It does seem appropriate that Glenn Ordway, who forged a lucrative sports radio career from an uncanny ability to orchestrate an argument, will have an opportunity to have the last word.
After 27 years at WEEI, including 18 as host of some incarnation of “The Big Show,’’ Friday marks his final day at the station he helped build into a sports-radio powerhouse beginning in the mid-1990s. Ordway was fired Wednesday, the victim of declining ratings, a high salary, and whether he recognizes it or not, his own hubris.
The thunderclap of news that Ordway had been fired was further confirmation that radio is a cold, vicious business populated by more than its share of people who could be described with the same adjectives. But there is grace to be found in his dismissal, and not just in the mostly frank and self-effacing way Ordway and co-host Michael Holley approached Wednesday’s show.
It’s fairly uncommon in radio for a fired employee to be allowed on the air for a farewell, the common fear being that it will turn into a vengeful, multihour hatchet-fest on the soon-to-be-former employer. When Dale Arnold was demoted in February 2011, he was permitted a proper goodbye. Ordway is getting his, too, and Friday’s show will culminate essentially a three-day, This Is Your Life, Big O send-off. While a cynic might recognize the irony that his last days could provide those recently missing big ratings, parent company Entercom deserves a nod for letting Ordway depart with dignity and a few hours of appreciation.
He’s worthy of a respectful departure for a couple of reasons, starting with his important place in the historical landscape of Boston sports radio. There was sports radio — excellent, innovative sports radio — on the Boston airwaves before Ordway made his name and concurrently while he was doing so. Old-timers remember Eddie Andelman and Guy Mainella, or Larry Claflin and Clif Keane, or Bob Lobel and Upton Bell’s “Calling All Sports’’ with great fondness.
Ordway earned his place among them at a young age during the ’70s, and he later changed the game entirely. He was the reasonable sidekick to beloved homer Johnny Most on Celtics radio broadcasts for more than a decade. He was a notorious tormentor of Don Zimmer as a host on WITS, to the point that the former Red Sox manager has often said the only two people he would not allow into his home are iconoclastic former pitcher Bill Lee, and Ordway.
His greatest feat, however, was his reshuffling of the WEEI lineup in 1995 after taking over as program director — a reshuffling that put Ordway himself in the afternoon-drive catbird seat while making an enemy of Andelman, who in a prudent move was bounced to a co-hosting role with Arnold in midday. His decisions set the stage for an extraordinary run of ratings and critical success for “The Big Show,’’ of which he was both ringleader and kingmaker.
While tributes in recent days by his media friends and peers have teetered toward the hyperbolic and even maudlin, they are understandable. Ordway, by surrounding himself on “The Big Show’’ with a rotating cast of co-hosts, helped dozens of media folks make a name or enhance their profile. In its mid- and late-’90s heyday, “The Big Show’’ made for great radio, with co-hosts such as Bob Ryan, Dan Shaughnessy, Peter Gammons, Jackie MacMullan, Steve Buckley, Gerry Callahan, and more. Sean Grande, currently the superb radio voice of the Celtics, was downright hilarious as the “Sports Flash” anchor. It was must-listen many more days than not.
So what happened? A ban on using Globe talent didn’t help the depth chart, though other voices such as Michael Felger, Tony Massarotti, and Sean McAdam did become welcome fixtures. But arrogance and cronyism eventually seeped in. Many D-list co-hosts weren’t up to past standards, but through the early and mid-2000s and an extraordinary run of success for Boston sports teams, the ratings remained high.
The mistake Ordway and the station made — beyond turning the beloved Bruins into an unfunny punch line — was believing the success was about them, and not fans’ insatiable desire for sports in this market. I wrote the following in February 2009:
“We listen because we love sports, our beloved teams are enjoying a remarkable run of success, and WEEI happens to have both access and broadcast rights. Most of all, we listen because there is no other decent local alternative with a signal stronger than that of a ham radio. 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.”
That was written one month after Ordway signed a five-year, $5 million contract. The day it was published, it was greeted with a patronizing four-hour Ordway filibuster on how the radio business really works. Six months later, CBS Radio-owned 98.5 The Sports Hub launched on a strong FM signal. The effect on ratings was almost immediate. Three-plus years later, Ordway is a cautionary tale to Sports Hub hosts to not take their current outstanding ratings for granted.
His firing was shocking but not surprising, if that makes sense. I thought Ordway was on his way out eventually, but the rumblings of his departure culminated with that thunderclap far sooner than expected. The loaded questions and gleeful criticisms during a January WEEI-convened focus group of Sports Hub converts indicated he was in danger of losing his job. But I didn’t think he would be the first to go, and I strongly doubt he’ll be the last.
The morning program, featuring John Dennis and Callahan, topics of fierce criticism during that focus group, is in some flux with the firing of six-week update anchor Kevin Winter this week and its pursuit of Comcast SportsNet New England’s Mary Paoletti for a role much more significant than reading scores every 20 minutes. Paoletti, effortlessly likable alongside Tom Curran on “Quick Slants,’’ would be a fascinating addition, but the program also requires subtraction.
It happened to Ordway, who will offer his parting words Friday. We’ll pay attention to them, and then we’ll resume wondering who is next.