LoudMouths

By John Wolfson | Boston Magazine |

“Yee-haw!”

Another afternoon in WEEI's cramped Brighton studio, and the guys on
The Big Show are riding Red Sox first baseman Kevin Millar again. The
top-rated sports-talk radio station's most listened-to program, which
airs weekdays from 2 to 6, has relentlessly ridiculed Millar like this
since last summer. It started when Millar's bat went to sleep for the
first half of the season. He was awful—horrible—host Glenn Ordway said
again and again, demanding to know why manager Terry Francona kept
sending him out there. Eventually Millar had had enough. “I think their
show sucks,” he told reporters one day. Bad move. When you argue with
WEEI, you just can't win.   

The gang on The Big Show have done to Millar what they do to everyone.
They've turned him into a caricature. The redneck, banjo-pickin', Hee
Haw tormentor they've created to mock the cowboy boot?wearing Millar
makes fun of every word the player utters: The show plays a clip of
Millar telling the media that fans should boo him instead of a
struggling teammate, saying, “I suck. I'm not a good player.” “Finally,
something we agree on,” his hillbilly alter ego counters, the wisecrack
framed by Deliverance-tinged banjo piped in by a producer.

It's not, to say the least, a sober, nuanced analysis. It's a
schoolyard taunt, an emotional, bottom-of-the-barrel response to a
crappy hitter who won't keep his mouth shut. It is, in other words,
exactly the way the average joe feels. And it's hilarious, all the more
so because listeners get not just the joke—they also get the whole
narrative behind it. In Millar's case, The Big Show has reminded them
nearly every day that he's too scared to call in and face the Big O,
that he thinks the show stinks. But it doesn't matter who or what
Ordway and his cohorts are talking about. It's always easy to follow
the story line, and listeners can't get enough of it.

This formula—transforming sports into daytime drama—has pushed WEEI to
a level of success that leaves people who have spent their lives in
radio shaking their heads, even in a sports-crazed town like this one.
Last fall, the triumphs of the Red Sox and the Patriots helped boost
the station, already a ratings juggernaut, over the top. For several
weeks, more adults were listening to WEEI than to any other station in
Boston. No sports talk station anywhere had ever accomplished that
before. Forget rock, rap, adult contemporary, country, or jazz; forget
news, or the affected solemnity of NPR's cultural segments. In this
city, sports was number one. “It was unprecedented,” says Jason Wolfe,
the station's program director. “It was truly amazing.”

Fans want to hear about their teams, and WEEI spends from 6 a.m. to
midnight either talking about them, or—in the case of the Red
Sox—broadcasting their games. Even when the Sox and the Pats went into
hibernation over the winter, the station continued to attract an
astounding 463,000 weekly listeners, compared with nearly 600,000
during the season. “It's the most powerful sports outlet in New
England,” says Michael Holley, who cohosts the station's midday show.
“It used to be that the Globe set the agenda. Now, we set the agenda.”

You'd expect Holley to say that, of course. He was a Globe columnist
before joining WEEI. But some of his former colleagues agree. “They've
become a powerhouse,” says Bill Griffith, who writes a sports media
column for the Globe. “They're talking how fans talk. It's water-cooler
talk.”

The supercharged results have electrified everything they touch. The
sportswriters who appear on the station as guests have, in many cases,
transcended their day jobs. The radio exposure has transformed them
into personalities more influential, sometimes, than the papers they
work for. WEEI is even bigger than television. Butch Stearns, the
sports anchor on Fox 25's News at 10, is sometimes lucky to get three
and a half minutes on his own program, which like other newscasts keeps
cutting back on sports. He's grateful for his regular Big Show
appearances. “I just put an addition on my house,” he says. “My
contract's up in September. The only leverage I have is who wants me.
My job is to get people to watch me. Being on this show obviously
helps.”

Earlier in the year, the Celtics were looking for a new radio partner
to broadcast their games. After a decade and a half of losing, the
Celts badly needed the sort of marketing sizzle that can come from
associating with a number one station. But WEEI didn't need them; its
evening talk show draws more listeners than Celtics games do. So the
team went for the next-best thing, signing on with WEEI's sister
station, WRKO. The deal means regular appearances on WEEI for Celtics
management and players; if all goes as hoped, the station's hosts will
start riffing about the franchise again. The games themselves?
Whatever. If they're not talking about you on The Big Show, you're
dead. The traditional balance in the sports world has been turned on
its head. It's the teams that lust for rabid fans, and the station that
controls them.

Of all WEEI's personalities, Glenn Ordway is the most powerful. He's
the only one, with the possible exception of Gerry Callahan of the
popular Dennis & Callahan morning show, whose departure would
diminish the station's ratings. Bruce Allen, who runs the Boston Sports
Media Watch blog, ranks Ordway as part of the “holy trinity” of Boston
sports-media figures, along with Bob Ryan of the Globe and Bob Lobel of
Channel 4. “Some might say the latter two have slipped,” Allen says,
“but Ordway is still atop his profession.”

The best athletes are said to see plays unfold in slow motion, allowing
them to exploit opportunities others miss. It's hard to think of Ordway
in athletic terms—he is short and heavy, with a big, jowly face—but he
possesses a similar trait. He seems always aware of everything
happening around him, knows how to talk under people as well as over
them, and his comedic timing is flawless. He often stands throughout
his entire four-hour program, energized, working the call buttons,
reading the computer screens, scrambling for statistics. His on-air
manner swings between laid-back and hyper-aggressive, depending on his
mix of guest hosts. He's often referred to as The Big Show's
quarterback or point guard, but really he's a puppeteer, manipulating
the action, pulling the strings.

Some of Ordway's associates say he is obsessed with radio, perhaps
unhealthily so, listening all day to the station he rebuilt 10 years
ago when he was hired as its program director (a responsibility he
later handed off to Jason Wolfe) and installed himself as The Big
Show's host. [The executive vice president of this magazine is engaged
to the station's current general manager.] In some corners, the move
read as an egotistical power play. But Ordway had long ago proven his
talent behind both the microphone and the business table. While calling
Celtics games for 13 years, he doubled as a consultant to stations in
other cities and was responsible for lining up a nationwide Celtics
radio network in the 1980s. He even formatted the commercials.

When Ordway took over at WEEI, the station, like most others, featured
individual hosts droning on about box scores. Ordway realized that if
he was ever going to appeal to more than just hard-core fans, he would
have to offer more than just strait-laced sports coverage. And he knew
just how to do it. He had studied as a young man at the American
Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, the same school that produced
Adrien Brody and Robert Redford. He graduated in 1972 and landed a
small part in a Jack Lemmon film, and then an off-Broadway play that
had a brief run; next came a couple of commercials and an appearance on
General Hospital. He decided that The Big Show would follow the formula
of a soap opera, treating its audience to over-the-top plot lines and
recognizable characters with outsized personalities. Before the
revamped show hit the air, Ordway paid to have the Herald run a comic
strip featuring its cast, which was then, as now, made up mostly of
well-known sportswriters and former athletes.

“If they wanted to make the perfect guy for a talk radio host, he's
it,” says Bill Griffith. “He's a product of sales, play-by-play; he's a
product of the business and entertainment world. He brings all that to
sports. He knows his audience.”

One afternoon, during a break in The Big Show, Ordway explains his
approach to me. “Exaggerate anything,” he says. “If a guy's fat, he's
enormous.” Each of The Big Show's four core characters has an
established, hyperbolic on-air persona: There's Ordway, of course,
lampooned for his vast waistline, his huge salary, and his lax work
ethic. There's Pete “The Meat” Sheppard in the role of the heavyset,
hotheaded degenerate gambler whose job is supposed to be simply reading
sports updates every 20 minutes, but who's forever jumping in with some
preposterous comment or other—like the time he insisted, despite
written evidence to the contrary, that a fielder must have possession
of a fly ball for two full seconds in order to record an out. And
finally there are Brett and Andy, The Big Show's two producers, who
chime in with sarcastic jabs—often ribbing Sheppard—a few times an
hour. Joining them every day are two guest hosts, each with a developed
persona of his own.

Ordway likes a broad mix of personalities among his guests. Their
chemistry is key to the show's success. He'll pair the dour Michael
Felger of the Herald with breezy Channel 7 sports reporter Wendi Nix;
or WEEI weekend cohost Larry Johnson, who roots unapologetically for
the local teams, with Steve Buckley, a Herald columnist consumed with
baseball history. The show builds their characters through prerecorded
comedic skits, referred to as bits, and the hugely popular Whiner Line,
the 15 minutes at the end of each show dedicated to rants phoned in by
listeners. (Ordway says it's the most listened-to 15 minutes on the
entire station.) “You want to know why I bitch when I have to take my
shoes off at the airport?” one whiner complained recently. “'Cause
that's where I used to keep my pot. Richard Reid screwed it up for all
of us.” To the uninitiated, it sounds like chaos, all these people
insulting and yelling over each other. But once you know the
characters—and, as with any soap opera, it takes only a few
episodes—it's easy to laugh along.

During the week I spend hanging out at WEEI, everyone keeps telling me
that nobody takes The Big Show's ragging personally. But sitting across
from me at a table in the center of the small broadcast booth, Michael
Felger looks seriously pissed. Ordway has been razzing the Herald
sportswriter for the past quarter-hour for a comment he'd made a week
earlier, when Red Sox shortstop Edgar Renteria dropped a surprise bunt
that put him on base in front of slugger David Ortiz, who hit a
dramatic home run to win a close game against the Orioles. According to
just about every sportswriter in town, the play demonstrated the
shortstop's unselfishness and instincts for the game. To Felger,
however, it was no big deal. Plus, he tells Ordway, it exposed the
media's hypocrisy: If Renteria had been thrown out to end the game, the
writers would have killed him.

Ordway feigns exasperation. He teases Felger for being one of those
negative writers who have to ruin everything. Felger, his face glowing
red, says he's willing to stand up for his beliefs. “That would be a
tough opinion,” he yells, “and Big O doesn't make those!” Ordway yells
right back, suppressing a smile. In the face of Felger's blast, the
host keeps making side jokes, looking at the other guys on the show,
drawing them into the argument. The breezier he gets, the greater
Felger's fury. Ordway is in complete control, playing actor-director in
another made-up melodrama. He takes a call from a guy named Matthew,
who begins by saying Felger is an idiot. The Herald sportswriter waits
for Matthew to finish describing the beauty of Renteria's bunt. Then he
calls him a jackass. Everyone cracks up. Except Felger.

During a commercial break, Felger jerks off his headphones and turns
toward me. “Big O's lucky to have me. You should put that in your
article,” he says, his face flushed. “I'm the only one who challenges
him.”

“We love Michael,” Ordway replies. “We're goofing! This is not real. This is a radio show.”

“That's the worst part of this, of sports radio,” Felger says. “'You're an idiot! You're an idiot!'”

“What were you before this?” Ordway asks him.

“I was a nobody.”

“See?”

Felger's somebody now. After honing his strident character on the radio
(he's less antagonistic in print), he's become a television regular as
well, working as a contributor to the Fox Sports Net New England
nightly sports report, occasionally hosting that show, and sitting in
on the Sunday-night sports roundtable on Channel 4. Felger appears on
TV in character—the character created by The Big Show. “I think he
realizes that TV and radio are much more high-profile than newspaper
work,” says Allen, the media blogger. “It's gotten him the Fox Sports
Net New England gig, where he carries his contrarian persona and revels
in it.”

Felger acknowledges that the hawkishness he displays on WEEI has helped
his forays into other media. “It can be a benefit to the other shows,”
he says. “But people also call me douche bag. At the end of the day, I
don't think that's a benefit.”

Other Big Show regulars have also become fixtures on the local sports
media circuit, spreading the WEEI swagger. Gerry Callahan, Steve
Buckley, Tony Massarotti, Sean McAdam—they're all recognizable less as
representatives of a particular publication than as personalities,
brands, pundits-for-hire who can snap off an edgy, entertaining opinion
for whatever medium is cutting the check. Massarotti, for instance, has
been writing for the Herald since 1989. In 2001 he was named
Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters
and Sportswriters Association. He's also been a guest host on The Big
Show since the late '90s, which has led to steady, and lucrative,
television work. Yet he's dumbfounded by how many people know him only
from the radio. “'What paper do you write for?'” he says he's asked
constantly. “That happens to me all the time, and that's my real job.
It's astonishing.”

“We've all become little corporations,” Massarotti says during a
station break, which makes Ordway laugh. “It's a cottage industry.” The
station can transform even smalltime writers into players. Bill Burt is
the sports editor at the Eagle-Tribune in North Andover. The
family-owned paper has won two Pulitzers and is a trusted authority
within its modest circulation area, but outside Essex County nobody's
heard of it. Burt used to have a hard time getting anyone from the
local pro teams to talk to him. Then he started appearing on The Big
Show as Bill “The Mogul of the Merrimack Valley” Burt. These days it
seems the entire sports world is available for a quote. “I can even get
general managers from other cities,” Burt says. “They return my calls.”

Tony Massarotti has an unusually high voice, one that juxtaposes in a
funny way with his belligerent on-air personality. For a while, The Big
Show played up the “Evil Tony” aspect of his character, introducing him
with a voice-over that sounded something like Darth Vader's deep
rumble, and nothing like Massarotti's mousy squeak.

“When I started here, Glenn said, 'This is going to add something to
your persona that didn't exist before,'” Massarotti says. “And he was
right.” Massarotti became known for his confrontational, shut-you-up
attitude. And when edginess is prized above all else, that kind of
attitude gets you noticed. But the feistiness was not entirely genuine,
and it began to infect his newspaper writing. “I'm not a great
columnist,” he says, meaning he thinks of himself more as a reporter.
“I don't get that worked up about stuff. When I force myself to say
stuff, it usually sounds bad.” Then Massarotti says something even more
surprising. “There have been various points,” he tells me, unprompted,
“when I freely admit I've been spreading it too thin. The quality of my
work at the paper suffers, to me. A friend says he doesn't notice it.”

Ordway jumps in. “I don't think that's true,” he assures him.

“I have to stop, take a deep breath, get back to my job,” Massarotti
continues. “If we're not careful, our egos can get out of control. In
the last few months, I've made a concerted effort to ground myself.”

The rest of the WEEI gang should do the same, says Bruce Allen, the
media blogger. “While I understand that they want to be in the sports
'entertainment' business,” he says, “my biggest beef with them is that
many of the people appearing on the station simply don't know what
they're talking about.” The other problem is that they only talk about
the same few things. Ordway and Wolfe feel they have to keep the
station's material intensely local. But when the region's dominant
sports outlet ignores something, it may as well not exist. “When was
the last time you heard them say anything about Wimbledon? Or golf?
They laugh at NASCAR,” Bill Griffith says. “They were responsible,
somewhat, for the Celtics and Bruins becoming irrelevant.”

In 1999 the Globe banned its staffers from appearing on The Big Show
after one of its writers used an ethnic slur while referring to a
Japanese pitcher. Two years later the paper pulled its staffers from
WEEI's morning program, too. Jack Thomas, then the Globe ombudsman,
explained the decision in his column, writing that the paper realized
“its sportswriters might do the newspaper, themselves, and common sense
a favor by not appearing on WEEI's Dennis & Callahan show as
puppets strung among jokes about big penises, fat naked fags, and the
banging of Korean whores.” The paper caught plenty of criticism for the
ban—after news columnist Eileen McNamara had a piece on the topic
spiked, she appeared on Dennis & Callahan to blast the Globe for
censorship—but its judgment was vindicated in 2003, when the morning
hosts referred to a gorilla photographed at a bus stop after escaping
from a zoo as a “Metco gorilla” that was “heading out to Lexington”—a
reference to the program that buses minority students from Boston to
the suburbs. The comments led to pulled advertising, condemnations from
city leaders, and two-week suspensions for the hosts.

Wherever it is that the line between the edgily entertaining and the
blatantly offensive is drawn, WEEI continues to push it. Earlier this
year Ordway brought up comments by departed Red Sox star Pedro
Martinez, whose first language is Spanish. Martinez said he might have
re-signed with the Sox if they'd offered a few extra “millions.” Ordway
intentionally repeated the grammatical miscue, poking fun at Martinez's
command of English. Jose from Providence called to accuse Ordway of
ridiculing Martinez. “No, I'm just quoting him,” Ordway protested. “I
just think you're an asshole,” Jose shot back in a Spanish accent. Then
he hung up.

I ask Jason Wolfe, WEEI's program director, whether the station has
ever considered toning things down. “Our goal across the board is to
push the envelope,” he says. “If we didn't do it that way, we would be
going back to what we used to be, which was reading the box scores.”
The station is long past needing the credibility that came with having
reporters from New England's most prestigious newspaper take part in
its shows. “We're much more successful than we were when we had them
on,” Wolfe says. It's also long past needing to say it's sorry; being
number one means not having to even care who you offend.

Whatever their private feelings about the content, there are
writers—nine who'll admit it for the record—who have made it clear to
their papers that if appearing on WEEI is going to be a problem, well,
the papers can find someone else to write for them. That never comes
up, though. Boston belongs to WEEI these days. And ownership has its
privileges.



Clarification

A typographical error changed the meaning of a sentence in “Loudmouths”
(August) about sports talk radio. The sentence should have read:
“[T]here are writers—none who'll admit it for the record—who have made
it clear to their papers that if appearing on WEEI is going to be a
problem, well, the papers can find someone else to write for them.”

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2006/05/loudmouths/