The Media Column: How OMF grew from a midday Hail Mary to new afternoon drive staple

Alex Reimer
August 14, 2018 - 1:14 pm

WEEI

It took less than five minutes for Lou Merloni and Christian Fauria to rag on Glenn Ordway during their afternoon drive debut Monday. With Diddy’s “Coming Home” playing in the background, Merloni and Fauria took turns using the “Ordway Voice” –– a high-pitched defensive squeal –– recounting some of Glenn’s greatest tangents: launching sports talk radio in Boston, bringing Gerry Callahan to WEEI, getting wrongfully terminated for Mike Salk. From there, Merloni and Fauria jumped into impromptu rants about the dour outlook some fans and pundits have about the 85-win Red Sox, who are 50 games above .500. 

“The glass is always half empty –– let’s talk about all of the ways they’re going to lose! Let’s be negative,” Fauria said mockingly.

A few notches up the dial, Tony Massarotti was caterwauling about Mookie Betts celebrating his cycle during the Red Sox’ recent loss to the Blue Jays.

Monday was the debut of our new lineup at WEEI, which features “Dale & Keefe” in middays and OMF during the afternoon. With Dale Arnold and Ordway back in their familiar slots, the challenge will be convincing listeners this isn’t a redux of the mid-aughts. 

That was Fauria’s worry when the idea of bringing Ordway back was first floated during the summer of 2015. Tim Benz, who worked with Merloni and Fauria on “Middays with MFB,” left the station after roughly one year on the air. WEEI was looking to revamp its midday lineup for the third time in 16 months, with Mike Mutnansky getting shifted to nights in order to make room for Benz’s arrival in May 2014. “Mut & Merloni,” which debuted in early 2011, finished eighth in our target demographic (men 25-54) during their final ratings book. 

Though “Middays with MFB” made incremental gains –– they finished sixth in Spring 2015 –– they were still well behind the competition. Fauria, a self-proclaimed sports talk novice, was skeptical that Ordway was the right person to bring the show forward.

“I didn't know Glenn. There was no relationship with him,” Fauria told me over the phone. “Glenn thinks he's like the Grand Poobah. He thought he was going to come in here and tell everybody what to do. I just wasn't having it, regardless of how green I was at the time. I didn't feel like recycling Glenn Ordway.”

Though Fauria won two Super Bowls with the Patriots from 2002-2005, the Southern California native says he didn’t listen to any sports talk radio when he played here. Fauria did do a regular TV spot with Gary Tanguay, and thought the irreverent talking head would’ve been the right choice, especially if they wanted to take the show in a less rigid direction. (Fauria and Merloni both told me that Benz, who got his sports talk chops in Pittsburgh, filled out a grid before each show with ’20 different topics’ to occupy the four hours.)

“I wanted Gary. He auditioned and we really liked him,” Fauria said. “I thought, 'Hey, we're not going to talk sports at all. We're just going to screw around the whole time.’”

Merloni, however, had different thoughts. A staple on the old “Big Show,” the ex-Red Sox infielder says he was beaten down after two lowly rated midday stints with Mut and Benz. At the time, Merloni says he was angling to leave talk radio and head to the Red Sox broadcast booth. 

“My whole experience (was bad),” Merloni told me in a phone call. “Even with Mut, I felt we got better, and obviously I like Mut a lot, but professionally, we weren't doing very well. It was a grind. Every day, I was like, 'I don't know if it's supposed to be this hard.' Then when Benz came, I was like, 'I guess it is. I guess this job just isn't –– I don't know.' I wasn't having fun doing it.”

Merloni pushed for Ordway from the get-go, and the Big O returned to WEEI in September 2015, nearly 2.5 years after he had signed off from afternoons. In between, Ordway hosted a short-lived Internet show in his attic, which I was part of. The man who helped build sports talk radio in Boston was relegated to sparring on the air with a college-age Red Sox podcaster. It was quite a fall, but through it all, Ordway never appeared to lose his desire to get back. The man remained a voracious consumer of sports talk radio, and even kept a spreadsheet of WEEI’s ratings on his laptop. 

Suffice to say, Ordway was ready for the call, even though it was a different role. During Ordway’s previous 18-year stint at WEEI, he was the dominant voice in afternoons. With two rotating co-hosts on a daily basis, he set the dialogue and introduced each topic. Now he was being asked to be an equal partner, and most importantly, not talk as damn much. 

It has been a transition. 

“Early on, I was probably too Type-A, too dominant, because I recognized what the weaknesses were with the show and tried to tighten it up,” Ordway told me on the phone. “It’s different with this show than it was with the ‘Big Show.’ Back then, I had to be the guy who was dominant, because there were different guys every day. The people you’re bringing into the studio are not necessarily up to speed with where the show is going. This is different. Everybody has a role.”

All three hosts say they felt good about the show relatively quickly. Ordway remembers Fauria calling him on the Friday after the first week, remarking how easy it all felt. Big O’s biggest skeptic was sold.

“You could tell from Day One. It was just, 'OK, this is how it should be.' Over the course of a week, he's an expert at this,” Fauria said. “I keep drawing correlations to my playing days. I remember Warren Moon –– and he's not Warren Moon, at all –– but veterans, guys who have had success, when they showed up, you just knew they knew what they were talking about, opposed to other quarterbacks. You didn't believe them. When Glenn showed up, you knew you didn't have to tell him what to do. And if he doesn't know, he'll figure it out.”

Enhanced with a strong lead-in from “Kirk & Callahan,” OMF moved up in the ratings, outdrawing “Middays with MFB” by more than two points when Fall 2016 rolled around. One year later, they were No. 1 in their time slot.

Monday’s OMF show perfectly encapsulates the program’s vibe. Much like the “Big Show,” it’s loud, with all three hosts ribbing each other like they’re on the barstools.

“They were kind of reluctant to bring some of this stuff on the air. I think Lou was more willing to do it right off the bat, Christian wasn’t. But they didn’t do it with Mut, they didn’t do it with Tim (Benz). So we just started doing it,” Ordway explained to me. “Maybe they heard the success of the morning show, with those guys throwing it out there. I’ve always thrown it out there, dating back to the old ‘Big Show.’ I think the audience wants to hear what you’re doing behind the curtain. As much as they tell you they don’t, when they say that, they might not want to hear it 24/7, but they want to hear it.”

There’s no doubt OMF has copied some of K&C’s formula, which focuses on inner-show drama. Merloni and Fauria regularly berate Ordway for his proclivity to take over segments, a long-running conflict they decided to make part of their show’s fabric. 

“I think I snapped one time on (Ordway), on the air,” Merloni recalled. “I was saying something and he kept doing the, 'Yeah but, yeah but' while I was trying to talk. Finally I just snapped and said, 'Will you just shut the hell up?' I think afterwards, it was even Glenn, all of us, we agreed: do more of that. It was hysterical.”

More than anything else, the apparent camaraderie between Ordway, Merloni and Fauria is the driving force behind their success. Merloni has always been one of the most insightful baseball analysts in the market, and Fauria often shared his football acumen with Benz. But too often, with Mut or Benz in the big chair, it felt like the ex-athletes were being interviewed. Once Merloni and Fauria got comfortable with Ordway, the show became less about the topics, and more about the personalities. 

In fact, former producer Paul Chartier says he thinks some of their best material comes when there aren’t any pressing sports issues on the docket. That allows OMF, and Fauria in particular, to rely on their creativity and jocularity. 

“To say their chemistry got better is an understatement,” Chartier told me on the phone. “They could just f*** around, just be guys who were talking s***. We didn’t really open the show with any idea. They could just d*** around for what could be an hour on nothing, and be more entertaining than any topic. That was a strength, and it took them time to get good at it.”

Three years later, OMF sound like they’ve been together for a decade. And while Ordway is back in afternoon drive, and the tone of the show may be reminiscent of a good “Big Show,” it’s an entirely different mix. It doesn’t take long to recognize that, given the on-air pushback that Ordway receives from his cohorts. 

“This is not Glenn's show. He needed to know we were bringing him in, and he isn't going to take over the show. I told him that, and I still tell him that,” Fauria said. “When he gets too big for his britches, you've got to cut his legs underneath him, and serve him some humble pie. I didn't want this to be 'Big Show' circa 1999. I'm not Steve Burton, and Lou isn't Tony Mazz.”

That’s perhaps the biggest difference between OMF and “Felger & Mazz.” The latter sticks to a firm all-sports format. OMF aims to disrupt that, with a heavy dose of ball-busting.

“I don’t think you get that with Felger and Mazz right now. There’s another difference of the two shows,” Ordway said. “This is going to be an obvious choice. You’re either going to like what we do, or like what they’re doing. It’s not going to be the same.”

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ESPN putting Keith Olbermann at play-by-play was a beautiful troll move:
ESPN, which has long been under siege for its supposed liberal bias, put Keith Olbermann on the call for Yankees-Mets Monday. The move was ripped on social media, but I like what it represents. 

While Olbermann’s stint in the booth was rocky at times –– Noah Syndergaard asked during a moment of dead air if he was still being interviewed –– it was refreshing to see ESPN not cow-tow to its disingenuous critics. Despite the barrage of criticism levied at the network from right-wing circles, there’s little evidence ESPN is losing market share due to its perceived politics. While the WorldWide Leader has lost 14 percent of its subscribers since 2011, so have most other cable networks, including Fox News, which is down 12 percent over that period. 

The real reason for ESPN’s decline is the cord-cutting phenomenon and introduction of a la carte cable packages, which allow consumers to pick their own channels. Due to exorbitant rights fees, ESPN charges viewers an average monthly carriage fee of $8. Predictably, cable subscribers who aren’t sports fans are opting out in droves.

ESPN attempted to make some makeup calls to its aggrieved critics in the aftermath of Jemele Hill’s tweet calling Donald Trump a “white supremacist.” ESPN later suspended Hill for violating its social media policy after she had suggested Cowboys fans boycott the team’s sponsors. But it wasn’t good enough. Lambasting ESPN has become a cottage industry. 

Common sense says there isn’t a single person who will tune out ESPN because Olbermann called its national baseball game Monday night. ESPN brought him back to the fold, because they believe he can add to its MLB coverage and flailing “SportsCenter” brand. It’s good to see them stick by talent in the face of superficial howling. 

How did latest Deflategate book come together?
I will be writing a review of Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge’s two-year Deflategate retrospective, “12: The inside story of Tom Brady’s fight for redemption,” later this week. But an excerpt from my recent email Q&A with Sherman is below, where I ask him how they attempted to get answers out of the tight-lipped Patriots and NFL.

The book features extensive interviews with NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith and attorney Heather McPhee. Tom Brady, Robert Kraft and Jonathan Kraft are quoted as well, with their anecdotes mixed into the recap of the Patriots’ 2016-17 championship season.

Alex Reimer: Deflategate happened just three years ago, and wasn't finished until two years ago. Why did you think this was the right time for a retrospective?

Casey Sherman: We had kicked around the idea of writing a book about the dark side of the NFL - all the "gates" and the league's lack of real progress with CTE.

As observers of "Deflategate", we watched it unfold but did not feel it was a book worthy story until Brady's Super Bowl comeback. As the confetti was falling in Houston, we got a call from our Hollywood partners, Oscar nominated screenwriters Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson (whom we had worked with on The Finest Hours and Patriots Day). Tamasy told us that although he was not a Brady fan, what we were all witnessing could be an incredible movie and he urged us to write the book, which they would adapt for the big screen. This told us that there was a national appetite for the story and after some consideration, we decided to move forward. 

AR: Were attempts made to speak with John Jastremski and Jim McNally?

CS: We made attempts through several different channels and were unsuccessful. We are still pursuing them with the goal of adding to their story in future additions of the book.

Ultimately though, despite their connection to the story, we looked at them as minor characters. Our thesis is that Deflategate was much ado about nothing anyway. It was a minor traffic violation that was blown up into a capital murder case by the NFL with Tom Brady as the prime suspect. That was the real story that we told in "12". It was a sting operation carried out through orders by Roger Goodell to allow him to retain his power with NFL owners. 

AR: How did you try to speak with the main players –– Goodell, Brady, Belichick, Robert Kraft?

CS: Getting Brady on the record was a coup for us, as he's never cooperated for a book before. To land Brady, we hired Matt Chatham to serve as our field producer and he got Brady the questions we needed answered for the book. This was during the 2017 regular season and he answered the questions via audiofile. We (Wedge and I) spent some time with Robert & Jonathan Kraft, interviewed several players including SB hero James White and most importantly, Brady's other team - his lawyers with the NFLPA who protected Brady's blindside off the field. The NFL was uncooperative as you can imagine. I've written books about the CIA and FBI and had more cooperation from those government agencies than we did the league. Belichick did not want to talk and frankly, we did not expect much from him anyway. 

Want to see Ray Bourque hit off Tim Wakefield? Head to the Oldtime Baseball Game
Boston Herald scribe Steve Buckley, who doubles as my “Two Outs” compadre, will be hosting his 25th annual Oldtime Baseball Game at St. Peter’s Field in Cambridge on Thursday night. This year, all proceeds will go to the American Heart Association. The game is being played as a benefit to former Herald hockey writer Steve Harris, who passed away in February.

In addition to the old time uniforms, fans who come out for the game will see Bruins great Ray Bourque, who is playing in this year’s contest. He will be facing off against Tim Wakefield in the first inning.

Oh, and Merloni will be playing too, but we’ve devoted enough space to him this week. 

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