Was Ordway firing more about ratings — or money?

Yes, as a matter of fact, I am old enough to remember Glenn Ordway as the color man back when the legendary Johnny Most was doing Celtics play-by-play.

I have nothing especially profound to say about Ordway’s departure from WEEI Radio (AM 850), a station he helped build into a sports powerhouse and that is now lagging in the ratings behind relative newcomer WBZ-FM (98.5 FM), better known as the Sports Hub. I’m only pointing out the obvious by observing that if this was all about the ratings, then no one is safe, starting with John Dennis and Gerry Callahan.

The one thing I’d keep an eye on is whether the move to dump Ordway was about money as much as it was about ratings. Marc Ganis, a sports business consultant based in Chicago, tells Matt Stout of the Boston Herald that Ordway’s salary — $500,000, down from $1 million a couple of years ago — was seriously out of whack with what local stations pay these days. Chad Finn of The Boston Globe reports that Ordway’s replacement, Mike Salk, is expected to make about $100,000.

We’ve already seen the dismantling of political talk radio in Boston. WTKK (96.9 FM) recently switched to music. WRKO (AM 680), which, like WEEI, is owned by Entercom, has cut way back over the years, to the point at which afternoon host Howie Carr is the station’s only highly paid star. The one exception to the downsizing trend on the commercial dial is Dan Rea’s evening show on WBZ (AM 1030).

Sports talk starts from a much higher ratings base than political talk, so perhaps Entercom is willing to spend some money to get WEEI back in the game. But it’s not only about ratings these days. It used to be that if you put up the numbers, the advertising would come rolling in. The ad business has changed considerably in recent years, and it’s not that simple anymore. There are plenty of non-radio options for people to listen to in their cars these days.

Ordway is talking about pursuing Internet options, and I wish him well. The challenge is that Internet radio doesn’t make money, and is generally used to promote something else. Consider the city’s two online alternative-music outlets. WFNX.com and RadioBDC exist to extend the brands of The Phoenix and the Globe’s Boston.com site, respectively. I don’t think anyone expects them to become profit-generating monsters.

As for the battle between WEEI and the Sports Hub, it could be that the most interesting sports talk you’ll hear over the next few weeks and months will be about the stations, not what’s on them.

Photo (cc) by uzi978 and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

WEEI gets back in the game

Much as I prefer the Sports Hub to the bitter old men of WEEI, I suspect John Dennis, Gerry Callahan and company are going to make up a lot of ratings ground very quickly once they start simulcasting on WMKK (93.7 FM) this coming Monday (Boston Globe story here; Boston Herald story here).

I don’t think anyone should underestimate how badly ‘EEI has been hurt by its miserable signal (AM 850) in the face of sports-talk competition from the Sports Hub, officially WBZ-FM (98.5). Yes, the programming on the Sports Hub is better, younger and funnier. But ‘EEI has been at a huge disadvantage. And it’s not without assets, principally Michael Holley plus Red Sox and Celtics games.

It’s not just that AM is fading from the scene — no worries, I suspect, at news-and-talk station WBZ (AM 1030), which has a nice, strong signal that can be heard in most places east of the Mississippi River after sundown. It’s that 850, weak and full of static, is almost unlistenable.

As for the simulcast, I give it a few months so that WEEI can promote 93.7. Once everyone has gotten the message, Entercom will probably do something else with 850 — although, frankly, it’s not good for much more than leasing it to a foreign-language religious broadcaster.

Three must-reads from today’s Globe

Manager of the Year?

I usually make the New York Times my first Sunday read, but there’s so much local news going on that I reached for the Boston Globe instead. I’m glad I did.

1. Was it Hunter Thompson who coined the phrase “to make a jackal puke”? Whoever it was, it definitely applies to Todd Wallack’s story on Massachusetts CEOs who reward themselves with ever-larger compensation packages even as their revenues dip and they lay off workers. Special bonus: the poster boy for this bad behavior is Sean Healey, husband of former lieutenant governor Kerry Healey, who paid himself $18 million in 2009 — a 73 percent increase over the previous year.

2. Red Sox  beat reporter Amalie Benjamin has a terrific overview of the disappointing season that ends today. She correctly observes that Terry Francona should get Manager of the Year for his skillful handling of a team decimated by injuries and underperformers. Then again, Francona should get Manager of the Year every year. While you’re at it, give a listen to general manager Theo Epstein’s interview with the “Sports Hub” (98.5 FM) — so interesting I found myself driving around on Friday so I could catch the whole thing.

3. I have no intention of seeing “The Town,” but I have little doubt that columnist Kevin Cullen’s profile of Charlestown lawyer Charlie Clifford, defender of small-time bank robbers, is a hell of a lot more enlightening — not to mention entertaining.

Photo (cc) by Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

Odd station out?

Let me see if I’ve got this straight. According to the Boston Globe’s Chad Finn, ESPN’s ratings- and signal-challenged Boston radio station, WAMG (AM 890), will shut down just as ESPN’s Boston Web site is making its debut.

But sports-radio ratings leader WEEI (AM 850), locked in a war with new sports station WBZ-FM (98.5 FM), will start carrying some of ESPN’s programming. Then, a few months from now, WEEI will match ‘BZ’s far better signal by moving to the FM dial. That, in turn, will open the way for ESPN to start a new Boston station at AM 850.

So ESPN goes from being number two in a two-station battle to number three in a three-station battle. It will have a better signal than it does now, but it will still be pretty lousy. And it will continue to deal with the challenge of not having any local professional games to carry.

Wow. Doesn’t sound smart to me.

On “Beat the Press” yesterday, ironically, we talked about how smart the folks are at ESPN, which is marking its 30th anniversary.

Earlier: “Optimism amid the newspaper gloom.”

Optimism amid the newspaper gloom

espnboston_20090828Two pieces of news prompt this post. First, the Associated Press reports that newspaper advertising was down 29 percent in the second quarter of 2009, a devastating decline that is sure to renew questions as to how much longer the traditional newspaper business can hang on. Second, the Boston Globe’s main football writer, Mike Reiss, is leaving for a new ESPN Web site to be called ESPNBoston.

What do these two events have in common? They are further evidence that media organizations whose business models are relatively healthy have an opportunity to invade the turf traditionally occupied by newspapers. That doesn’t offer much hope for newspaper publishers. But it’s certainly cause for optimism among those who want to see journalism survive — and something worried journalism students should take solace from as well.

ESPNBoston, which has not yet launched, is not to be confused with the radio station of the same name — an also-ran with two bad signals, now reduced to spectator status in the sports-talk battle between WEEI (AM 850) and WBZ-FM (98.5). ESPNBoston, writes the Globe’s Chad Finn, is part of a strategy by the parent company to launch regional Web sites in the most sports-crazed parts of the country.

Disney-owned ESPN, among other things, operates wildly successful cable channels, publishes a magazine and produces a Web site that, according to Quantcast.com, attracts between 14 million and 20 million unique visitors each month. I don’t pretend to know what ESPN’s business strategy is for the new local sites, but it seems logical that company executives would be willing to subsidize them for quite a while if they help cement brand loyalty.

Reiss is not the only local sports reporter to leave for sites operated by non-newspaper companies. Previously, the Boston Herald lost Rob Bradford to WEEI.com, and Globe baseball writer Gordon Edes decamped to Yahoo. The Globe and the Herald have always had good sports sections, and their coverage has helped drive a lot of circulation. Their sports sections are still good, but now they must compete with online coverage produced by companies with fewer financial problems than the newspaper business is experiencing.

And sports is just one example. Tom Palmer retired from the development beat at the Globe last year and kept right on doing his thing for McDermott Ventures, a public-relations firm — a relationship that may raise eyebrows among journalism ethicists, but that is sure to becoming increasingly common.

Also in 2008, Boston.com political blogger James Pindell left to head a national network of state political sites called Politicker.com. The project was ahead of its time, and it folded in the midst of last fall’s economic crisis. But the idea lives on: Pindell is now trying a similar project on his own in New Hampshire.

Finally, and not to repeat myself, but one of the more interesting projects under way right now is the redesigned WBUR.org, published by Boston’s public-radio powerhouse, WBUR (90.9 FM); the site combines local and NPR news into a quality online newspaper. Public radio has not been immune from having to make recession-related cuts. But, unlike newspapers, both its distribution model (commuters stuck in their cars) and its business model (listener contributions, corporate underwriting and grants, supplemented with a small amount of taxpayer money) remain intact.

If the next owner of the Globe keeps on cutting, it’s easy to imagine WBUR.org morphing into a real alternative. And, of course, there’s nothing to stop the city’s television news operations from pumping up their Web sites, though they, like the newspaper business, are experiencing tough economic times.

We often hear that if newspapers die, there will be nothing left but amateur citizen-media sites that, for all their strengths, lack the capacity to do the sort of public-interest journalism a democracy needs to thrive. In fact, there is reason to be a lot more optimistic than that. I hope newspaper companies can find a way of combining their print and online operations so they can thrive for years to come. But if they can’t, it won’t be the end of journalism.

Assessing the sports-talk competition

Bruce Allen has been paying far more attention to the sports-talk competition between WEEI (AM 850) and upstart WBZ-FM (98.5) than I have, and he’s got some interesting things to say. His bottom line: ‘BZ may not be firing on all cylinders yet, but ‘EEI finally has some competition on its hands.

I would love to see ‘EEI taken down a few notches, but here’s my problem. The Red Sox and the Celtics are on ‘EEI. The Patriots and the Bruins are on ‘BZ. I love baseball, prefer basketball to football, and actively dislike hockey. So I may wind up choosing WEEI more often than WBZ for reasons other than quality. (Via Universal Hub.)

Follow the bouncing sports talkers

So why did the Boston Globe and WEEI Radio (AM 850) reach an agreement that will allow Globe sportswriters to appear on the station for the first time in years, as the Boston Phoenix’s Adam Reilly reported yesterday?

According to the Boston Herald’s Gayle Fee and Laura Raposa, Globe sportswriter Tony Massarotti is about to jump ship to WBZ-FM (98.5 FM), the CBS-owned all-sports station that will begin competing with WEEI this fall. Massarotti was a constant on ‘EEI when he was with the Herald.

Bringing the Globe-‘EEI war to a peaceful conclusion would presumably open the way for (a) Massarotti to return to that station or, more likely, (b) beef up ‘EEI as it seeks to compete with a new afternoon show on WBZ-FM that would be co-hosted by Massarotti and Mike Felger, though it’s not entirely clear what is going on.

Weirdly enough, Globe sports-media columnist Chad Finn tweets that Globe writers will be allowed to phone in, but not be in the studio, for WEEI’s highly rated morning and afternoon drive programs, “Dennis & Callahan” and “The Big Show,” although an exception will be made if a Globie has a chance to co-host “D&C.” (Via Boston Sports Media.)

In looking over this item, it appears I may have only added to the confusion. My work here is done. You’re welcome.