To an outside observer, Jason Wolfe’s departure from WEEI and its parent company Entercom had appeared inevitable for a while.
Ratings, once enormous and seemingly unassailable in this sports-mad market, dipped and eventually collapsed, at least in comparison with sports radio competitor 98.5 The Sports Hub, which has finished first in the last three three-month (fall, winter, spring) Arbitron rating periods.
The arrival of a new market manager, Jeff Brown, in June 2011 could have been interpreted as ominous for Wolfe, the vice president of programming and operations for WEEI and WRKO.
And when Wolfe, on Entercom’s behest, had to fire longtime afternoon drive host Glenn Ordway in February, the writing was on the wall in plain block lettering. It was Ordway who first hired Wolfe at WEEI 22 years ago when it converted to an all-sports station, his mentor and friend before all else.
Wolfe, who announced in a gracious statement on Twitter and Facebook Thursday morning that Entercom had “chosen to replace” him, learned last Thursday of his professional fate.
But that apparent inevitability of it to outsiders didn’t lessen the shock to him. When he was asked if he suspected it was coming, he paused briefly before offering a well-considered reply.
“Let me just say this,’’ Wolfe said. “Over the last several weeks, I had been actively working on several projects that I had hoped I would be able to execute, that I thought would really help us. I think it would be fair to say I was surprised to have that meeting on Thursday.
“I’d be lying if there wasn’t some sadness, but I will leave knowing that I did everything in my power to help the station succeed, and we had an amount of success that was unprecedented in this format. I hope people remember that. It was one of those runs that any station in any format in any market would be thrilled to have.’’
He’s not exaggerating. WEEI won four Marconi Awards during Wolfe’s time at the station. Ratings were consistently excellent, finishing No. 1 in the market for six consecutive years through fall 2008. He put together the successful “Dennis and Callahan” morning program in 1997.
And under Wolfe’s guidance, the station did yeoman work in developing the Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon from a small fund-raiser to an anticipated annual event that raised millions of dollars to benefit cancer-stricken children. This year’s Radio-Telethon is in two weeks.
“It’s the one event I am most proud to have been a part of,’’ said Wolfe. “I have a tremendous amount of compassion for the Jimmy Fund. They do such incredible work. That’s probably the one thing I’m going to miss most of all, being involved in that event.’’
But for all of Wolfe’s success at WEEI, he was also complicit in its recent struggles and the attitude that got it there. The station easily vanquished upstart challengers such as WWZN 1510 and ESPN 890 during the 2000s. Neither station had the signal or the resources of WEEI. But in continuing its dominance, the station’s hubris rose, and it radiated as arrogance through the airwaves.
There was a collective sense that those at WEEI believed their success was much more to do with them than with their comparatively strong signal, their broadcast rights deals (particularly with the Red Sox), and Boston fans’ insatiable desire for any level of sports discourse.
Their success looked effortless. Under Wolfe’s watch, it seemed they started to believe it was.
When 98.5 The Sports Hub launched in August 2009 — a station with CBS Radio’s support, broadcast rights deals with the Patriots and Bruins, and a strong FM signal — WEEI was outwardly dismissive of the potential competition despite its vast resources.
And its complacent actions — including dotting its programming with back-slapping D-list personalities — suggested it was just one more competitor that would fade to static soon enough.
Instead, it was not long before the Sports Hub was neck and neck with WEEI in the Arbitron ratings. WEEI was slow to react to the challenge, finally moving from its powerful but suddenly archaic AM signal to FM in September 2011. It is now the Sports Hub that reigns in the ratings, with the gap most significant in morning and afternoon drive, where the advertising money is made.
Knocked off the peak of the mountain, WEEI and Entercom will now try to climb back with a new program director guiding the way. Brown said Thursday that Wolfe’s replacement would be announced in the next couple of days.
“I’m not prepared to make that announcement right now, but it will be made in short order,’’ said Brown, who said he had a candidate in mind.
“We have a lot of respect for the success Jason has had, but we’re moving into new ideas and new leadership,’’ Brown said.
Brown was asked if other changes at the station were imminent.
“As we make the programming change, the job of the new program director is to maximize the performance of the team on the field,’’ Brown said. “To get the most out of morning drive, the most out of midday, the most out of p.m. drive. There is not a shoe to drop.
“If you’re asking me if there’s a change to be made next week, next month, there’s not an imminent shoe to drop, based on Jason leaving right now.’’
Wolfe spent Thursday afternoon at WEEI’s Guest Street offices, saying goodbye to employees and friends, finishing up some work, taking calls from well-wishers (he said ownership from all four major Boston sports franchises called). He said he already has some inquiries he’ll look into about his next job. Reminiscing isn’t for him, at least right now.
“It’s just too soon to go back 22 years and think about all the people I’ve worked with and all that we’ve done, bosses and partners and clients and all that stuff,’’ he said. “I’m sure I’ll reflect on it. But I’m grateful. I’ve had an unbelievable amount of success, more than I could have imagined when I started, and I believe we built something special.”
That he did. He was just late in noticing the cracks in the foundation.