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