John Dennis is a household name in Boston media circles. He began his career here in 1977 at then, WNAC-TV Channel 7. Over the next 20 years, Dennis built a reputation as an engaging anchor and a tenacious reporter. He broke numerous stories and won multiple awards for his work.
Twenty years is a career for most people, but Dennis was just getting started. In the spring of 1997, John and I spoke about a potential shift to radio. At WEEI, we had recently moved from 590 to 850 on the AM dial, and with syndicated programming on the air from 6:00 a.m. until noon, we were starting the process of putting plans in place to take the station to the next level. I thought John would be perfect to host the midday show, which back then, aired from 10:00 a.m. to noon. We talked about the commitment he’d have to make. About the difference between hosting a radio talk show versus a television sportscast. And we talked about the constant scrutiny that he’d get because of the opinions he’d espouse. John’s an intelligent guy and a quick learner, and as our conversations went deeper, I knew he understood what I was looking for and what it would take to be successful.
In September of 1997, John and Gerry Callahan, joined the WEEI team. Their success was instant, in part because they were local versus national, but more importantly because they were damn good. Ratings doubled in their first book and before long, it was clear they were ready to move up in stature. Two years, almost to the day we hired them, they became the new morning show on ‘EEI. Almost 20 years later, they’re still going strong, but based on what I’ve read recently, it appears that John’s run is coming to an end.
Love him or hate him @JohnDennisWEEI is going down as one of the great radio personalities ever in Boston.
— Jason Wolfe (@jasonlwolfe) August 16, 2016
I tweeted earlier in the week, and I believe it even more today, that John Dennis will go down as one of the great radio personalities that Boston has ever had, and there’ve been some great ones. Larry Glick. David Brudnoy. Jess Cain (yes, I’m dating myself). Matty Seigel. Eddie Andelman. Glenn Ordway. Howie Carr. And there are certainly more. Boston has a rich radio history but for a lead television anchor to leave his post, and become a radio star, over such an extended period of time, is unprecedented.
Television and radio might be part of the same medium, but they are very different platforms. Television anchors never tell you what they’re thinking. They’re not allowed to. Talk radio is the exact opposite. When Dino started, he’d tell me about what other people were saying about a subject, and I’d ask him, what do you think about it? He’s extremely smart so he got it quickly. Once he realized that providing his own opinion was the key to earning audience reaction, he was off to the races. It sounds simple, I know, but for someone who was groomed to report information, being able to say “I think” was a process which took a bit of time.
Sometimes, his opinions were out in left field and others were mildly offensive, but he understood what he needed to do to be successful. When you’re on the air four hours a day five days a week, you’re bound to make comments that will make some listeners uncomfortable. That’s part of the gig. It also means you’re engaging with your audience and getting them to react to your opinions, which in turn, builds your brand and keeps people coming back for more. John knows it, and is exceptional at it.
In talk radio, sports or otherwise, there’s nothing wrong with a percentage of the people not liking you, or one of your opinions. In fact, it’s a must if you want to build an audience. The best of the best are loved and hated equally. But they always give you a reason to listen. I laugh at the notion that hosting a radio show is a simple job that doesn’t take much effort. Anyone who thinks it’s easy to sit behind a microphone and talk for four hours about a variety of different subjects, while keeping the audience entertained is kidding themselves.
To be successful in sports talk radio today, it’s about much more than providing information. Listeners have the information you want to discuss, even before you get to the station. You need opinions, humor, edge, attitude, and most of all personality. Fans will listen to hosts they love, and those they hate, because of the personality that exists in both. Personality breeds engagement. Engagement breeds loyalty. Loyalty breeds ratings and ratings breed revenue. That is the formula hosts and shows need to embrace if they want to win. John Dennis applied himself to that formula and became one of the biggest winners we’ve ever seen.
Broadcasting is a cutthroat business and there aren’t too many of us that get the opportunity to walk away on our own terms. I have a deep appreciation for John both personally and professionally. I know how hard he had to work to earn the respect of his listeners as a sports radio host, when all he was known for was his exploits on television. That respect didn’t come easily, but he put in the time, and the effort, and because of that, he’ll be remembered far more for his achievements on the radio than he ever will be for his time on television.
On a personal note, I’m saddened that, by most accounts, it appears his career will end because of a personality conflict with a colleague. I have a lot of respect for Kirk Minihane. I hired him, and he’s very talented, but it’s a shame that he and John could not find more common ground to build on, what remains, one of the most successful morning shows on any station in the country. Unfortunately, most relationships, regardless of the industry, end badly. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t end. But the reality is when we look back 20 years from now and make our list of the great sports radio hosts of this generation, John Dennis’ name will be right there at the top of the list.