By Mike Kinosian
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief
BOSTON — Notwithstanding that the “Old Towne” team has been historically dreadful the past 12 months, diehard members of Red Sox Nation from Boston to Bakersfield, Battle Creek to the Bahamas, and all points around the world, positively love their BoSox while simultaneously loathing the New York Yankees.
There is however an even greater enemy to the vociferous throng of Red Sox partisans than the Evil Empire’s pinstripe-clad nine – cancer that afflicts children.
In 1953, the Red Sox adopted as its charity of choice the Jimmy Fund, which raises money to support cancer care/research at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
It is believed the Red Sox-Jimmy Fund association is the most enduring such relationship in professional sports. Something without question though is the fact that the “face” of the charity for years was the definitive, all-time Red Sox icon, Ted Williams, whose single-handed fundraising impact was incalculable. Devotion the “Splendid Splinter” had to the Jimmy Fund kids was legendary.
For the past 11 years, Entercom-owned “Sportsradio” WEEI has conducted annual Jimmy Fund radio-thons. Last-minute contributions pushed the tally of this year’s event – which aired August 21-22 from 6am-12 Midnight both days – to just over $3.4 million.
Event sums in each of the last seven years have been in excess of $3 million, with Red Sox flagship WEEI helping to generate well over $31 million in its 11 Jimmy Fund radio-thons. “The Jimmy Fund’s fiscal year ends at the end of this month and we have a wrap-up meeting at about that time to review how we can improve next year,” explains WEEI vice president of programming Jason Wolfe. “Nationally, it is looked upon as the gold standard for how a broadcast entity works with a charity to put on a community involvement event.”
Decision to do the first Jimmy Fund radio-thon resulted from a meeting Wolfe and several of his staff members had with then Jimmy Fund chairman – and former Red Sox second baseman – Mike Andrews. “WEEI was just coming into its own at 50,000-watt 850, after being on 5,000-watt 590 for four years going back to 1991,” Wolfe recounts. “There was a meeting of the minds to combine the radio station’s resources with the umbrella of the Red Sox and the Jimmy Fund. We talked about being connected to an event that would jazz everyone up about why this is such an important cause.”
Ever since the economic crash of 2008, Wolfe has refrained from setting radio-thon goals; instead, he is thankful for whatever amount is raised. “It is too difficult to tell the audience that you need their help to get to a certain figure,” he explains.
This specific fundraiser’s genuine beauty is in its grass roots base. “It is not about corporate partners or people who have $50,000 to donate because they happen to be rich,” Wolfe states. “I am not, by any means, demeaning those who are privileged to be in that category. What happens though is people donate $5, $10, or the money they made by selling lemonade in their neighborhood. Stories told are so meaningful and relatable to the everyday person. It brings out incredible emotion in the community.”
Eighty percent (80%) of the money donated every year on WEEI’s Jimmy Fund radio-thon is the result of a gift of less than $100. “All of us can look at cancer and say we know someone who has been affected by this disease,” Wolfe remarks. “The children are so courageous, powerful, and full of life – even though they know they are dealing with something that is so difficult to beat. You just cannot help but want to give. It is a pleasure to work with them as closely as we have.”
This tremendously challenging economy has restricted the ability for some to give but Wolfe points out many WEEI listeners still manage to find a way to donate. “If they gave $50 last year, they might have given $20 this year – but it is just as great. We are excited to have them take part in whatever way they can.”
Much like the Red Sox and Jimmy Fund have formed a rock-solid partnership, WEEI has a superb affiliation for the annual event with the New England Sports Network (NESN); Fenway Sports Group, the parent company of the Red Sox, owns 80% of NESN. “They bring out the emotion in an incredible way,” Wolfe states of NESN, which simulcasts WEEI’s “(John) Dennis & (Gerry) Callahan” morning drive program. “We had several interviews this year with patients who were not doing well. NESN can create the visual image of just the person’s face on the screen. The angle in which they shoot it can draw from the emotion of what the person is saying. NESN is delivering that message to four million homes – that puts the platform at a much higher level than if we were doing it on our own.”
Both Red Sox broadcast partners weave in information about the team’s players, management, limited partners, and even opposing teams. It will turn the stomachs of many card-carrying Red Sox Nation citizens but the dreaded Yankees have actually been Jimmy Fund supporters and its late owner, George Steinbrenner, was known to send a hefty donation.
On behalf of MLB, Commissioner Bud Selig gave $59,000 this year in recognition of the 59-year Red Sox-Jimmy Fund partnership and Wolfe notes that brings MLB’s total close to a quarter of a million dollars since its involvement. “We have been able to create great relationships with so many different organizations,” he comments. “It has helped to grow this event to such an immense level.”
When the Jimmy Fund radio-thon is on WEEI, it is anything but a normal day of broadcasting and Wolfe fully expects to experience some listener tune out. “Some stories are so difficult to listen to,” he admits. “When there are numerous stories like that over the course of an 18-hour broadcast, it is much different from hearing an argument about why the Red Sox didn’t bunt in the seventh inning. Honestly though, if it means we take a little bit of a ratings hit for two days, so be it. It is far more important to spotlight a clinic doing such incredible things. The average person would have no idea unless they paid attention to these two days of content. If nothing else, it is very important to us that we can use the radio station’s power and success to give back to the community in a meaningful way. We cannot think of a better way to do that.”
Getting busy signals on FM
Feedback regarding the Jimmy Fund radio-thons is always overwhelmingly positive and Wolfe is able to gauge that along with other WEEI matters through a talk to the program director-style feature he has been conducting among listeners. Many programmers over the years have done such exercises on-air, however Wolfe does not favor that tactic since be believes, “The airwaves are more about having people talk about sports – that is not my job. I look at this as an opportunity to hear from our audience about things they like – or do not like – about the station, and how we match up against the competition. Having been at this radio station for 21 years, I have found that listeners know as much as I do about what we are doing.”
Consistent with characteristics of the typical Bostonian, they have strong opinions but Wolfe insists he finds it “helpful” – and “very interesting” – to get their take. “In this new age of media and how people communicate through social and mobile platforms, it is easy to be able to get a quick response. As the station’s program director, I think it is a good idea to be accessible.”
Anywhere from 50 – 100 listeners have been backed up at any one time during the several, hour-long online chats Wolfe has overseen. Now that the Jimmy Fund event and summer vacations are over, he will try to get back to doing them on a weekly basis. “That way, the audience will know they have access to getting their questions answered,” he remarks. “This radio station has made very little change in my 21 years here but those changes have been relatively big. It is a good opportunity to hear what people think about change and tell them what our mindset was at the time. In many ways, we look at ourselves as a successful sports organization. Instead of sitting on your hands, you always have to think of how to evolve and make yourself better.”
Season after season, the Boston Red Sox have been one of MLB’s upper echelon teams. Only three franchises – the St. Louis Cardinals, Yankees, and Red Sox – have won two World Series championships in the 2000s (2000-2011) but ever since last year’s infamous “September collapse,” the Red Sox have been in an aberrant tailspin, which is anything but good news for its radio flagship. “The challenge this year has been trying to be supportive and positive when they were playing bad baseball,” Wolfe concedes. “You have to call them out because we cannot be ‘homers’ for them all the time. We must be credible. This audience is too smart so we can’t simply say that things will get better next week or the team is doing the best it can. That is not a viable argument. It is however one pleasure of working in a market where fans and the media are so passionate about the teams.”
Obviously, it is in everyone’s best interest when the local squads win. “You want to be able to ride that wave,” states Wolfe, who just this past week helped celebrate the 30th anniversary of Red Sox play-by-play announcer Joe Castiglione. “Some of the stuff we have had to deal with regarding the Red Sox has made things a little tense and testy but we are an extension of the fans.”
It has been quite a ride for Wolfe, who not only boasts more than two decades at the same facility, but he gets to program one of America’s foremost all-sports properties in his hometown. In addition to the Red Sox, WEEI is the flagship of the NBA’s Boston Celtics Rightfully proud of what the station has accomplished, he acknowledges that, “Entercom is a tremendous operator and provides us with the resources we need to win. The sales staff has figured out how to be smarter about their business and what they are doing. On the programming side, we have been smarter in creating more opportunities for clients. Even though the economy is in tough shape, we think it is better than it was in 2008, in terms of people wanting to spend money with us.”
Exactly one year ago (9-12-2011), WEEI displaced adult hits “Mike” (WMKK), giving the valuable sports facility an FM signal. In Arbitron’s September 2011 PPM monthly, WEEI-AM registered a 4.2 (#9). The following month though, WEEI-FM (the former WMKK) rose to a 5.6 and improved to #6. “It was a business decision to blow up a successful station to benefit another,” Wolfe states. “Some thought we should have done it sooner, but the timing was right. It has been a strong trend in the industry the last several years for spoken-word formats to move to FM, particularly on the sports side. That does not mean AM is not successful or that it is on its way out, but we must be where younger listeners are – being on FM gives us a better place to reach them.”
Sharing the philosophy that FM is the address to attract Boston sports fanatics, CBS Radio debuted “The Sports Hub” (WBZ-FM) in August 2009. If any market in America can sustain two, fulltime, local sports outlets, it is Boston and Wolfe maintains WBZ-FM made it very clear that it was “going after younger demos in the way the hosts talked” and some of the subjects they discussed. “Listeners here are just feverish about the sports teams,” he proclaims. “CBS Radio has a tremendous track record for successful stations in this format. They had early success against us but it has flipped back in our favor. We feel we still provide the better content and have better shows. This is probably the second round of a great 15-round fight. More than anything else, this is wonderful for the audience. In the end, listeners will make the decision but WBZ-FM provides great competition for us. It is an exciting time to be in sports radio in Boston and will be for many years to come.”
Mike Kinosian is the managing editor and West Coast bureau chief of TALKERS. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or phoned at 818-985-0244.