Hartford Sports Takes Another Hit With Loss Of Joe D And Gresh – Hartford Courant
The show ended at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
“Red Sox baseball is next,” Joe D’Ambrosio said. “Thanks for listening to Joe D and Gresh for the final time on WTIC NewsTalk 1080.”
And with that, after two years, the show was gone.
On a week when we marked the rebirth of minor-league baseball and the 20th anniversary of the death of major league sports in Hartford, the end of the afternoon drive-time sports talk show on the 50,000-watt staple of Connecticut life hit with an additional historical punch.
Part of me understands it.
Part of me hates it.
D’Ambrosio said he got word on a Monday in March when a winter storm hit.
“They let me know [Andy] Gresh was leaving and they were going to take the time slot into another direction,” he said. “It took me totally by surprise. I didn’t see it coming.”
There was a time 30-40 years ago when media powerhouses ruled undisputed. You read The Courant delivered to your doorstep. You listened to WTIC. You clicked on one of a few TV stations. Times have changed.
AM radio, like print newspaper, is a dinosaur roaming the earth. I get the argument. WFAN, with Mike Francesca going against the show, is a Goliath. The Sports Hub, with Felger and Mazz, and WEEI, with Dale and Holley, are a 1-2 afternoon force out of sports-crazy Boston. I get it. With Rob Dibble at 97.9 ESPN Hartford, there is another sports talk presence in the area. I get it.
There is Sirius. There are podcasts. There is live streaming. There is what amounts to talk radio on ESPN and Fox television. There are endless opinions on myriad platforms. Some is entertaining and thought-provoking, and some is one step below garbage. On top of all that, radio is a business. I get it.
Still, this one sticks with me, because it strikes at what we are as a sports market, what we are as the collective us.
“I’m heavily biased, but I thought we had a great show,” D’Ambrosio said. “Gresh was terrific.”
“I thought we handled the big topics extremely well, like Dunkin’ Donuts Park, Deflategate, Big 12 expansion. We gave time to Boston and New York teams. I thought we were extremely fair to UConn when football went downhill, which eventually got me in trouble with the head coach [Bob Diaco].
“At the end of the day, we just didn’t get the ratings or else they would have tried to continue the show with me and somebody else. That’s the bottom line. In the business, if you don’t get the ratings, you’ve got to try something else to draw people to your radio station.”
D’Ambrosio has been in the market forever and the voice of UConn athletics nearly as long. He has the stethoscope on our state’s sports heartbeat. He walked that line between sharp talk show host and play-by-play broadcaster, approved by the school, as well as could be expected.
Gresh arrived from outside the market, having made his name most notably in Boston. I thought he might play the big-time Boston card. He did not. He was a provocateur, without being a jerk. I knew he was good. He was better than I thought. D’Ambrosio, who travels with the Huskies and also anchors sports for NBC Connecticut TV, said Gresh lined up so many guests, formulated the logistics of the topics.
“He did the heavy lifting,” D’Ambrosio said. “He carried the show.”
If these two couldn’t carry Hartford, really, who can?
“I think it’s hard,” D’Ambrosio said. “I don’t know what Rob’s ratings are over at ESPN Hartford, but they have a benefit of being able to call on the ESPN experts as guests. … With all due respect to Rob, we absolutely looked at FAN [as the chief competition].
“We had great guests. But I don’t know if you can ever be truly successful, because you do have the FAN, the great monolith, looming over you from the West and the two sports talkers from Boston looming over you from the East.”
And that’s why the historical question returned this week in yet another form. Squeezed by giant metros, is the Hartford market big enough to overcome the fragmentation of Connecticut sports fans? That’s really what killed the Whalers. And it makes you wonder. Can the market sustain one dominant sports talk show that serves Hartford, locally, regionally, nationally, as it deserves to be served? Or is it fruitless?
“I think it can be centralized,” D’Ambrosio said. “But you can’t talk all UConn all the time. There’s just not enough there. We certainly did have some problems generating calls from the seventh football game of the year on last season. When all the basketball transfers were all announced, we didn’t get that many calls. I was kind of surprised by that. Maybe people were resigned to the fact there was going to be changes and were waiting to see what Kevin Ollie does.
“Even though we’re in the middle, if you’re promoted properly, have a solid base, I think you can make it work.”
Later in our discussion, D’Ambrosio also said this:
“I don’t know if another show would work. One problem now is a lot of people don’t tune into AM radio. They don’t channel surf AM. If you’re in New York, you can be listening to WCBS. They go to a break, you go to FAN. That doesn’t happen in a lot of markets now and certainly doesn’t happen in Hartford. “
And it’s not all about guests and topics.
“One problem were heard about a lot was because of the heritage of our radio station, the information station, we had a break every eight or 10 minutes for traffic and weather between 4 and 6. I don’t think sports fans liked that. When you’re on a topic and you go on a break, people will turn the dial. We understood that going in. We tried to work around it, but I think that didn’t help us.”
D’Ambrosio pointed to heated debates over Deflategate and Dunkin’ Donuts Park as high points of the show.
“That interview Gresh did with [Centerplan’s] Bob Landino, I wasn’t there that day, that was one of the signature moments of the show,” D’Ambrosio said. “They went after each after pretty good.”
One spike in the show involved Tom Brady. Another involved Downtown Hartford. That’s not Boston, folks. That’s not New York. That’s Connecticut, the collective us.
“It was hard when UConn football went into a tailspin,” D’Ambrosio said. “When you’re a play-by-play guy for a team and you host a talk show, it’s a fine line. I have so much respect for Michael Kay doing the Yankees and a talk show.”