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Sports Media

What signal is WEEI sending?

Sorting through tumultuous week

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / February 18, 2011

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If ever an example were required for how abruptly things can change in the radio biz, well, how does this week work for you?

A little more than 18 months ago, WEEI was the one sports radio powerhouse in the market, Glenn Ordway’s “The Big Show’’ was well into its second decade of success in one format, and Michael Holley and Dale Arnold made for a pleasant afternoon pairing. And Michael Felger was essentially serving as the station’s utility infielder.

Now? Felger, along with cohost Tony Massarotti, has established himself as an afternoon-drive force at 98.5 The Sports Hub. Holley, who had the leverage of an expired contract and a popular persona, was bumped up to Ordway’s cohost in a stunning move Tuesday. Arnold was relegated mostly to fill-in duty. And a genuine utility infielder, Lou Merloni, seems poised for an everyday role.

Talk about shuffling the deck.

Ordway said the changes weren’t a direct result of The Sports Hub’s rise, but he emphasized the need to keep a show fresh.

“If you don’t change in this business, you’re screwed,’’ he said. “We listen to our audience and the research, and if a few people don’t like what you do or certain numbers say they don’t, you don’t overreact.

“But if you start to notice a trend, you need to adjust and provide the audience what it wants. The goal is to grow and stay fresh. That’s what we’re doing here.’’

Holley, who will debut alongside Ordway Feb. 28, said they already have one built-in advantage.

“Glenn and I have known each other since the mid ’90s, so while we’re going to do some different things on the show, we’ll have that chemistry of having known each other and been friends for a long time,’’ he said. “It’s not as if it’s going to be a total overhaul.’’

We’ll get our first taste of the revamped “Big Show’’ in just 10 days. For now, here are some other observations on a week in which the sports radio landscape drastically shifted.

■Will youth be served? In one regard, the change for Arnold probably shouldn’t have been a stunner. The Sports Hub has consistently won the male 18-49 and 18-34 demos. Pairing the 31-year-old Mike Mutnansky with the 39-year-old Merloni in the midday, as WEEI is expected to do, should give the program a younger vibe, something Holley will also provide on “The Big Show.’’

(Neither Merloni nor Mutnansky has commented on their future, with the former acknowledging by text that he can’t speak one way or the other about the situation yet.)

The 54-year-old Arnold, whose on-air persona is that of a friendly but hardly hip uncle, may have lost some appeal to the younger demographic, though it must be noted the outpouring of support for the 20-year WEEI veteran has been palpable, both on the air and via reader reaction at this address. An oft-cited sentiment is that WEEI broke up its most appealing show.

As for the perception that “Dale and Holley’’ was the one show consistently beating its competition on The Sports Hub, it’s understandable but not entirely accurate. “Dale and Holley’’ nearly doubled the share of The Sports Hub’s midday show in early 2010. But Andy Gresh replaced Gary Tanguay in April, and “Gresh and Zo’’ made steady gains, earning a 4.5 share in August to beat “Dale and Holley’’ (4.4) for the first time when only WEEI’s AM share is included.

For the most part, it has been a closely contested battle since. Besides, sacrificing a relatively popular midday show to boost the more lucrative afternoon-drive program makes sense.

■What’s next for Arnold? Part of the reason for the shock over Arnold’s demotion or marginalization is that he has shown an uncanny knack for self-preservation. He has been on the air at WEEI since September 1991, a lifetime in the radio business. He has had three vastly different midday cohosts in Eddie Andelman, Bob Neumeier, and Holley.

And he has been loyal to WEEI, choosing his radio job over continuing as NESN’s play-by-play voice of the Bruins in 2007 when the network wanted him to call road games as well as home games.

He termed that decision a “regret’’ and a “miscalculation,’’ while indicating that play-by-play remains a passion for him. While he will handle 25-30 Red Sox broadcasts in his new role, as well as the occasional Celtics call when Sean Grande has other responsibilities, it’s reasonable to wonder whether Arnold, who has called games for all four sports teams in Boston at one time or another, will pursue a more permanent play-by-play role when his WEEI contract expires next year.

■The Felger factor: Asked if he thought WEEI’s changes, particularly to “The Big Show,’’ were directly related to the success of his own program, Felger sounded nothing like the brash and opinionated voice that has become so familiar on the radio.

“In no way am I presuming or suggesting that we affected the changes,’’ said Felger. “I don’t want to say that at all. It’s more interesting to me to look at what we’ve done in just a year and a half on the air rather than trying to analyze what they’re doing.

“We’ve won [the male 25-54 demo] seven of the last nine [Arbitron ratings periods] matched up against 850. We figured when we started that it might take — what? — five years to be at that place?

“We’re concerned with sustaining that and building on where we are. I’m not going to claim we affected someone else to change.’’

Still, it cannot be lost on any of the players involved how circumstances might have been different had Felger not joined The Sports Hub, where — love him or loathe him — he has become a primary opinion-maker in Boston sports media.

After all, he was a WEEI employee.

He built his name and brand in the market first as one of the rotating cohosts on “The Big Show’’ before departing for his own well-regarded but scarcely heard program on ESPN 890. He returned to WEEI in July 2008 as a fill-in host — a role similar to the one Arnold will have — and contributor to the then-fledgling WEEI.com before the offer came from The Sports Hub approximately a year later.

“There was no effort to keep me, but I mean, that’s understandable — there wasn’t a show for me,’’ Felger said. “It wasn’t exactly ‘good luck, Mike’ but there wasn’t animosity, either. It was amicable with everyone.’’

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.