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.”