PORTLAND — The snow was flying at Alfond Stadium and the University of Maine was locked in a tense, late-season football battle with rival New Hampshire. It was the kind of setting those who love sports and love covering sports crave.
Yet as the game unfolded, Matty Boutwell and Jeff Schools were left to wonder if they should be somewhere else.
Readers were inundating their Maine Sports Network web site with questions, not about the UNH-Maine snow bowl, but about what was taking place simultaneously about 140 miles south in Portland’s Fitzpatrtick Stadium. They were begging for score updates for the Maine high school football championship games.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘Why are we here?'” Schools recalled. “We should have been in Portland.”
Since that day in 2008, Boutwell and Schools have been at most of the big sporting events in Maine, to blog or broadcast on the radio or both. Their presence at those games and on their popular weekend sports talk show on WJAB-FM for two-and-a-half years earned them a loyal and growing fan base, which they hope will follow them to the AM side of the radio dial.
Starting Saturday, the Maine Sports Network is taking over the airwaves at WLAM 1470 AM (870 AM in Portland) on the weekend. Boutwell and Schools will be broadcasting their new show, “The Offensive Line,” from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday and Sunday.
Starting Sept. 2, programming will expand for a lineup known as the “Long Weekend,” with WCSH6 sports anchor Lee Goldberg hosting a show from 10 a.m. to noon and Boutwell and Schools broadcasting from 12:30 to 5 p.m., leading up to the station’s local high school football coverage.
Sitting in their small studio at Nassau Broadcasting headquarters near Monument Square, Boutwell and Schools said they left WJAB, aka “The Big Jab,” earlier in the summer on good terms. They said they appreciated the opportunity the station gave them to get into radio, but philosophical differences about local sports coverage led to the split.
“We both looked at the same radio and saw different things we could do with it,” Boutwell said. “It’s like an early girlfriend; at some point, you realize, ‘You know what, I’m probably not going to marry this girl,’ so you move on.”
The pair decided to team up with another regular WJAB contributor, Tom Nolette, to start a radio network that didn’t just dabble in local sports, but made it a priority.
Nolette, the founder and owner of MBR.org, a web site dedicated to Maine high school sports, partnered with them to start covering the state football championships in 2009 and high school basketball games and tournaments a short time later. The feedback from fans made it clear there was a void to be filled.
“I think there’s huge demand for local sports,” Nolette said. “And not just local sports, but (sports talk) driven by local talk about New England sports.”
It wasn’t that long ago that Boutwell and Schools were among those making such demands. Both grew up as passionate sports fans, Boutwell in Dixfield and Livermore Falls, Schools in South Portland.
Boutwel, 33, started the MESN blog as a fan, and when Schools, 42, came on board a short time later, the duo tried covering Boston sports. Quickly, though, they realized they could drown in a rising tide of Boston sports blogs and decided to blend in Maine sports to stand out.
“We’re junkies,” Schools said. “We’re sports radio and sports junkies. We knew pretty early we had a chemistry and that we wanted to do more than just (Boston sports). We wanted to make it something cool that the community could get into.”
Boutwell, a father of three now living in Mechanic Falls, and Schools, a father of one from Gray, got their start in radio as regular callers to WJAB’s local programming. It wasn’t long before they were offered the opportunity for their own show, “The Weekend Warmup” on weekend mornings. Soon they were filling in on the station’s morning and afternoon drive programs during the week and connected with listeners in a unique way, Nolette said.
“They get beyond just the surface,” he said. “They get to the human element, which is what sport is really all about. The game and what transpires is important, but it’s what’s behind the game and the people that make it even more important.
“At their core, they’re simply avid sports fans, with strong opinions and they’ve made their show feel like a discussion at a sports bar, rife with passion and humor,” said Michael Hoffer, sports editor of The Forecaster who will serve as the station’s primary play-by-play voice for game broadcasts. “They’ve already done a wonderful job putting high school sports front and center.”
Boutwell and Schools plan to continue putting local sports in the spotlight. Local games have been hard to find anywhere on the dial in southern Maine radio for a long time. And even though high school football and basketball in northern and central Maine have had a presence on the airwaves for years, other sports have been shut out.
Boutwell recalled their broadcast of last season’s state championship hockey games from The Colisee. Their web stream was jammed with listeners, but the duo couldn’t find a radio station to pick up their broadcast, even though they offered it for free.
“How those games aren’t on the radio every year … that should be an institution,” he said. “How the state football championships weren’t on the airwaves (in southern Maine) for over 20 years is an absolute travesty. People should be embarrassed and say, ‘Why are we leaving our backyard to cover stuff when there’s plenty of stuff going on in our backyard.'”
MESN plans to be in the backyard of many central Maine football fans this fall, with game broadcasts scheduled to include Mountain Valley, Lisbon, Spruce Mountain, Leavitt, Oxford Hills, Edward Little and Lewiston. And with intentions of expanding the radio network from Kittery to Presque Isle, the MESN crew could have a lot of ground to cover soon.
“We’re doing a road trip to (Aroostook) County,” Boutwell vowed. “We’re going up there for a weekend and we’re going to broadcast to the whole state from ‘The County.'”