As this golden age of Boston sports approaches the 20-year mark, it’s hard to believe that just a decade ago there was still uncertainty about whether the market could and would support two prominent sports radio stations.
As 98.5 The Sports Hub celebrates its 10-year anniversary this week, it’s remarkable to look back at how quickly the answer — a resounding yes — came.
When The Sports Hub launched on Aug. 13, 2009 — the Patriots’ radio flagship station wisely kicking off its first day by replaying the radio calls of the franchise’s three Super Bowl victories in the day’s early hours leading into its “Toucher and Rich” morning show — it faced the daunting task of taking on a long-established and extremely successful competitor for fans’ attention.
(How long ago was it? The station’s first day on the air featured the Patriots’ 2009 preseason opener, which carried plenty of suspense and interest since it was Tom Brady’s return from the knee injury that ended his 2008 season in the opener against the Chiefs.)
WEEI (850-AM), which converted to sports in 1991, had dominated the sports landscape for nearly 20 years, easily vanquishing any weak-signaled would-be competitor that came along, including WWZN 1510 and WAMG 890 in the 2000s.
The Sports Hub had some advantages over their predecessors that couldn’t dent WEEI — steady corporate ownership in CBS Radio, rights deals with the Patriots and Bruins, and perhaps most important, a strong FM signal. But success was no sure thing.
“My personal goal was to be challenging WEEI within five years,’’ says Michael Felger, who has co-hosted The Sports Hub’s afternoon drive program with Tony Massarotti since the station’s advent. “Challenging. To be a viable contender within, whatever, 3-5 years. That was the goal. Nothing bigger than that.”
Felger and Massarotti’s program has been entrenched as the No. 1 show in the men 25-54 demographic — the desired target audience/potential advertisers for sports radio — for years now. The program had some modest and encouraging early success — the station earned a 4.0 share in September 2009, impressive for its first full month on the air. The next month, it climbed to a 5.9. WEEI still was No. 1 with an 8.4, but The Sports Hub’s inroads were undeniable.
Felger’s words then jibe with his current recollections of their expectations.
“I think that eventually we’d like to be a top-10 station in the 25-54, but it’s a gradual process,’’ he said in December 2009, after those ratings came out. “It’s not just that we’re a startup, or a dial shift, or a format change — we’re all of those things, and after all of that, we have to be very happy with where we are right now.”
A year later, they were even happier. “Felger and Massarotti” became the first Sports Hub show to beat its WEEI counterpart in a single month when it finished second with a 7.3 in May 2010, with WEEI’s “The Big Show,” helmed by Glenn Ordway, finishing third (6.5).
Both “Felger and Massarotti” and the morning drive “Toucher and Rich” program earned their initial first-place finishes in November 2010, a spot that would become familiar to both shows through the following years.
The most important milestone in the station’s early history occurred in fall 2010, when it beat WEEI overall in the men 25-54 demo, 7.6 to 6.5. It didn’t take five years, as Felger thought it might. It took a little more than one.
WEEI, which finally made the move to FM in September 2011 (anyone remember it’s predecessor at 93.7, Mike FM?) has undergone several changes in the years since, including the departure and return of Ordway, the Kirk Minihane meteor, and the recent firing of longtime morning show host Gerry Callahan. While the question of whether two sports stations in the market can thrive has long been answered, WEEI is at its own crossroads right now, with parent company Entercom’s stock taking a major recent hit.
It’s remarkable how little has changed at The Sports Hub, even with an ownership change in November 2017 in which it ended up with Beasley Media Group. “Felger and Massarotti,” and “Toucher and Rich,” which came over from WBCN at the launch, remain intact in drive time, with only occasional changes to the supporting cast. Gary Tanguay was Scott Zolak’s original midday co-host, but he was replaced by Andy Gresh in April 2010. Gresh was replaced by current co-host Marc Bertrand in February 2015. Adam Jones took over as the evening host in December 2012 after Damon Amendolara went to CBS’s national programming. And Brady was still opening the preseason as the Patriots’ quarterback on an August Thursday night.
“We were fortunate, I think, in a lot of ways,’’ says Massarotti. “We were in the right place at the right time and I think we had very good leadership.
“And the market we’re in, it sounds [like b.s.], but when you do what we do, there’s no better place in the country to do it. It’s a different market when it comes to sports. It just is. People here care. They care about the teams, it means something to them. Right place, right time. Not to mention the fact that every year there’s a freaking championship parade.”