It’s Still A Mystery to the Bobcat

TORONTO (Feb. 20) — I worked in radio with Bob McCown for the better part of a quarter–century. And, though we were never buddy–buddy, it wasn’t unusual for us to chat until we had nothing left to say.

Particularly in the early years, when Bob lived on Soudan Ave., mere steps from our Holly St. studios in the Yonge–Eglinton area of midtown. On a quiet day, or during the lunch hour, I would wander over to his house, cleanly shaven, and gab until I had most of a beard. As such, I was hardly astonished when “a quick couple of questions for a blog” erupted into a 95–minute telephone communion on Friday. More than 1½ hours after Bob returned my call, he laughed and said “now, what did you want to ask me at the start?”

I reached out to McCown for his opinion of recent events, in which Bell Media neutered its all–sports radio division and jettisoned a number of recognizable TSN faces. Late this week, our old stomping ground — Sportsnet–590 — made yet another change at the top, replacing its director of programming, Dave Cadeau… who replaced Don Kollins and Doug Farraway… who replaced Nelson Millman and Scott Metcalfe… who replaced Bob Mackowicz… who replaced Allan Davis and John Rea… who replaced Larry Green… who replaced Jim Kidd. All but Cadeau in the years (1988–2011) I worked for the radio station, though there was long–term stability (and profit) under Millman and Metcalfe. Roster shuffling and financial deficits have dominated the sports media landscape for much of the past decade, resulting in volatility and unpredictability. For example, who would have forecast, a mere 20 months ago, the demise of the two longest–running productions in our country: Prime Time Sports and Coach’s Corner? Or, prior to that, the firing, by Rogers Communications, of McCown, Don Cherry, Glenn Healy, Nick Kypreos, Doug MacLean, John Shannon, Daren Millard, Paul Romanuk and George Stroumboulopoulos — virtually the entire cast of Sportsnet and Hockey Night In Canada? So, yeah, there was plenty for me and Bob to blather about on the blower. But… last things first.

“I can’t say I saw it coming,” McCown admitted about the elimination of TSN–branded all–sports entities in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Hamilton. “But, neither do I know the economics. The problem for radio is the new reality in traditional media — podcasting — which has manifested during Covid. With all the stay–at–home orders, many fewer people are in their cars. And, that’s where radio lives, especially in the morning and afternoon work–commutes. Podcasts are available on–line. People walk around all day attached to their mobile devices. If working from home, which so many are, they sit in front of their laptops. They simply are not listening to radio. Neither is sports radio, in this country, giving people much of a reason anymore to listen.”

Which was the veritable can–opener in our long telephone chat.

I was privileged to start Prime Time Sports as producer with McCown and co–host Bill Watters on Oct. 2, 1989. The success of that show (initially, a local production, from 6:10 to 7 p.m.) led directly to CJCL AM–1430 becoming Canada’s first all–sports radio station on Sep. 2, 1992. McCown, with a couple of brief interruptions, hosted Prime Time for nearly 30 years, until being abruptly fired by Rogers in June 2019. By then, the original 50–minute radio show had morphed into a three–hour production (4–7 p.m. Eastern) aired by stations across the land and televised, nationwide, by Sportsnet. And, while he has typically moved on — the Bob McCown Podcast, with co–host John Shannon, was launched last May and is available on Apple, Spotify and YouTube — Canada’s most–renowned sports figure is still mystified about his departure from radio.

“Rogers put Tim & Sid in my place and the first [ratings] book after they kicked me out showed that TSN Radio (locally on AM–1050) had moved ahead of The FAN,” said McCown. “We owned that time slot in the Toronto area for years. Nobody could touch us. I once made a crack on the air that I could stand on a two–story building with a megaphone and attract more listeners than TSN Radio. And, today, Sportsnet–590 is a distant second [to Overdrive, with Bryan Hayes, Jamie McLennan and Jeff O’Neill]. The two programs combined (Tim & Sid / Overdrive) don’t have the audience I had with Prime Time. So, what did Rogers gain by letting me go? Toward the end, our show was generating between $4 and $7 million in [advertising] revenue each year. It cost maybe $3 million to produce. The rest was pure profit. And, the content was damned good.

“The programming in that slot today isn’t nearly as compelling,” McCown, 68, continued. “And, the Tim & Sid thing is now ending (with Sid Seixeiro headed to Breakfast Television on CITY–TV). Was that the plan when they let me go? To fall behind TSN Radio and have to start yet another show less than two years later?”

As this corner has pointed out on numerous occasions, McCown agreed that all media decisions at Rogers have stemmed from the 12–year, $5.2 billion commitment to the National Hockey League, beginning in 2014, for cross–country TV rights. “It was way too much money; the deal never stood a chance of being profitable,” said McCown. “I’m told Rogers was losing $400 million a year on that contract. What the company did is fire a bunch of people that made good money and replaced them with people making much less. So, now, instead of losing $400 million, they’re losing $397 million. Big deal. And, the result is evident in the quality of programming. By landing the NHL rights, Rogers bought its way to No. 1 in the [TV] ratings. But, TSN wasn’t stupid. It quickly locked up all of its key personnel (primarily, Bob McKenzie, James Duthie and Darren Dreger). I have no love affair with Don Cherry, but what did Rogers replace him with? They had Brian Burke, who was pretty good, but they refused to give him a bigger profile. Which was really brilliant. And, now Burkie’s gone (to the Pittsburgh Penguins as team president). The rest of the programming is bland.

“As for radio, who are people listening to? Can you name a big star [at Sportsnet–590]? We once had a sh**–load of personalities (McCown, Watters, Jim Hunt, Dan Shulman, Pat Marsden, John Derringer, Gord Stellick). Has Sportsnet and Sportsnet–590 improved in the past three or four years? It’s a stupid question.”

McCown claimed he recently held discussions with Rogers about returning, but quickly moved on.

“In the right circumstance, I would have considered it, but they told me they wanted to go younger and cheaper. That was the end of the conversation.” Moreover, Bob said that Bell Media planned on luring him from Rogers when it launched TSN Radio (in 2011), though timing became an issue. “Phil King and Rick Brace met with me numerous times; said they would double my salary, and I figured I had an ‘out’ in my contract with Rogers,” McCown recalled. “But, Bell’s lawyers disagreed. So, the plan was for me to finish my contract and move to Bell roughly a year later. That’s when they would start TSN Radio. But, George Cope came in as head of Bell Media and wanted no delay. He couldn’t stand listening to us clobber everyone else during the late–afternoon. So, they decided to start up immediately. That decision looks good today only because there’s not much for TSN to compete with in our old time–slot (4–7 p.m.). Back then, it made no sense.”

It required little effort to get McCown railing about his departure at Rogers. But, he claimed it’s not about missing his long–time gig. “I just don’t understand what they were thinking and I suppose I never will,” Bob said. “It’s the mystery surrounding the whole situation that bothers me. Three different competitors took a run at us in the late–afternoon — The Team (CHUM Radio in 2001); Talk–640 (with the Bill Watters Show) and TSN Radio. We beat the snot out of them all. I believe the stupid decisions by Rogers had a lot to do with people at the top devoid of experience in broadcast media. They hired hatchet–men and hatchet–women; let a bunch of good professionals go, then had to start over. With what background? Would you want a dentist to change your car tires. Or someone working at Canadian Tire to fix your teeth? At least, when I was there, the place was being run by media professionals — Keith Pelley, Scott Moore and others. Now, there’s a lawyer [Bart Yabsley] running Sportsnet. They’re trying to reinvent the wheel and are arrogant enough to think that anybody can do what we did so well for 30 years. But, it’s not working. Which is no big surprise.”

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Yes, the memories are vivid. One day after our first Prime Time Sports show, I went to Oakland to cover Games 1 and 2 of the 1989 American League Championship series between the A’s and Toronto Blue Jays. I connected with McCown and Watters from the Oakland Coliseum and a sports–magazine concept quickly evolved. Bob was a brilliant host, capable of working with multiple partners. When Watters left, in 1991, to become assistant GM of the Maple Leafs, the late Jim (Shaky) Hunt moved seamlessly into the co–host’s chair. In the ensuing years, and at various times, there was chemistry with the late Mike Shalin, the old Argos coach, Leo Cahill, Damien Cox, Dave Perkins, Stephen Brunt and Richard Deitsch. Sure McCown had an enormous ego. All the great ones do. The willingness to speak his mind separated him from his would–be competition. It allowed, first, Telemedia Communications, then Rogers, to build McCown into a megastar, capable of attracting enormous radio and TV audiences for three hours each weekday. Suddenly, that was no good anymore. Yes, the Prime Time Sports audience began to fluctuate toward the end of Bob’s tenure, but it still easily held the No. 1 ratings position here in Toronto for the “Drive” segment, when people were returning from work. Obviously, the comments in this blog are solely Bob’s; there are two sides to a story.

But, sports radio in our land is not nearly as compelling without him.


14 comments on “It’s Still A Mystery to the Bobcat

  1. Thin gruel … only funny because it’s true.
    I enjoyed Bobcat’s online segway from sports into gambling in vegas & the true meaning of “winner winner chicken diner” and Howard’s segway from sports to his story about Toronto’s beetle bandit & gunplay with the bank manager. Both gentlemen are gifted well-skilled raconteurs and orators that told stories in a manner you’d never see in print or on the idiot box.

  2. A great read Howard. I’m happy to have found Bob’s and Kypreos’ podcasts and your blog, but I really miss the days of interesting radio and not just good sports radio.
    I started working at an early age (nursery business) and spent many hours alone in fields or barns. CFRB, Morningside with Peter Gzowski and then The Fan kept me company. I would continue to listen after work as well.
    The thin gruel offered now is of little interest. On sports radio it’s mostly cheerleading for the local teams, on talk radio it’s mostly political partisan screeching and the rest of the time on both it’s replays or syndicated drivel.
    Radio succeeds when it’s local and informative and there STILL is a market for it. We’re it not for the convergence and thus concentration of media properties in such few hands we’d still have something worthwhile on the air, as opposed to the dreck served up by Bell and Rogers.

  3. Kudos to McCown for a 30 year run but the end for him started when he started to favour co-hosts who pandered to his bombast (ie. John Shannon) while dropping other, very reputable sports journalists, who dared to challenge his views (ie. Damien Cox, Stephen Brunt, etc.).

  4. So much ado about nothing. McCowan did his shtick for some 30 years. That’s long enough. He now has a podcast. Not the end of the world. Other much less privileged people have lost work. Have some perspective.

  5. Radio was to be the place to go if you wanted to hear the news first and have it told to you by a bunch of FUN people. Like the previous commenter, I was usually laughing in my car on the way to work or on my way back home while listening to The FAN-590. It didn’t matter if was the radio staff, the news team (non-sports news guy), the advertising personalities, or the crazy people who called in. It was just unfiltered entertainment. And, by the way, the Emergency doctor you wrote about in your previous musing is awesome. He is very much a kindred spirit and he is bang-on in his sports analysis about the primitive brain. Again, your life at The FAN-590, when things were going well, had all the making of the greatest movie ever made.

  6. And the bloodletting has also migrated to prime time news. It disturbed me to learn that Bell recently axed Tom Brown, CTV’s News on-air personality and meteorologist. Tom was a consummate broadcaster/weatherman and had been with CTV since 2004 replacing Dave Duvall.
    Tom will be missed.

    Who’s next?

  7. I loved a rant that McCown went on back in 2013 or 2014, a bit before he was gifted with a pink slip, re: Sportnet advertising Tim@Sid during PTS, when they were airing at the exact same time. The spontaneity of the gripe had me laughing out loud in my car. After Bob got axed, it’s perhaps too easy to extrapolate that odd ad hit on PTS with bosses at Rogers/Fan plan to jettison talent costs and attitude for a younger, hipper (?), and cheaper programme.

  8. Nice piece Howard. I had a lot of respect for what Bob built. He led the way in Toronto, for sure.

    One thing to note, however: It is a myth that Rogers loses money on the infamous hockey deal. They actually make money on the deal, they just don’t make as much money as they thought or were led to believe they would make. That’s an important point. The mass disposal of people in the media division isn’t driven by losses, it is driven completely by corporate greed. As Bob alluded: “What the company did is fire a bunch of people that made good money and replaced them with people making much less.” It’s a positive for them to have the myth that they” lose millions” on the deal circulating. It’s a much better narrative than: “They’re actually making millions on the deal, but it’s never enough…. “. The proof is hiding in plain sight. Check the public financial statements SN and Rogers are obligated to file with the CRTC and also as a publicly traded company. I detailed my findings in this piece I wrote on LinkedIn.

  9. Great read!
    Bob is sorely missed. There is no reason they couldnt hammer out a deal. The most telling fact was that Rogers went from down $400 mil to $397. I hope he returns.

  10. I have been listening to CJCL since Joe Cannon was the morning host with Joe Bowen doing sports updates. I loved when the station envolled into all sports programming. You were great Howard. Providing daily inside information on the Leafs. I would listen all day long for any breaking Leafs news. I sure do miss those days. All the best.

    1. My son is studying sports media at Ryerson University and is understandably uneasy and uncertain about his prospects because of what he sees happening in the sports media landscape. I’ve encouraged him to learn about online business and marketing as well as content creation and presentation so that he can be his own product and not have to cater to the whim of corporate overlords with no passion for the craft. The challenge is to cut through the internet clutter, but the people who are able to do that and combine it with business savvy will be the next generation of successful media personalities. It’s already happening.

  11. Great read Howard! I miss those days as well, driving home from work and listening to Bob.

    Things are not the same, and working in the media briefly I realized how cut throat and unforgiving it is.

    So kudos to all of you on surviving all those years!

    Btw I miss you covering the leafs as well!

    Take care

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