I remember driving back from Worcester on May 18, 2008.
It was midday on a Sunday, and I’d retrieved my car from a friend’s in the Worcester area, en route home after a weekend spent at Dartmouth College. The Celtics and Cavaliers were playing a Game 7 that afternoon for the right to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. To enhance the buildup for the game, I listened to WEEI sports talk radio the entire way home.
The host was a typical weekend guy. An up-and-comer who I hadn’t really heard before, trying to make a name for himself. Like all radio guys trying to get listeners to remember them, he kept saying his name, in and out of every commercial. The way I heard it was “Mike Mananski,” and I wouldn’t learn for a couple years that it was actually “Mutnansky.” He wasn’t “Mut” back then. Hell, to me, he wasn’t even Mike Mutnansky. He was “Mike Mananksi.” He had a memorable voice, seemed like a nice guy, and above all, did his job of raising the excitement and interest level for the game that day. Thanks to Mike Mananski, I couldn’t wait for that game to get started by the time I got home.
Six years later, in a Boston sports radio market thoroughly dominated by 98.5 The Sports Hub, I’m among the few who stayed loyal to WEEI.
Over the weekend, Boston Globe sports media reporter Chad Finn broke a story about WEEI making a change to their midday show. The Entercom-owned station is taking midday co-host Mike “Mut” Mutnansky off the “Mut & Merloni” show and reassigning him. Mutnansky confirmed Finn’s story live on air today, including details that he’ll be replaced by former Patriot (and frequent guest host) Christian Fauria and Massachusetts-native Tim Benz, currently a host at 970 ESPN Pittsburgh and the Clear Channel Pittsburgh sports director. It’s just the latest shakeup for the ratings-challenged WEEI, which has seen a number of hosts, sidekicks, and producers shuffled in and out of the station over the past three years.
I was never wild about the M&M show, but this latest moves strikes me as part copycat and part deja vu. Before touching on the soon-to-be-demoted Mutnansky, let’s take a look at the other pieces of this transaction and what they mean going forward.
Fauria has become a frequent guest host on WEEI, both on M&M and the afternoon drive “Dale & Holley” program. Not all football players are meat heads, but Fauria doesn’t do much to stop the stereotype. I wouldn’t go as far to call him boorish, but let’s just say he doesn’t do so well when discussing sports other than football. It’s tough to put my finger on what bugs me about Fauria, but he just seems like the guy who isn’t in on the joke, rather than the guy at the barstool making the joke. He’s plenty enthusiastic, even likable, but it’s just tough to take him seriously at times, almost like he’s a cartoon character. Judging by the success of 98.5’s midday “Gresh & Zo” show, listeners enjoy a couple big guys (one a former athlete, one a fat mess) talking football as if they’re the biggest, loudest know-it-alls in the bar. It’s why Glenn Ordway and Pete Sheppard did so well for so many years. Fauria doesn’t play that way, and if WEEI thinks he does, it’s clearly trying to copy the success of 98.5 in that regard. Sports Hub has owned the ratings with fat football talk, which is why WEEI should have aimed higher than Fauria, a poor mans version of Gresh & Zo who’s stuck in no man’s land between pointed, expert voices and loose, everyman voices. Adding Fauria is a sure sign of dumbing things down, but I’m doubtful that listeners will switch allegiances from one loud program to another.
I’ve never heard of or listened to Tim Benz. WEEI’s press release today tells me that he’s a local guy who’s been working in Pittsburgh and that his father is a famous Bostonian doctor, which is all well and good. All I can say is that Tim Benz better be great, maybe even a little better than great. Obviously, I’m not high on Fauria. Lou Merloni is a fine co-host and is well liked in the region, but isn’t a must-listen on his own. A large portion of the show’s success falls on Benz to be funny, engaging, and enigmatic. Merloni and Fauria aren’t going to stir the pot, and while it’s not necessary to do so, it has proven to work for some hosts (i.e. Mike Felger). Benz would be well served to make some waves from the get-go to prevent WEEI from another ho-hum midday show that fails to resonate. Simply playing traffic cop for Fauria and Merloni won’t cut it. We’ve heard Fauria and Merloni and they aren’t stars. Unless Tim Benz is the star of the show (a la Kirk Minihane), the show won’t succeed.
Dale & Holley, perhaps the least controversial pairing in town, were the best midday show Boston has seen over the past decade, but they were dismantled to make way for M&M (that D&H resurrected itself in a more prominent day part is an ode to Dale’s perseverance and WEEI’s missteps). D&H have a rare chemistry and demeanor that negates the need for theatrics, but judging by the downfall of their midday show in 2011, sometimes listeners want a jester (i.e. Tony Massarotti, who barely edges out Adam Kaufman as the worst columnist in town, able to write entire pieces that literally say nothing other than a bunch of regurgitated headlines strung together).
Radio shows like to boast ex-athletes in their ranks to earn credibility and legitimacy with listeners. After all, who knows sports better than the guys who played for a living? And with Merloni and Fauria, WEEI has a so-called expert on board year round, with the doldrums of February and early March as the only time that one of their sports isn’t being played. Still, it seems like just one former pro athlete should be enough. Merloni is intelligent and engaging enough, not to mention reasonably well educated on the other teams in town (especially being from the area). Give him a stud co-host and Merloni will succeed as the only “analyst/expert.” That’s why Fauria is a curious choice, one that signifies WEEI is trying to minimize the risk it’s taking with Benz. If Benz is a stiff, at least they’ll still have the ability to boast two athletes in the booth. In a perfect world, you wouldn’t need Fauria and Benz would come in, set the world on fire, mesh with Merloni, and compete with G&Z.
The proof lies in the last time the station tried a similar move. A local guy who worked in a rival market at an ESPN station coming home, making good, and co-hosting a show at the most storied station of his childhood with a host whose show had been failing. That perfectly describes the Mike Salk situation. The only differences are the day part and the fact that Michael Holley wasn’t a pro athlete. Everything else fits, right down to the failing show. Salk had a tough situation and failed spectacularly. WEEI is giving Benz two athletes in an effort to ensure he doesn’t suffer the same fate as the not-so-dearly departed Salk. Despite this being sports talk radio, let’s give Benz the benefit of the doubt and see how he plays in Boston. I gave Salk a fair shot, and while I didn’t dislike him the way everyone else (his colleagues, listeners, media critics) did, it took too much effort to enjoy him. Benz will receive a similar shot, and here’s hoping he’ll be an easier listen that gets WEEI back in the midday game.
When the news of Mut’s partial ouster came this weekend, I wasn’t surprised. He’s been so-so as a host and his numbers have been flatlining for more than a while now. The lede painted him as a god-like figure of radio, which he clearly is not. He’s a capable, serviceable host who couldn’t generate enough buzz on his show to stay there. He brings an everyman’s perspective, not a tough guy, but rather a nerdier guy who knows sports. He’s well equipped to discuss all sports and even hosts podcasts for Triple Crown races, a nice nod to his versatility. At times he tries to be a bro, just one of the guys you’d have over to watch the game. But when you hear his voice, or better yet, see his photo (above), it’s tough to take him seriously in that regard. He’s not a bully and doesn’t pander (if you’ve forgotten, those are good things), but he’s not exactly the funniest or most engaging guy on the air. It also hurts that he goes by “Mut” but doesn’t come off as someone who should use “Mut” as his nickname. He’s a slightly cooler version of Mike Reiss, but he’s not quite a “Mut.”
Mutnansky is being “reassigned,” which should consist of weekend and fill-in duty, unless WEEI plans on letting him go in the near future (I’m unaware of his contract status). It’s somewhat of a death knell, but Mut need only observe Dale Arnold’s comeback as motivation. Mutnansky is prepared, thoughtful, and likable, so with a few tweaks to his style, he could be back on the air full time someday.
Until then, though, it could be back to those weekend pregame shows for Mut, where he first made his bones at WEEI. If that means more excellent radio before big Sunday evening games, like Sunday, May 18, 2008, well, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, for Mutnansky and listeners alike.