Five years ago, WEEI was still riding high. They had stomped attempts to challenge them in the forms of 1510 the Zone and ESPN590.
In February of that year, Chad Finn wrote a column for the Boston Globe OT that was eerily prescient in what it had to say about WEEI and its future.
Maybe the average Boston sports fan is less sophisticated than I want to believe. But I’m convinced that provided with an equal signal, some savvy program director could build what WEEI claims to be: the premier sports radio station in the country.
Then in July of 2009, it was announced that the new 98.5 The SportsHub would be starting up. WEEI had no reason to be concerned, and even issued statements saying they were prepared to beat this challenge as well.
Five years ago today, on August 13th, 2009, WBZ-FM, 98.5 The Sportshub came on the air. Everything changed that day. Unlike previous competitors, 98.5 had a strong, FM signal. They also had the Patriots and Bruins radio rights. This wasn’t static-filled AM radio with limited signal reach and lesser known talent.
The new station was competitive right away, and while WEEI tried to keep up their air of superiority (Who can forget Gerry Callahan telling Jessica Heslam when asked about Toucher and Rich that he had never heard of them and that ““I am speaking to you from under my desk right now because I am so scared”) but within two years 98.5 overtook them in the ratings, particularly on morning and afternoon drive, time slots which WEEI had dominated for 15 years.
WEEI then made a series of panic moves, none of which really panned out, including ditching the one show that was still winning its time slot – Dale and Holley – and replacing it with Mut and Merloni, which quickly fell behind Gresh and Zo in the ratings.
The station fired or reduced the roles of the likes of Pete Sheppard, Glenn Ordway, Jason Wolfe and Dale Arnold, while going through the disastrous Jeff Brown era. They changed management again, and have somewhat stabilized things finally, with Dennis and Callahan topping Toucher and Rich in this past month of July. (which doesn’t mean they’ll win the ratings period, but it is a start.)
Meanwhile 98.5 rolls on. Interestingly, they’ve enjoyed success, not on smart sports talk (for the most part) but on taking what WEEI did and bringing it to another level. The Felger and Mazz show and nightly Adam Jones show thrive on being incessantly critical of every single local team and player, and coming up with “sky is falling” scenarios on a daily basis. Listeners love it, as the ratings bear out.
What do the next five years bring in terms of sports talk radio in Boston? Does 98.5 fall into the same trap that WEEI did? Does another station give it a try? Does Glenn Ordway’s Big Show Unfiltered get picked up by terrestrial radio?