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A conversation with Jeff Rickard, WEEI’s new program director

WEEI has been struggling in the ratings against rival 98.5 The Sports Hub.Jim Davis

Jeff Rickard is learning the lay of the land after the longtime national radio personality (ESPN, Sporting News Radio) was hired in early August as WEEI’s program director.

“I’m just figuring out where bathrooms are and where the stairs in the back of the building go to and that sort of stuff,” he said Friday afternoon. “I’ll be back next week and we’ll hit the ground full speed.”

Rickard will have plenty of tasks on his agenda, with longtime host Glenn Ordway retiring later in the month and WEEI struggling in the ratings against rival 98.5 The Sports Hub.

Here is the gist of our conversation about how Rickard sees WEEI’s present and future, edited for length:

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Q. You’re coming here from Indianapolis, but the Boston market isn’t unfamiliar to you. Tell me a little bit about your radio background specific to the Boston market.

A. “We moved to [New England] when I first got my job at ESPN Radio around 2005. We stayed here for eight or nine years. And then the last couple of years, I don’t know if you remember CN8, the Comcast Network. I did a couple of years of hosting “Out of Bounds Late Night” from a studio right across the street from [Boston University]. I know my way around the town. I know what’s going on.”

Q. WEEI is a legacy brand in sports radio circles, but there has been some turbulence in recent years. What is it that appealed to you about this job and led you to pursue it?

A. “There are some terrifically talented people here. We’ve got to come in and figure out what’s working and what we need to do better and how we need to try to move forward in this terrific — I keep saying terrific, but that’s the word I would use to describe what I think the situation is. There’s a lot of real potential and opportunity. And we’ve just got to make sure that we’re all doing things that we do best and try to do better at the things that maybe we’re not doing so well.”

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Q. Do you have a general or specific philosophy about what works in sports radio or does it depend on the particular market?

A. “I think what you have to realize is that you can’t do the exact same thing in every city. Every city has got its own personality and its own kind of vibe and its own rhythm. In Boston, sports are a huge part of the way of life here. That connection makes this one of, if not the best sports cities in America. You have to understand that, and you have to talk to them about things they want to talk about. When you’re doing your job well in sports radio, you have your finger on the pulse of the fan, and hopefully you’re talking to them in a very entertaining and compelling way. It sounds simple, and it’s obviously much more complicated to make it work, but that is the goal, to do a really good job of giving them what they want.”

Q. In your opinion, is it wise to talk politics, and to a less contentious degree, pop culture? Or should most of the discourse be purely sports-centric?

A. “Well, first of all, sports is your bread and butter, you’re a sports radio station. You’re marketing yourself as a sports radio station. So I think people want to come today, for example, to hear what [midday host] Andy Gresh has to say about Cam Newton and Mac Jones last night. You know the first preseason game is what people will be talking about, and you have to give them that. But you also think, if I was with my buddies and my family, what would we be talking about today? I’m not a big fan of politics in sports radio because I think it’s divisive and I don’t think that does you any good. I think it’s OK to make your passions and your personal opinions known. But I don’t think you need to linger on it. I don’t think that sports radio needs to be the place where we litigate today’s political passions. It’s there. You can acknowledge it. You can talk about pop culture. Free Britney, that’s good for a second or two. But move on. And let’s talk about the things the sports fan in Boston is really interested in.”

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Q. A couple of years back, the station took an approach in which the shows more antagonized each other in a sort of soap opera way, with the morning show driving that, and the ratings were strong. That sounds like an approach you’re not interested in revisiting, fair to say?

A. “Well, I don’t mean to sound like a head football coach or anything, but that was before I was here and I don’t know what exactly was going on behind the scenes. I’m just not informed enough to have a true opinion on that. I just know what we want to do here moving forward.”

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The ratings books have been dominated by 98.5 The Sports Hub in recent years.

Q. It’s been proven that two sports stations can simultaneously have enormous success in this market. But WEEI’s ratings have fallen over the past couple of years while 98.5 The Sports Hub has continued winning ratings periods. How does WEEI get back to the level where it’s competing to win key demographics again?

A. “You identify the things that you do really well, you identify your weaknesses, you try to fix those weaknesses, and you just put a really compelling show on the air, whether that show is morning, middays, or afternoons. I think there’s a lot of talent here and we’ll try to get them to do the things that they do really well even better. Over time, all stations change and evolve. Some of them find their rock-solid lineup and they go with that. I’m excited to see what I can find out about the crew that’s here right now and see where we can go with them. But yeah, I can’t worry about what anybody else does. I can only worry about what this radio station is going to do.”

Q. With Glenn Ordway retiring at the end of the month, that’s a pretty big roster spot opening up in afternoon drive. Have you given any thought on how that might be filled?

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A. “The first thing I want to do is get in here and really understand the process and how these guys are working now. And I want to pick Glenn’s brain. He’s been in this business for a long time and obviously had a lot of success. I’m looking forward to continuing to use him in big spots [Ordway will still host the Patriots’ postgame show] and take advantage of who he is and what he does. But I need to get a feel for what’s going, and as we go forward we’re going to find a way to appeal to the people that we need to appeal to.”

Q. Any chance we’ll be hearing you on the air?

A. “It’s funny. My wife asked me that. She said, ‘Are you going to be OK not being on the air?’ All I can say is I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager for a really long time, like a really long time. I think for four years, while I was in Indianapolis and doing stuff at SiriusXM, I was averaging about 340 shows a year. I’m tired. And the more programming that I’ve done, the more I’ve found that I really enjoy helping. I really enjoy leading. I love radio. I’m really looking forward to having my fingerprints on something that’s 24 hours rather than focusing on four hours a day, if that makes sense. I’m ready to make that full-time transition. I’m looking forward to just being a program director, let’s put it that way.”


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