Revolution Radio

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

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.

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.