“Nothing is more important to WEEI than the close-knit and diverse Boston community we call home, and we are actively contributing to its betterment,” the station said in a statement Wednesday. “WEEI is in the process of closely reevaluating our policies and procedures in an effort to ensure that our programming is never intolerant or harmful to our listeners or our city.”
The station didn’t specify why it was taking such drastic measures, but it didn’t have to, given the torrent of criticism it received last week after WEEI host Christian Fauria adopted a stereotypical Asian accent while pretending to be Don Yee, the agent for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Fauria quickly apologized, and the station suspended him, but the Boston Herald reported Wednesday that the episode prompted two state agencies to pull ads from WEEI.
Brady was even more central to another storm of controversy over the station last month, after host Alex Reimer referred to the quarterback’s 5-year-old daughter as an “annoying little pissant.” During his weekly appearance on WEEI’s top-rated morning show, “Kirk & Callahan,” Brady cut his appearance short while letting those hosts know that he was not amused in the slightest.
“I understand criticism is a part of sports,” Brady later said in a pre-Super Bowl media session. “But I certainly don’t think that my children or any other children really deserve to be in that.”
Brady’s comment gets to the heart of what WEEI may be trying to impress on its staff: By all means, take shots at players, coaches and teams, but have some understanding of the lines that don’t warrant crossing. After all, what does an intentionally bad Asian accent have to do with sports?
Pressure on WEEI to change its ways is not just coming from advertisers, critics and would-be audience members — the Red Sox, who have a contract with the station to broadcast their games, have also expressed unhappiness. However, culture changes are rarely accomplished overnight, and the long history of inappropriate comments made by hosts at WEEI and its rival Boston station, the Sports Hub, indicates that some habits could be hard to break.
In November, Michael Felger of the Sports Hub’s top-rated afternoon show, “Felger & Massarotti,” apologized for making what he called “low-class, bad, not good” comments pertaining to the death of Roy Halladay. Felger had described the former star MLB pitcher, who crashed his small plane into the Gulf of Mexico, as a “moron” and a “jacka–” in an extended rant about how Halladay “deserved” his fate for acting in a selfish and careless manner.
The list of comments for which Boston sports-radio hosts have been suspended and/or asked to apologize extends back years, and it is part and parcel of an environment in which tame commentary does little to move the needle. That need to come over the top with every breath has only been exacerbated with the influx of Internet-based platforms, as well as satellite-radio and cable-TV shows, allowing newcomers to quickly build audiences with fewer issues of accountability.
One of the biggest lightning rods, Kirk Minihane of “Kirk & Callahan,” recently went on Bill Simmons’s podcast to discuss the state of Boston radio, and he was asked, “What is the balance of trying to provoke people, trying to get attention, versus trying to have good conversations?”
“You try to do both as much as you can, but you certainly are fighting for people to listen,” replied Minihane, who noted that he’d been “suspended five times in the past six years.” One suspension came in 2014, after he called Fox Sports reporter Erin Andrews a “gutless b—-” on WEEI, and the following year saw him lose a gig at CSN New England for suggesting that someone should be hired to “murder” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
“The rise of social media and the competition has bred [negativity],” Minihane said. “I think it’s always been inside people, now there are just more outlets to be an a——.”
Minihane told Simmons that “disagreement” is a major part of Boston sports radio, claiming that the calmer, more upbeat approach of national radio hosts such as Dan Patrick and Mike Golic doesn’t work in his market. “A) It has to be local in Boston for it to work; B) there has to be edge, or whatever you want to call it — there has to be passion, there has to be disagreement,” Minihane said. “There just has to be.”
The issue facing WEEI now, though, is how to have that edge, and even how to be an “a——,” without giving in to the temptation to veer into shock-jock territory. An example of that came across the country Wednesday, when San Francisco’s KNBR fired Patrick Connor after he said on a Barstool Radio show that 17-year-old Olympic gold medalist Chloe Kim was a “little hot piece of a–.”
In an apology, Connor said that his comments about Kim were “more than inappropriate” and were “lame and gross.” He later said on Twitter, “My stupid comment didn’t come from a mean place … it came from an incredibly thoughtless & immature one.”
Red Sox President Sam Kennedy — whom Minihane called a “coward” last year after the team appeared to criticize the host’s skepticism toward an Orioles player’s allegations of racist treatment at Fenway Park — said Wednesday that the “pattern of controversial incidents” at WEEI was “exhausting” for “listeners and fans in general.”
Saying that “a different culture” had “emerged” at the station, Kennedy added (via the Boston Herald), “There are always one-off controversies in talk radio and we get that; we’re talking about different highly charged subjects.”
Another term for “highly charged” could be “sensitive,” and thus Kennedy is likely in favor of the sensitivity training WEEI’s staff is set to undergo. An announced intention to improve the culture to which Kennedy referred may be no more than a public relations effort to stave off more defections from advertisers, but it also seems like something that should be possible to effect without quieting the passionate discussions of local teams that Boston sports fans hold dear.
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