Maybe Mike Salk’s struggles in establishing an appealing voice during his 10 months on WEEI’s afternoon drive program are in part due to a certain familiar sports adage:
You don’t want to be the guy who follows the legend. You want to be the guy who follows the poor guy who followed the legend.
The implication, of course, is that being the Phil Bengston who follows Vince Lombardi, or the Ray Handley who succeeds Bill Parcells, is a thankless task and one all but doomed from the start.
Following Glenn Ordway — a.k.a. The Big O, the host or cohost of “The Big Show” for 18 years and a Boston sports media fixture since the 1970s — certainly qualifies as stepping into the shadow of an icon.
Ordway’s popularity — or at least his familiarity to the region’s sports fans — wasn’t so much reflected in the ratings at the end. But it was more than evident in the backlash from listeners and advertisers that WEEI and Entercom received when he was fired last February. No matter how one felt about Ordway’s act, there’s no denying it was a difficult one to follow.
The challenge acknowledged, this much has become increasingly obvious since Salk, who grew up in Sudbury and Newton, returned home last March after a successful stint in Seattle to replace Ordway alongside holdover cohost Michael Holley:
He’s not the right guy to follow the legend.
And the sooner Entercom makes a change, even with three years remaining on Salk’s deal, the closer it will be to finding the second highly-rated drive-time program it lacks in its battle with 98.5 The Sports Hub. Salk needs to go if WEEI is going to improve.
The “Dennis and Callahan” program is already rejuvenated in the morning. Kirk Minihane, who recently signed a new deal, has added a blunt and funny element, and John Dennis and Gerry Callahan will have new contracts soon.
D&C was second with a 9.0 share in the mornings during the fall ratings, trailing only Sports Hub counterparts “Toucher and Rich” (12.2). New Entercom Boston boss Phil Zachary values their show and sees it as the foundation for the programming that follows during the day.
But since Salk was hired and emboldened by his chief advocate at Entercom, the since-departed Jeff Brown, nothing much has changed in terms of afternoon-drive listenership. In fall 2012, the show helmed by Ordway and Holley earned a 5.2 share, trailing 98.5’s “Felger and Massarotti” program, which was first in the time period at 9.1.
This past fall, even with a Red Sox World Series run to bolster the flagship station’s numbers, Salk and Holley earned a 6.0 share, yet trailed Felger and Massarotti (first at 13.4) by a larger margin than the previous fall.
It’s difficult to pin down why Salk hasn’t caught on, though a couple of theories come to mind.
While he is from here — he played three sports at Buckingham Browne & Nichols in Cambridge — and had previous experience in the market with five years at the now-defunct ESPN 890, he doesn’t come across that way.
No one is asking him to sound like a son of Southie like WEEI fill-in Danny Picard, but it is notable that Felger, a native of Wisconsin, is far savvier at connecting with Boston fans than a lifer like Salk.
There’s also the Bristolization of his style, no surprise considering Salk, who often hosted “SportsCenter Saturday,” is well-respected at ESPN. One aggravating ESPN staple that he has adopted is the chronic teasing of what comes next, right after this break, without sharing all of the key information. It seems here that telling the listener to hang on for a piece of information is a pretty good way to get him or her to change the station in the interim.
As complicit as he has been in the show’s struggles and the alienation of some longtime and respected behind-the-scenes personnel, some might suggest that it’s unfair to pin the majority of the show’s struggles on Salk.
Those who suggest Holley’s culpability note that he is now on his third partner at WEEI, with the previous two (Ordway and Dale Arnold) getting either severely demoted or fired, and that perhaps more accountability should fall on him for the show’s struggles. It would be easier to see it that way if there weren’t evidence in the past that he is outstanding when paired with the right cohost.
His pairing with Arnold in midday worked and in retrospect never should have been broken up (though part of the impetus for doing so was to move Holley into a more prominent day part). He was always an excellent counter to Felger during the latter’s fill-in days at WEEI.
But he’s truly been at his best when paired with Michael Smith, the former Globe sportswriter who has been at ESPN for nearly a decade. Their pairing, which usually happened when Smith would fill in over the holidays, came off as good friends who savored a smart sports argument.
That’s what sports radio should be. It was authentic, smart, and fun, and there’s no doubt here that it would make for a compelling drive-time program if Entercom could lure him away.
But even if Smith isn’t ultimately the guy after the guy, the reality is this: WEEI doesn’t have the right guy at the moment, either.
Mary Paoletti, whose easy banter with host Tom Curran helped make “Quick Slants” the kind of football show that even a media writer’s NFL-indifferent wife enjoyed watching, is leaving Comcast SportsNet New England. She informed CSNNE of her plans this week and is leaving the Boston market. Best wishes to one of the nicest and most honest people I’ve dealt with since taking over this beat five years ago . . . Somehow missed this over the holidays, but Sports Hub co-host Andy Gresh had his option picked up a few weeks ago. Ratings for the Sports Hub’s midday program continue to grow.
Chad Finn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.