No Boston media institution is more unstable these days than WRKO Radio (AM 680). To Phoenix readers, this might seem like a non-issue, or even good news; after all, the liberal-bashing, gay-baiting, illegal-immigrant-scapegoating fare the station has served up in recent years probably isn’t your bag (see “Republican Radio,” News and Features, October 27). But here’s the catch: after three-quarters of a century on the airwaves, WRKO is a bona fide New England institution. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, “The Big 68” was New England’s dominant Top 40 station. Then, in the ’80s and ’90s — after a format change driven by rock’s migration to FM — talent like Jerry Williams and Gene Burns made WRKO a national talk-radio pioneer. “They were one of the first big political talkers in the country; they were really influential,” says Scott Fybush, author of “NorthEast Radio Watch,” an industry newsletter.
What’s more, the station has long been a fertile source of local talk talent. The late, great David Brudnoy finished his career at WBZ-AM, but he honed his craft at WRKO, for example. So did Ted O’Brien, the former daytime anchor at WBUR-FM. In short, the station mattered for decades — and in this age of media consolidation and homogenization, that very fact makes its fate a matter of concern, whatever your political persuasion may be.
If a hypothetical WRKO loyalist left Boston a year ago and returned today, odds are that he or she would have trouble recognizing the station in its current state. John DePetro is gone from the 9 am to noon slot, allegedly for calling Green-Rainbow Party gubernatorial candidate Grace Ross a “fat lesbian,” but more likely because Entercom Communications, WRKO’s parent company, deemed his ratings weak and his talent limited. WRKO’s in-house news team is gone too, fired en masse in a cost-cutting move. Scott Allen Miller is still on the air from 6 to 9 am, but he’s a dead man broadcasting; come February 12, former Massachusetts House Speaker Tom Finneran will take the mic for the coveted 6 to 10 am drive-time slot. (If Miller’s lucky, he’ll be reassigned to another Entercom affiliate; if not, he’ll be out of a job.)
Todd Feinburg, formerly the evening talk-show host, has been covering DePetro’s old shift, but he’s likely to be axed as well when Finneran arrives. And last, but certainly not least, Boston Red Sox play-by-play will make its debut on WRKO this spring after more than a decade on WEEI, the sports-radio behemoth also owned by Entercom. (WEEI will still broadcast some games, but WRKO gets the brunt of the schedule.) Granted, there are small islands of constancy: Rush Limbaugh still bloviates on weekday afternoons, and Howie Carr, the high priest of Massachusetts conservatism, still holds down his 3 to 7 pm drive-time slot. But everything else seems up for grabs.
All this flux has prompted great consternation in some quarters. Earlier this month, a post on SaveWRKO.com — a Web site launched by conservative Boston bloggers Aaron and Matt Margolis and industry commentator Brian Maloney — offered this call to arms: “WRKO as we know it is now facing sudden extinction. In recent months, we’ve seen multi-sided debates between callers and hosts disappear, while fluffy, non-controversial programming takes its place. . . . Watching the wholly unnecessary implosion of a great heritage talk radio station is sad, but hopefully preventable. Now, WRKO’s many listeners must make their voices heard, before it is too late.”
Stirring words, but they should be viewed with skepticism. Maloney, who wrote this purple prose, is a former Entercom employee whose previous guest-host stints on WRKO failed to land him a job. (He’s also painfully hyperbolic; for example, he referred to Deval Patrick’s gubernatorial victory as “evil prevail[ing] on Election Day.”) Even so, the overheated rantings of the SaveWRKO crowd contain the germ of a legitimate question: when the dust settles, what exactly will the station’s identity be?
Whatever the answer, the consensus among radio-industry observers is that Entercom’s current gutting-and-renovation project wasn’t a matter of choice. “WRKO is a heritage station that has a glorious history,” says Talkers magazine editor Michael Harrison. “It’s had good times and bad times, just like a baseball team or a football team. And they’re at a point now where a lot of changes they’re making could in fact open the door to a new era.” “The Red Sox broadcasts are a major ingredient in the new sauce,” adds Tom Taylor of Inside Radio. (Inside Radio is owned by Clear Channel Communications, an Entercom competitor.) “The fact that they’re willing to move the games over from WEEI down to 680 tells me that they really have begun a vast rehabilitation effort, that they’re really going to spend a lot of intellectual capital and other capital to rehabilitate the station.” (WRKO management refused repeated requests for comment for this story.)