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Sports Media

Talking a good game

WEEI, Sports Hub dial up the intensity of their radio rivalry

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / December 12, 2010

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Fifteen full months — call it 15 rounds, for metaphor’s sake — into the rumble between longtime undisputed champion WEEI and fast-rising challenger 98.5 The Sports Hub for sports radio supremacy, deciding who is winning depends upon which judge’s card you look at.

This much is indisputable: There’s no end in sight to this fight.

The CBS Radio-owned Sports Hub has made remarkable headway in the Arbitron ratings since its mid-August 2009 launch, culminating in November when its programming for morning drive (“Toucher and Rich,’’ hosted by Fred Toettcher and Rich Shertenlieb) and afternoon drive (“Felger and Massarotti,’’ featuring Michael Felger and Tony Massarotti) finished first in the Boston market in the crucial male 25-54 demographic. The station also finished first in the demo for the first time, tied with ratings powerhouse WZLX, a classic rock station.

Yet proclaiming that The Sports Hub’s outstanding November signifies a sea change in the market would be premature. Even with The Sports Hub’s rise, WEEI’s ratings have not suffered; in fact, with some monthly fluctuations, they have essentially remained the same over the past year.

In January 2010, WEEI had an overall 6.3 share in the male 25-54 demo, second in the market; in November, it was 6.5, good for third. Of course, the station that leapfrogged them is their new rival.

Then there is the matter of how the market is measured, the subtleties of which remain open to some interpretation. In July, when touting its success, WEEI began com bining the share it receives from Providence-based WEEI 103.7 (one of the seven stations that make up its network around New England), with its WEEI 850 ratings. The tweak raised eyebrows, not to mention the ire of management at The Sports Hub.

When WEEI’s new approach became public, some former employees, most notably former “Big Show’’ co-host Pete Sheppard, complained that Entercom Communications, WEEI’s parent company, had refused to pay bonuses that would have been met had the 850 and 103.7 numbers been combined.

A WEEI executive recently acknowledged that the network had never previously emphasized the 103.7 share in part because it wasn’t necessary.

But according to Arbitron, the practice is not unprecedented nationally, and WEEI does sell advertising packages that include both 850 and 103.7.

While WEEI employees scarcely acknowledged the new competition in The Sports Hub’s early days — “Dennis and Callahan’’ cohost Gerry Callahan once snarkily responded “Who?’’ on the air when “Toucher and Rich’’ were referenced — other subtle and not-so-subtle changes continued to reveal WEEI’s awareness that it no longer had a sports radio monopoly.

The famously long commercial breaks were broken into smaller segments beginning in August 2009, with the hosts reminding the audience how soon they would be back. The Red Sox pregame show was suddenly revamped this summer when Massarotti’s hourlong “The Baseball Show’’ began beating it in the 6-7 p.m. window.

And now you can see Dennis and Callahan for three hours a day because of their new simulcast partnership with NESN that began last month.

The stations are beginning to separate in terms of appeal. The Sports Hub trends younger, finishing first in November in the male 18-49 and 18-34 demos; WEEI embraces the reality that it appeals to the older end of the male 25-54 demo, finishing first last month in the 35-44 and 35-54 segments.

The “cume’’ — a measure of different persons who listen to a particular station for at least five minutes during a given time period — typically favors The Sports Hub. But WEEI cites other data, including Time Spent Listening (TSL, the amount of time a person spends listening during a specific time period), that indicate their listeners actually stay with their station longer.

And they’re not just listening on the radio anymore. There was a time when the word “blog’’ served as a punch line on WEEI. But since hiring former Herald sportswriter Rob Bradford as the editor of its revamped WEEI.com website in July 2008, it has repositioned itself as more than just a network of radio stations.

WEEI.com features content that is more thoughtful and insightful than what a listener might expect from tuning in to the station. The website, which is considerably more user-friendly than 98.5 The Sports Hub’s relatively rudimentary offering, has benefited the radio side; on Monday-Friday in the 6 a.m.-7 p.m. window, WEEI gains an additional 20 percent of listenership via laptop and desktop computers and mobile devices.

To each his own The Sports Hub has made its most significant inroads during the two most important time slots when it comes to procuring advertising dollars: morning drive and afternoon drive. And the differences between the stations are never more evident than at 6 a.m., when “Dennis and Callahan’’ goes head to head with “Toucher and Rich.’’

“Dennis and Callahan,’’ trends older, and that is evident in the show. Partisan politics is among their favorite “water cooler topics,’’ and often it seems John Dennis would prefer discussing golf to the big four professional sports. When callers or texters suggest more sports talk, their comments are often met with a sneering, disdainful response.

But it works for them. Their audience is loyal. They finished first in morning drive in May, June, September, and October, and their 8.9 share in November is higher than in January (7.8).

The vibe on “Toucher and Rich’’ is more congenial, and the humor is not as mean-spirited. In fact, it’s genuinely hilarious, particularly Shertenlieb’s produced bits such as “The Jon Gruden Game,’’ which plays on the “Monday Night Football’’ analyst’s habit of calling everyone either “this guy’’ or “that guy.’’

Because they had been morning hosts at rock station WBCN, there was some question as to how they would translate to sports radio. The pair has been a revelation, and they have arguably the most entertaining show on either station.

They are knowledgeable enough about sports (particularly the Bruins), admit what they don’t know, and tend to have an easy rapport with guests that include former Celtic Brian Scalabrine and the Bruins’ Shawn Thornton. Given their affinity for pop culture and music, it’s no surprise they trend younger, having swept the 25-54, 18-49, and 18-34 male demos in November.

Perhaps the most telling and compelling competition comes in afternoon drive time. “The Big Show,’’ hosted by Glenn Ordway and an orbiting cast of cohosts, has been entrenched as a ratings monster for years, an accomplishment for which Ordway was rewarded in January 2009 with a five-year contract reportedly exceeding $1 million per year. He’s earning every dollar now, largely because of rival cohosts who once were regulars on his program.

Love him or loathe him — and judging by the inbox at this address, there really is no in-between — Michael Felger has become the host in the market whose opinion when sports news breaks is the one you immediately want to hear. Felger and cohost Tony Massarotti never shy away from a sharp opinion or a well-timed rant, yet while they take sports seriously, they don’t take themselves seriously.

The result is that they have beaten or tied “The Big Show’’ in the male 25-54 demo each of the past five months, and their 8.5 share in November gave them their first No. 1 finish. They have made the “Big Show’’ feel somewhat stale in part because of its shortage of cohosts, who don’t play off Ordway as well as they used to.

Healthy alternatives If there is an oasis on WEEI, it is the midday“Dale and Holley Show.’’ Hosts Dale Arnold and Michael Holley are knowledgeable, treat callers respectfully, and debate amiably without the suggestion of contrivance.

It’s easy to accuse Arnold of steering away from controversy, but that’s a small gripe. The “Gresh and Zo Show’’ on the Sports Hub takes a more in-your-face approach, with Andy Gresh and affable but distracted former Patriots quarterback Scott Zolak hosting a raucous show that has the tone of a couple of jocks tormenting a substitute teacher.

Gresh replaced Gary Tanguay in April when the program failed to rank higher than ninth in its time slot during the first three months of the year. “Gresh and Zo’’ finished ahead of “Dale and Holley’’ once in the past year, in August, but is coming off a November in which its ratings climbed from 3.9 to 6.0, to finish a spot behind “Dale and Holley’’ (which earned a 6.2, good for third place for the fourth month this year).

The ratings of the nighttime programming are often dependent on live game broadcasts. WEEI is the flagship station not only for the Red Sox but also the Celtics, while The Sports Hub carries Bruins broadcasts. (They also are the home of the Patriots, a game-changer to weekend ratings in the fall).

When neither station has a sporting event to air at night, the time is filled by hosts whose one common characteristic is an enthusiastic personality. The Sports Hub turns over the airwaves to the monologue-prone, New York-born Damon Amendolara, who has a remarkable knowledge of Boston sports for someone who has been in the market for little more than a year.

There’s not a more energetic host on either station — but his WEEI counterpart comes close.

“The Planet Mikey Show,’’ featuring Mike Adams, takes a lighthearted approach to sports. Adams’s frequent forays into the joke book tend to result in groans more often than laughter, and his knowledge of current sports news is aided by necessary sidekick John Ryder.

The Sox/Celtics/Adams combo finished first in the 7-12 p.m. demo each month from March to June, and The Sports Hub has not topped it in the ratings in any single month.

While enough static remains to obscure whether either station will win the battle for listeners long-term, there is one undisputed winner already: The Boston sports fan, who now has an alternative, one with a strong signal (a lack of which sped up the downfall of past WEEI challengers WWZN 1510 and WAMG 890), the financial backing of CBS Radio, and a lineup of hosts that offers a stylistic contrast to the WEEI counterparts.

During WEEI’s days of singular dominance, discerning Boston sports fans pined for a choice through many seasons. Now they have it, and it will be fascinating to see where the radio waves carry everyone from here.

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