“EEI”

WEEI.  If you live in the area and are a sports fan, you know what I’m talking about; it’s a sports radio station.  Most listeners know it by the nickname, “EEI,” much in the way an old-timer from Beantown would refer to the A.M. station WBZ by the shorthand, “BZ.” 

WEEI’s ratings are high among its target demographic – guys that follow the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, Bruins and major local college teams.  And judging from the number of calls that come in from other parts of the globe, many people listen to WEEI internationally on the internet.  In short, the station is a hit.

I am not here to slam WEEI.  The listeners, by and large, seem pleased with its content.  The owners of the station are making money.  People that do not care for the station’s style have alternatives – there is satellite radio, as well as a sports radio station forty miles to the south that has decent hosts, guests, the whole bit. 

No, I am here today to discuss business.  The baseball business that is.  In particular, does it make sense for the Red Sox, a privately held team with no ownership ties to the station, to be so cozy with WEEI? 

For a moment we will put aside the fact that the team has given WEEI the right to serve as its flagship station for play-by-play radio broadcasts of Red Sox games.  No doubt the contract, which is quite lucrative from the team’s perspective, contains obligations on the club’s part to provide the station access to various players and club personnel, all of whom become in essence part of the station’s programming offering to listeners.

No, I am talking instead about all the other stuff.  If you listen to the station, you know what I mean.  General Manager Theo Epstein and President Larry Lucchino each have a weekly interview segment during the busy morning rush hour.  Principal owner John Henry appears on air during evening drive time a few times a year, usually when something pretty big happens.  Players like Curt Schilling and the manager, Terry Francona, have weekly gigs with various hosts.  Other players appear for occasional interviews.  I assume that most of these appearances are voluntary, even if the interviewees are being compensated, and they are undertaken as part of the team’s perceived need to publicize its activities.

Indeed, there is no question that radio appearances feed the fans’ need to hear Red Sox brass and players talk, as regularly and frequently as possible, about the team, its prospects, goals, etc.  The gigs, in essence, are part of the product.

But sometimes WEEI takes a position that fans the flames of discontent in Red Sox Nation.  Take one story that had legs during spring training.  One day, I turned the station on at least ten times, and on at least eight of those occasions I stumbled upon an endless discussion about whether Manny Ramirez’ failure to arrive prior to March 1 is a major problem for the ball club, its psyche, whatever.  No matter how many players insisted it was no big deal, the station’s on air personalities almost to a man disagreed.  When Sox GM Theo Epstein was rumored to be returning from his temporary “retirement”, it was the same thing – “his return will make the team look ridiculous,” said one host – over and over and over.  (Both stories, in the wake of the team’s fine start, are long forgotten.)

And the owners are not spared.  To the credit, I suppose, of the station and its personalities, Henry’s hat, voice and strange mannerisms all have been the subject of ridicule, despite the team’s apparent cooperation with WEEI management.

This type of thing – letting the public in on the back story – obviously has its supporters among programming gurus.  Take American Idol, for example.  The show has sky-high ratings.  Even during the audition phase, millions watch in rapt attention.  Still, of the thousands of hours of footage shot at the auditions, evaluation sessions, etc., featuring attractive and talented young people from every corner of the country, the producers generally choose to spend about half of the allotted time showing hideously bad performances, petty comments from losing contestants, infighting between the judges – even bits about the criminal records of various participants.  In other words, people who know a lot about these things seem to believe that there is an audience for this kind of stuff; that the product alone – talented young amateur singers strutting their stuff – is simply not enough to draw a big audience.  Is it possible that a similar conclusion has been drawn by the Red Sox and their PR advisors?  Has some sort of bizarre, devil’s bargain been struck between the team and WEEI?

Whatever a PR guru might think about all this, I question whether these soap opera stories really are a valuable part of the publicity machine of a baseball team.  Of course, intelligent fans are always going to want to hear club officials discuss the team’s plans for the future, proposed trades, etc.  But is the whining and complaining and questioning that fills the hours on WEEI really good for the Red Sox?  Does it make people respect the team more, dig deeper into their pockets for tickets or gear, or watch more games on the club-owned television channel?

I don’t really have the answers to these questions, but a few comments made recently by Epstein and Lucchino, combined with some new policies they have adopted, suggest to me that they have their doubts.  First, there was the vague announcement by the club that hence forth, public discussion of trades, negotiations, etc., will be subject to tighter controls.  Second, when asked a few weeks back whether there was anything he could learn from the Patriots success, Epstein said “of course,” and then he proceeded to talk mainly about the football team’s ability to “deliver a consistent message from the top of the organization down through the coaches and players.”

Not long after I started this piece, I saw a note on the Globe business pages suggesting that the team is looking at the possibility of creating its own radio station.  To that story, I offer the following – well, duh?  Sounds like a pretty good idea.  A Red Sox radio station, operated with some independence to maintain integrity but nonetheless ultimately subject to club control, could serve as the flagship station for play-by-play coverage as well as a forum for talk shows, club interviews and the like.  It would probably be a smashing success and a cash cow for sponsors eager to align themselves with a team that could offer access to Fenway Park, meet-and-greets with players and coaches, etc. 

Oh sure, the Sox are not stupid.  They would hire sports talk show hosts and give them some authority to question and criticize.  That’s baseball.  I listen to NFL radio on Sirius all the time and they have plenty of guys that talk about all sorts of negative things about the teams.  BUT, and it’s a big but, there is a line they do not cross.  They do not ridicule, and they do not speculate about sensitive issues.  And they sure as heck wouldn’t beat to death some story about some player showing up three days late for spring training.

A Red Sox radio station would be a blow to WEEI, but the station would simply go forward and turn the heat up even higher.  In the end, it might be good for the fans.  An end to the sports radio monopoly and an even freer reign on the part of the unaffiliated radio station to continue slamming the club at every opportunity.

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