“Special” Ed Oliveira lounged on the sunny outdoor deck out back at Allston’s Deep Ellum, nursing what can’t possibly be his first Allagash of the day. He’s all smiles and small-talk with a pair of female brunchers at a nearby table, letting his aviator sunglasses draw just enough attention away from the faux-hawk he sports with mock seriousness. The girls thanked him for his menu recommendation and giggled at his inaudible closing quip before he refocused his attention.
“Fans,” Oliveira clarified. “Let’s call them fans.”
It was just after noon on what seemed like hottest Saturday of the year, and one thing was already certain: The guy knows how to knock back a cold one long before it turns warm. He also knows his strengths as a radio personality. Words roll off his tongue as if he had a six-figure audience there to hold onto each one. He’s not fishing for laughs, but he is listening to himself.
“The Washington Redskins and the New England Patriots are complete cosmic opposites,” Oliveira mused at one point, invisible fists raised in anguish to the football gods. Other deep thoughts: “Satellite radio is already dead,” and “mixed martial arts is the pinnacle of full-contact spectator sports.”
He gets even better later on: “If I ran golf, it would be a full-contact sport. All players would carry a quiver of the four basic clubs and travel on foot. It would be survivalist golf. There would be no waiting. An opponent can sneak up behind you while you’re putting and break your legs with his driver, and you’d lose.”
Fine craft brews aside, this is more professionalism than narcissism. And it helps that Special Ed is actually quick and funny. He verbalizes thoughts, tries out material, comes back to talking points for another go-round. At least the cute waitress in the sundress and the menu-challenged ladies to his left are within earshot. They’re getting a free show, and they don’t even know it.
Consider this rehearsal, then. For the past two years, Ed has acted as one-third of The Sandbox, WFNX’s uncharacteristic attempt at a talk-centric morning radio show in the Boston market. The move was met with some criticism. How can the historically musical FNX justify a four-hour broadcast with maybe a dozen rock songs thrown in to break up the banter? This is the station that broke The Pixies. Kurt Cobain was an avid listener. You know, “Boston’s True Alternative?” As it is, this clogged market is rampant with humor-and-talk teams: Toucher and Rich on WBCN, Ramir and Pebbles on JAM’N 94.5, Opie and Anthony on Sirius/XM, Howard Stern, etc. With such immense pressure and competition, it’s easy to see why Oliveira never actually drops the routine. In truth, there isn’t one.
“I can’t turn it off,” he said. “I’m not playing a character at all. The Special Ed you hear on the radio is 100 percent genuine. Off the air, I’m still that same asshole.”
That’s hardly an understatement, though one would be tempted to apply “lovable” as a modifier for that self-given title. “Fearless,” too. For what other New England semi-celebrity would call the sport of baseball “boring and outdated” and riff on his “newly instilled sense of annoyance for the Boston Red Sox” that comes along every summer? Oliveira has lived in Boston only a little more than two years, but this apparent cultural divide illuminates his overall appeal. Like much of The Sandbox’s young-and-hip listenership, Oliveira admitted Boston may not be his permanent home, but in the meantime, he hates the Green Line for the same reasons as the rest of us and is no stranger to the phrase “Boozy Mick.” The only difference is that it’s part of his job to talk about it.
“I don’t find many of the aspects of Boston pride all that sacred,” Oliveira said. “I think we aim to attract an overall intelligent audience — a more worldly audience than just Boston. It’s a great market and a great town, and FNX is a great station. But our industry’s so weird right now that it’s hard to tell where it’s going. If you wanna be a movie star, you go to L.A. If you wanna be a radio guy, you go where the work is.”
This is exactly what he did in the summer of 2007. Along with co-hosts Charlie Padgett and Dustin “Fletcher” Matthews, Oliveira was transplanted from WYDL in Richmond, Virginia to take over Michael Swayze’s popular morning rock show on FNX. Since the transition, music for the time-slot has been cut down to “maybe four songs an hour,” while a wide array of topics are discussed each day in a rapid-fire call-in format: News, sports, politics, movies, music or “basically whatever we feel like,” Matthews said.
Among the trio’s talk are special guests, interviews, comic bits and commercials. The latter is probably the most significant change from the show’s birth as a podcast in Virginia, besides then being able to swear. Oliveira (whose real last name is d’Oliveira), Matthews and Padgett worked at WYDL doing marketing, afternoons and mornings respectively. They started The Sandbox as a podcast in 2004.
“We were never live before FNX,” Oliveira said. “The original idea was just to have an excuse to goof off, swear and drink. But people listened. We were in three different states at one point, and thanks to Skype, we were still able to record the show together, as if we were all in the same room.”
The three low-on-the-totem-pole radio employees would not have had the chance to do a podcast at all had it not been for WYDL higher-up Mike Murphy. “Mike was the buffer between the people behind the boardroom doors and our shenanigans,” Matthews said. “He made it possible for our podcast to exist.”
Despite the blessing from Murphy, Matthews (who is Ed’s roommate) maintains that “the funniest stuff happened off-air, like when we built a bathroom in Mike’s office.” The team installed restroom amenities like a toilet and a faucet, not to mention a fully operational plumbing system, in a room that was big enough for only Murphy’s desk and bookshelf. Murphy was simultaneously confused and amused. While not a gag that would work well on radio, one has to admire the anarchic inventiveness.
The youngest host of the show, Fletcher Matthews stuck to bottles of Miller High Life, sporting plastic lime-green wayfarer knockoffs to rival the kitschy impact of Special Ed’s aviators. The conversation veered off to the recent Best Music Poll free concert, to the The Gaslight Anthem, to the gruff Midwest punk bands that somehow instantly unite their common listeners. The back deck of Deep Ellum was once again bathed in sunlight and populated by groups of attractive drinkers soaking in the vitamin D as their livers do the alcohol. There was not a microphone in sight but Oliveira and Matthews appear in their element. A surprising amount of their rapport later winds up as asides on the following day’s show. The waitress — same as before — brings over each new longneck as the previous one’s frothy final gulp is about to be consumed.
Clearly comfortable with each other, the Sandbox guys know how to make an impression. But they weren’t so lucky upon their initial meetings with WFNX as the station searched for a possible new morning show.
“It was a long, slow hiring process,” Oliveira said. “But the beautiful thing about FNX is that they don’t think just like a radio company.”
Matthews chimes in: “They are very protective of their workplace and the people are passionate about what they’re doing. They have a huge standard for quality and a demanding audience to maintain. You know the FNX audience is tough to impress. It’s like, ‘Oooo … we all love Roxy Music.'”
Challenges presented themselves early for the trio. At one grueling interview in Boston, the General Manager was an hour-and-a-half late. “He barges in the board room,” Oliveira said, “and says verbatim to us, ‘Sorry I’m late but I don’t give a shit about any of this.”
According to Fletcher and Ed, even Henry Santoro, a radio veteran and longtime WFNX stalwart, was initially unimpressed. “I’m not kidding,” Oliveira said, “but he said he wasn’t interested in any of our ‘small-market bullshit.’ Unless we made some changes.”
That request was honored, and Matthews, Oliveira and Padgett got the job. They broadcast the first Sandbox show on July 23, 2007. The initial response from the public was overwhelmingly negative, as is the norm for regular radio listeners to throw their arms up in defiance at the first sign of change. Fast forward two years and Santoro is now a regular on the show. “They told us, ‘Oh, and you also get Henry. He just sort of comes with the station,'” Oliveira said. “Despite the fact that he’s sort of just a piece of furniture that hangs out in the studio, he eventually became a father figure for us on the show.”
Co-host Charlie Padgett confirmed Santoro’s status. “The only thing that makes Santoro “Ëœlegendary,'” he said, “is the fact that he has managed to hold down the same job for 26 years by doing the absolute minimum amount of work possible.”
Padgett is a little older than Matthews, a little younger than Oliveira, and is referred to as the “vanilla” one by his colleagues. Case in point, he was absent from the afternoon bar trip because he was taking his wife and kid fishing. But he defines his role in the group a little differently. “Just because I don’t live in an apartment with outdoor-carpeting indoors doesn’t mean I’m “Ëœvanilla,’ he says. “I got my rock n’ roll lifestyle out of my system 10 years ago, when I was single, sort of good-looking and in halfway decent shape.”
If anything, Charlie rounds out the ball-busting dynamic that has helped The Sandbox quickly establish a loyal audience. There’s a certain affection to the extended arguments on the show that shows up in conversation. “Ask Ed,” Padgett said, “who’s 38 by the way, how many times he has been asleep in the floor of the green room on a Tuesday morning compared to how many times I have been asleep in the floor of the green room. And no one can be as hipster-awesome as Fletcher. “ËœOoooooh! I only go to bars that take cash!’ Get out of here. Give me a corner booth, a decent-looking waitress and a few hours and I’ll show you a good time.”
Or just hand the man a microphone.
Now, distinguished guests like Loveline’s Dr. Drew and the comedian Gary Gulman champion their experiences as some of their favorites. Oliveira is particular taken by Dr. Drew. “If it were up to me,” he says, “I would replace Charlie with Dr. Drew any day.”
Still, the rag-tag dynamic and speed of high-energy talk radio remains, The Sandbox having come into its own recently pretty much by just being itself. “It comes down to this,” Matthews said. “There’s no sleeping in. We have a show to do. But there’s a constant dog pile mentality. If there’s any sign of weakness on-air, you jump on it until it’s crushed.”
“We are all such sensitive babies who constantly criticize our own work,” Oliveira added. “A normal person would be reduced to tears.”
The guys insist that whatever they have to offer is either self-taught or at least affectionately derivative. These guys were raised on Howard Stern, whom they idolize, but The Sandbox possesses an attitude all its own. The hosts are engaged in a “love fest” with Sam Yoon that involves the ringing of a gong each time the candidate is on air. They think it would be funny to do a segment called “We Need More Black Friends.” They had Fletcher do a serious review of the animated 80s version of Transformers: The Movie, where their “Bah Weep” slogan originated. See? It’s natural.
“I went to the University of Tennessee for like a weekend,” Matthews siad. “It was pointless. There’s no guarantee to be successful on the radio and you can’t just learn it at some media studies program. Are you a hard worker that’s good on the air? Then you’ll be successful. That’s it.”
It also helps if you can put away a dozen beers before 3 p.m. and still be able to shoot the shit on a summer’s day. As if it were your job or something.
Alana Levinson and John M. Guilfoil of the Blast staff contributed to this report — mostly drinking.