We’re almost two weeks past the Labor Day holiday. The kids are back in school, football is underway, the fall TV schedule is about to start, and life, for most, is back to normal. This year, over the Labor Day weekend, one Boston sports media outlet celebrated, what is, without a doubt, a significant milestone.
You may not have realized it, but September 3 was WEEI’s 25th anniversary as a sports radio station. Perhaps celebration is the wrong word since the only mention of it you’ll find is in this column. Whether you love or hate the station, its impact on this town, and this community, is important and should be recognized. If I still had the corner office, I’d have, at least, authored a letter. In short, that letter would’ve thanked our talent and staff. Their efforts over 25 years has been extraordinary and led the way to the station’s success. It would’ve thanked our team partners, our clients, and especially, our listeners, whose devotion, support and loyalty helped shape the station into one of the most successful in the country.
It goes without saying that Boston is one of the truly great sports cities in America. Bostonians live and die with the success of their teams. The fans are passionate, engaged, and intelligent, and as such, they deserved a forum to discuss the magnitude of such topics as the Red Sox breaking the curse, the Patriots dynasty, how the Celtics new Big 3 led to Banner 17, and the Bruins incredible Cup run of 2011. That forum would also include the ability to whine and vent about why Grady left Pedro in the game in the 8th. Why Belichick went for it on 4th and 2. Why Danny didn’t trade the No. 3 pick, and why Claude still coaches the Bruins. Some like the whining best, but nothing matches winning and I always thought our best shows surrounded the litany of championships we had the privilege of covering.
September 3, 1991. Day 1 as a sports station for WEEI 590AM which made the switch from news radio, a format it had produced for the prior 17 years. When management made the decision to change, it did so on the basis that sports radio would become one of the most popular formats in the industry. A ratings winner and a revenue driver. The suits were right on both counts.
The initial programming lineup was as follows:
• 6 a.m. – 10 a.m.: The As Yet Untitled Morning Show with Andy Moes
• 10 a.m. – 1 p.m.: The Dale Arnold Show
• 1 p.m. – 4 p.m. Glenn Ordway & Janet Prensky
• 4 p.m. – 7 p.m. The Eddie Andelman Show
• 7 p.m. – Midnight: Sports Night with Craig Mustard (Bruins & Celtics play-by-play)
I remember booking six guests for that first show with Dale. We quickly learned that we didn’t need six guests in every show, but in those days, the guests helped generate interest.
Some of the biggest stories we followed in the station’s initial years included the soap opera of the Patriots nearly leaving Foxboro for St. Louis. The tragic death of Reggie Lewis, and the attack on Nancy Kerrigan at the ’94 US Olympic Figure Skating Championships. The day that Lewis died was one of the most exceptional days of broadcasting I’ve ever been a part of. Glenn Ordway took over the morning show and did a phenomenal job reporting and reminiscing about Reggie’s life and career, while conducting incredibly compelling interviews with his friends, family members and Celtics personnel.
EEI didn’t generate much of a buzz in its first few years, in part because we didn’t know what the heck we were doing. Read the paper, throw a few guests on, grab some listener calls and you’ve got a show right? Not so much.
Over time the approach evolved, and we modified our thinking to include a mix of guests, calls, conversation and banter, along high energy production putting the focus on the personalities, which finally began to make an impact. That would lead to the station’s first full evolution in 1995 when Ordway took over as program director and re-vamped the lineup, pairing Arnold and Eddie Andelman together in midday and forming The Big Show in afternoon drive. Ted Sarandis held the fort at night.
In my role as executive producer, I met with Glenn constantly to generate ideas and refine our strategy so that the station could grow and thrive. He would talk incessantly about these crazy voice mail messages he’d get from listeners, mostly bitching about a team or player, but some would be calling out a particular talent or show, and he wondered openly how we could use that audio and put it to our advantage. His idea to create a segment called The Whiner Line wasn’t exactly earth shattering, but it was an instant hit. Ask any program director how important the callers are to any station’s success and they’ll tell you that callers represent less than one half of one percent of the listening audience
The content that any show delivers must speak to the other 99½ percent of the people tuning in. It doesn’t mean that callers aren’t important, only that they’re an element of the overall plan to build a successful show. That’s why The Whiner Line was a smash. Those few callers, who were tremendously creative and very funny, provided great fodder for the entire audience. Incorporating listener voice mails into a show wasn’t unique, but the content of those voice mails, and the production surrounding it, was phenomenal.
I must digress… I do miss the Whiney’s.
The station has gone through several iterations since: the addition of Dennis and Callahan in the morning, Bob Neumeier replaced Eddie, Michael Holley replaced Neumy, etc. Now I could go on for days talking about the history, all the great stories, our ratings and awards, but that would be self-serving and isn’t the purpose of this column.
This piece is about identifying the canvas of work created by a motivated group of people that built a station from the ground up and saw it become a meaningful outlet for the sports fans of this city. What I will highlight is the community service that the station provided, and continues to provide, because I believe that work represents the true measure of a successful organization.
Running a solid business is hugely important. Our jobs were to get ratings and to drive revenue, but if we didn’t take a proactive position, frankly we made it an obligation, to give back to the people and the partners who were so supportive of our efforts, than all of the ratings, revenue and awards we earned would not have mattered nearly as much.
From the fundraiser we produced to help the Worcester Fire Department and their families after the terrible tragedy in 1999, to holding Super Bowl parties for excited Patriots fans leading up to the team’s first three wins, and subsequently donating a percentage of the proceeds, several hundred thousand dollars as it were, to Boomer Esiason’s Foundation for Cystic Fibrosis, to the extraordinary Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon, WEEI has been an outstanding civic leader, and I hope to see those efforts grow in the years to come.
I spent nearly half my life working at WEEI, and suffice is to say that as I look back on my time, I’m extremely proud of what I — along with so many exceptional people — accomplished. Twenty five years is a lifetime in any job, especially radio, where there is, and continues to be, so much turnover. To harbor a format that became as popular as this one did is a tremendous achievement, one that I wish my former company would’ve taken the time to acknowledge prior to my penning this piece. But they may have done me a favor because I’m glad to have had the opportunity to express these thoughts myself.
I recognize that WEEI has its share of detractors, and that’s fine. The station can’t be loved by everyone. However, even those of you who aren’t fans, I would hope will appreciate the hard work and dedication of the great many people, who over such a long period of time, did their jobs to produce a product that was worthy of your time and attention, and also a few laughs throughout the day. For the most part, we did that exceptionally well.