A little before 8 p.m. on a Thursday in early August, WEEI radio personality Kirk Minihane pulled into the parking lot of the Wedgemere train station just north of Boston. He cut the engine of his dark-blue Mercedes in a small, lightly wooded area and stepped out into the warm, fair night. In front of him, the train platform sat atop a small rise, up a zigzagging concrete ramp. For a moment, he paused, standing tall and lanky, with a lightly receding hairline and a buzzcut. He was waiting for the 8:01 commuter train, bound for West Medford, then North Station, but he wasn’t getting on. Instead, he was going to head south on foot, following a little path beside the woods that ran past soccer fields and a playground, to a spot where the train picks up speed on its three-minute hop to the next station. There, he planned to step in front of the train and die. Tonight, his wife and kids were staying at their house in Maine. The plan was simple. He started to walk.
The night was quiet. He scanned the parking lot, but it was late for commuters and the platform was deserted. He wandered through the parking lot and up onto the platform, then turned right and started out along the thin gravel path that wound beside the track. There was no moon—just the glow of the streetlights and the houses on the other side of the street—but he knew the way. He’d prepared for this, investigated the spot while jogging until it felt familiar.
It wasn’t so much that he had decided to kill himself as it was that he felt compelled to go through the steps of what it would take to do so, over and over again with the same compulsion you might explore the unfamiliar grooves of a new filling. Over the past few weeks, he’d felt like he was having a heart attack—tightness in his chest that made it hard to breathe—and experienced rising panic; at other times he was suddenly weepy, on the verge of tears. At work, he’d get furious and scream. And without really thinking about it, he’d begun reading books about suicide, searching the Internet to learn about the pros and cons of various methods.
As he walked, Minihane saw the soccer fields and playground across the street. A few minutes before 8 p.m., just over a quarter-mile down the path, he faltered. What am I really doing here? he asked himself. I can’t do this. I’m literally about to fall apart. He started to panic. He didn’t actually want to kill himself, but he didn’t trust himself not to. Winchester Hospital was a little more than 2 miles away—less than a 10-minute drive. He walked back to his car, got in, and drove to the emergency room. As he walked through the sliding doors, he flashed back to coming here as a kid and then later with his own children. He turned left and walked up to the desk. “I’m having very dangerous thoughts,” he told the attendant. Then things started to move quickly.
The attendant brought him to see a nurse, and a doctor and a mental health specialist joined them soon after. “You probably know that you’re going to have to go to a facility,” one of them said—and Minihane felt a new stab of fear. He’d been hospitalized before, back in the ’90s, and memories of restraints and padded walls flooded back. Oh, Jesus, here we go again, he thought. But it was too late to turn back. He spent the night at the hospital, a guard watching over him. The next day, Minihane stepped into the back of an ambulance and rode to McLean Hospital—a grassy 19th-century campus of brick buildings atop a hill in Belmont that once hosted Sylvia Plath—where a private room on the third floor was waiting for him. Suddenly, he was awash with relief: He could finally let go. For the first time in more than a year, since a crass joke had sparked a feud that now threatened to push him off the air, he could just relax. As cathartic as the incident was for Minihane, though, it also left many fans wondering what would happen next to the city’s angriest radio star. Was this the end, or somehow just the beginning?
More than anything else, Minihane loves to fight. Where some people may find meaning in philanthropy, gardening, or even making money, Minihane’s happy place is discovering how someone else is wrong and then giddily grinding their face in it. And for the better part of the past six years, he’s taken that instinct and transformed it into radio gold between the hours of 6 and 10 a.m. as a cohost alongside John Dennis and Gerry Callahan of WEEI’s top-rated morning act, which later became The Kirk & Callahan Show.
If you’ve never listened to sports talk radio before, here’s a quick primer: It’s not really about sports, per se. The style is typically pitched as how guys speak to other guys (though some men question just what it is their fellows are getting up to): full of adolescent bawdiness, chest thumping, and arguments. While that leads some folks to dismiss it, sports radio is where many men hear conversations (and have conversations, by calling in) about race, gender, and politics, says David Nylund, a professor of social work at Sacramento State who wrote a book about masculinity and sports talk radio. It’s “where men talk about what it means to be a man,” he says. “There’s this ongoing tension between reproducing traditional or toxic masculinity and then opening up alternative forms of masculinity, and of all places, that’s happening in sports talk radio.”
Minihane, by extension, succeeded by essentially declaring war on traditional sports radio’s main focus: sports. “We went through a whole Red Sox season without mentioning the Red Sox,” says Ken Laird, one of the show’s two producers. “The way we would do sports is we would mock the way everybody else talked about sports,” adds Chris Curtis, the morning show’s other producer. “All the sports radio that’s on in Boston at some point sounds like an echo chamber.… Kirk and Gerry mocked the redundancy.” Minihane even created a regular alter ego, “Sporty R. McKenzie,” to roast what he saw as the overwhelming tepidness of the competition. As Minihane once put it on a Barstool Sports podcast, “I would much rather do this, talk about this shit, like the first time you friggin’ jerked off, than talk about—whatever—[former Bruins head coach] Claude Julien.”
So instead of Pats and Celts banter, Minihane created drama. One of his tricks was turning everyone at the station—producers, interns, fellow WEEI radio jocks—into personalities. Alex Reimer, a show regular, came out as gay during a broadcast. Former Boston Herald columnist John Tomase challenged Minihane, leading to a huge blowup on the air. Curt Schilling once called in and confronted Tomase. Curtis revealed his struggle with alcohol, and Laird discussed his father’s passing. “As a radio personality, a lot of what [Minihane] does comes from what Howard Stern was doing 20 years ago,” says Chad Finn, the Boston Globe’s sports media columnist. The show was its own sort of soap opera.
Controversy, however, often took center stage. In 2014, for instance, Minihane made headlines for calling ESPN reporter Erin Andrews a “gutless bitch” because he didn’t care for an interview she conducted, earning him a suspension and her an apology—albeit one that included the caveat “if she weighed 15 pounds more, she’d be a waitress at Perkins.” Three years later, the show publicly aired rumors about the sexuality of former Patriot Aaron Hernandez, then in prison for murder, with Minihane and Callahan giggling like schoolkids all the while. Minihane received more public ridicule after accusing Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones of lying about being called the N-word at Fenway Park. (“Out of curiosity, did anyone at Fenway last night confirm this?” he tweeted. “Any actual proof? Is it OK to ask questions?”)
The comment, however, that would most fundamentally change the direction of the show, and Minihane’s life, came and went on a morning in late September 2017, almost unnoticed. But Bob Murchison, a former portfolio manager at Fidelity who had struck out on his own, heard it as he was driving into Boston for a work meeting. A Red Sox fan, Murchison had been turned off by the show’s drift away from sports—and by its conservative tilt—over the years, but stuck in traffic, he switched on WEEI hoping to catch some thoughts on the Sox game the night before. Instead, he tuned in to hear the station’s morning hosts laying into the Amazon show Transparent, amid news that its star, Jeffrey Tambor, had done a nude scene as a trans woman. “If I get sick, am I homophobic?” ventured Callahan. “Sure, but I would ask you this, if I decide to pleasure myself, am I a homosexual? Or am I a transsexual?” Minihane pondered. “That’s a gray area.” Murchison, who has a transgender son, was livid. Right then and there, he vowed to make sure the hosts never said anything like that on-air again.
In some ways, nothing about Minihane’s lonely walk along the railroad tracks surprised him. Ever since he was a kid, he’s struggled with anger and depression. “I wrecked my room a few times and stayed in my room for a couple days at a time,” he tells me in early January, sitting in a Woburn sub shop during the lunch rush. He had grown up in the shadow of mental health issues on both sides of his family: His paternal grandfather was an alcoholic who had been physically and mentally abusive to Minihane’s dad, and while Minihane’s father never hit him, “affection was not what he did best,” Minihane says, once describing his dad as “the ultimate contrarian” who “would argue just to argue and to watch you get pissed off.” His mom was loving, but she also seemed to struggle with depression. “My mom’s side really had a tough row with that,” he says. As a child, when Minihane started to experience his own struggles, he was more or less told to suck it up. He remembers his dad saying, “You do 250 free throws a day, you’re a better free-throw shooter. If you make yourself feel better, you’ll feel better.” Needless to say, that didn’t work. “I was just an angry kid,” he says. Therapy helped, but it wasn’t a cure.
At the same time, Minihane says, he also grew up ensconced in bucolic suburbia during its heyday under President Ronald Reagan. “It was a pretty Rockwellian childhood,” he says of his life in Winchester, the tony bedroom community just north of Boston. He and his friends would play sports and try to crack each other up by any means necessary. They were all obsessed with sports—Larry Bird, in particular—but Minihane stuck out for his quick mind and ability to absorb and regurgitate more useless knowledge than anyone. “Kirk was kind of the same that he is now,” says Andy Nolan, who became friends with him around sixth grade. “Witty. Some might think he’s an asshole. But I always got a kick out of him.” Minihane looks back on that time fondly: “For me, the formative years were high school. Especially comedically.” He remembers listening to Howard Stern when he was young and having his mind completely blown. He loved it.
As high school graduation approached, though, Minihane’s demons got the best of him and he spiraled to the point where his parents hospitalized him for 10 days during the summer following his senior year. “Part of it was that my friends and I were going our separate ways,” he says, “and part of it was just chemical.” His room at a MetroWest inpatient mental health facility featured padded walls and restraints on the beds. “I had a roommate there, a guy who was probably in his mid-seventies, and he’d been battling this his whole life,” Minihane says. “This guy’s name was Pete, and he was a very nice old guy. And even then, I looked at him and said, ‘Is this what the next 60 years is going to be like?’”
It was an impossible question to answer at the time. Eventually, though, Minihane did feel better. He studied English at Fordham, did some editing at a sports outlet, and moved to L.A. to try screenwriting. “It was a two-year failure,” he says of his time out West. “I drank and had fun.”
Radio was a happy accident: In 2008, a former boss took over WEEI’s nascent Web coverage and came calling. Minihane jumped at the opportunity. A year later—around the same time competitor 98.5 relaunched as a sports station, The Sports Hub—Minihane picked up a fill-in shift on a weekend show at WEEI. Then he did another and another, slowly developing his own style. Whatever attitude I have off the air, I’m going to bring on the air, he promised himself. In February 2013, the station made Minihane the third member on Dennis & Callahan, then hosted by Callahan and John Dennis. He tried to say what he thought listeners wanted to hear, ragging on bad callers and critiquing the show as it was happening. In 2016, Dennis left the station and Minihane stepped into the marquee spot. The show was a place where his anger and his edge weren’t liabilities, but traits that could make him a star.
Sports radio is functionally built around arguing, but Minihane brings a particular glee to combat. “I get a high out of it,” he says. The sport of trying to think ahead of his opponents and trap them is part of the draw. “He argues like a lawyer: You can be in a debate with him about anything, and if you make one misstep, he’s hammering you,” says Finn, who has been a semi-regular sparring partner of Minihane’s. “He’s one of the best that I’ve ever heard, at least on local radio.” Minihane also recognizes that malice has its own draw, and he feeds on that, too. “When it gets super ugly and you’re in the middle of it—if it’s really good—you know it’s great radio,” he says. “You can just feel the audience swelling, and that itself is like a drug.”
While he mostly made headlines for bomb-throwing and inflammatory comments, Minihane also used the show and its companion podcast, Enough About Me, as a kind of free public therapy, where he shared almost compulsively. More than a year ago, when his parents were diagnosed with cancer—and then when they died two months apart—he talked about it on the air. He even did a podcast with his two brothers to talk about their father dying. “Dad is much harder for me to come to terms with being dead than Mom,” Minihane says at one point. “I’m fucking 43 now, and I still feel like, in a weird way, I’m chasing Dad [and] the approval.” It’s certainly not the most original feeling, but that’s also sort of the point—it’s an uncomfortable truth that almost everyone, especially men, can relate to, but probably don’t like to talk about.
The show, meanwhile, which had been lagging in the middle of the ratings pack when Minihane joined, had soared to number one in its time slot. As Minihane climbed, he spared no one, putting the Globe, the Red Sox, Tom Brady, and his own critics in his crosshairs to feed the pro-wrestling drama that often drove the show. Along the way, he accrued an army of ferociously loyal followers ready to pounce on whomever or whatever he directed his outrage toward. Journalists who inadvertently crossed him told me that doing so resulted in some of the most vitriolic abuse they’ve ever received from online trolls. (When asked about this, Minihane says that listeners are free to make their own choices.) Suddenly, he wasn’t merely a sports-radio host, he was someone you couldn’t ignore—no matter how hard you tried.
Starting in the fall of 2017, Bob Murchison developed a routine: Each morning, he’d turn on the radio in his home office, tune it to WEEI, and listen for material he thought was offensive. “If they veered off in a direction I thought was interesting,” he says, “I would flip on the audio recorder.” He also compiled a list of WEEI advertisers and searched their websites for executives, marketing people, anyone with the authority to nix ad buys. He’d copy and paste some of the corporate language from the advertisers’ policies on inclusivity and respect into emails and send them off, asking whether this was the kind of material they wanted their products associated with. He also discovered a clip from a few years earlier in which the show’s hosts derided a family’s decision to identify a four-year-old child as transgender as being “insane.” At the time, Murchison says, “my desired outcome was that they would stop bullying transgender folks.” Deadly violence against trans people has been on the rise, and as far as Murchison was concerned, the rhetoric he heard on WEEI was fuel on a fire. To underline his intention, he emailed Phil Zachary, Entercom’s senior regional executive in charge of WEEI, to set up a meeting with the show’s hosts.
The rendezvous, which took place in a conference room at WEEI, did not go well. After about 45 minutes of discussion, Minihane says it became clear that Murchison didn’t have an ask that he could say yes to. Murchison didn’t feel that the radio hosts could talk about trans people in a responsible way and wanted them to drop the subject, he tells me—a move that Minihane says would have made national talk-show fodder such as Chelsea Manning and Caitlyn Jenner off-limits. Minihane countered by inviting Murchison to appear on the show. Murchison declined, feeling he was not qualified to speak as an expert. “They didn’t want me to distribute their content to sponsors,” Murchison says. “I wanted them to stop speaking in bullying and, frankly, ill-informed ways about transgender people. We were going back and forth.” Everyone remained civil, but it quickly became clear that they were at an impasse and tempers boiled. At one point, a WEEI employee shouted at Murchison, which he says left him feeling threatened. “I gathered my papers, I stood up, and I quietly said that I was uncomfortable and I would need to leave the meeting,” he says. “And so I did.”
He returned to his original plan: If WEEI was overlooking Minihane’s rhetoric because it helped their bottom line, Murchison was going to upend their economic incentive. He figured the bosses at WEEI might reconsider what content they were willing to protect when advertisers began dropping out. Murchison ramped up his email campaign, the impact of which, he says, was almost immediate. When he contacted national brands, corporations would see a giant liability—low-hanging fruit for callout culture—panic, and pull their ads. “I was focused on content I thought was hurtful, or could result in harm to people, and generally was nasty stuff,” he says. “The goal was to prove that it was possible to change the economics of hurtful content.”
In response, Minihane turned Murchison’s campaign into a cryptic plot point on the radio show. On air, Minihane would allude to being harassed by an activist and complain that management had tied his tongue. Finally, one month into the campaign, he released a podcast, filling in much of the background, but not naming names. “I think part of my job is to maybe not offend, but to challenge things, to question things,” Minihane said at the time. “I don’t want people who are going through tough times to feel like they’re being attacked. If that hurts or offends, I’d like a chance to have a discussion with that person.” But that wasn’t an option. After the first meeting, Murchison refused to take Minihane’s calls, telling me he’d said his piece and did not believe another conversation would be productive. (He did maintain lines of communication with WEEI management.) “I would have killed to have an argument with him,” explains Minihane, who says he felt misunderstood and that his comments on the air didn’t reflect his true views. “Did I make some stupid jokes four years ago? Yeah. When it comes down to it, like, you know, am I for full transgender rights? Yes.”
In lieu of a tête-à-tête, however, the hosts lashed out, dropping antagonizing barbs on the air and making veiled jokes about Murchison’s home burning down. They also accused Murchison of taking money out of the pockets of WEEI salespeople and from the Jimmy Fund, for which the station holds a yearly fundraiser. A local right-wing blog even published Murchison’s emails, which included his phone number, as well as pictures of him and his family members. Meanwhile, the hosts encouraged listeners to go to the blog’s website to buy T-shirts. Murchison’s phone was flooded with abuse, including death threats.
Minihane decided to take it a step further: To turn the tables, he began calling institutions Murchison was affiliated with, including his church, which Minihane threatened he’d talk about on the air. “I said, ‘Hey, listen, just like he has done, I will at some point read the list of people that he does business with—and then let you know that we’re not comfortable with people who are comfortable with people who take money away from the Jimmy Fund,” Minihane recalled.
Months ticked by, winter turned to spring, and slowly the pressure that the whole debacle was putting on Minihane began to show. As Murchison methodically ticked away, sending emails to anyone who advertised, Minihane’s mood audibly deteriorated and his usual anger tipped over into rage during broadcasts. Along the way, Shirley Leung of the Globe wrote a column calling for an advertising ban against WEEI after a host on a different show performed a racist impression of Tom Brady’s manager, Don Yee, who is of Asian descent. (Murchison said that he’d been in contact with Leung, but that theirs wasn’t a coordinated effort.) Then, not quite a year after the start of the fight with Murchison, and slightly more than a year after Minihane’s parents died, Minihane found himself in a parking lot, waiting for a train.
Minihane never made it back onto WEEI’s airwaves after his five days at McLean. Not really. He made a short-lived attempt at returning to work, then took an extended mental health leave, getting back into therapy and on medication. He took a trip out West and spent days just driving around. He went running. When he finally did try to return for good, he found the ground had moved under his feet: Instead of a warm welcome back, he felt shut out. “I’ve been ready to work for the last week or so and have been kept off the air,” he wrote on Twitter in late October. “You build a show, take it to number one, step aside to get healthy and expect to be welcomed back. Hasn’t happened.”
What had happened was that WEEI, and its parent company, Entercom, wanted to set a new tone for its morning show, refocusing on sports and dialing back on controversy. “Mr. Murchison raised some valid points, but I think, beyond the initial approach from him, we have also recognized some of the cultural challenges and have worked really hard behind the scenes,” says Mark Hannon, senior vice president and market manager of Entercom Boston, who pointed to multiple sensitivity trainings the station has undertaken. Still, if Minihane wanted to return to the show, Minihane says, he had to sign a document agreeing not to attack the Globe or the Red Sox, whose games are broadcast on WEEI, and not to be mean-spirited on air—a vague requirement that had the bitter whiff of a poison pill. He refused to sign it. Officially, Minihane’s relationship with WEEI ended on November 14. Entercom, however, wasn’t about to show him the door. “Kirk is an exceptional talent with an amazing future ahead of him,” Hannon said. The company offered its star his own show on Radio.com, an app-based service still in its infancy. The audience would be smaller, no question, but Minihane would have near-total control over both content and tone. The show could be whatever he wanted, and it would be all his. He took it.
When I first met Minihane in mid-December, it was in the halls of the new WEEI offices in Brighton. It was a little bit like meeting someone mid-breakup. At one point, we bumped into Callahan, and he and Minihane moved off to a corner to talk. On an episode of Enough About Me that dropped a few days later, Minihane and Callahan talked through the details of their professional divorce, laying all the disappointments bare: Callahan thought Minihane refused to even try to play by the new, tamer rules, and Minihane didn’t think Callahan stood up for him. From the outside, it looked like another pro-wrestling stunt meant to kick up ratings—that Minihane was in a pretend timeout. In truth, he was moving on. Later, Minihane told me, “I think there’s a toxicity to the station that I definitely played a role in creating, but there’s an anger on morning radio especially. I mean, you’re just tired all the time. I don’t feel that way right now. When I get back on the air, I’ll be angry, but it’s going to be different.”
Several weeks later, as he was working on his new show—called The Kirk Minihane Show, appropriately enough, premiering this month—I asked Minihane whether he still thinks the show will be different, and whether the past six months of his life had changed him at all. It was around 9 p.m. and he was calling me from a hotel room in Atlanta, where he had spent the day walking around stag at the press pit in the run-up to the Super Bowl. He said he was ready to make a new start. “In a way, I inherited that Dennis & Callahan show,” he said. “I’d like to do a show [that has] no format at all. Just stuff that’s interesting to me—we’re going to try stuff. If there’s an author of a book I like or the director of a documentary I like, I could talk about that for 40 minutes, if it’s compelling. Then the next segment could be me doing something completely stupid and immature and silly and funny and dumb.”
In other words, Minihane hasn’t transformed, but something has changed. In hindsight, he wishes he hadn’t engaged with Murchison the way he did and tells me he’s looking at a bigger picture now. While he used to think that the cheap shots and vitriol were all just part of the game, he’s realized that most people don’t see it that way. There’s a chance that with a fresh start, Minihane’s next act will showcase his intelligence and insight over his impulse to always go for the biggest splash. “I actually now consider the other person’s side of things,” he says. “This sounds fucking incredibly shallow that I wasn’t aware of this before, but they’re just trying to do their thing, too. It’s not all palace intrigue and drama.”
If you or a loved one is considering suicide, please call the Samaritans statewide hotline at 877-870-HOPE (4673).
Source URL: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2019/03/05/kirk-minihane/
Copyright ©2020 Boston Magazine unless otherwise noted.