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.

A couple of Gates-related odds and ends

I want to make it clear right up front that I know neither of these tidbits speaks directly to the matter of Professor Henry Louis Gates versus Sgt. James Crowley. But I’ve been thinking about both of them, and have decided they’re worth passing on as being indicative of a certain cultural mindset.

First, can we agree that 1999 wasn’t that long ago? Good. Because it was during that year that the Cambridge Chronicle discovered the Cambridge Police Department was training its officers to believe Mexicans and members of other ethnic groups who routinely eat spicy foods were immune to pepper spray. Apologies ensued.

Second, why on earth would Crowley give his first major interview to John Dennis and Gerry Callahan on WEEI Radio (AM 850)? The officer was trying to make the case that he’s not a racist — and yet he talked with two guys who were once suspended for comparing black kids to “gorillas.”

I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that Crowley is a racist. On the other hand, the evidence that he’s “clueless,” as Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker put it yesterday, continues to build.

As for President Obama, his week was like the Red Sox’ — really bad, ending on an upbeat note, but leaving you wondering whether he can shore up some fundamental flaws (lack of message discipline, combined with a disconcerting habit of having to revise his remarks) that weren’t evident when he was winning.

Tony Mazz jumps to the Globe

Two developments coming out of the Boston Globe sports department, courtesy of Adam Reilly.

In the non-surprise department, Amalie Benjamin succeeds Gordon Edes, now with Yahoo Sports, as the Globe’s Red Sox beat reporter. Interesting and good that the Globe would put a woman in that high-profile slot. Even better, it represents a long-overdue generational shift. If this Wikipedia bio is accurate, Benjamin is 26 years old.

In the big-surprise department, the Boston Herald’s Tony Massarotti is leaving One Herald Square to join a beefed-up Boston.com sports operation. Massarotti is a leading reason to read the Herald, so this is a huge, huge loss. It also tells me that Globe sports editor Joe Sullivan is at least as concerned about competing with the newly ascendant WEEI.com as he is with the Herald. (Sullivan is also promoting part-time copy editor Chad Finn to a new job as a sports reporter for Boston.com.)

Unless the Globe loosens its WEEI ban [see tweak below] , it also means one of the station’s most recognizable voices will no longer be heard. Of course, now Massarotti can appear on New England Sports Network, a corporate cousin to the Globe.

The best news about all of this is that job creation continues at 135 Morrissey Boulevard, shifting from the print edition to the Web site.

Friday tweak: According to the Joan Vennochi column I linked to last night, as well as to a piece I wrote in April 2001, I glossed over the ban just a bit too glibly. Former Globe editor Matt Storin banned his people from appearing on “The Big Show,” in the afternoon, and later extended it to “Dennis & Callahan” as well. WEEI retaliated by announcing that Globe writers had been banned from all of its programs. So it’s kind of a mutual ban.

Callahan says he had throat cancer

WEEI Radio (AM 850) morning-show co-host Gerry Callahan today confirms longstanding rumors that his months-long absence in 2007 was due to serious illness. In his Boston Herald column, Callahan writes that he was being treated for throat cancer.

Bruce Allen notes that Callahan timed his announcement to coincide with the annual WEEI-NESN telethon for the Jimmy Fund. Good move — it will raise interest and could well result in more money for the Jimmy Fund.

Media Nation is no fan of “Dennis & Callahan,” with its snide putdowns of everyone to the left of Dick Cheney. But I wish Callahan well.

Radio’s challenge to print

You may have heard that two Boston Herald sportswriters, Rob Bradford and Michael Felger, are leaving the paper to join WEEI.com as full-time sports bloggers. The move hasn’t gotten much attention, but I think it may prove to be pretty significant in terms of how the media continue to change.

The buzzword for what this is about is “disaggregation.” What it means is that the one-stop package that is the daily newspaper — hard news and automobile ads, obituaries and sports, political analysis and comics — is coming apart, with niche media better able to give people what they’re looking for.

You can already see this with television sports journalism. The sports segments on TV newscasts have been shortened because the true fans are watching ESPN. Now it’s coming down to the local level, with WEEI (AM 850), a phenomenally successful all-sports radio station, taking the first step toward competing with the sports pages of the Herald and the Boston Globe.

This is going to be a challenge for Bradford and Felger in that there is virtually no adult supervision at WEEI. They’re going to have to provide their own journalistic standards, and no doubt there will be occasions when they’ll have to stand up to management and say “no.” In a larger sense, though, I’m fascinated at the notion that a radio station is going to try to fill at least part of the role traditionally held by newspapers.

In that respect, the WEEI move is more significant than Sacha Pfeiffer‘s decision to switch from the Globe to WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) earlier this year. Pfeiffer’s new job, after all, is to be a radio reporter, not a print reporter who writes for the station’s Web site. It has more to do with a first-rate reporter moving to a medium whose non-profit business model, built on a foundation of listener contributions and corporate underwriting, is more solid than the newspaper industry’s.

Yet here, too, there are developments that bear watching. Every day I receive an e-mail from WBUR with the latest world, national and local news, complete with photos, AP wire copy and sound clips. It is a reasonably comprehensive wrap-up of the day’s news, even if it’s not quite as detailed as what I find in the Globe.

Currently the Globe offers a six- or seven-minute podcast that is little more than a teaser for what’s in the paper. But if WBUR is going to publish what is, in effect, an online newspaper, why shouldn’t the Globe compete with a half-hour podcast consisting of a reasonably complete news report, with paid advertising?

If digital convergence gives radio stations the power to become newspapers, then newspapers ought to consider what it would take to become radio stations. In the current environment, no one can afford not to experiment.

More: Dave Scott has some thoughts on what Felger’s move means for the local ESPN Radio outlet at AM 890, where Felger had hosted a show, as well as further background on the Bradford-Herald situation.

Best wishes to Glenn Ordway’s family

Bruce Allen has a statement from WEEI Radio (AM 850).

Boston’s talk devolution

While the focus on the talk-radio wars here and elsewhere has generally been on the dysfunctional station that is WRKO (AM 680), it seems that the real mess may be at WTKK (96.9 FM). Globe columnist Steve Bailey reports that WRKO is charging — and presumably getting — considerably more money for advertising than its rival during the all-important morning and evening commutes.

In the morning, ‘RKO’s Tom Finneran show (on which Bailey appears) is charging $400 for a 60-second ad, compared to $250 for the same ad on the syndicated “Imus in the Morning” program on ‘TKK. In the afternoon, Howie Carr (WRKO) gets $600, while Jay Severin (WTKK) lags at $350.

I imagine this needs to be taken with at least a grain of salt. In the newspaper business, ad-rate cards tend to feature more creative writing than anything you’ll find in the actual paper, and that may be true of radio as well. But Bailey’s numbers make a certain amount of sense.

Finneran, the born-again non-lobbyist, hasn’t exactly set the world on fire, but the aging Imus’ return has essentially been a non-story. I suspect that most of Imus’ few remaining listeners found a new morning routine during his richly earned hiatus, and they’re not going back.

As for the Carr-Severin war, it’s a shame both sides can’t lose — but Carr does manage to bring intelligence, wit and an encyclopedic knowledge of Boston to the table, despite his laziness and his occasional indulgences in homophobic snickering. Severin possesses a large vocabulary, but his ranting, his mindless cheerleading on behalf of Mitt Romney and his mundane-yet-offensive insights into politics are tiresome. I’m not sure why, but Severin has become much less listenable since his return from syndication a couple of years ago. I guess listeners agree with me, given that Severin was beating Carr in the ratings before he left.

WTKK could have solved its drive-time shortcomings. Part of it wasn’t the station’s fault — Howie Carr wanted to switch and become the station’s morning host, but his contract didn’t allow him to do so. If I were running ‘TKK and had somehow found a way to land Carr, I’d have kept him in the afternoon and moved Severin to the less important mid-day slot. Then I’d have moved “Eagan and Braude,” the station’s best program, to morning drive.

Not that they asked me. But you know what? They’d be better off if they had.

One final note. Bailey also reports that the ad rates charged by the sports-talk programs on WEEI, a sister station to ‘RKO, absolutely blow away both ‘RKO and ‘TKK. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger’s famous dictum about academic politics, the infighting between ‘RKO and ‘TKK is so fierce because the stakes are so small.