Boston's toxic sports talk radio scene adds to city's nasty reputation of racism

(Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)
(Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)

Clarification: In a column published March 31, Yahoo Sports said in 2014 that radio show hosts Gerry Callahan and Kirk Minihane used the dog-whistle term "thug" to describe Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman a dozen times. The column was updated to reflect that Callahan was the person using the term in a derisive manner, and Minihane pushed back on its use.

Few things rile up white people of the greater Boston area more than the allegation that Boston is "more racist" than other places in the United States or — horror of all horrors — the most racist.

It is a charge that is made with regularity, stretching back decades, far more often than it is with other places.

The hard truth is Boston and its suburbs are part of America, which was built on anti-Black racism. And unless we want to create a points system for cities and counties to compete in the Racism Olympics, there's really no way to determine a winner (or, in this case, loser) anyway.

But for all of the protestations and feigned outrage at the assertion, there are at least two Boston institutions seemingly doing their best to uphold that reputation: the city's two sports radio stations.

Twice in a one-month span this year, a personality on each of the stations, WEEI and 98.5 The Sports Hub, found himself in the national spotlight after an offensive (at best) quip, though in the more recent case, the wrongdoer and his employer claimed that his racism was actually meant to be sexism.

On March 22, hosts of "The Greg Hill Show," WEEI's morning drive block, were discussing the proposal from a Boston city councilor to ban sales of nips, or tiny bottles of alcohol, within the city because they are a source of litter in many neighborhoods. Co-host Courtney Cox asked the group for their top five nips, and while others said Skrewball and McGillicuddy's, Chris Curtis, the show's producer, piped up.

"Oh, I'd probably go Mina Kimes," Curtis said.

Kimes is a popular ESPN NFL analyst whose mother is Korean American. "Nip" is an older slur to describe people of Japanese heritage. To many individuals too ignorant to learn about the differences, any derogatory term is a fine catch-all for someone who appears to be of Asian descent.

Yet when Chad Finn, a columnist and sports media reporter for the Boston Globe, reached out to WEEI's parent company, Audacy, for comment after Curtis' remark gained steam on social media, it was suggested to him without elaboration that Curtis might have meant to say actress Mila Kunis, not Kimes.

Why either one of these women had to be dragged into Curtis' misguided attempt at a joke has still not been explained. His day-after alleged apology included his intention to say Kunis' name, but again, he didn't say why.

Curtis was suspended for a week.

On Feb. 20, Michael Felger, one of the hosts of The Sports Hub's "Felger & Mazz" afternoon show, was broadcasting remotely from his hotel's business center, with two Black men in the same room minding their own business. At one point, Tony Massarotti, his co-host, said to Felger, "I want to know now who the two guys behind you are. That’s what I want to know. Because if I were you …”

Felger turned around and addressed the men, telling them he'd be done in two minutes and to let him know if he was being too loud.

"They can’t hear us, right?” Massarotti continued. “OK, so I would be careful if I were you because the last time you were around a couple of guys like that, they stole your car."

Massarotti was referring to an incident in November when Felger was visiting his daughter in New Orleans during her college's parents weekend. At one point, Felger said he brought his daughter to a music venue on a busy strip, double-parked the car and walked away from it with the keys in the ignition. It was stolen, Felger said.

Was it stolen by Black men? That's unclear. It certainly wasn't stolen by the Black men in the room with Felger, but that didn't stop Massarotti from laughing hysterically at his own joke — because, hey, all Black guys are robbers, right?

Massarotti was suspended for one week, and he and his co-workers were required to take sensitivity training.

In a moment that offered a small glimmer of hope, after reading the corporate statement announcing his partner's suspension, Felger apologized for not stepping up in the moment and saying something, claiming that he "froze."

Now, if these were just two isolated incidents that happened to occur within a few weeks of each other, it would've been disappointing but probably wouldn't have led to a torrent of "of course it was Boston"-type remarks and tweets.

But it was Boston. Again. And perhaps more damning, while these types of inexcusable moments have gotten hosts at sports radio outlets across the country fired in recent years, they're punished with a mere slap on the wrist in Boston.

In 2017, Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones said he was the subject of racial abuse from Red Sox fans at Fenway Park. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

What the Adam Jones incident at Fenway Park revealed about segment of Boston media

Michael Holley, who currently hosts "Brother From Another" on Peacock and Sirius XM with his longtime friend Michael Smith, is an Ohio native who has lived and worked in Boston for most of the past 25 years. In 2005, he left his job as one of the few Black sports columnists in the country, a role he held at the Boston Globe, to join WEEI as a midday host. What he thought would be a five-year stop became 13 years with the station.

"Let’s start with sports talk radio itself and the format," Holley said this week when I asked him why this problem persists in Boston. "The format is asking for something. To do it well and to do it where you have a mass audience, it’s very provocative on the local level. [Station executives] say, 'OK, you’re going to talk for three or four hours. You’re talking to — based on their research on who’s listening to them — you’re talking to a bunch of guys, you’re talking about sports, there’s a lot of passion involved, and we need you to say something beyond the obvious.'

"So before we get into any kind of political conversation or any kind of incendiary stuff, those are the parameters. You’re talking, you need to be engaging, you need to say something that everybody doesn’t say. You’ve got to be relatable, but you have to say something that the person you’re talking to hasn’t thought of — so what’s it going to be?

"I think a lot of people, if you’re good at it, it’s not an impossible path to navigate. If you're a person with some intelligence" — here he chuckled a bit — "and compassion, you can talk about controversial topics without offending a whole group of people. It can be done, but I think that’s the problem: Some people have the platform who maybe are not equipped to deal with all the things that may come up on the platform. I think that’s why we’re running into some issues. That’s one of the reasons."

Perhaps no event illustrates how ill-equipped many of those hosts are better than the Adam Jones incident in May 2017. It wasn't just an embarrassing period for several of Boston's sports media personalities; it also led to Holley deciding it was time to leave his job.

After the opening game of a four-game set at Fenway Park, Jones, then an Orioles outfielder, told reporters that he'd been called the N-word "a handful of times" and had a bag of peanuts thrown at him. Jones, who is Black, added that it wasn't the first time he'd been called the vile epithet at the Red Sox's home stadium.

Instead of showing even a modicum of empathy or condemning the behavior, WEEI's then-morning hosts, Kirk Minihane and Gerry Callahan, immediately called Jones a liar and demanded proof that the outfielder had experienced what he said he had, even after Red Sox officials confirmed Jones' story.

When a local television reporter, Dan Roche, tweeted that it would be nice to see Jones receive a standing ovation from Fenway fans for the rest of the series, Glenn Ordway, another WEEI host, tweeted back, "So you're saying 38,000 [fans] at Fenway are racists Dan ???#panderingfool."

Albert Breer, a Massachusetts native who covers the NFL for Sports Illustrated and is frequently heard on local sports radio, also doubted Jones. Breer declared that since he had been to, in his estimation, around 200 games at Fenway and had never heard a slur directed toward a player, he couldn't believe Jones unless there was concrete evidence.

These voices never conveyed outrage that someone behaved that way toward Jones or that he had to experience that kind of violence in the course of doing his job. There were only temper tantrums for themselves, anger that as people associated with Boston, they were somehow victims, once again painted with the "racist" brush.

"That was the beginning of the end for me at [W]EEI," Holley said, sighing deeply at the memory. "Because I was just so shocked that that became a storyline — that he made it up, that Adam Jones made this up. Why would he make this up? And then we found out that it happened to him before at Fenway, so this was not the first time. This was not the first incident.

"It became a very stressful job for me. Part of the job was sports talk radio, just doing the job, and the other one was trying to explain racism and Blackness in Boston to people who were not interested in really understanding what you were trying to say. They didn't want to hear it. They wanted you to say something so they could counter it. It was frustrating. It was ... discouraging. It was infuriating."

Holley said he remembers a discussion he had at the time with a higher-up at the station, who told Holley that he seemed uncomfortable talking about race. Holley laughed and said he wasn't uncomfortable talking about race — "I'm uncomfortable talking about race with y'all. It's my life for me. For you, it's a segment.

"I'm a Black man. In Boston," he continued. "I don't get a chance to ignore it. So no, I'm not talking about it with you because I don't know where you're coming from. I doubt your sincerity. I know you've got an agenda. I'm not sure what the agenda is."

Holley left the station roughly nine months later.

"Boston always wants it both ways," author and ESPN columnist Howard Bryant, who is Boston-born and Black, told me last year. "Boston wants to tell you to get over everything while fighting you on everything. And because of that, things never change.

"Because you can't change if you're resisting even the most basic of experiences. If you're protesting too much, there's no possible way that anybody is going to be able to move forward. You have to acknowledge people's experiences, especially somebody like Adam Jones, who was one of the most stand-up guys in baseball."

More than that, Bryant noted, why did Jones owe those media members anything? He had far more to lose by lying about such an incident that he had to gain by revealing what had occurred.

And the reaction to Jones was far from an outlier.

A troubling history of toxicity

Callahan has quite the history, though his most infamous moment likely came in 2003, when he and then-partner John Dennis equated Black high school students to a gorilla that had escaped from Boston's Franklin Park Zoo. They were suspended for two weeks.

In 2014, Callahan used the dog-whistle term "thug" to describe Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman while Minihane pushed back on the use of the term.

In 2015, former Red Sox infielder and WEEI host Lou Merloni tweeted that he had a baseball bat in his trunk and was doing "everything I can to control myself" because Black Lives Matter marchers were holding up traffic.

In 2017, Minihane lashed out at Boston mayor Marty Walsh for wanting to meet with "Saturday Night Live" cast member Michael Che. Che, who is Black, had called Boston the most racist city he'd visited, and Walsh expressed dismay on the local NPR affiliate, adding that he was hoping to talk to the comedian to see what he'd experienced. Minihane called Che — surprise! — a liar and Walsh an idiot.

In 2018, former New England Patriots tight end and WEEI host Christian Fauria used a ridiculous, mocking, broadly Asian accent in an apparent attempt to impersonate Tom Brady's agent, Don Yee, who was born in Sacramento. Everyone at the station subsequently had to undergo sensitivity training.

In 2020, within hours of the Patriots signing Cam Newton, Felger and Massarotti began denigrating the then-31-year-old quarterback, implying that he wouldn't be able to "contain" himself or fit into the Patriots' "culture" and that his "showboating" would be a problem. The next year, their colleague Scott Zolak said the Patriots needed to turn off the rap music playing during training camp because Newton (who is, for the unaware, Black) was "distracted" by it and dancing between reps, while Mac Jones (who is white) was not dancing and, therefore, "prepared."

WEEI is the flagship radio station of the Red Sox. The Sports Hub is the radio home for Patriots, Celtics, Bruins and New England Revolution games.

"People take their cues, their public cues, from the public discourse," Bryant said. "The Red Sox, for years, had an opportunity to rein in WEEI or even to threaten them, to say, 'We aren't going to be your flagship if this is the voice you're projecting out,' but they never did that. Because pressure is what moves people.

"In the 'wanting it both ways' department, you have a city that has every bit earned the reputation it has — not just yesterday but today because it enables those voices. What kind of city would want that voice to speak for it?"

The sign outside the WEEI offices in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston is pictured on Dec. 13, 2018. (Photo by Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
The sign outside the WEEI offices in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston is pictured on Dec. 13, 2018. (Photo by Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

'Should we really be doing this?'

There was a time when "Dennis and Callahan" was the highest-rated morning show in Boston. That was before The Sports Hub started and began airing its morning show, "Toucher and Rich." "Felger and Mazz" is currently one of the highest-rated radio shows in the country.

Their audiences mean they can't be ignored.

A not-small part of the problem is that nearly everyone on-air and behind the scenes at these stations is white. That's not to say there aren't some white people who are actively anti-racist, but there seems to be no one to challenge these hosts' views when they belch out something that's even approaching the line of offensive.

WEEI's weekday schedule is four shows, with eight primary hosts; five are white men, two are white women, and one is a Black man, former NFL player Jermaine Wiggins, who is on "The Greg Hill Show."

At The Sports Hub, there are also four shows each weekday, with seven primary hosts and three "third wheels" whose names aren't on the marquee, so to speak, but who are heard from quite a bit. All 10 are white men.

(And for the "oh, it should be a percentage" crowd that never fails to show up whenever the complexion of NFL head coaches is discussed: Via the 2020 U.S. Census, 23.5% of Boston's residents identify as Black. That means at least four of those 18 voices should be Black. And half should be women.)

It's not much better at the newspapers and websites that cover Boston sports. At the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, and Boston Sports Journal, all of the editorial positions are held by white men, and all of the non-white writers are at the Globe.

But beyond raw numbers, media outlets should be striving for diverse voices to offer different perspectives on the topics they discuss and cover, rather than being an echo chamber of people whose life experiences are generally similar. Not doing so is a disservice to your audience.

"Sometimes when we were doing it, I felt like, 'Should we really be doing this? Are we the best people to have an open discussion, an honest discussion about race in Boston, where I'm the only Black person in this conversation?'" Holley said. "We're going to callers, we don't necessarily have experts on here, and even if we did have experts on here, this is not necessarily the format to get into it. But a lot of people don't have those checks and balances."

Holley referenced intelligence and compassion as key traits of a good talk radio host. There also should be curiosity about the world outside your own bubble, willingness to learn from others and receptiveness to the idea that how you are perceived and received as you travel through life is not necessarily how others — namely, those from historically marginalized communities — are perceived and received.

It's all complicated and layered — the history of race in the city, the present-day state of race in the city, the fact that there's a difference between Boston proper and its suburbs. There is no magical fix to all of this.

Holley agreed that firing a host for such behavior would send a message that such transgressions are actually taken seriously.

"But," he countered, "who are you going to replace him with?"