Boston Sports Radio Giant Mike Felger Reflects On Career, Island Life
David Creed •
Mike Felger, Boston's most popular sports radio host, was taking a break from his hot takes on the local sports teams and unwinding with a drink at Cru on Nantucket a few summers ago when the subject of one of his takedowns tapped him on the shoulder. It was a former Boston Bruins player who had been the target of one of Felger's rants and wanted to let him know how he felt about it.
"He wanted to kick my ass,” Felger said. “We were hard on this Bruins player and I mean really hard on him. So late at night I’m at Cru and I get a tap on the shoulder. I look up and this big guy is standing there and goes ‘hey, here I am’ and I’m just like 'aw shit.' He actually bought me a beer and was kind of nice. He told me how he felt. Let me say he was much nicer than he should have been because I was not good to him on the radio. He expressed his unhappiness that’s for sure.”
Mike Felger has been in sports media for nearly 30 years. He graduated from Boston University in 1992 and immediately began to work for the Boston Herald, where he had been working as an intern since 1989. Felger’s first professional sports gig came in 1995 when he covered the New England Revolution, followed by a stint as a Boston Bruins beat writer beginning in 1996 and a New England Patriots beat writer from 1999 to 2008.
Felger joined 98.5 The Sports Hub in 2009 and has been at the heart of the Boston sports media landscape ever since. He’s become well-known for his fiery, passionate sports takes that surely aggravate and piss off many sports fans, but keep them coming back for more. His radio show “Felger and Mazz” with co-host Tony Massarotti has dominated the rating charts as the top sports radio show in New England for over a decade.
But there is much more to Felger than what people hear on the radio or see on the show’s simulcast on NBC Sports Boston. When he isn’t drumming up controversial sports topics to ruthlessly debate with Massarotti and their third host Jim Murray, he prefers a quiet, relaxing scene where he can escape with his family. It is why Nantucket has been the vacation spot of choice for Felger since 1993.
“Right after I graduated BU in 1992 I had a roommate in college who had a little shack out in Wauwinet, and I think he still does, literally maybe three doors down from the hotel with that beautiful spit of land at the head of the harbor and he started bringing us out,” Felger said. “I really just fell in love with it.”
Felger didn’t wait long to bring his wife, former Boston 25 news anchor Sara Underwood, to the island. Nantucket was where the pair went for their second date and they have been regularly coming to the island ever since. They would rent a home for a few weeks each summer up until 2008, when they eventually bought a home.
An ideal day for Felger is to head to Bartlett Farm with his daughters, grab some lunch and bring it to Ladies Beach for a picnic and an afternoon at the beach. Eventually he may find himself heading down to Faregrounds to see some friends before retiring for the night and spending time with his wife.
While Felger covered the Patriots for the Boston Herald, he also worked a small radio show for ESPN from 2005 to 2008. That was his gateway into the radio business. He feels this sector of sports media fits him well. Felger said his passion for sports began while growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin watching the Green Bay Packers, Milwaukee Bucks, and Milwaukee Brewers. His family was equally as passionate and helped mold him into who he is today.
“My Dad was a crusty, old sports fan who was always b****ing at the TV and complaining about the Packers coach or complaining about what the Brewers were doing,” he said. “In my house we grew up complaining about the local teams. It is just what we do. So complaining about the local teams comes naturally to me and I think it does to a lot of people in Boston too.”
It begged the question whether Felger has had any run-ins with another Boston icon who has been the target of some of his on-air criticism. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has been a long-time island resident, and Felger said he had a solid relationship with Belichick from his time on the Patriots’ beat, but hasn’t seen the future Hall of Fame head coach in many years.
“Bill and I had a good relationship, or a better relationship, and I did see him down here but that was years and years ago,” Felger said. “I don’t think he is too eager to catch up with me right now though.”
Felger said he is thankful to work in a sports market like Boston, where he says an appetite for classic, sports talk radio is alive and well.
“Thank God Boston is like that because not every place is like that and has the edge,” he said. “There are a lot of people in Boston who want to get in their truck after a long, hard day of work and just listen to a couple of sports segments before they get home. I think there is also a segment of the town that wants critical commentary. They don’t want cheerleading. You may aggravate them at times obviously but I think there are enough people out there who want to hear all sides of it, even the bad sides.”
Felger said his favorite story to discuss is the ongoing fallout from Tom Brady ditching chilly Foxborough winters for the sunny skies in Tampa Bay. The ongoing debate about Brady and Belichick’s importance to the Patriots’ unprecedented championship run that produced nine Super Bowl appearances and six championships is something too hard to ignore, he said.
“Even though it has been overdone so much, the whole Patriots saga of Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, that whole break up, what has been going on since, it is just too tasty,” he said. “It is such a great story and yes we pound the crap out of it, but that is a big one. That has to be my favorite topic.”
As for his favorite sport to discuss, Felger said hockey is the winner. He has always been a fan and had a love for the game. He said hockey fans, in particular Bruins fans, are the best fans to talk to on the radio.
“Bruins fans, I gotta tell you man, that is an angry bunch. That is an angry, cynical bunch,” he said. “They are great to talk to because they want to tell it like it is and they want to get in there. They don’t want happy horse crap. They want to vent about what is wrong. You get a Bruins fan on the line, they sound like Boston. The Bruins fan is the most authentic fan in the town. They speak like Boston. They sound like Boston.”
“The Red Sox fan used to have that but they have won a lot now and there are a lot of casual fans while passionate baseball has sort of receded. Hockey isn’t the most popular sport but their fans are easily the most passionate, which is why it is such a fun sport to talk about.”
Felger couldn’t speak about his career or the success of his show without speaking about Massarotti, a former Boston Red Sox beat reporter who has been with him for the entirety of the show.
“Mazz is so great because like me, he can do four hours of sports, which is hard to do four hours per day, five days per week,” he said. “But it isn’t just that. He is so smart. Way smarter than me, and he knows what the show needs when it needs it. I’m not very funny, but he sure is. It is hard to articulate, but he just understands what the show needs. He is super passionate about baseball too, which is becoming harder and harder to find. That is so valuable.”
Massarotti, like Felger, also worked at the Boston Herald. Both rose the ranks in an era where contentious beat reporting was the norm and not an outlier like many think it is today. He believes that has played a strong role in their on- and off-air chemistry.
“When he and I came up through the 80s and 90s, (the Boston Herald) was the feisty tabloid,” he said. “It is like how the New York Post is now. We were up against the Boston Globe, which was the more conservative, established paper. We had to sell newspapers so we had to always find the controversy, accentuate the critical stuff, always had to find the dirt. The Herald approach was always to sensationalize, criticize, find the dirt, and blow it up. It was an old school tabloid newspaper. So we would come to it with that sort of sensibility. So we are happy to take on a local team or do that sort of thing because that is how we were brought up with the Herald.”
Felger said aside from Massarotti, three media members he is appreciative of and believes have played an integral part in the rise of "Felger and Mazz" are Marc Bertrand, who now co-hosts the popular 10 a.m. morning show "Zolak and Bertrand" on 98.5 The Sports Hub, Jim Murray, and Greg Bedard.
“Beetle and Jim Murray are a great place to start,” Felger said when mentioned co-workers he has enjoyed having around. “Beetle was great for the show because when Mazz and I got going, and we agree on a lot of the same things as we have the same sensibility, Beetle would get in the way of that as the runaway freight train and push back when we went too far. He would defend the local team against us and there is a lot of value in that.”
“Murray is just a real radio guy. He is a creative, funny radio guy. We need that because Mazz and I aren’t radio guys. We are sports writers. Murray can crack a joke, do a voice, produce something up, and we really need that. I would also say Greg Bedard because I think fans really gravitate to him as an authority as well. Mazz and I talk out of our ass. Bedard actually does that work and actually knows what he is talking about.”
Felger said it doesn’t hurt to have associate producer Jimmy Stewart and his phone by his side either.
“Stew is absolutely tapped in,” he said. “Now, sometimes you are only as good as your sources. Sometimes they are right and sometimes they are wrong but make no mistake, Stew has people. I will take Stew’s phone’s batting average against any reporter anywhere.”
There isn't anyone Felger would rather have by his side than the personalities above, but pressed with the hypothetical of having to choose someone to co-host a show with, Felger didn't hesitate.
“Easiest co-host I could have is Adam Jones," Felger said. "He has a lot of material and I could be the good guy, which doesn’t exist very often. I would get to be the good guy, saying nice things about the local team. He is such an evil person. I mean my God is he negative. Adam Jones would be my easiest transition and a nice change of pace.”
As for any advice Felger has for anyone attempting to break into a competitive sports media landscape, he said he would suggest becoming an expert on at least one thing and work from there. He said aspiring reporters should also know it takes time to get to where they want to be. Felger spent six to seven years working his way up to a professional beat manning jobs that ranged from compiling horse racing scores, getting full-time reporters coffee or anything they needed, gathering up scores from high school sports across the region, and covering high school games himself.
“Start with having a beat, a thing where you are known for that thing and they can at least start to turn to you for that thing. That way you can start to set yourself above. That is how I sort of started. That is how Mazz started. He covered the Red Sox and I covered the Bruins. I went on to cover the Patriots and they get huge. But if somebody wanted a Bruins thing, they came to me. If somebody wanted something on the Patriots early in Belichick’s run, I would be one of the guys,” Felger said. “I think young people coming into the business immediately want to be Bill Simmons or Dave Portnoy and hey, good luck man. If you are that talented and can do it like that god bless you but for most people, it is a process and it is a grind. You have to get in on something on the ground floor and start with that.”