At WEEI, Jason Wolfe Is King Of The Red Sox Nation (10/17/05)
By Reed Bunzel, Editor-in-Chief
Some amazing things happened in the Boston sports world this past year. The Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years, and the Patriots won their second straight Super Bowl, and their third in four years. That made Boston one of only a handful of cities to have won both baseball and football championships in the same year. Each of these feats alone is enough to make grown Bostonians cry, but the truly amazing feat was that Entercom's Sports/Talk-formatted WEEI topped the ratings both 12-plus and in its 25-54 and 35-64 target demos* - making it the only sports station to land in the number one spot in all 296 Arbitron-rated markets.
With the Red Sox engaged in a heated pennant battle throughout the summer, and anticipation building over the prospects of a Teddy Bruschi-less Patriots, any Boston sports station automatically may be spotted a few points. Still, WEEI has maintained its leadership position through the second phase of Arbitron's summer book, an unlikely occurrence in a market populated by several heritage signals. Every member of the station's team warrants recognition for its success, but Jason Wolfe - the 38-year-old program director and quarterback of on-air content - deserves the ultimate credit for its market dominance.
Born and raised in Lexington - just 15 minutes west of Boston - Wolfe grew up a loyal member of the Red Sox Nation and a diehard devotee of virtually every professional sports team in the area. “I'm a born-and-bred Boston sports fanatic,” he admits. “I had to be taught how to lose my Boston accent in college because I figured there was no way I would make it as an on-air person with a huge Boston accent. Luckily, I decided that on-air was not the direction I wanted to go.”
After graduating from Syracuse University, Wolfe returned to the Boston area, where he sold spots for an overnight sports program that was light on revenue and ratings. When that venture went down swinging, he landed a production job at WEEI, which had just flipped to a sports format. Though management made it clear that the position never would lead to on-air work, Wolfe jumped at the chance to get in on the ground floor of the new facility. “I started with middays, moved to afternoon drive, and ultimately became the executive producer,” he recalls, noting that he was tapped as assistant program director in 1995 and named program director in September of 1997.
“I've been really lucky that things fell into place for me here. Every time there was an opening, the timing seemed right,” Wolfe observes. “The owners at the time had the confidence that I could take on more responsibility, and I'm extremely proud of what we've all been able to accomplish over that time.”
Earlier this year, Wolfe was tapped by parent-company Entercom to serve as the company's director of sports programming, overseeing WGR-Buffalo; KCSP-Kansas City; WSSP-Milwaukee; and KFXX/KSLM-Portland, OR. “We have unlimited potential in all of these markets, with some extremely talented people both on and off the air running the ships,” Wolfe says. “I intend to do whatever I can to help them achieve great success.”
As Radio Ink recognizes the best program directors in radio, we were able to distract Wolfe from the Red Sox and Patriots for a few minutes to ask him about fanaticism, “homerism,” passion, and the simple love of the game.
*Source: Arbitron, Monday-Sunday, 6 a.m. to midnight, 12-plus
You're the program director of perhaps the hottest Sports/Talk station in the U.S. Did you envision taking this career path when you first got involved with radio?
When I graduated from Syracuse University in 1989, I was one of probably millions who wanted to be the next voice of some professional team. The experience I gained at Syracuse was incredible; I couldn't think of too many other places you could go and actually cover big-time Division I sports to the level we covered them. Traveling with the team on the road, doing coaches' shows, players' shows - the entire experience was truly amazing, and that's what drove me to want to be a part of radio.
At what point did you decide to forego the on-air work in favor of programming?
When I graduated from Syracuse I got a job at Star Communications, which was based in East Boston. They did an all-night sports show from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, and I was hired as a salesperson. I quickly learned that trying to sell packages that ran on Friday and Saturday between 2 and 3 in the morning didn't do too much for me. But after some personnel changes, I was able to get some on-air experience and ultimately became the executive producer/co-host of the program. That got my foot in the door of the Boston radio community, and I used it to make connections, to meet people, and to figure out how I could become more connected with the community. Coincidentally, about 18 months into my work with Star Communications, the company went out of business and I was laid off. Two months later, WEEI went all Sports and I was hired as a producer.
Have you enjoyed being behind the microphone as much as you thought you wanted to be in front of it?
When I left Star Communications and came to work at WEEI in a production role, they made it very clear that it would never lead to anything on-air. Ever. I learned how to enjoy that part of it, and ultimately I really loved it. Frankly, I love breaking sports stories. I love to develop the relationships that get you the information you need. I enjoy being able to pass that down to people who are looking to do the same thing. You can get just as much satisfaction doing that kind of work as being out on the forefront and being the talent on the air.
Growing up a sports fan in the Boston area, you have a dream job. Could you ever envision giving it up and moving elsewhere?
I've had opportunities to investigate other jobs during the 14 years I've been here. A very close friend who works for the ABC affiliate TV station here told me this is one of those markets where, once you make it, you never leave, particularly in sports. And he's right. The frenzy and credibility and knowledge of all the people here - the passion they have for these times - is unlike any other sports market in the country. Having had the opportunity to grow and succeed with this radio station, combined with the fact that for the past four or five years the teams here have been remarkably successful, it's hard to imagine being any other place.
WEEI is number one in listeners 12-plus, and consistently wins men 25-54 and 35-64. How does a station so tightly focused on sports achieve such steady ratings success?
The challenges here are pretty much the same as with any format. We combine our on-air personalities with content that is compelling and entertaining to the average listener and sports fan. The listeners are sports fanatics who constantly thirst for information and discussion. One of the real reasons the station has achieved its level of success is that we provide a product that reaches the casual sports fan. That's an incredibly great challenge, particularly in this market, where people kvetch and moan and complain every time something doesn't go well. Even when things go well, the tendency is to say, “Yeah, but they could've done this better.” Of course, because sports in Boston has been so overwhelmingly positive of late, it is constantly challenging to be as entertaining and compelling as we can.
As a program director, do you think you could be as passionate about another format?
I don't think I could. Sure, I have other interests, but working in my home town and following my home town teams to the level of success they've had makes it that much easier to get into it. I don't know that I could be the same about something else.
No success ever really comes overnight. How has WEEI's programming grown and changed throughout the years?
The station evolved a couple of different times. When we first started, we had a local morning show that was not sports, followed by two local midday sports shows. Then we had local sports, play-by-play, and talk at night. The first evolution occurred when we brought Don Imus on board; we were the first to syndicate him. That was followed by local sports from noon until midnight, with the nights being taken up by games and talk shows. Eventually, we moved our 10 a.m.-12 noon shift, which was a local talk show, to morning drive; and we expanded our other two local talk shows, which were running from 12 noon to 3 p.m. and 3-6 p.m., to 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and 2-6 p.m. That gave us the ability to be all local between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Sports and Talk stations traditionally run greater spot loads than music-formatted stations. How have you structured your clock so you can satisfy your advertisers without losing your audience?
Our philosophy is to have longer on-air segments and a shorter number of breaks, although the breaks then tend to be longer because we have to get all the commercials in. We break for a flash at the top of the hour; then do a 5-minute stopset. We break again about 25 past the hour for another 5-minute stopset; then we break again at about :52 for a 6-minute stopset. That takes us almost to the top of the hour. This way, the programs begin at seven or eight minutes after the hour. At that time, one of the commercial breaks has already been taken up, so we have 52 or 53 minutes to get in two commercial breaks, which means we're giving the listener the opportunity to hear 38-42 minutes of actual conversation.
That's the theory - but how closely do your announcers practice what you preach?
We don't adhere to the clock at all - our guys are all over the place. They break when they feel it's the right time to break. The philosophy of giving people more time to listen to you has always been at the forefront of our minds, because no sports station can run where you're breaking every five or six minutes. It doesn't give you the opportunity to get into a discussion or develop anything. Maybe someone made a comment during the commercial break, and then it's a four- or five-minute tangent before they get back to what they were talking about. We have to give ourselves the opportunity to develop a rhythm, get some flow and chemistry and pace. The only way to do that is to give ourselves more time to talk. Our station is no different in that the biggest complaint is that we air too many commercials, but we really don't air any more than many stations on the AM dial - and certainly not in this format.
How critical is it to have play-by-play rights in order to truly be a market sports leader?
It's not critical, but it's an incredible asset. The Red Sox have always been at the forefront of people's minds in this town. Even now, a year after having won the World Series, it's still 24/7 Red Sox - except for Monday, when we're talking about the Patriots. That's not to say the Patriots aren't right up there with the Red Sox; there are days we talk all Patriots and have an incredibly successful show. But whether or not we have the rights to those teams doesn't make us a less-powerful radio station. Our brand is so big and the value of our line-up is so huge that we're the place people come to react to what happened on the field.
Whether or not you have the rights, say, to the Patriots?
That's a perfect example. We don't have the rights to the team, but we created a program called Patriots Monday, which gives us the exclusive right to Tom Brady's quarterback show on Monday morning and Bill Belichick's coach's show on Monday afternoon. So if you ask 10 people on the street, eight probably will tell you the Patriots are on WEEI. Even without the games, we still get the bulk of the audience and the discussion.
Given the fanaticism of the Boston sports fans, how much of a “homer” do you have to be - or do you try to avoid that?
I absolutely think we have to be balanced. I don't like constant “homerism,” and I don't like constant “pick apart everything they do” discussion, either. We provide a solid balance to that. It's clearly better for us and better for the market when the teams win. But if the teams screw up on the field, we talk about it. If someone says something stupid in the press, we talk about it. We are not shy, and we do not fear the repercussions that may come from the teams if the criticism is a bit harsh. We present the content in such a way that it isn't an all-out smack in the face every time. There's humor, there's production, there's imaging, all of which lightens it up. So even though we might be taking a shot at a particular player or coach or team because of something that happened, it's presented in a way that hopefully they can see the lighter side as well.
In addition to serving the Boston market, you also simulcast the programming in the neighboring market of Providence. Can you adequately service that city without focusing on the Pawsox and local college teams?
Providence is treated as a suburb of Boston when it comes to sports. People there are just as passionate about the Patriots and Red Sox as the people in Boston. There are local sports in Providence that are important to the community, but not to the overall fabric of our discussion. We're a true simulcast, so we don't break off to do specific things that are local to Providence. We feel the majority of people would rather hear what's going on with the Red Sox or the Patriots than a local college team. We give scores and keep people informed, but we aren't ready to dedicate any long-form programming that focuses just on Providence.
This year WEEI raised over $2 million for The Jimmy Fund. How important is it to work with local charities, rather than talk sports all the time?
It's hugely important, and it's one of the things we're most proud of. We've always felt we need to give back to the community; it's an obligation, and we take great pride in doing it. The Jimmy Fund event has blossomed into something that I never could have predicted when we started it a few years ago. The first year, the event raised a little over $320,000; the second year, the total was $1.6 million; and this year, it was just under $2.4 million. The generosity of people in this city is absolutely incredible. The stories the doctors and patients tell on the radio are incredibly powerful. For whatever reason, it has touched a chord with people, and allows them the opportunity to give - and give heartily.
Is The Jimmy Fund the station's primary cause in Boston?
Certainly not. We've done great work for cystic fibrosis and the American Heart Association, and for ALS - we're tied in with Curt Shilling this year to raise money for that. We're trying our best for victims of Katrina and Rita, as well as. There are numerous causes we have lent our passion to. The greatest thing is to know we can use the power of the radio station to bring the community together and support these causes. That's what I find most special about this station. I could talk about how high the ratings are; it's a great success story and we'd love to be able to tell it. But that's only a piece of why we feel we're a great radio station. Giving back to the community - knowing people can count on you - is a great thing. I don't think any ratings book or award could top that.
At many stations, the programming and sales departments often work at cross purposes. What's your relationship with WEEI's sales team?
Hate 'em - don't want 'em down at my end of the hall. We have barriers up for that. Just kidding. Actually, the relationship has been as good as it could be. Sure, there is friction when something is pitched that I might not want, or I want to do something and sales doesn't feel they can support it. But on the whole, the managers have a great understanding of our product. They really know how to play off of what we're doing, and they're very creative. We can sit down at a meeting and have no clue how to execute something, but by the end we have worked it out. I encourage all our people to sit in on sales meetings, to attend the promotions meetings with marketing so everybody is on the same page. It has to be that way if you're going to be successful at all levels.
Have the needs - and demands - of advertisers changed as the station has become a ratings leader?
We're a station that people need to be on right now, from an advertising standpoint. But what they want is more than just a commercial. They want added value, they want promotions, they want marketing. We can't just give them a schedule and say that's good enough. They want to “own” something. Maybe it's their own feature, their own piece of whatever the programming is at the time they bought it. The only way you can make all that work is if programming and sales have a solid understanding of each other and a great working relationship.
The Sports/Talk format tends to attract an audience similar to that of Howard Stern and other shock jocks - namely, young men with lots of testosterone. How careful do you and your personalities have to be with indecency?
I encourage my people to push the envelope as far as they can without ripping it. Every now and then it can be a little dangerous, but I don't think our audience is the Howard Stern audience, to use your words. We cater to a very intelligent, very worthy audience that has achieved success in their own businesses and lives. Our audience is ahead of the market in household income, whether they own a home, whether they're college-educated, how many cars they have, how many kids. We have to be intelligent. Do we step on ourselves from time to time? Sure. Everybody does. But we can't be worried about it. Our guys are intelligent enough to know that when there's a sensitive story, they have to push it so they can get the audience reaction they want, but it doesn't go over the top.
With the emergence of iPods, WiFi, satellite radio, and other new media, is radio in danger of losing younger listeners?
I don't think we are, and I don't think radio is in general. If you look at specific formats, nothing can take the place of a local program - if it's compelling and entertaining enough. One of the great things about the growth we have achieved is that we're gaining younger people. If our core demo is men 25-54, every time one of those 54-year-olds turns 55, we pick up two who are 25. We've done exceptionally well with those younger demos, largely because they want the local programming. These new media will never supplant the great power of terrestrial radio and the personality and passion that goes with it. In that respect, as an industry, we're in good shape. There will be “competitors” so people can to go other places for news and entertainment, but at the end of the day they'll stick with radio because that's what they know and love.
XM and Sirius have inked some major sports deals. Does this threaten to cut into any of your business - or your audience?
Those deals are incredibly rich and it will take a long time for the companies to see a profit. Frankly, I don't think satellite will affect us at WEEI at all. It's still our broadcast. Satellite radio will be subscribed to by transplanted Bostonians because it's the only way they can get the game. It's not just about the game and the broadcast; it's about everything that surrounds it, and whether the listener feels he is getting all the information he needs. The only way to provide that is to be local. There may be people who listen to the games on satellite, but it will not affect their listenership to our station - or any local station that has the rights to that local team.
Are you satisfied with the crop of young people emerging from college today and looking for careers in radio?
I wish I were, but the answer is no. There are still numerous young people who want to get into radio, and the communications industry in general. But I don't sense they're willing to take the necessary time to get involved. When I was getting out of school, all of my advisors - everyone I talked to - said, “You'll be lucky if you get a job within a year.” I was trying to get involved in a top market, and it doesn't work that way. You can't just walk out of college and slip into the position you ultimately want to achieve, unless you have an exceptional talent in some area.
What's your impression of young people who want to enter the media work force?
They have great passion and an interest in hard work, but some are a little impatient. They feel like they're a) better than you tell them they are, or b) they just don't love it enough to wait. I hope that changes; I hope people who want to get involved will take the time necessary to improve their skills. I hope they'll go to a smaller market to get the experience they need so they can get to the major market where they want to be. This is an incredible industry, and I know there are some great people who have unbelievable talent. But they need to show some patience, take their time, and follow the right steps all the way to the top.
As you said earlier, when you got out of school you wanted to be the voice of a professional sports team. Would you trade your gig today if that opportunity came along?
I wouldn't. I've gotten over that dream. I was desperate to be the voice of the Celtics, and would have done anything to achieve that goal. I suppose if they gave me a one-time shot, and said, “We'll have you do this one game just for the hell of it,” sure - I'd do that. But I'm happy where I am, doing what I'm doing, and hopefully it will last a while longer.
It took some time for WEEI to get to the top of the Boston radio market. How do you stay there?
The growth of WEEI is something we will never take for granted. We're always looking to see what the next step is. We will never be the kind of station that will sit back and coast. Once you take that attitude, that's when you can get knocked off. The most fun part of building this station is getting to the top; the hardest part is to stay there. We're blessed to have an incredible staff that works very hard day-in and day-out to ensure that we stay there. That goes to our overall philosophy of trying to provide a product that is entertaining and compelling, under the umbrella of sports.
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