Revolution Radio

Meet the two rock DJs who hated sports talk radio just enough to save it.

By Alan Siegel | Boston Magazine |
two men in office

(Fred Toucher and Rich Shertenlieb. Photo by Jesse Burke.)

 

It’s early on a Tuesday in March, and the hosts of 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Toucher?&?Rich show are attempting to squeeze something interesting out of Rob Gronkowski. The profoundly large New England Patriot — not exactly known for his intellectual heft — has called in to promote a raffle. The proceeds will benefit the Celebrities for Charity Foundation, a truly worthy cause, as Gronkowski is doing his best to explain. But Fred Toucher and Rich Shertenlieb have other things on their mind.

“It seems more often times than not,” Shertenlieb says to Gronkowski, “you are a gentleman who indeed likes to take his shirt off.”

Gronkowski tries to veer back to the raffle, but the fact is that since the morning after the Super Bowl, photos of him, semi-clad and partying, have been popping up all over the Internet. So while Toucher and Shertenlieb hit on a few traditional talk radio topics — like Gronk’s injured left ankle and teammate Wes Welker’s contract situation — they can only resist for so long.

“When you go to a club,” Shertenlieb says, “like, what’s the percentage that you will take your shirt off when the music comes on?”

“Uh, very low,” Gronkowski replies, pleading, “I’m just here to talk about my raffle, man.” The dimly lit Brighton studio erupts in laughter.

So it’s not exactly Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. But that’s the point. Fast-paced, irreverent, and slightly uncomfortable, it’s the quintessential Toucher?&?Rich segment. The pundits on rival sports talk radio station WEEI, where righteous ­indignation reigns, might have grilled ­Gronkowski on his partying. Not here. Toucher and Shertenlieb are generally more interested in winning laughs than conjuring outrage.

In a city that views its sports teams’ importance as roughly akin to national security, that approach is revolutionary. For two decades, WEEI ruled Boston’s airwaves by doing just the opposite. But led by Toucher and Shertenlieb, a pair of rock DJs who don’t even root for our teams, The Sports Hub has been beating WEEI in the ratings for a year now.

That’s nothing short of shocking. When CBS Radio Boston launched the station in August 2009, many observers wondered what it was doing giving two wise-asses who’d never worked in sports the keys to its crucial 6 to 10 a.m. slot.

“I can’t think of anyone who thought it was real,” says Mark Hannon, CBS Radio Boston’s vice president and market manager. “Most people in the circle of sports thought it was going to fail.”

Growing up here, I was obsessed with WEEI. It was the only place to go for exhaustive sports talk, and I reveled in how three-game losing streaks became existential crises, in how every day brought a new villain, and the sky was always falling.

During the Patriots’ Super Bowl run in the 1996 season, I tuned into The Big Show with Glenn “The Big O” Ordway for hours every day after school. When the Red Sox were trying to trade for Alex Rodriguez in late 2003, I spent my entire winter break from college glued to the station. By the time our teams began piling up championships, ’EEI had replaced the city’s paper of record as the voice of Boston sports. “It’s the most powerful sports outlet in New England,” WEEI’s Michael Holley told this magazine in 2006. “It used to be that the Globe set the agenda. Now, we set the agenda.”

And WEEI wasn’t just the city’s top sports station. For a stretch in the middle of the last decade, it was Boston’s most-listened-to station among all adults. As ratings skyrocketed, would-be competitors lined up. In 2001 something called The Zone launched on 1510 AM. But plagued by poor ratings and a weak signal, it had plunged into obscurity by 2005. That year, an ESPN Radio affiliate began broadcasting locally on 890 AM, but again, there were reception problems — and virtually no listeners. In September 2009, it went kaput.

Nothing, it seemed, could dent the dominance of WEEI. The station, though, and particularly its Dennis?&?­Callahan Morning Show, exhibited some of old Boston’s worst impulses. John Dennis and Gerry Callahan love talking politics, and their worldview aligns roughly with Rush Limbaugh’s. In 2003, for example, the pair referred to a gorilla that escaped from the zoo and had been photographed at a bus stop as a “Metco gorilla” that was “heading out to Lexington.” (The Metco program buses minority students from Boston to the suburbs.) The crack got Dennis and Callahan suspended for two weeks. And when the reality television show Queer Eye filmed an episode in 2005 guest-starring Red Sox players, Callahan asked team president and CEO Larry Lucchino if people had complained to the club about “fruitcakes…sashaying” in front of kids at Fenway Park. When Herald sports columnist Steve Buckley came out as gay last year, the show basically devolved into a debate among the hosts and callers as to whether Dennis and Callahan are homophobic.

But there was no place else for listeners to go. For years, WEEI didn’t change. It didn’t think it had to. “They didn’t have a single person under 40 that could have been someone my friends and I would have hung out with,” says ESPN’s Bill Simmons, the Boston-bred columnist and media mogul. “WEEI stopped trying to get better. They just pointed to their ratings and said, ‘We’re doing fine.’” Simmons has a history with the station that perhaps colors his opinion — he’s been at odds with Ordway since 2009, when “The Big O” called him a “fraud” on the air. But even before then, WEEI refused to embrace Simmons, probably America’s most popular sports writer, especially with the younger demos. It only underscored the station’s stodginess.

By 2009 CBS Radio Boston’s Mark Hannon was sure that there was room for a second sports talk option, particularly if it were broadcast over the stronger FM signal. His plan was to kill off the legendary — but struggling — CBS-owned rock station WBCN 104.1, and then move another CBS station, Mix 98.5, to the 104.1 signal. That would free up 98.5 for the new Sports Hub. CBS chose 98.5 for The Sports Hub because the signal projects better outside Boston than 104.1, explains program director Mike Thomas. The Pats and the Bruins, whose games had been broadcast on WBCN and WBZ 1030 AM, respectively, would move to the new station.

Hannon filled his new lineup with industry regulars: Michael Felger and Tony Massarotti, two sports talk radio veterans, would host the afternoon drive-time slot, while Comcast SportsNet’s Gary Tanguay and former Patriots quarterback Scott Zolak would host the 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. show (in 2010, Tanguay was replaced by Andy Gresh). All of that made perfect strategic sense. What Hannon did with his morning show, though, was borderline insane.

Instead of drafting well-known sports personalities to anchor it, he wanted the two guys currently hosting mornings on ’BCN. They may not have been able to incite fury over Roger Clemens’s blister or Sugar Bear Hamilton’s roughing the passer penalty, but Hannon believed that Toucher and Shertenlieb could relate to young listeners better than the fossils at WEEI. “They were talking to guys, particularly young adult guys, in Boston in a way that no one else was,” Hannon says. Their show on WBCN may not have been a ratings giant — in its last month on the air, it ranked 13th among men ages 25 to 54, sports talk radio’s most highly coveted demographic — but Hannon was undeterred. “Whether it’s rock radio or ­whether it’s sports radio,” he says, “we felt that the pop culture/lifestyle stuff they were doing would definitely translate.”

Summoned to a meeting in Thomas’s office in early 2009, Toucher and Shertenlieb assumed they were going to be fired. The bad news, they were told, was that CBS was indeed killing off WBCN. The good news was that Toucher and Shertenlieb could keep their jobs — by moving to The Sports Hub, which was scheduled to launch in August.

Toucher was thrilled. Shertenlieb nearly cried. “I almost wanted to quit,” he says.

As I watch from the control room one morning in March, everything is humming along smoothly. Phone screener Adolfo Gonzalez juggles manning the lines with monitoring his own Facebook page. Toucher banters easily with Shertenlieb, who scurries to and from a production room between commercial breaks. There’s some hockey talk, a call-in interview with Will Ferrell, and a set of bizarre Peyton Manning parody songs. The conversation occasionally veers off to odd topics such as former Nirvana producer Steve Albini and the 1985 John Cusack movie Better Off Dead. Even though the Bruins and the Celtics have just endured tough losses, the sky seems firmly in place. It’s all very breezy. “It’s an escape,” Shertenlieb says of the show. “It’s not a place to be angry.”

If Toucher?&?Rich lacks the self-­importance of anything you’ll hear on ’EEI, that’s largely because Toucher, 37, and Shertenlieb, 36, are outsiders. They didn’t cut their teeth at the Globe or Herald. They didn’t even grow up inside I-495. In fact, Toucher still loves the St. Louis Cardinals. And the Jets. On the first morning I visit The Sports Hub, Toucher, slightly stocky and with a graying goatee, is wearing a sweatshirt of his favorite band, the Descendents, frayed khakis, and Adidas shell toes. Shertenlieb, tall and thin, has on a zip-up hoodie, jeans, and white Nikes.

At its best, Toucher?&?Rich is both silly and sly. Sophomoric features like “Drunken Red Sox Recap,” in which a sloshed fan gives his take on that night’s game, are balanced out by passable interviews with beat writers and athletes — and clever, perhaps totally insane, bits like “Do You Know the Fro?” which involves ginger-haired Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy’s talking afro. The program also thrives on subversiveness, or more specifically, a willingness to do things “serious sports reporters” just aren’t supposed to.

  • Matt

    Best thing that has ever happened to Boston radio…

  • Tophat

    When I first heard that WBCN was going to be taken off the air I was crushed. Mostly because of the music but also because I thought T&R were going to loose their jobs along with Adam12 and the rest. These guys are the best and turned me on to sports talk radio.

  • kenny powers

    WTF? did Rich just grow a second left foot?

  • Bill

    Seriously? T&R are fine, but they barely can talk sports without inserting jokes and turning it into comedy. I don’t believe that Boston Sports Radio needed saving. I love how all the people come out and bash WEEI now, but before The Sports Hub came along, EEI’s ratings were very good. They weren’t suffering at all. Doesn’t sound like it needed saving. Even if it did, it certainly wasn’t T&R that saved it. Maybe Felger and Mazz, but not T&R.

    • Matt

      So it wasn’t due to the fact that T&R were #1 in the ratings over EEI’s best show D&C for a year straight? Wasn;t due to the fact that straight, old, boring, stiff topic radio didn;t benefit from some comedy thrown in? Sports radio didn’t need saving..it needed a new image, something that screamed fresh, that targeted a new generation of Sports fans…there will always be EEI for you, enjoy!

      • Bill

        matt, again, you’re talking about AFTER The Sports Hub came on to the scene. Why did Boston Sports Radio need saving if the ratings were so good? C’mon Matt get out of T&R’s ass and read what I say.

        • CVE2

          Bill, you just don’t seem to get it. Maybe Matt is exaggerating when he says it needs saving, but the point is before 98.5 if you were into sports, you only had one choice: WEEI. Whether or not you liked D&C, the Big O, or whomever didn’t matter – if you wanted sports talk you had no other choice. For example, I actually agree politically (for the most part) with D&C, but I loathe Meter. But the talked sports, and their post-game Pat’s coverage was good.

          So along comes 98.5 the Sports Hub, now people have a choice, and they are clearly choosing them over WEEI. The ratings don’t lie. But no worries, as Matt said you’ll always have WEEI (for now)!

          • Bill

            All well and good CVE2. I like The Sports Hub too. I like having a choice. My only point is that to say T&R saved sports radio when they barely even talk sports is a little silly. If you wanted to say Felger and Mazz saved it, OK, you’d have a much better argument. T&R are fine, they’re funny and all, just not my first choice when i want sports talk.

          • Hak

            Bill. I really disagree with you. I am an avid Boston sports fan, and I used to listen to ‘EEI. But I got to the point where I couldn’t stand listening to the D&C show. It was 50% annoying politics and 50% pompous. the other shows were OK, but not great. When ESPN was on, I much preferred Mike and Mike because they made sports talk entertaining.

            I love all the shows on 98.5, even the weekend shows are good. But T&R are the best. They have just the right mix of serious sports talk, fun, and irreverence. throw in some good music and some good interviews it is great radio.

          • Mike

            I agree, Meiter sucks.

            Big Show was always unbearable, too many personalities yelling over eachother.

            The whole WEEI, “we know better than you” attitude was tiring. Stiff and humorless.

            It’s no suprise men 18-34 flock to T&R and Sports Hub in general.

      • Bill

        And believe me Matt, real sports fans who want to hear actual sports talk between the hours of 6-10 every morning, do NOT listen to the Sports Hub. You were a T&R fan BEFORE the sports hub, so you obviously were not a Sports Radio listener anyway.

        • Brett

          When they were at BCN I listened to them and listen to sports talk, it’s not hard to do Bill. Sports talk can get very boring when they’re aren’t good stories or good guests on. Who wants to listen to D&C complain all morning? I had to endure listening to them and the callers who 80% of the time have nothing interesting to say (on both stations) just to get to the interviews updates. These guys are very funny. Fred has a solid knowledge base when it comes to sports, Rich doesn’t but his bits are great.

          • Bill

            I understand Brett, but i wouldn’t say people don’t like to hear complaining. You ever listen to Felger and Mazz? All they do is complain. Honestly, sports radio is much more fun when you have stuff to bitch about. If its all through rose colored glasses, it gets kind of boring.

    • http://DrunkenSportsmen.com Drunken Sportsmen

      Felger & Mazz is probably the worst show in Boston Sports radio besides Gresh & Zo. You want to talk about disingenuous dissertations, Felger & Mazz are right there with D&C.

      The truth is, you don’t need incredibly insightful analysis out of the hosts. They are a portal to the guests, callers, etc. T & R certainly get caught up in the jackassery, but I’ll take that over the alternative – D&C’s uninformed political noise.

  • Matty

    T&R are comedy guys masquerading as sports radio guys….D&C are jerkbag political rightwing guys masquerading as sports radio guys. D&C should be on wrko or 97.7.

    • Bill

      It used to be that way matty, but D&C haven’t talked politics in ages. Probably since they’ve been simulcast on NESN.

      • Mel

        D&C (I love that designation) may have toned down their political rants, in order to keep their jobs — but they’re still boring, humorless and self important. They still are WAY too adoring of dopey athletes and have no interesting insights about specific teams or games. Their analyses of any particular games or teams are no more interesting than what you hear at the local bar. They act as if they are curing cancer with their blather and are incredibly pompous. They are well nigh unlistenable. Thank goodness for T&R — where good, smart sports talk is leavened with great humor. Their irreverence is a breath of fresh air and they DO know a good bit about sports — T knows a good bit about baseball and hockey and R is a basketball nut – and they both love football (though yes, it is sad that T loves the Jets of all dumb teams).

  • http://DrunkenSportsmen.com Drunken Sportsmen

    Toucher is an f’ing Jets fan!? Done. NPR all the time now.

    In all seriousness, T & R is the only Boston sports radio show that won’t make you regularly want to drive your car into a #$%^! bridge abutment.

  • Bill

    You make it seem like homophobia and racism scared audiences away from Dennis and Callahan. If anything it endeared them, that stuff is hilarious. Their problem is they’re boring.

    • Bill

      Not the same Bill as who was leaving all the other comments by the way that left this one….

  • Patrick

    I always loved sports. But for the most part hated radio sports talk. I don’t need to be informed like a child on the possibilities and events of the day. I don’t rely on radio or the newspaper for this information but forums of fans like at realgm or twitter feeds. Toucher and Rich makes sure you miss nothing, makes sure you laugh, and provides an avenue for interviews with players and coaches or in depth conversations with sport writers. Now I listen everyday to T&R, and if I miss an hour, I’m steaming the podcast on my commute home!

  • Josh

    Dennis and Callahan are a couple of ignorant, hateful, boring old morons. The fact that they are getting whipped in the ratings is great. The fact that they won’t even comment on getting whipped in the ratings after being arrogant for 20 years shows how terrible they are.

  • Kevin

    They are terrible and they are the only ones that think they are funny. They listen because its the lesser of two evils. T&R literally gives me headaches. Felger and Mazz saved Boston Sports Radio.

    Bill speaks the truth,
    “Seriously? T&R are fine, but they barely can talk sports without inserting jokes and turning it into comedy. I don’t believe that Boston Sports Radio needed saving. I love how all the people come out and bash WEEI now, but before The Sports Hub came along, EEI’s ratings were very good. They weren’t suffering at all. Doesn’t sound like it needed saving. Even if it did, it certainly wasn’t T&R that saved it. Maybe Felger and Mazz, but not T&R.”

  • TheFirstMohican

    A sports talk radio show that doesn’t take sports seriously? How original.

    I’ll just leave these right here.

    http://www.theticket.com

    http://www.dallasnews.com/sports/columnists/barryhorn/20120518-hot-air-mlbn-is-must-see-tv-for-fans-of-rangers-game.ece?action=reregister

  • Bill

    As a morning drivetime listener, I started tuning into T&R as an alternative to WFNX and WZLX. All I needed was 30 solid minutes of sports coverage before work. But they took the morning show, threw a wrench into the conventional sports radio genre, and made it truly special. I catch up in the afternoons/evenings with their podcasts to listen to what I missed. Keep up the good work Fred, Rich and Wallach; you have given that “coveted 25-54 segment” a real place to turn to for sports in this city.

  • DelPreston

    You guys saying T&R never talk sports clearly never listen to the show. Yes they do funny bits but they talk just as much sports and have on just as many sports guests as those fossils on EEI. The difference is they are actually funny and entertaining when not talking sports while D&C shove right wing politics down your throat when there not talking sports.

    The ratings dont lie, the people have spoken. Its time for D&C to jog on cause being a coupl of hacks is finally catching up to them.

  • Laura

    I am not a member of the “coveted demographic,” but I enjoy getting a sports update every morning. I used to endure D&C rants just so I could catch up on the sports news. Now I listen to T&R and follow them on podcasts and Twitter. I actually enjoy my 50 minute commute every morning. They may not have “saved sports radio,” but they have certainly saved my morning commute!

    • Amy

      I’m with you Laura. 98.5 is very entertaining. I flip between them and NPR on my morning commutes. Love sports and now, my commute!

    • Mel

      Me too — years ago, I used to toggle between Howard Stern and NPR — and couldn’t stand listening to D&C. Now, I enjoy T&R and NPR. And as someone said, it has saved my commute, if not Boston sports talk radio!

  • Rich A

    I used to listen to WEEI all the time, but even before the Sports Hub went on the air, I simply couldn’t take listening to D&C or Ordway anymore, and I found myself tuning into Opie and Anthony and T&R. Laughing and not listening to sports talk was better than being annoyed at D&C bullying anyone who disagreed with them or Ordway ignoring and talking over the majority of his callers. T&R might not know as much about sports as D&C, but at least T&R don’t spend most of their time in a pathetic effort to prove what alpha males they are. The only time I ever tune in to 850 AM now is to listen to the Red Sox.

    • Chris

      Maybe if you listened on FM you would like them more.

    • Jasoturner

      To describe D&C as “alpha males” is highly amusing. Beta worshipers of alpha males might be more like it…

  • Mr Butch Walker

    An entire article about Toucher, and no mention of me?

  • Uckphay Ooyay

    “Real sports fans” know that sports talk radio doesn’t actually give them any information at all.
    WEEI pretended to be informative. SportsHub doesn’t.

  • Chris

    Its pretty simple… if you are a liberal, bruins fan, or you don’t like to hear callers get bashed then you probably listen to the Sports Hub.

    If you are conservative, like the Patriots, if you like insightful interviews with relevant stars, if you like to hear stupid callers get bashed then you listen to WEEI.

    In my opinion Toucher and Rich are funny but they don’t come close to the skill of D&C

    • Peter

      What skill?

  • Chili Guy

    Couple beers, no beers.

  • Rick

    Look you like Toucher and Rich,fine. But was the cheap shot about a bogus suspension almost 10 yrs ago necesary.As for the debate about Buck and D+C being homophobic that is laughable IF you listened to the show you would know John Dennis set a call by none other than Bobby Orr to show support of Buck among others,but don”t put that in your article we wouldn’t actual facts to get in the way.Gerry,Dino and Meter are the best and funniest thing on radio and what they do for charities (mostly the Jimmy Fund)is unparalleled just because you may not agree with there politics get your facts before you blast them.

    • bob

      A bogus suspension? If I remember correctly even their coworkers found that comment reprehensible, especially given the history of sports and race in Boston. As for D&C being the best and funniest, either your sense of humor is politically based or you have never heard T&R, hell Karlson and McKenzie, and the Hillman are funnier than D&C on a regular basis. EEI in general isn’t all that funny, even the Whiner line which is ostensibly the funny time on the big show is mostly yawn inducing. Yes D&C participate in their bosses corporate effort for the Jimmy Fund and that is a good thing, but don’t sell T&R short on the charity front, they helped conceive Cuts for a Cause for the Childrens Cancer Ward at Floating hospital with Aaron Ward and kept it going with Shawn Thornton after Ward was traded. But don’t let their good deeds get in the way of proving a point. All you proved to me was your age and political leanings, In my experience the dividing line for the Hub vs EEI seems to be about 50 years old, under it and you appreciate the fresh choice, over and you are content with the old venom spewing.

      • bob

        Also who cares who called D&C to support Buckley? Bobby Orr’s attitude isn’t what was being questioned, it was the sensitivity of the notorious Right wing hosts towards their colleague. Never mind the conspiracy theory where Buck timed his coming out to coincide with the end of an Arbitron ratings period in some sort of desperate ratings ploy. Not necessarily true, but he did mention discussing the timing of the event with Jason Woolfe and Glenn Ordway.

  • Peter

    I’m 50 years old and listen to the T and R podcast everyday as I don’t have access to a radio during work. They might not have saved sports radio but they got me back into it as I had given up on eei years ago. If I ever want to hear forced laughter and people yelling over each other I will tune into that station until then my radio stays on 98.5

  • Toukonfan

    Comparing T+R to D+C is truly apples and oranges. I listen to both shows regularly. T+R rarely speak about sports, and when they do it is VERY superficial. I cannot think of a time I actually learned something about sports listening to T+R. And they usually have their flash guy do most of the sports talking.
    They have (mostly) 2nd and 3rd tier sports figures contributing that that show.

    Their “bits” can be funny at times. Overall, the show comes across to me as a watered down Opie and Anthony, with the flash guy talking about sports, and the hosts trying to play along that they have indepth sprts knowledge, which they clearly do not have.

    D+C are still the REAL sports show in the morning. They have true sports credentials, get all the MAJOR sports reporters, GMS, and athletes.

    If I want to hear interesting sports discussion, D+C is the only option in the morning.

    If I want to hear funny radio bits, then T+R is my destination.

    2 shows, appealing to VERY different audiences, IMO

  • Andy

    I miss Crash.

  • Finn

    When I got back from deployment Toucher & Rich were doing sports. The first thing I thought was, “This is perfect for Crash Clark”. He was the sports guy for BCN. I am still a fan of Toucher & Rich. I have lived in Atlanta and Boston so I’ve sort of followed Toucher for a while. Toucher has never changed. He’s never pandered to an audience. They have both stayed true to form. I’d lose respect for them if the transition to sports changed their on air personas.

  • Lori Larsen Ward

    Good article; I’m a sports radio devotee who’d regularly tune to the Hub after D&C’s show was over but lately I’m starting the day with T&R. If the Sports Hub could score the Belichick and Brady interviews I’d never bother with EEI.

  • cyclemadness

    As soon as I heard about T&R from my son, I started listening and have for the last three-plus years. I am way older than their key demographic but I love them. I stopped listening to the two racist Tea Partiers on WEEI during the 2008 election campaign. D&C’s ratings are going to continue to fall because their target audience is people just like them and, fortunately, that group is starting to shrink.