Meet the two rock DJs who hated sports talk radio just enough to save it.
At the Celtics’ media day in 2010, for instance, Shertenlieb took the show’s irreverence to new, uncomfortable heights. At the time, the Internet was buzzing about an alleged affair between former Cleveland Cavalier Delonte West and LeBron James’s mother. Shertenlieb asked West, who had just signed with Boston, about the rumors. West managed a cryptic denial before a PR flack stepped in. It was the issue that every person there was thinking about, but was afraid to bring up.
“I’m less terrified of getting in a situation like that, where you have to do something embarrassing,” Shertenlieb says, “than being on air and having no content or nothing to talk about. That’s what terrifies me.”
So far, lacking good content hasn’t been a problem. Buoyed by the success of the Bruins and the Patriots, in the spring of 2011 Toucher?&?Rich earned an 11.6 share and finished first in the ratings among men ages 25 to 54. Dennis?&?Callahan, meanwhile, finished third in the same time slot with a 6.0 share. (Data company Arbitron defines a share as the percentage of radio listeners in the market tuning into a particular station or program.) The news was equally good for the entire Sports Hub station, which surged into first place with an 8.8 share. WEEI, meanwhile, tumbled to sixth with a 5.1 share.
And for the past year, things have pretty much stayed the same. Over the past four quarterly ratings periods, Toucher?&?Rich has beaten Dennis?&?Callahan and finished first or second in its time slot among men ages 25 to 54. That’s surprised nobody more than the old guard.
When Toucher and Shertenlieb were hired, “Being the gossipy, catty group that we are,” their Sports Hub colleague Tony Massarotti says, “I think people looked at one another and said, ‘What are they gonna do with the morning guys? They can’t be staying, right?’ And I think none of us knew anything about them.”
So, who were these guys?
After graduating in 1997 from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, Toucher landed a job at a tiny Americana radio station in Cumming, Georgia. A native of Detroit, Toucher produced fishing, gardening, and bluegrass shows, and, when management let him, moderated a live swap shop, where listeners traded farm animals. If a storm knocked out power, he had to pull-start a backup generator. And when he left at night, he turned off the station.
In 1999 he landed a gig as a receptionist and on-air fill-in at Atlanta rock station 99X. (Around this time he shortened his on-air name from Toettcher to Toucher, making it harder to mispronounce.) Soon he was hosting the night show. “There were a lot of rednecks listening,” he recalls. “So I would screw with the rednecks.” Also, he hated the music 99X played, and wasn’t afraid to say so. It’s still odd to him that his bosses didn’t seem to care that he was bashing popular nu-metal bands like Limp Bizkit and Korn. His on-air outbursts were funny, even if they pissed people off. In 2005, for instance, he repeatedly and gleefully spoiled the ending of the latest Harry Potter book. “His personality disorder is exactly what makes him fabulously successful and unique,” says Jimmy Baron, Toucher’s friend and a former 99X host.
Shertenlieb spent his formative years in Atlanta, where he sang and played guitar for a hardcore band called Miller’s Tale. As a student at Georgia Tech, he auditioned for the campus radio station, hoping, he says, that it “would play my band, then all of a sudden we’d be the next U2.” Eventually the band did blow up, but “not in a good way,” he says.
By 1999 Shertenlieb had left school after managing to land a job on the morning crew at 99X. He quickly gained a reputation for fearlessness. He’d do just about anything for a radio bit, including participating in something called “What won’t Rich eat?” Former 99X program director Chris Williams says, “He has absolutely no inhibition. He’d be the perfect contestant for Fear Factor.”
Case in point: In 2001 Shertenlieb helped rescue a woman who’d been carjacked. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution report on the incident added this Shertenlieb-related postscript: “He is best known for his arrest last year for squatting on a commode at the Buckhead Home Depot.”
Shertenlieb and Toucher quickly became friends. When Shertenlieb left Atlanta in 2003 to take a job with a show in Texas, the two made a point to stay in touch. Two years later, they started talking about working together and, in early 2006, auditioned for a show on CBS. They landed the afternoon-drive gig at WBCN, and when the station dumped nationally syndicated Opie?&?Anthony in late 2008, Toucher?&?Rich moved to mornings.
Shertenlieb struggled to accept the move to sports. “I can’t do this kind of radio,” he remembers thinking. He didn’t have any connection to our teams, and listening to WEEI only made things worse. “It kills me,” Shertenlieb says. “It sucks my soul out. Everyone’s angry and they’re talking about garbage that I couldn’t care less about.” He calls the months leading up to the format switch the “worst period I’d ever had in radio.”
The weekend before The Sports Hub went on the air in August, Shertenlieb traveled to rural Georgia for a funeral. “It was all these hillbilly relatives who we didn’t know about, just these awful people,” Shertenlieb says. While away, he found out that Adolfo Gonzalez — the show’s phone screener and street-audio specialist — had ignored his direction to go out to Red Sox games and collect sound bites. “I’ve never, ever ripped someone a new a-hole like I did with Adolfo,” says Shertenlieb, who’d planned on using the material during the show’s first week on The Sports Hub. While telling the story, he pauses and looks up. “I’m kind of getting stressed out just talking about that time.”
To Toucher, the possibility of his friend quitting seemed very real. “Oh God,” Toucher says, “he really, really freaked out.” Shertenlieb wanted no part of what he considered a toxic genre of radio, but decided that if he was going to stick it out, he would do it his way. “What The Daily Show was to politics, we’re going to try to be with sports,” Shertenlieb vowed. “For the first time, we’re gonna try to make people laugh.”
The industry didn’t seem convinced. Thomas, The Sports Hub’s program director, says the conventional wisdom was, “They’re just keeping them because they have a year left on their contract. When their year is up, they’ll blow them out, and they’ll get a real sports morning show.” Hannon, the VP, says the station was inundated with calls from people who wanted to be the next morning-show hosts.
When asked about Toucher and Shertenlieb that summer, Gerry Callahan — their direct competition — said he’d never heard of them. “I am speaking to you from under my desk right now because I am so scared,” he told the Herald’s Jessica Heslam. “I’m afraid to come out.”
The truth is that Toucher and Shertenlieb relish their status as outsiders. They even admit to not knowing a ton about sports. Toucher isn’t so sure the rest of the establishment knows all that much, either. “Being talked down to like you’re listening to a dissertation is disingenuous,” he says. “I don’t think that your insight is particularly more valid than anyone else’s.”
Still, Toucher?&?Rich’s lack of local credibility was an issue. To help remedy that, Jon Wallach was added to the show before its launch. A veteran of WEEI with two decades of experience, Wallach’s job was to deliver sports news updates every 20 minutes and lend his expertise to the discussion. At the time of his hiring, Toucher?&?Rich was still on WBCN. He’d never even heard the show, so he tuned in to find out about his new coworkers. Everybody was talking about getting drunk and peeing on themselves. Wallach had one thought: “How the hell am I going to fit into this?”
But the transition was surprisingly smooth. He’s become a full-fledged character on the show, and loosened up in the process. A few months after The Sports Hub’s launch, Wallach hammed it up for a comedy bit at a station event. Afterward, Toucher recalls running into Wallach’s former WEEI colleague Michael Holley. “He was like, ‘Jesus Christ, you gave that guy a personality.’”
Rounding out the show is 25-year-old Gonzalez, who’s described by Aaron Ward, a former Bruin and guest of the show, as a “bald Cookie Monster.” Shertenlieb first met him while working in Texas. “At 5:30 every morning, this strange kid, 300-and-something pounds, would just sit down in front of the window,” recalls Shertenlieb, who eventually introduced himself to the teenager. Gonzalez eventually became Shertenlieb’s intern. When Toucher and Shertenlieb were hired at WBCN, he took a bus from Dallas to Boston.
Gonzalez these days spends evenings outside Fenway Park and TD Garden, where he interviews the city’s craziest, most inebriated fans. The sound bites he collects set the tone for the show’s underlying premise: that sports should be (sometimes-boozy) fun.
WEEI, of course, has yet to catch on. When Toucher?&?Rich surpassed Dennis?&?Callahan last year, Toucher decided to let the world know what he thought of the competition. “Congratulations, you jackasses,” he crowed at ’EEI. “Get under your desk now.” He went on: “They became so egocentric and so dismissive of their audience that it took not even two years for this station to not beat them, crush them.”
In March, I asked WEEI program director Jason Wolfe about Toucher?&?Rich’s bomb-throwing.
“Sticks and stones…” he said in an e-mail. “If listeners want compelling, entertaining, and smart sports talk, they’re going to listen to Dennis & Callahan.” For his part, Callahan declined comment via e-mail. It’s unclear if he did so from under his desk.