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Friday, October 21, 2005

Radio Wars

The summer ratings book was released recently. WEEI once again dominated, not just in the target demographic (men, 25-64), but in general, winning the drive time slot among all adults. Overall, the station posted a 6.6 rating, ahead of Magic 106.7 with a 6.1 rating.

Now I fall smack in the middle of the target audience for 'EEI. And for a long time I listened. Faithfully. On the way to work. On the way home. Sometimes on the weekends. I generally put the station on while I was in my car, hoping to hear something I hadn't read in the Globe or hadn't seen on SportsCenter the night before. Occasionally, I'd get that. Some of the regular guests brought to the table insight not readily available elsewhere.

But somewhere along the way, the essence of sports became secondary to the "art of entertaining". The station made the decision, based on what is broadcast most days, to table the deep details (why is Ozzie Guillen able to bunt when he does and get away with it) and instead spend large segments of time reading headlines from non-sports stories (and with horrid results). 'EEI was able to do this because they were the king of the mountain, the Sports Radio equivalent of Microsoft. No other station dared to challenge the king.

Then Sporting News Radio (The Zone) came to town. Big plans. Raising the bar radio. They made a big splash, stealing one of the original sports talk radio voices from 'EEI and signing a big name to handle the afternoon drive time slot. I, along with many of my friends, looked forward to this station.

The problem was that unless you were within 25 feet of the transmitter, what you heard initially, was static. And as the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Even some of the guests and personalities that migrated from 'EEI went back. Because it doesn't matter what your opinion is if no one can hear it. The Zone is still around, struggling to crack the ratings book, but things are gloomy.

For those of us who value meaningful dialog over talking heads, we do have a real alternative. One with deep pockets and a track record of succeeding in other marketplaces. ESPNRadio has come to Boston.

On the surface, the primary difference between the stations is the scope of topics. 'EEI is focused, almost exclusively, on local sports. (Well, most local sports. Hockey rarely is mentioned on that station.) Their guests are beat writers from the Herald, ProJo and other local papers, along with sports personalities from the local TV stations. Beyond Peter Gammons (a former writer for the Globe) and Boomer Easiason, there are few nationally recognized individuals who don't work for some local media entity. With such a narrow focus, the scope of topics are as narrow, resulting in day after day after day of "Tedy shouldn't play" or "Manny's being Manny again".

ESPNRadio, on the other hand, makes use of all the reporters who work for the various parts of the mothership. So you can hear John Clayton, Ron Jaworski or Chris Mortensen... sometimes ON THE SAME DAY, discussing various aspects of the upcoming NFL games, as an example. The commentators appear to be unbiased and informed. The guests are concise and to the point. It's like listening to a well written newspaper.

The other primary difference between the two? The use of the phone. 'EEi allows callers. In many cases, the same callers, day after day, week after week. Frank from Gloucester, Alison from Cambridge, Danny from Quincy.... All call with enough regularity that all the hosts have to do is say the name and the listeners will know, not only who they are, but what it is they're going to say. This is compounded by the fact that the on-air personalities feel it is their job to talk over, on and around the callers, so that having 4 voices attempting to be heard is not uncommon. On ESPNRadio, the afternoon drive time program allows some callers. The hosts listen to the comment, thank the caller, then respond. The mindset is 180 degrees from 'EEI.

It will be interesting to see what happens over the coming months. ESPNRadio launched just as the summer ratings book began. Many of my friends did not know that the station had started yet. But more and more know now and have begun listening. ESPNRadio will also be helped by their ability to broadcast the World Series games, along with the Sunday night games in both baseball and football. I'm hoping that serious sports fans will start listening and let those people who like the sound of their own voices stay with 'EEI.

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