Media Bloodletting: A Personal Story

TORONTO (Sep. 1) — Spend now. Flee the premises. Strip later. Ruin countless careers and reputations beneath upper–management personnel, all of which are handsomely rewarded with bonuses for paring salary. This is not solely the domain of Rogers Communications. Many companies enact similar carnage — notably, in the prevailing genre, Postmedia Network Inc., under Paul Godfrey, which purchased the Toronto Sun in October 2014 and eviscerated the best sports section in Canadian newspaper annals.

Since 2009, when a ruthless administrator named Paul Ski began to lop off senior salaries at The FAN–590 (mine among them), the list of brethren discarded by Rogers and Postmedia is worthy of any sports hall–of–fame. In no particular order: Nelson Millman, Don Landry, Mike Hogan, Rick Ralph, Doug Farraway, Norm Rumack, Barb DiGiulio, David Alter (by both companies), Bob Elliott, Ken Fidlin, the late Dean McNulty, Bill Lankhoff, Matthew Scianitti, Sean Fitz–Gerald, Daren Millard, Paul Romanuk, Glenn Healy, Bob Cole, Peter Gross, Bob McCown, Nick Kypreos, Doug MacLean, George Stromboulopoulos, Scott Morrison and John Shannon. Mike Zeisberger fled to to escape the Postmedia gore. If I’m missing anyone, which is likely, please let me know. At Rogers, a dual–bloodbath resulted from massive financial investments that imploded. First, its part in the 2005 joint–agreement with Bell Canada Enterprises (totaling $153 million) to broadcast the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Then, of course, the 12–year, $5.2 billion contract (finalized on Nov. 26, 2013) for exclusive rights to televise, across Canada, the National Hockey League.

My own part in this story is small and inconsequential. When compared to such names as McCown, Stromboulopoulos and Kypreos, I’m a speck of dust. But, it’s the part that I know best… and I did stick around in radio for more than 23 years. It began with the long run–up to the Vancouver Olympics and the difficulty in selling ad–space to recoup the mammoth outlay for broadcasting privileges. As early as the spring of 2009, we began hearing rumors of a massive purge once the Games were over. I was in Fort Lauderdale covering the Leafs in March of that year when my boss, Doug Farraway, called to say I shouldn’t expect to travel throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs (which I had done for The FAN–590 since 2002). Big budget–cuts were on the way. As it happened, I pranced about North America more–so in the spring of ’09 than ever before, sending sponsored playoff reports from Vancouver, Calgary, Raleigh, Chicago, New Jersey, Boston, Washington, Detroit and Pittsburgh. It seemed like a false alarm. But, not long after Sidney Crosby and the Penguins won the Cup, the first shoe dropped… breaking hearts all over the Rogers building.

My pal, Stormin’ Norm Rumack — the “Late Night Vampire” and an original from the all–sports staff in September 1992 — was fired. It was cruel and unnecessary. Norm, unmarried; without children, loved his night–time gig; had a nice following, and surely wasn’t earning gargantuan dollars. But, orders came down from Paul Ski to program director Nelson Millman… and Nelson made what he still calls the most–difficult decision in his years at the radio station. “We lost a part of our soul today,” he wrote to staff in a memo.

One month later, my own shoe began to lose its laces.

For years, from my summer home in Los Angeles, I had booked flights and hotels for the following Maple Leafs season, availing myself of seat sales with Air Canada, United and USAirways. As a professional courtesy, I would first call my immediate superior — Scott Metcalfe (1995–2003); then Farraway — to let him know. It was never an issue. In late–July 2009, however, Farraway sent me an email: “Get in touch before you start booking travel.” Immediately, I knew something was up. Doug told me I would not be attending Leaf road games during the exhibition schedule and would no longer “be making every (regular–season) trip”, as I had since January 1995. Though disappointed, the news hardly came as a shock, given Doug’s “budget–cut” warning in March and Rumack’s unexpected demise. Without further instruction, and not really knowing what to do, I put together a travel–plan in which one–third of Leaf road matches in 2009–10 were eliminated and anxiously anticipated a meeting with Millman and Farraway once I returned from vacation in California.

My travel–plan went over like a lead–balloon. Millman chopped all multiple–game trips and left me with perhaps 35 percent of Leaf matches away from the Air Canada Centre. “What about competing with [Talk]–640?” I asked. The rival AM station was the Leafs’ broadcast–rights–holder and had a young reporter, Jonas Siegel (now with The Athletic), on the road for every game. “I’m not interested in competing,” replied Nelson, shockingly, for the first time in our 15–year alliance. That’s when I knew my career at The FAN–590 was all–but over. Until Ted Rogers died on Dec. 2, 2008, competition had been the lifeblood of his media empire. Now, without him, bonus–mongers like Paul Ski, who profited every time he ruined a career, were in control. It was all about money. The second shoe dropped a few days later. I was driving when Millman called to inform me that Ski had slashed the Leafs–travel budget to $10,000. Given it required upward of $120,000 to cover a full season, the role was virtually eliminated. Talk–640 had the Maple Leafs all to itself.

As a 22–year employee, the next Rogers strategy was to make life miserable enough so I would quit, thereby sparing the company a severance package. Considering I drove my car for work, Millman and I had handshake agreements on such in–city items as gas and parking, both of which were removed by Ski. Practically the entire radio station went to Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Games, after which Nelson got shifted upstairs to an inconsequential role with Sportsnet. His replacement, Don Kollins, arrived from nearby Kitchener as more hatchet–man than programmer. While in Los Angeles prior to the 2010 NHL draft, I got a call from Farraway saying that our morning show hosts (Don Landry and Gord Stellick) and mid–day host, Mike Hogan, had been terminated. Though Kollins isn’t a bad guy, he’s best–remembered for moving the ephemeral Andrew Krystal into the a.m. slot, a decision that sent shrapnel cascading up and down the walls of 1 Mount Pleasant Rd. I liked Andrew, but he lived in a neighboring galaxy. The experiment flopped.

In the final year of my radio career, the biggest challenge was staying occupied — not a problem when the Maple Leafs were at home, but, otherwise, quite a trick. There was simply nothing for me to do while the hockey club traveled. Still, Farraway warned that I had to “be seen working and staying essential” by the tall foreheads upstairs. This was particularly a chore during the Stanley Cup playoffs… with the Leafs perennially on the outside. Between 2002 and 2009, I had covered all four rounds of the Cup tournament. Now, I had to somehow “look busy” for two months. Without any suggestion or assignments from Farraway. Knowing the company wanted to dismiss me with cause, I did everything in my power to be inventive. Krystal, by then, had been switched to afternoons and I dropped into studio with him three times a week (at the risk of my sanity). Now and then, I covered a Blue Jays game or an Argos practice. Walls needed painting? Find me a can, ladder and a brush. Under no circumstance was that bastard, Ski, going to sever me without pay.

My time finally — and mercifully — arrived on June 1, 2011. I was scheduled to cover the Argos that day but Farraway sent me a note to “come in beforehand and discuss what I planned to do.” More than two decades as a reporter and I had to lay out strategy for a football practice? I knew something was up, so I stalled. My daughter, Lauren, needed an arm–cast replaced and I took her to MacKenzie Health (then York Central Hospital). I grabbed a bite of lunch. Made some phone calls. Finally, around 3 p.m., and long after the Argos were off the field, I arrived at the Rogers building and went to Farraway’s office. He fetched Kollins who came in and said my services were no longer required, handing me a manila envelope. It contained a 13–month severance low–balling that I quite–easily lengthened, with the help of a media lawyer, to 22 months.

Little did I realize on that afternoon more than eight years ago that my situation had barely kick–started the carnage at 1 Mount Pleasant. This is not a sob–story, for I lived quite the dream by covering the Maple Leafs, home and away, for 17 seasons. At the considerable expense of my employers (Telemedia and Rogers). I couldn’t be more indebted to either company for allowing me that privilege. But, the media industry contracts to this day, with no person — regardless of accomplishment — immune.

In the end, I’m fortunate to have gotten out when I did.


12 comments on “Media Bloodletting: A Personal Story

  1. Don’t forget all the soccer guys who got canned recently. Danny Dichio, Ken Sharman, Craig Forrest, John Molinaro (writer) and, probably guys behind the camera as well.

  2. It’s somewhat like turning the heat up on the frog in a pot of water. You don’t notice at first when on air talent begins to disappear. It’s only now that you go through the whole list do you realize the water is boiling.
    Without actually making a conscious decision I found that the only two shows I still listened to were Hockey Central and Prime Time, both of which are now gutted. On the plus side, I am enjoying TSN more than ever.

  3. Always hate to see someone lose their job. However, how did you last so long with such a negative slant to your coverage? I know the Leafs were bad during most of your tenure but you took the negativity to new heights.

    1. You asked and answered your own question, Barry. As for “positive” or “negative”, that’s your interpretation. I just gave you the goods, usually unfiltered. As i do with this blog today.

  4. Howard, you are one hell of a writer. Your story had me laughing, crying, and that feeling of melancholy as I yearned for the past.

    Everyone had their favorites at the Fan. I rather enjoyed listening to the morning show on my way to work with Goofball Landry and Pat Marsden – It was comedy gold!!!! You can’t replace guys like that.
    Same with you. I enjoyed your commentary and insight, and your ability to look in a coach’s minds.

    I keep thinking this article would make a great movie that would win a few Oscars. We’ll ask Clooney, Pit, Jason Alexander, Seinfeld, Will Ferrel, and Will Smith. And maybe David Curuso to play Ski or Kollins?

    In jest if we can’t work it out contractually/timing with Box Office Gold we could always get Frank D’Angelo to do it. Of course, we’ll have to allow him to make some creative changes to your story which includes a hitman, murder for hire, and a supernatural element such as a vampire(s) at the fan 590. I guess we could paint the CEO/upper management as a bordello of blood sucking vampires and Frank has to take them out one-by-one.

    Thank again for continuing to write and posting the stories for all to read.

  5. I HATE ROGERS! I don’t own their phones, I don’t use their television / internet packages. I am a fan of the Jays of old but have lost any interest in them as they constantly suck and, of course, are owned by ROGERS! All about money, and nothing for the fans. Its unfortunate that they own a part of the Leafs.

  6. You were lucky that Ski and his henchmen didn’t materialize a cause for your dismissal and force a legal challenge to which I’ll quote John Ferguson Jr ” I cannot confirm nor deny” challenging and winning after my exit.

    The demise of the radio station was a multiple input event. Let’s not forget Chuck McCoy who masterminded destroying CHFI (Erin Davis) along with Julie Adam (who still roves those hallways like an idiot looking for a village) .
    McCoy and Ski were two blades of a pair of scissors cutting the soul of the radio stations to ribbons.

  7. Excellent article! In spite of it all you manage to sift through the crap and tell a story that needed to be told. Years ago I worked in media at CKO. In the early 80s as I was deciding to go to school or take my place as a legacy in the biz, they hired a no talent hatchet man as a program director. Howard English gutted the place. He removed heart and soul from the pack of characters that built the place. It’s always the ones lacking in the craft and talent to play the game that come to break up the team. Every dog has day as they say and karma comes for us all. Especially the heartless.
    I always enjoyed your work and admired you ability to dig out the deep details of a story. I sincerely hope that you are continuing to enjoy the journey as you continue to tell to flush out buried information and give color to the sporting world we all love to escape to.
    Here’s to the truth sayers and story tellers!

  8. Sad. Every business now looks at the bottom line and the purge of good people at Rogers is no different. The difference however, is that Rogers personnel are known to a large group of engaged sports fans who have a somewhat “fanatical” affection for those disaffected. While I don’t know all the names you mentioned, I am very familiar with those released from their contract over the past few weeks. I believe there will be economic fallout for Rogers as more people will be following TSN going forward. Great insight in your story…thanks for sharing!

  9. It’s awful when very capable people loose their jobs, and though you can say that a company has the right/responsibility to make changes there’s a respectful though more expensive and time-consuming way to do it. Low-balling, or making you feel like quitting isn’t it.
    I recall when Wally Crouter signed off at CFRB. It was a big deal, and he was allowed a retirement/passing the torch show. What station has the courage or confidence to do such a thing these days?
    The thing is when a company is highly profitable and they get rid of experienced people in order to just be more profitable it has a negative effect on their customers & business.
    I was a FAN listener from the beginning. I remember all the hosts, because they became part of my day-to-day. As they disappeared I started to tune out, particularly in recent years. Eventually the only appointment listening I did was Primetime and Hockey Central at noon, with occasional (rare) morning and Jeff Blair listening. Since Bob’s departure I haven’t listened to either sports radio station at all, and see no good reason to again in the future.
    It seems to me that “convergence” was absolutely the WORST thing to happen to media and business in general. Homogeneous points of view across stations and platforms, rampant cross-promotion for disparate programming and generally poorer content quality all around.
    Maybe I’d better buy an athletic subscription.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by Comment SPAM Wiper.