If you’re building a Mount Rushmore of current sports radio hosts, Boston’s Mike Felger is on it. But don’t tell him, because that’s the type of generic conversation Felger & Mazz try to avoid on 98.5 The Sports Hub.
After nearly two decades with The Boston Herald, Felger was tabbed by program director Mike Thomas to help launch The Sports Hub in 2009, partnering him with Tony Massarotti in afternoon drive. The show quickly made its mark, finding ratings success that is unheard of in sports radio.
Sure, it helps to have an equally unprecedented run of success from Boston’s sports teams, but that will only get you so far. When you’re able to generate numbers that approach a 20 share, the success is about more than just the market.
I spoke to four people in addition to Felger to get an understanding of how he operates as a radio host. Polarizing, opinionated, intelligent, genuine and hardworking were repeated in each of my conversations. His former boss Mike Thomas, current program director Rick Radzik, co-host Tony Massarotti and previous competitor from WEEI Michael Holley each offered insight.
Brandon Contes: Has being a sportswriter and reporter influenced how you create a radio show?
Mike Felger: Absolutely. Especially the kind of print I did which was tabloid journalism. When I worked at The Boston Herald it wasn’t just writing, it was digging up stories, headlines and drama. The way they approached sports writing was definitely conducive to sports radio.
BC: How much of your show is preplanned and organized?
MF: I’m kind of compulsive, but we pretty much program the entire show, all 16 blocks on an email in the morning. Obviously, there are times we need to change on the fly depending on the news, but generally speaking, every segment is on a rundown at the start of the day.
“He’s very smart and focused, he doesn’t miss a thing,” Mazz said. “His senses and awareness are acute and it allows him to pick up on things that not everyone will notice, but it’s invaluable in our business because it facilitates discussion.”
BC: For a journalist, everything goes through multiple filters before it gets to the public, so there’s time to course correct, but in radio, there’s no filter. Once you say it, it’s out there. Was that a difficult adjustment?
MF: Not for me. Sometimes it gets you in trouble, you can go too far and I’ve certainly had those days. You can have a bad take, a bad read on things that doesn’t get edited like you would at a newspaper and you get home at night, think back and say ‘well that wasn’t quite what I meant.’
“Mike’s way better at it than I am,” Mazz added. “He knows exactly how he wants to say something before he says it. Sometimes I don’t, so I’ll have to say it out loud, ‘that didn’t sound right, let me change it’ and that’s my backspace button. But the better way to do it is, say it right the first time and I haven’t perfected that art [Laughs].”
“If you write every day, you don’t necessarily need filters for your opinion,” Holley said. “Your opinion is refined. And if you’re not an idiot, you shouldn’t be concerned about going on the radio and sharing your opinion. Idiots should be afraid. If you go on the radio 20 hours a week, not everything will be perfect, but you can’t worry about being right.”
BC: Do you have a preference, print or radio?
MF: Radio is 10 times easier. It’s not even close. Every day I don’t have to write and report is like I’ve died and gone to heaven. It’s hard, and I really wasn’t good at it. The guys that do it now, developing sources, getting people to tell you something they don’t want to tell you, breaking news – those people are working. What we do on radio is easy compared to that.
BC: What about the need to have such conviction on radio, because again, when you’re writing, you can hide behind the curtain, but in radio the audience can tell if an opinion doesn’t sound genuine.
MF: Say something. Even if it’s wrong, just say something. There’s a lot of nuance with topics, but it’s a better discussion if you’re less nuanced and sports lends itself to that. There’s a scoreboard, you have a winner and a loser, someone makes the right play, someone makes the wrong play, someone makes the right trade or the wrong trade. There’s a reason they have that scoreboard and your commentary should reflect that.
BC: You were part-time with WEEI, then you went to 890 ESPN and it didn’t work. Now you have this opportunity in 2009 with another startup sports station at 98.5. If it didn’t work once, what made you think a new sports station would work the second time?
MF: The second one was far better positioned, but even if it wasn’t, even if it was another crappy AM signal with bad ownership, I probably would’ve taken the show. I have a habit of not turning down work. But this was a no-brainer, it was CBS Radio which was a huge radio company at the time with WFAN and other strong brands. It was an FM signal, they already had the Patriots and the Bruins. 890 didn’t have rights agreements, they had syndicated programming, a small signal and I sucked! It was my first hosting gig and I needed work. But hopefully, I became better in those few years.
“The best thing that happened to Mike was his stint with 890 ESPN,” Radzik said. “He went in there and learned how to do a radio show. He was a solo host, didn’t get a lot of calls, it was a weak signal, but it catapulted him from being a guest, to learning how to manage a show.”
BC: Even knowing how well The Sports Hub was set up, were you surprised how quickly it was able to not only make a dent, but pass an established brand like WEEI?
MF: Yes. I think everyone was. I certainly was. The goal when I took the job was to still have it three years later and get the show renewed. Beyond that, I would’ve said, hopefully within five years we have a real race, but it happened in 12-18 months.
“We captured lightning in a bottle,” Mike Thomas said. “We were the first to FM, the teams were doing really well. This city desperately needed a true second sports competitor, there’s a lot of things that came our way and we know we were very fortunate.”
“We thought our show could work, we wouldn’t have done it otherwise,” Mazz added. “I certainly didn’t expect it to grab hold as quickly and aggressively as it did, but there’s also a big aspect of being in the right place at the right time.”
BC: Does your mentality change at all when you pass EEI and now you’re the hunted, not the hunter?
MF: I think so. When we first started and EEI was so well-established there had to be a measure of counter programming. But I haven’t looked at it that way in a long time. I don’t know if that’s smart or stupid, but for quite awhile now, we do what we do, and it doesn’t matter what happens across the dial.
BC: Is there a risk of complacency? How do you avoid getting stale and letting the competition get bigger in the rearview mirror?
MF: One thing I’ve learned through all of this is, I just don’t think it matters what the other person does. And that’s not specific to EEI, it’s any radio station vs another. What matters is pumping out a good 12-minute segment, going to commercial and then doing another good segment. If the people listening stick through the break and stay for the full 12-minutes, that’s the only thing that matters to me. It’s about what you do to make your show better.
And with complacency, sure – you worry about everything. I certainly don’t think we have it all figured out, we’re going to evolve. So yes, I’m concerned with that. But I’m not concerned with what someone else is doing on the radio.
“Felger is a really hard worker and he’s also tough to copy because he’s authentic,” Holley said. “Some people play a character, but he doesn’t. This is who he is and that’s why he’s so effective. Early on, people thought he was going to get overexposed. But I told them no, because it’s not schtick. Schtick wears out. Predictability wears out. Felger is original and when he goes against the grain, you might not agree, but he can back it up and show his work.”
BC: Is your success more about the show, or more about the market? Because the ratings are unprecedented with shares in the mid-teens. Could Felger and Mazz be successful elsewhere?
MF: I do think it’s a show that could be successful in other markets, but the level of success you’re talking about has to do with a lot of factors. It’s the quality of the station, our morning show, our midday show, our management – which even though we’ve changed ownership it’s remained very strong. And it’s the town we’re in. 12 championships since 2000, 19 championship appearances. If you do a sports show in a town with this type of success, a good signal and strong shows all day long on your network and you don’t have ratings? You f***ing suck. Our success is a confluence of factors and not the least of which is Tony, Jim Murray, our producer Jimmy Stewart and everyone on the show.
Holley: “I remember my wife asking how we did, and I would say ‘sweetheart, we finished with a 9 this book and that’s really good.’ I would ask friends in other markets and they would say their best book is a 4 or 5, so I would lead with my 9. But then I’d have to tell them the other guys got a 16! And big picture, 25% of the market is focused on sports which is great, but as a competitor, you say ‘I just wish I could get a win!’ They’re a monster to compete against. I enjoyed competing against 98.5, but it was also humbling.”
BC: Will the Brady-less Patriots impact the station and the Boston sports market?
MF: I’d like to think the fanbase wasn’t just there for Brady and the Super Bowls, that they’re hardcore sports fans through thick and thin. That’s the case with some of the sports in Boston. The Bruins audience is smaller, but those fans stay consistent through the ups and downs. We’re going to find out about the Patriots fan, but I’d like to think we’ve become a football town and they’ll continue to be a massive force.
BC: As a New York fan, I see the Patriots without Brady and who knows what happens to the Red Sox as Major League Baseball attempts suicide. I wouldn’t mind if it’s the beginning of the demise for Boston sports.
MF: [Laughs] The country’s rooting for it. I don’t know if baseball can ever overtake the Patriots again. If the Pats fall off like you hope, I would look for the Celtics and the NBA to step up. It’s a hot product, it caters to young people and I think it has the broad interest that hockey doesn’t. Hockey is more intense and loyal, but the NBA has a lot of casual fans, which is good for business.
BC: Mike Thomas once called you the most polarizing person in Boston radio, do you agree?
MF: I feel like I’ve gotten wimpier as I’ve gotten older. I can’t rank it, I don’t know if I’m as polarizing as I used to be, but it’s not for me to say. But I think Felger & Mazz has a button pushing quality because my hate mail is still prodigious no matter what I say.
“I would much rather have somebody like Mike Felger where you occasionally need to say ‘we have to dial it back a bit’ than someone you need to push and challenge,” Thomas said. “Mike is self-motivated, he lives for sports radio and is clearly one of the best in the country at it. Maybe in his mind he thinks he’s getting softer, things happen when you turn 50, but I would never categorize Mike Felger as being soft.”
“The biggest thing that’s evolved for him is his reputation as just being a contrarian,” Radzik said. “I think he’s established himself as the number one sports talk show host in the country. You can disagree with him, you may not like his angle, but people have respect for his opinions because the audience has evolved with him.”
BC: Is it that you’ve gotten older or has society in general pushed you to get “wimpy.”
MF: I beat myself up over it, but I’m certainly a little gun shy. Two or three years ago, the Bruins got off to a really bad start. I went on this rant that they were ‘too young, they’re done, they can’t win.’ The team rebounded, made the playoffs and near the end of the season they ran a commercial replaying my rant to rub it in. Jimmy Stewart would say that crawled into my head and neutered me [Laughs]. I’m not really on Twitter or social media, but I feel it’s presence.
BC: What about the fact that social media is there, not just for you, but for everyone, waiting and even rooting for the chance to jump on any slip up.
MF: It’s dangerous. Dangerous times for sure. Maybe that’s another reason to not be polarizing. Maybe you just hit on one. Because there is someone out there trying to get you fired. For anyone writing, broadcasting or speaking in any way, shape or form, you make one mistake and that’s it. It gives you reason to just facilitate because you want to keep your job.
BC: As society becomes more politically correct, do you think that will deter polarizing personalities from entering the business because of the risk?
MF: Yeah, for sure. That’s really more for news commentators than sports commentators though because you should be able to have a bad sports take and not get fired.
Having a wrong sports take will get you pushback, and people will say you’re stupid, but I’d like to think it’s not going to get you fired the way a bad take on society might.
BC: What about the Roy Halladay comments, did that have an impact?
(When former MLB pitcher Roy Halladay died in a 2017 plane crash, Felger controversially mocked the incident.)
MF: You asked why have I softened a bit? Maybe that day is part of the reason. That was a bad day for me, a big mistake and I would never blame PC culture for that.
I was wrong. I don’t think about it every day, but it’s certainly affected my approach. There’s a line between polarizing and being offensive, it’s a challenge to find that line. You have a day like that where you go over the line and you’ll spend some time making sure you don’t get close again. There’s not many hard parts to this job, but that’s one.
BC: Do you discuss social issues right now with everything going on in the country and complaints about Boston specifically?
MF: We are as sporty a show as you can get, we’re 95% sports. But during this time, it’s crept in a little more. If we did it 5% of the time previously, maybe we do it 10-15% now. And whether I’m pro-left or right, I still get people yelling ‘stick to sports!’ Thank God I don’t have to talk about those topics on a regular basis because people are so bitchy about it. But how can you not hit on some of it right now? You can’t ignore the apocalypse.
BC: As a show that’s 95% sports, how have you done building the full 16-blocks without sports?
MF: It’s been challenging recently, the first month or so was simple because of Brady. Even if the pandemic never hit, most of March and April was going to be 80% Brady’s free agency, Brady going to Tampa, the Patriots next quarterback, the draft and free agency. It turned into 95% of the show, but we had football content until mid-May. Since then, it’s how are leagues going to come back? I’ve found it really interesting, but I acknowledge there’s only so much of that you can do. We definitely need a ballgame.
“Not everyone that comes to the Felger & Mazz show comes for sports,” Radzik said. “They come to be entertained, to laugh and be challenged. There’s an energy level, the show is fast paced, and you have to keep up. But if you have good chemistry you can entertain in different ways.”
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.