Sports Media

‘Sports Hub’ dialing up a challenge for WEEI

GLENN ORDWAYReady to rumble GLENN ORDWAYReady to rumble
By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / July 17, 2009
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Well, now we’ll find out.

With Tuesday’s revelation that a game of radio musical chairs will result in a new all-sports station, WBZ-FM “98.5 The Sports Hub,’’ debuting Aug. 13, we will finally begin to get an answer to one of the lingering questions in Boston sports media: Is sports radio behemoth WEEI 850’s dominance and popularity based on some common appeal of its bottom-scraping, self-proclaimed “guy radio’’ formula? Or has the station succeeded because of its wide-ranging AM signal (not to mention its nine regional stations throughout New England) and lack of a powerful competitor?

While the belief here is that WEEI has long been an unworthy and often ungrateful beneficiary of the region’s unquenchable thirst for its uncommonly successful professional sports teams, it’s repeatedly been made clear that WEEI views its success as an irrefutable confirmation of its own collective brilliance.

“The Sports Hub’’ has a reasonable chance to prove otherwise. While WEEI has essentially vanquished all supposed challengers, notably the still-airing-but-rarely-considered WAMG 890 and WWZN 1510, in recent years, the longtime heavyweight champ has never faced a challenger as capable as “The Sports Hub.’’ WAMG has limited local programming, a signal that fades to static within city limits after dusk, and has never fully utilized its affiliation with ESPN.

WWZN debuted its sports format in October 2001 with promise, hiring former Red Sox television voice Sean McDonough as its drive-time host and vowing “to raise the bar,’’ a direct shot at WEEI’s sophomoric approach. But WWZN, which owned Celtics broadcast rights until the end of the 2004-05, quickly proved no match for WEEI; the station continues to be plagued by poor reception in the evening.

“The Sports Hub’’ has crucial advantages previous would-be WEEI competitors lacked. The station already has a degree of established and respected brand recognition with the iconic WBZ call letters. It owns the broadcasting rights to the Patriots and Bruins, which is pretty close to a wash with WEEI’s deals with the Red Sox and Celtics. It has the backing of powerful ownership in CBS Radio, which also owns such prominent stations as WFAN in New York. There is synergy with the Patriots, who have significant ties with CBS as well as WBZ Channel 4. And, of course, there’s the potent FM signal.

While there has been no formal announcement, “The Sports Hub’’ lineup is beginning to take shape. There are encouraging signs the station intends to position itself as a compelling alternative to WEEI rather than as an imitation, even as it makes former WEEI staffer and jack-of-all-media Michael Felger its franchise player.

Felger - who according to a source close to the situation will go head to head from 2-6 p.m. daily with a show on which he used to appear, WEEI’s powerful “The Big Show’’ hosted by Glenn Ordway - is a savvy choice by “The Sports Hub,’’ even considering his WEEI roots. The former Boston Herald sportswriter already has a strong local profile, hosting “Mohegan Sun Sports Tonight’’ and “Sports Sunday’’ on Comcast SportsNet, though he will not continue to host CSN’s “The Baseball Show,’’ which is simulcast on WEEI.

(One source with knowledge of the situation indicated Comcast SportsNet is “likely’’ to eventually simulcast “The Sports Hub,’’ programming, though it was also noted that the network is always open to considering such partnerships elsewhere, including with WEEI.)

Felger, who hosted an afternoon show on 890 until returning to WEEI last July, typically plays the role of a contrarian, and he’s best balanced by a co-host who will challenge him - his recent pairing with Michael Holley on WEEI’s midday show was particularly enjoyable. But Felger’s self-effacing sense of humor serves to temper his brash opinions enough to make him a genial host.

What will be telling is how “The Sports Hub’’ stocks the rest of its roster. Both Felger and Gary Tanguay, his “Sports Tonight’’ counterpart who will host “The Sports Hub’’ midday show, most likely from 10-2, will have a regular co-host. The “Toucher and Rich’’ morning show will slide over from the departed WBCN 104.1, filling the 6-10 slot. While the depth of hosts Fred Toucher and Rich Shertenlieb’s sports knowledge is yet to be determined, they did feature an entertaining weekly segment with the Bruins’ Aaron Ward this past hockey season, and they already are proving to be much more adept at conversing entertainingly about “water-cooler topics’’ than their WEEI counterparts, John Dennis and Gerry Callahan.

The temptation is to suggest the new station should resist any notion of plundering WEEI beyond Felger, who filled in on various WEEI programs while serving as a signature writer on the station’s website. (All evidence of Felger’s existence was wiped off by Wednesday afternoon.) But WEEI does have some appealing co-hosts, among them baseball writers Sean McAdam and Steve Buckley, and former Red Sox utilityman Lou Merloni, as well as unsung “The Big Show’’ producer Andy Massaua.

What the fledgling station should not take from WEEI is the reliance of “celebrity’’ callers or the dependence on sycophantic sidekicks who don’t dare to call the host on mistakes. Rather than stealing any ingredients in the WEEI formula, “The Sports Hub’’ should aim to find co-hosts and contributors capable of providing insight and humor, as well as at least a cursory knowledge of the sports world outside of Boston. In a sense, it’s too bad ESPN finally recognized it had a rising star in Ryen Russillo, recently pairing him with “SportsCenter’’ anchor Scott Van Pelt on its syndicated midday radio show. The former 1510 host and frequent Comcast SportsNet contributor has long deserved a more prominent role in the Boston market.

It should also be noted that there is mutual interest in having the Boston Globe’s sportswriters appear on the station. While Globe writers remain banned from WEEI programming - editors stopped permitting staffers to appear on “The Big Show’’ or “Dennis and Callahan’’ in 1999, and WEEI responded by not allowing them on any other programs - sports editor Joe Sullivan said staffers would be allowed on “The Sports Hub,’’ provided that the topics were related to sports.

No matter how “The Sports Hub’’ completes its staff, this much is certain: It is in for a fierce competition, and WEEI already has begun a predictable campaign of patronizing rhetoric. On Wednesday’s program, Ordway said he “welcomes the war,’’ while noting “they all start on my show.’’ It’s difficult to comprehend how insufferable WEEI will be if “The Sports Hub’’ fails, though Ordway’s words suggest that even WEEI knows it’s different this time.

On Tuesday, Julie Kahn, vice president and market manager of Entercom New England, told the Globe, “This is the third effort to come after us at ’EEI. The best content will win.’’

We can only hope she’s right, even if she misses the irony.

When content is the main factor in determining the winner of a battle for Boston sports radio supremacy, it will be the first time.

Chad Finn can be reached at