday night in Arlington, Texas for example), checks in with the station midday every Friday.

Schilling, the injured Sox starter, appears in return for donations, which approach $100,000, to his charity. Foulke, the embattled Sox reliever, comes on as part of a barter agreement with a local auto dealership, which gave him use of a new truck.

In the past, if a media outlet offered a five-figure payment to an athlete in return for the exclusive rights to a story, it would be labeled ''checkbook journalism" and create a furor. The uproar would serve to fuel the interest in the forthcoming publication and help sales, giving the ''checkbook journalists" a better return on their investment.

Today, the issue is becoming one of access and the ways in which the electronic media can translate that into compelling programming. Increasingly, if you think of access as a road you can follow to obtain information, savvy teams and players see that same road as a two-way street they can use to get their story out.

Take for example, ''Patriots All-Access" on Channel 5. Bill Belichick often sits and diagrams plays with host Mike Lynch, the station's sports anchor. But the show is actually produced by Kraft Sports Productions, an arm of the Patriots and the Kraft family.

Although guest spots such as Schilling's and Foulke's fall under the ''entertainment" heading, they also can produce news.

The question of paying for access was raised over the past two months when Schilling temporarily stopped talking to the team's beat writers.

Normally, his position -- ''Hey, I'm on the disabled list. There's nothing to say. I'll be glad to talk when that changes" -- wouldn't have been a problem.

However, Schilling continued to do his weekly guest spot on WEEI's morning-drive show with hosts John Dennis and Gerry Callahan. Tuesday mornings suddenly became required listening as Schilling used the forum to disseminate news.

Listeners heard Schilling's injury updates, learning about ''stress reaction" syndrome, his search for a special shoe to help him regain his balance on the mound, his back-and-forth with Cardinals manager Tony La Russa when shortstop Edgar Renteria was struggling, and a bit of a verbal jousting with Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella.

Schilling [''Curt in the car"] even called WEEI's afternoon ''The Big Show" with Glenn Ordway on a Monday afternoon ''to set the record straight" about the search for that special shoe, preempting his own scheduled appearance the next morning.

The rest of the media -- local and national -- took notice. People were writing about Schilling and crediting the WEEI appearances as their source.

Asked about the perception of exclusivity, Jim Thistle, director of the broadcast journalism program at Boston University, said, ''It boils down to what you consider journalism. WEEI doesn't bill itself as a news organization. Just the opposite. Entertainment is what their programming is all about, and they bill it as such."

''The shows are informative, but who defines the border between entertainment and journalism?" asked Thomas F. Mulvoy Jr., former managing editor of the Globe. ''These shows are informative, but they're not journalism as newspapers know it."

Making pitch
Schilling goes on the radio for two reasons. The first is to raise money for his adopted charity, ''Curt's Pitch for ALS." WEEI makes a sizeable donation to the charity and is working on promotional endeavors in the fight against ALS.

''I've done a weekly media gig for the last four years to benefit ALS," Schilling said. ''We've generated a tremendous amount of awareness and raised more money each year. When you're accomplishing that, it's not hard to wake up and do a half-hour on the phone."

The radio segments have raised in excess of $100,000 each year while raising awareness of the disease's devastating effects.

''It feels like we're racing the clock," said Curt's wife, Shonda. ''We know Curt's time in the media is limited. We want to take advantage of the time we have to help ALS patients as much as we can."

The second reason he goes on is ''to set the record straight. The only thing in the paper that doesn't have someone's perspective is the box score," said Schilling, who went on record after joining the Red Sox last season that he was comfortable posting on the Internet and talking directly to fans on the radio. ''Radio is the last give-and-take format out there. People in your [print] business get to pick and choose their quotes. TV breaks up the answer to a question into sound bites. I don't do sound bites. I do long-form answers."

He admits to taking his bias to the radio. ''But what's different is my perspective as a player and teammate," he said. ''The beat writers don't really know us as people. Ballplayers are different personalities at the park than they are away from it. Everyone's job demands a certain behavior in the workplace. Don't you have to behave a certain way in your job?

''When we [his family] came here, we looked around at ways to help the ALS fight. We'd done it in Arizona. Here, you have a golf course [Granite Links] that donated $1 from every greens fee this season. Things like that happen. You have to credit the popularity of the station and the community here. People get involved in other people's charities."

For WEEI, the deal with Schilling has been what both Thistle and Sox vice president of media relations Glenn Geffner call a bonanza. ''WEEI got a lot more than they expected when they convinced Schilling to come on the air every week," said Geffner.

''But they're not paying for stories," said Thistle. ''They're paying for the players' time or access. There's no guarantee of getting any exclusive stories, but all of the hosts -- on WEEI and elsewhere -- are experienced interviewers."

Complicated matter
Jason Wolfe, Entercom's director of programming and operations, has seen the question of access evolve over the years at WEEI.

Take ''Patriots Monday," the all-day football season presentation in collaboration with the Patriots that last year had quarterback Tom Brady on with ''Dennis & Callahan," Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison, and Troy Brown rotating as midday guests, and Belichick on in afternoon drive.

''Ten years ago it was a lot simpler," said Wolfe. ''We wrote a check and got three interviews."

The Patriots show went to WWZN (1510 AM) for three years before returning to WEEI in 2002. That new deal ''is a much more complicated deal, a combination of rights fee, plus programming and marketing components that benefits both parties," said Wolfe.

''For us, the bottom line is to try and provide the most compelling and entertaining programming content that we can," said Wolfe. ''There are certain newsmakers and personalities who are great to have associated with your product."

These days, rather than a rights fee, guests often put greater value on their own access to media.

Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino comes on as a freebie. Why? Credit the clout WEEI has in shaping local sports attitudes, not to mention a little of the ''you can be with them or against them" attitude.

''You have the bright and acerbic Dennis and Callahan on the air for four hours every morning. They can talk about you . . . or your president/CEO can talk with them," said Dr. Charles Steinberg, the Sox executive vice president of public affairs. ''It's to our [Sox] advantage to have our No. 1 information provider on there live. It makes the hosts and listeners more informed. And, from the team's perspective, we're not subject as much to their [hosts'] wonderings, which can provide entertaining radio but can also be their way of honing the truth."

A bit of that accessibility thinking was involved in the Celtics' new radio rights deal with Entercom's WRKO (680 AM), a deal that includes promotional and marketing components with WEEI.

Expect Celtics basketball boss Danny Ainge and coach Doc Rivers to join that list, along with players and perhaps even an ownership representative such as Wyc Grousbeck.

How forthcoming?The interaction between athlete and media has evolved since the days when writers and ballplayers would travel on the same railroad cars.

With the Sox and Patriots playing well in recent years, the local interaction has been civil.

But that doesn't mean players and managers who go on the air are overly chatty.

Foulke landed a gig on WEEI as the result of a barter agreement with an auto dealer (Ricky Smith).

Foulke figures it's a fair trade. ''It was an easy decision. They're willing to give me a truck; I'm willing to go on."

''We already had an agreement with the dealership," said WEEI's Wolfe. ''Then the dealership asked if we'd like to do a segment with Keith each week."

It doesn't mean the player would be particularly forthcoming in his visits with midday hosts Dale Arnold and Michael Holley.

Foulke doesn't warm to the media. ''They're all trying to get a scoop," he said in the Sox locker room on Father's Day. ''They're not your friends. They're not doing things to help you. They'd rather break you down than help you.

''They don't want to talk with you when things are going well. When it comes to relievers, they only want to talk about failure. On a daily basis, the media goes to the starters and position players."

Sox manager Terry Francona, who appears on the midday show on Wednesdays, said, ''My only obligation is to call in once a week. Other than that I don't feel the need to turn on the radio and see how I'm being perceived."

Still, Francona signed on to do a weekly gig -- ''Time Out with Tito" -- with Channel 7 sports anchor Joe Amorosino on the station's Sunday night ''Sports Xtra."

''The best part of the deal is that he's one of the rare guys who just answers the questions," said Amorosino.

''These situations can be interesting," said Vince Doria, vice president of operations and news at ESPN. ''Sometimes you can get a situation such as at WFAN where Bobby Valentine, then the Mets manager, was upset with someone on the air but had an obligation to go on the station as part of the rights deal with the team."

That hasn't happened at WEEI yet. But it would make great fodder for the station's shows.

A comfort factor
Regular access breeds familiarity.

Francona said he's ''more comfortable" in dealing with the media in his second year. ''Now, I know the names and faces . . . and in some cases, even the agendas."

That helps in his daily pre- and postgame media sessions as well his weekly segments on radio and TV.

Belichick, noted for his restraint in addressing the media who cover the Patriots on a daily basis, has seemed increasingly relaxed in his WEEI segments with Ordway and football season show regulars Fred Smerlas and Steve DeOssie.

It's a similar feeling when Belichick does his sit-down and play diagramming with Lynch.

''Mike is a key to the show," said Matt Smith, executive producer for Kraft Sports Productions, which produces ''Patriots All-Access" in collaboration with the station's talent. ''He's established a relationship with the team, players, and coach that has benefited both the team and WCVB over the years."

Lynch calls it business as usual.

''I remember sitting in a room with Dan and Robert Kraft and talking about doing the show," he said. ''My perspective is that we couldn't be selling tickets, promoting the Pro Shop, or being told what questions to ask.

''Now, more than a decade later, no one ever has questioned what we do with the show. And that's a credit to the Patriots' ownership and management."

Smith is in a unique position to note the differences between working for a daily newscast and working full time for Kraft Productions, which does Patriots and Revolution TV. He joined the Patriots a year ago after working as a producer at Ch. 5.

''The players see us [Kraft Productions] people around all the time," he said. ''They're more relaxed because they know we're not going to portray them in a negative light."

Fox Sports Net had the Patriots' Harrison [''Bringing the Heat"] and Matt Light [''The Friendly's Scoop"] during football season. Friendly's sponsors the same segment with Kevin Millar of the Red Sox this summer.

''We have a lot of players who come in and they have something to say," said FSN's Skip Perham. ''But we're paying for access and their time, not exclusive news.

''Of course, there's always the chance you can get lucky the way WEEI did with Schilling."

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