Sports talk host Michael Felger is brash and cranky, but we can’t stop listening
His show with Tony Massarotti is in its fifth year atop the Boston radio ratings. Fans, and haters, too, can’t seem to get enough.
MICHAEL FELGER SPENDS HIS DAYS talking pugnaciously in public. But when I ask to profile him, he’s reluctant, hesitant, keeps putting me off. Felger (pronounced with a hard G, like tiger), the ubiquitous co-host of 98.5 The Sports Hub’s powerhouse Felger & Mazz sports radio program and host of Comcast SportsNet’s regional cable channel, could be a Ken doll in the happy middle of a satisfying life Mattel envisioned for him. His wife of 14 years, known to listeners as “the Wood,” is Boston 25 morning anchor Sara Underwood, and they have two girls and a lovely house in Wellesley. Felger & Mazz, where he partners with longtime local sportswriter Tony Massarotti, has spent five years atop the Nielsen Audio ratings for the Boston market’s afternoon drive time. In those years, he has been profiled once, by a radio industry trade magazine. For someone so high-profile, I’m finding him strikingly averse to outside attention.
He does keep talking to me, on the phone, at charity events, at games. And it comes out that Michael Felger believes in curses. He doesn’t want to talk to me about his success because he doesn’t want to jinx the show. I assure him I don’t want to write a positive story about him. In fact, I tell him I want to write an accurate story, and I doubt it will be flattering. He laughs, pauses long enough that it begins to feel like a commercial break, and then says he’ll do it, on these terms: I can talk to anyone I want — friends, family, colleagues, no one is off-limits. But then I have to come back to him so he can defend himself. Michael Felger wants the last word. As usual, he’ll get it. Just not in the way he expects.
It’s November 2016, and Celtics forward/center Al Horford has missed a game to be with his wife for the birth of their daughter. Michael Felger, hosting Sports Tonight on CSN, is beside himself.
“He had the birth of his kid in Atlanta. The game was in Miami. I know when you make $30 million a year it ain’t much to get a private jet. Wyc [Grousbeck, the Celtics’ owner] would probably pick it up to fly down at 3 o’clock from Atlanta. It’s about a 90-minute flight to Miami. Play the game and come right back.”
Horford shrugged off Felger’s rant. But his sister Anna tweeted: “Yeah, Mike Felger can [expletive] right off.” The next day, with requisite emojis, she tweeted: “Apparently a lot of you guys dislike Mike Felger. Look at us all bonding over unlikable people.” Asked about this later in the season, Horford dismissed it with a wave of his hand, saying, “Ah, I don’t pay attention to that stuff.”
But Boston-area listeners do. It’s a big reason Felger & Mazz dominates Boston sports radio.
Here’s one from a Friday this past June. The topic is Boston players whose teams should not have retired their numbers. Felger starts with the Celtics, who have taken more numbers, 21, out of circulation than any other Boston franchise.
“Fully half of those numbers up there are a blasted joke, starting with Don Nelson, who was a little bit before my time. He was a hack. . . . He sucked.”
“The Celtics retiring numbers thing fits so well with the narrative of green teamers and green teamerism,” Felger says, mocking the fans. Then, breaking into a tone worthy of The Hunger Games’ Effie Trinket, he burbles, “Everyone’s a Hall of Famer!”
Next on his overrated list is Dennis Johnson, starting guard on the Celtics’ 1984 and ’86 championship teams. Here, Tony Massarotti, who rarely disagrees with Felger, objects. “Ah, I think DJ was a good player, though.’’
“A Hall of Famer, though?’’ parries Felger.
“It’s the team Hall of Fame,’’ Mazz says, “not the basketball Hall of Fame. He was a starter.”
“Should he have his number retired?’’ asks Felger.
“He’s close,’’ says Mazz, hemming and on the verge of hawing.
Felger bellows: “He’s not close!”
Neither seems to realize that Johnson is in fact in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
For good measure, Felger will also chide the Bruins for retiring the numbers of Terry O’Reilly and Cam Neely, two of the best-loved Bruins of all time (Neely is in hockey’s Hall of Fame). Little wonder that a few days later, when I take to Twitter and ask, “Do you like Michael Felger as a radio host?’’ I get back 73 comments, including this one from @TheJimJamMan: “He’s very good at what he does but so are termites and I wouldn’t want either in my home.”
FELGER IS THE MOST POLARIZING PERSON in Boston radio, according to Mike Thomas, vice president of sports programming at CBS Radio, which employs Felger (CBS Radio is in the process of merging with WEEI owner Entercom Communications, a deal expected to be completed later this year). And that’s a good thing. “It’s the Howard Stern effect,” says Thomas. “Whether you loved him or you hated him, you always wanted to know what Howard’s take was going to be.’’
Felger and Mazz don’t want to be loved or loathed, says the show’s executive producer, James Stewart.
“The goal is to create an emotional investment between the host and the listener,” he says. During an early July show, creating that connection involves assessing whether Tom Brady’s arm strength is declining. Right, the same Tom Brady who was last seen bringing the Patriots back from a 28-3 deficit to win the Super Bowl, his fifth as the Patriots’ quarterback. Felger eggs Massarotti on, asking, “Is there something to this?” Massarotti says he re-watched the game and noticed Brady missed some basic throws, then adds, “not to be too negative.’’
That’s classic Felger and Mazz, antagonizing listeners (Brady’s through!), with Felger playing the contrarian to Massarotti’s mope, which makes Chicken Little seem hopeful. It’s not just that the sky is falling. It’s that the moon is overrated, the sun is too bright, it’s a lousy sky anyway, you shouldn’t have become attached to it, and anyone who did is a dope. But they are not formulaic, especially Felger. There are times — such as after a surprising Patriots loss to the Eagles in 2015 — when he’ll bewilder his audience by brushing off a frustrating outcome as no big deal. And there are times when he can be aggravating enough to make a commuter want to sucker-punch the radio, never more so than when he implies with a fake cough that the current hot Boston athlete is on performance-enhancing drugs. He is a master of semantics, perhaps no surprise given he is the son of two lawyers. He will listen to your argument, agree the facts are on your side, then continue with his argument unabated. A frequent guest says he often feels as if he needs a shower after arguing with Felger because he can’t win, no matter what.
That unlikable person is not the real Felger, says Underwood, who calls him a doting dad. She says the simple act of posting a family photo with the kids on social media generates “so much shock and awe. People aren’t used to seeing him in that light. Below that hard, opinionated surface, he’s a huge softie, a love bug.”
The love bug knows when to flip the switch. “When you’re on the radio and behind the microphone, you’ve got to sell, project, or put a little more sauce on it, if you know what I mean,’’ says Felger. “But no one I know, and I certainly don’t, goes home and sits down at the kitchen table with the wife and kids and starts barking: ‘You idiots! Ahhhh, you don’t know what you’re talking about, Emma [his elder daughter]. Shut up, Wood!’ I doubt anyone acts at home at the dinner table like they do on the radio. I’d hope not.”
It almost sounds like a confession: We’re just playing jerks on the radio because you guys eat it up.
CERTAIN SPORTS RADIO HOSTS in Boston leave a listener wondering whether they actually enjoy sports. They mock callers for caring about the outcome of last night’s Red Sox game. They seem more interested in talking about pop culture or partisan politics. This is not Felger and Massarotti’s approach. They rarely stray from sports. It’s an escape, but an escape Felger cares about. Sports have mattered to Felger since he was a kid growing up in Milwaukee with his lawyer parents and a brother who is 14 months younger.
“I was a sports dork,’’ he says. “I was the kid who put on the Little League uniform on Friday afternoon for the Saturday game and kept it on all weekend. I don’t know why. My dad liked sports, but it’s not like any of us were good at sports. I played everything though high school. I sucked at everything.”
Like most Wisconsin kids, Felger idolized the icons of the Milwaukee sports scene. It was the ’80s, so Brewers stars Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, and Jim Gantner. A poster of Bucks All-Star Marques Johnson hung on his bedroom wall — “the one with him dunking two-handed,’’ Felger says, as if there were more than one Marques Johnson poster we should know. The Packers mattered most, of course, even though they were often mediocre. But for hockey he abandoned the Midwest’s Original Six icons in Chicago and Detroit and rooted for the Bruins. One of his favorite players was — surprise — Cam Neely, who as Bruins president sparred with Felger during weekly appearances on the show until Neely said no mas after the 2015-16 season, calling the experience “painful” (he does still appear occasionally). But the biggest sign of Felger’s sports dorkery was his love for the short-lived springtime United States Football League. “I was obsessed with the USFL,” Felger says. “We didn’t get the games in Milwaukee. We didn’t have a team. But if you messed with the signal enough, you could pick up the games in Chicago. So I would go to my attic like [an expletive] little dork and hang a piece of wire and [mess]around with the antennae until I got the Chicago Blitz game.”
“He was the only USFL fan in Milwaukee,” laughs Skip McGregor, who’s known Felger since they were 12 and still lives in the city. “I think his darkest day was when the entire Chicago Blitz team was traded for the Arizona Wranglers team.” When his parents moved the family to Florida in his junior year of high school, Felger kept his old loyalties. Even now, McGregor says, they might go months without talking and then “I’ll get a text while watching a Packers game. It’ll be Mike. ‘This is the dumbest [expletive] team I’ve ever seen.’ ”
THROUGH THE GENERATIONS on the Boston sports media scene, a select few personalities have emerged as the voice fans want to hear from when something significant takes place — Clark Booth, Bob Lobel, Dan Shaughnessy, Bob Ryan. Felger has entered that company. When the Patriots win, fans want to know what Felger will say about it. When they lose, it’s the same, perhaps more so.
Boston is legendary for its sports parochialism, and Felger is still sometimes razzed as that know-it-all outsider from Milwaukee. Yet Felger has been here nearly 30 years, since he started at Boston University in the fall of 1988 because his then-girlfriend got into Harvard. “Like a sap, I wanted to be close to her,” he says. Plus, BU had a communications school, and he wanted to be in sports media. In his sophomore year, a professor who worked part time at the Boston Herald gave Felger a contact there for a paid internship. Felger got it and stayed at the Herald for 19 years. At the start, he typed in high school results and box scores, formatted horse racing results, and paid his dues along with other aspiring sports writers, among them Bill Simmons and Massarotti, who had graduated from Tufts in 1989. Then, in 1997, the paper gave Felger the Bruins beat. Two years later, he made the biggest mistake of his career.
In a story about Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, Felger called Jacobs a “thief,” saying he put profits ahead of winning the Stanley Cup. “Did I believe Jeremy Jacobs is a thief? No,” Felger says. “Did I mean he was a thief at the time? No, not technically. But you just get carried away with the point. That was a little bit of a radio thing there,” he says in a nod to his future career. Jacobs did not appreciate being called a thief in print. His lawyers let the Herald know. The NHL banned Felger from its locker rooms, and the paper told him to take a little time off. He finished out what was left of the Bruins’ season, and in the fall the Herald gave him possibly the worst sports beat in town in 1999: covering the Patriots.
But in January 2000, the Patriots hired Bill Belichick. Three months after that, Belichick spent a sixth-round draft choice on a skinny quarterback from the University of Michigan named Tom Brady. They would win their first of five Super Bowls together in February 2002. They may still add more. “So there you go,’’ says Felger. “My stupid [expletive] mistake led me to being there at the start of probably the greatest run in NFL history. I’ll be the first to tell you how lucky I’ve been.”
LUCK MAY BE PRETTY FAR DOWN the list of reasons for Felger’s success. He has a deep knowledge of sports minutiae and is clearly smart, especially with people (his mother said he was “a good student, but not great”). He is a relentless worker. His workday begins at 8 after his daughters, 13-year-old Emma and 5-year-old Tess, go to school. Producer James Stewart will start an e-mail chain in the morning in which he, Felger, Massarotti, producer Billy Lanni, and third voice Jim Murray discuss topics and the show’s structure for the day. During the course of the day, they will circle back to important topics, since their audience swells during the afternoon commute. After the four-hour radio show in Brighton, he heads to Burlington for his two-hour Comcast program. He’s usually not home until 8:30.
Sure, you say, it’s a long day. But he’s talking about sports. Well, if you think sports radio is easy, try sounding excited about Boston sports for four straight hours every single weekday. “Once I started doing it every day, it was a major slap in the face,’’ says Massarotti, whose radio experience had been mostly as a guest at WEEI. “The hard part for me at the beginning was the mental fatigue factor. Believe me, I’m not digging ditches. But it was an adjustment.” Felger, however, enjoyed it from the start. “The four hours I have on radio is the fastest four hours I have all day. That is an absolute fact,’’ he says. “You show up, you get to stir the crap, and then you get it all thrown back in your face with the call board. And then you go back and forth all day. That’s energizing. . . . You don’t know what is going to happen. I think that’s fun.”
Felger didn’t initially have much interest in being a radio host. “I sort of had the attitude that I’m a writer, I’m a journalist, so [expletive] that. I thought I was a ‘writer,’ ’’ he says, giving the last word a pretentious tone. “I had a bad attitude. But it didn’t take long for me to figure out that I liked the radio better.”
Felger got his repetitions hosting an afternoon program on ESPN 890 from 2005 to 2008. The fledgling station hired him after hearing him as a guest on Glenn Ordway’s long-running, legendary The Big Show on WEEI. Felger put together a compelling show while still covering the Patriots for the Herald and contributing to Comcast SportsNet. He would write his Patriots stories for the Herald during commercial breaks on the radio.
At ESPN, he figured out what worked and what didn’t in engaging — and sometimes enraging — an audience. Ryen Russillo, who hosts shows on ESPN Radio and ESPN2, was a frequent Felger co-host back then. He remembers the Red Sox bullpen blowing a lead in early May. Felger came on, “started killing the Sox, killing [manager Terry] Francona, the whole deal,” says Russillo. “And I was like, ‘Eh, it’s May, who gives a bleep. There’s so much we don’t know. Give these guys a benefit of the doubt. There’s no such thing as a must-win in May.’ ” During a break, an exasperated Felger took off his headphones. “He looks at me and goes, ‘Hey, I get what you’re saying. But I don’t understand how you can do a [expletive] show in May in which you’re not mad about the Red Sox blowing a lead.’ ”
When ESPN 890 canceled many of its local shows in July 2008, Felger, who had left the Herald, did some writing and fill-in hosting at WEEI. Then CBS Radio called about The Sports Hub. Boston media personalities such as Lou Merloni and Mike Reiss were considered as potential co-hosts, but Felger and longtime colleague Massarotti clicked during a two-hour off-site audition.
Following the formula Felger had developed at ESPN, Felger & Mazz became an immediate, enormous, and ongoing success. It surpassed Ordway in the ratings less than a year after The Sports Hub’s August 2009 launch (Ordway was eventually fired in February 2013, though he is back at WEEI). The program has been the No. 1-rated afternoon drive program in all formats in the advertiser-coveted men 25-54 demographic since summer 2012. It is also currently No. 1 among men 18-34, which amuses Felger, 47 (he’ll be 48 August 6), who says of himself: “My sensibilities are that of an angry old man.”
Not bad for a show that Felger hoped might eventually make a dent in Ordway’s market dominance. “Listen, Glenn’s show was a force,” he says. “My goal was to get to my second contract, for God’s sake. It was a two-year deal to start. The thought was that in two years make enough of a difference that they’d want to keep it going.”
MICHAEL FELGER HATES CHILDREN. Not all the time. He’s kind to kids and participates in events like the Bruins Foundation’s Cuts for a Cause, which benefits pediatric cancer research. But he can’t abide kids calling in, as one youngster found out in a 2009 conversation that went something like this:
Caller: I’d like to talk about [Mike] Lowell.
Felger: How old are you?
Felger: Thirteen is my minimum. [Click]
Felger, to Mazz: I’m not talking to a 12-year-old.
But what Felger really dislikes is new dads taking time off.
His Horford rant came to mind in April, when Felger criticized Sports Hub colleague Michael Hurley on the air for taking two weeks’ paternity leave. Hurley called in to defend himself, and what followed was a rare radio beef that felt real.
Hurley: This is what life is like for people who don’t summer in Nantucket. We have to figure it out. I’m thankful I work for a company that gives me time to take care of my family.
Felger: Why do you think I get to summer in Nantucket? Because I work my ass off, Hurley! Because I work my ass off! And when my wife had a baby, I went into work two days later because my work’s important to me.
The exchange went viral. Underwood says she thought quite a bit about it. “It’s wonderful that companies allow the husband to stay home for two weeks when their wife has a baby,” she says. But she was fine with Felger going back sooner. “That’s just the nature of our relationship. That’s what works for us.”
Massarotti, an innocent bystander for once during the dispute, defends his partner now. “I’ve seen him with his daughters, and with Sara. He’s the definition of a doting dad and husband. He believes strongly in charity. He’s so committed to Christmas in the City, which we’re involved with every year.” He laughs. “He also believes in not taking a long paternity leave.”
Hurley says he was a little nervous about returning to the office. “My first or second day back, he came up to me in the kitchen, we shook hands like two dorks, we maybe shared a joke about cleaning poop off the walls, and that was basically that,’’ Hurley says in an e-mail. “I think we probably both came away feeling various degrees of embarrassed for different reasons, so that kind of cut into any lingering feelings. I still find his views foolish, of course, but, yeah, it’s not a problem. Whenever I tell people that Mike and Tony are among the nicest people in the building, I always get sideways looks. But it’s true.”
Remember my informal Twitter survey asking if people like Felger as a radio host? I got 3,380 responses. Fifty percent voted no. Fifty percent voted yes. It does not matter that Felger is a loyal friend, fulfilled family man, and, still, that unabashed sports dork. His listeners are split on what they think of him. It is the perfect recipe for a compelling sports radio debate.
It turns out Felger doesn’t need the last word. He has something better. When it comes to Boston sports, everyone wants to hear what he says first.