With the ratings numbers from the spring 2011 book being released this week, WEEI executives have to be concerned. Publicly they will insist things are fine, that these numbers are just an aberration, a fluke brought on by the Boston Bruins first Stanley Cup Championship since 1972. They'll say that their own numbers are still quite strong, and that they are confident that with attention now turning to the Red Sox, things will be better on their end next time.
There is likely a kernel of truth to all of those things. In many ways this ratings period was a perfect storm - WEEI had shuffled their lineup and was searching for consistency while the Bruins went on a thrilling run which had people eager to talk about the team, and the best place to do that was on the flagship home of the Bruins. There should be some equalizing here, with the Bruins audience stepping back a little bit and the Red Sox taking over the spotlight.
If WEEI management feels however, that they can just sit back and let things go as they are, they're making a huge mistake. Let's look at their daytime shows, and see they stand and what needs to improve.
Dennis and Callahan (6:00 - 10:00 AM)
One odd thing about the meteoric rise of 98.5's Toucher and Rich program is that they really haven't stolen from D&C's audience. The WEEI morning duo of John Dennis and Gerry Callahan have a fiercely loyal core audience, who is going to stick with them through anything. They seem to have toned down the political talk, and also seemingly jettisoned the "headlines" segment which talk up most of the 7:00 - 8:00 hour. Their strength is in the guests that they get, and the duo's ability to get information out of those guests. Producer Steve Ciaccio is outstanding at lining up guests for this show. They need to do more of that type of radio. Their biggest downsides are their ages and tendency to get wrapped up in a political issue and string out for weeks. This show is not going to be attracting new, younger listeners. However despite the huge win for Toucher and Rich in this ratings period, WEEI doesn't have a whole lot to worry about in the short term with this show, except how much they are costing them in salary.
Mut and Merloni (10:00 AM - 2:00 PM)
This was Jason Wolfe's biggest gamble, and to date, it has not paid off. On paper, you can see why it made sense for Wolfe to put these two together, Lou Merloni was considered WEEI's biggest "young" asset, and Mike Mutnansky despite his youth, has been hosting shows in this market for nearly a decade now. It just hasn't "clicked" thus far, and if people are heading over to the likes of Andy Gresh middays over on 98.5, that should tell you something. Lots of folks have referred to a lack of chemistry between the two, and if management had been thinking ahead, perhaps they should've attempted to pair up this duo on the weekends for a time before putting them on every day during the week. The biggest mistake of course, was moving Dale Arnold out of this spot, just as the Bruins were getting ready for their run. Arnold, the only host on WEEI capable of intelligently talking hockey and drawing the hockey listeners to the station was relegated to the sidelines at the end of February. Management then scrambled to try and get Arnold back on the air by having him sit in with D&C on several occasions during the Cup run, but it was too little, too late. What can this show do to get better? The two need to continue to build a a rapport, they need to draw on Merloni's knowledge as a former Major Leaguer, they need to keep getting good national guests, and try to get back to what made WEEI's midday offering so appealing and successful in the past - put out a good, solid show, with reasoned, intelligent sports talk. If they can't, this show might be a short-lived one.
The Big Show (2:00 to 6:00 PM)
This was another big gamble, and it was followed up by a curious addition to the show, which has done nothing but make it worse. Moving Michael Holley off of middays to the drive time made sense from the perspective of needing to add a younger, diverse voice to the dated format, and was meant to allow the show to compete better with the 98.5 competition of Michael Felger (who learned at the knee of Glenn Ordway) and Tony Massarotti, who had also been a Big Show regular in the past. The show still very much belongs to Ordway, who dominates the topics and discussion, while Holley seems more like a sidekick rather than an equal co-host.
The biggest mistake however, was the decision to give the wild and crazy Mikey Adams a role with the program. It was announced that Adams would do the flashes, and occasionally chime in, but he has inserted himself into a much bigger role in the show, which is to its detriment. On days where Ordway or Holley has been out, Adams has stepped into a co-host chair. During discussions when both hosts are there, Adams chimes in throughout the show, usually with some lame, dated attempt at humor. This week, I flipped over, and there was some reference to movies or movie sequels , and Adams chimes in with "And I saw Friday the 13th, part 14 'Jason takes a dump.'" The reference was typical Adams - an attempt at humor that goes over better at 9:30 at night when he is by himself and his audience is half in the bag. Adams brings nothing to the show sportswise, all of his knowledge is concentrated on Red Sox teams prior to 1980. He kills the show whenever he interjects himself into it.
The first step towards fixing the Big Show is eradicating Mike Adams from it. The second step would be to stop relying so much on the soap-opera antics of Ordway and get more guests onto the program who can add something to the program. Over the years, it seems like Ordway has not been a proponent of guests on the show unless they are coaches/athletes or cronies of his. Getting insightful guests is something that Ordway needs to allow producer Andy Massaua to do more of .
WEEI also needs to finally make the move to FM. It's been way too long in coming, and the reluctance or inability of Entercom to find a way to make it happen is puzzling. If they don't get things turned around, they stand to lose some of their assets - personnel and programming. Tom E. Curran needs a bigger role on the station before they lose him. If the ratings continue to lag behind 98.5, there could be a decision to be made when the rights to Patriots Monday and Patriots Friday come up. Don't you think the Patriots would love to have those programs on the same station that holds their broadcast rights? It appears that advertising is suffering on WEEI, as they seem to be playing more "house" ads, and less ads overall, which is a win for listeners, but not for the bottom line of a station that is paying astronomical salaries to the likes of Ordway, Dennis, Callahan and Holley.
If WEEI wants to recapture their spot atop the ratings, they need to reverse their trend of poor decision-making. They need to stop insulting large portions of their audience, who now have an alternative outlet. 98.5, in many ways, became successful because of two seemingly opposite reasons, because of WEEI "fatigue" and because of following the WEEI formula but doing it better.
By embracing Bruins fans, 98.5 scored a huge win in the spring book. Can the Red Sox help WEEI to success in the summer and fall? Or will fans stay on 98.5 with the (hopeful) start of the Patriots season. This battle is just getting started.