Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Lost Art of WEEI

In the past few weeks WEEI has really shaken things up.

Gone is The Dale & Holley Show middays from 10am-2pm. Michael Holley has taken his talents to 2pm, where he now teams up with Glenn Ordway on The Big Show. The other half of D&H, Dale Arnold, is now in some sort of floating purgatory -- he does Sundays with Steve Buckley, occasional Red Sox games, and is a fill-in for when other regular show hosts take vacation time (which probably means that when Glenn Ordway takes his annual summer vacation, Dale and Holley will be back together from 2-6). D&H have been replaced by some guy named Mike Mutnansky and old Providence College and Red Sox friend Lou Merloni in the Mut and Merloni show.

This feels like a panic move.

For years WEEI was the 800-pound gorilla in the sports talk radio market, the only game in town. From time to time other radio stations would switch to an all-sports format to compete with 'EEI, but with little financial backing from their corporate owners and an on-air staff of glorified college interns and an occasional pseudo-big name, it would always be a short-lived challenge. 

Then in late summer 2009, a new kid came to town -- 98.5 The Sports Hub. Not only did it have the backing of CBS Radio, which allowed it to take over as flagship staton of the New England Patiots, but it also stole some of EEI's on-air talent -- Michael Felger, Jon Wallach, Tony Massarotti. Suddenly there was an hip, edgy new home for sports talk radio.

This forced WEEI to adjust -- gone were the 15-minute commercial breaks and long soliloquies from Ordway or John Dennis or Gerry Callahan about nothing in particular, or, worse, about golf. Pete Sheppard, Big Show Flash Boy, was let go in a cost-cutting move. But this apparently wasn't enough. A disappointing 2010 Red Sox season led to more declining ratings at 'EEI (the Red Sox flagship station).

And now, this.

I understand 'EEI wanting to make changes. It's probably a good thing. (I mean, who the hell wanted to sit through 15-minute commercial breaks?)  But these are not the best changes, I fear.

I'm totally down with "reassigning" Dale Arnold. He's boring. He seems physiologically incapable of being critical of anyone or anything without qualifying it ("I'm not saying the Red Sox' bullpen is weak, but..."). He's the stodgy, middle-aged man who lives down the street from all of us, the one we try to avoid conversing with because he never has anything interesting to say. That's bad enough in real life, it's worse when you're being paid large sums of money to do it on the radio.

But Michael Holley carried the D&H show. And moving him off of middays and alongside Glenn Ordway, 'EEI's other quality on-air talent, is like signing Peyton Manning to back up Tom Brady. You're bolstering a position of strength while ignoring weaknesses elsewhere.

And this is where I have the biggest problem with what 'EEI is doing.

The Big Show was at its peak, its most entertaining, hilarious self, when Ordway was the ringleader of a round-table format.  He shared the studio with Pete Sheppard and two other guests-of-the-day, depending on what was going on in the sports world -- Steve DeOssie and Fred Smerlas the day after a Patriots game, Steve Buckley and Sean McAdam after a big Red Sox game, Cedric Maxwell after a big Celtics game.  And they all complemented each other perfectly -- Ordway was the rich, spoiled brat with the luxury-box seats, Sheppard the yahoo Boston sports fan, and everyone else filled in the gaps. End the show with the "Whiner Line" and you have four hours of ecstasy.

Now Sheppard is gone, a victim of the economy, and with the onset of Holley the roundtable guests have been axed as well. Only the Whiner Line remains, and even that isn't as funny any more.

I understand the rationale behind getting rid of Sheppard -- it makes no economic sense to pay someone six figures to be a glorified Flash Boy.  But the show has also lost something, the ensemble cast that made it so appealing. Granted, in the Golden Age of the Ordway-Sheppard Big Show (2001-08) the Patriots, Red Sox and Celtics were also winning championships, which certainly heightened the show's appeal, but each of those teams is still competitive enough to win it all given the right circumstances.  The irony is, in a lot of ways, Felger and Massarotti, 98.5's afternoon drive show and Big Show competition, is everything the Big Show used to be but isn't anymore -- loud, outspoken hosts who would poke fun of themselves just as much as they made fun of callers.

It's a smart idea for 'EEI to make moves in response to the competition. But they have to be the right moves. With these moves, I fear 'EEI may have just handed the baton over to 98.5 for good.

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