TORONTO (Mar. 1) — Norm Rumack remembers the unmistakable feeling of doom.
It was June 23, 2009. Early morning on a Tuesday. The night before, while en route to a promotional appearance near Toronto Pearson Airport, he’d gotten an email from Nelson Millman, program director of The FAN–590. “Come see me in my office tomorrow at 9 a.m.,” it read. One sentence. Short… and not–so sweet.
“My heart was in my throat,” Rumack recalled on the phone today. “I remember thinking ‘what? 9 a.m.?’ I’d met with Nelson numerous times. But, not at that hour. So, I figured something was up. I had a bad feeling.”
Norm’s premonition was accurate. “It happened quickly. Nelson said ‘we’re gonna make some changes. I’ve got to let you go. I’m sorry. Here’s a severance package. Look it over; sign it and send it back.’ We shook hands… and that was it. Seventeen years in sports radio down the drain. Took less than 30 seconds.”
Rumack, at that moment, became the first of innumerable big names to be sacked by Rogers Communications and Bell Canada — owners of Sportsnet and TSN properties. The purge continues, unabated. It has included the likes of Don Landry, Mike Hogan, Jim Lang, Glenn Healy, Daren Millard, Barry Davis, Paul Romanuk, Nick Kypreos, Doug MacLean, John Shannon, Don Cherry, Bob McCown, George Stroumboulopoulos, Mike Wilner, Barb DiGiulio, Ian Mendes, Natasha Staniszewski, Brent Wallace… and TSN all–sports stations in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Hamilton. Throw yours truly in there, if you wish. But, it was poor Norm — the Late Night Vampire; Mr. Hammerhead Alert — who got the ball rolling.
Nearly 12 years later, Rumack is on the cusp of his 66th birthday. Healthy. Generally happy. But, with no financial security. He’s employed as a swing–shift Concierge at an upscale condominium near Spadina and St. Clair Ave. For $16.60 an hour. Enough to pay rent and put food on the table of his bachelor apartment. Nothing more. “I’ll be working until the day I die,” Norm said. “I’m carrying a debt–load that I’ll never be able to eliminate. I’ve pored through all of my retirement savings (roughly $60,000) just to survive. When I got let go at The FAN, I was making $52,000 a year, plus $6 or $7,000 more in promo fees. I was fairly comfortable.
“But, I’m not comfortable today. Not even close.”
I worked with Norm for 17 years. He’s the absolute salt of the earth; as sweet a person as you’ll ever encounter. We were both privileged to be part of Canada’s first all–sports radio station when CJCL AM–1430 became The FAN–1430 on Sep. 2, 1992. His genial comportment belied a boisterous, at times maniacal presence on the air. To this day, Rumack is best–remembered for the rabid arguments he undertook with listeners calling into his show — both in the middle of the day and late at night. Occasionally, I sat next to him in studio as a co–host. His neck veins and arteries were massive. He would turn crimson–red while defending his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. God forbid anyone criticized Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour, Darcy Tucker or Shayne Corson. There’d be hell to pay. I wondered if I should take a CPR refresher course. It was frightening.
“Look, when Allan Davis hired me, I was known by my family and friends,” Norm recalled. “Nobody else could have picked me out of a police line. Suddenly, here I was with a radio show at the same place as Bob McCown and Dan Shulman. I figured I’d better do something to make a name for myself; to stake out some territory. And, do it quickly. So, I started going mental with callers. It wasn’t really my personality, but I grew into the role. And, it seemed to work.” Rumack quickly became a brand. Having referred to several listeners as “hammerheads”, the name stuck. When Norm was confronted by a difficult caller, FAN–1430 (later FAN–590) listeners would hear a loud bell, followed by “hammerhead alert… hammerhead alert.” Rob MacDougall, the cartoon satirist at the Toronto Sun, created a “Hammerhead Alert” t–shirt that liberally made the rounds here in Toronto through the middle–90’s. It also landed Rumack in hot water with Millman.
“I was doing some promotional work with the [American Hockey League] Hamilton Bulldogs and they were going to have me drop the ceremonial first puck before a game at Copps Coliseum,” Norm recalled, laughing. “Well, Rob MacDougall crafted a couple of human Hammerheads talking to each other and the Sun placed his cartoon smack in the middle of the notes column that Steve Simmons writes every Sunday (as below on Feb. 2, 1997). The next day, a caller said, on the air, that he was coming to the Bulldogs game and would throw a puck at my head. I told him where to get off. Another caller made a similarly brilliant remark. To the second guy, I said ‘you should go visit the previous caller. His back door is open.’ What I meant — literally — was the back door to his house. I had no idea whatsoever the term also referred to anal sex. I’m not gay and I was in my late–40’s at the time. What the hell did I know about ‘back door’ as a connotation?”
Unfortunately for Rumack, the program director at a Winnipeg station that picked up our night–time magazine show (known as National Sports Radio) did understand the connotation and complained to Millman.
“Nelson called me in and said ‘ what were you thinking?’ I told him I was thinking about the back door to a house. I didn’t realize the term had another implication. The discussion got heated and we both raised our voices. Here I am trying to do my best job for The FAN and ‘Chaim Geshmaigits’ in Winnipeg is getting me into trouble. It was ridiculous.” Neither was it the only time Rumack and Millman butted heads. “I pushed the envelope on the air,” Norm acknowledged. “Nelson had me in his office now and then to wonder about — shall I say — my state of mind? But, he almost always supported me. I had no real issues with him.”
For his part, Millman remembers Rumack with fondness.
“Sports radio is a business of personality and Norm figured that out early on in the days of The FAN,” said our former boss. “When you think back to some of the elements he created — the Leafs as ‘God’s’ team, Hammerhead Alert, Detroit Dead Things etc. — he brought a completely different kind of show to the station. He created a great following with his ‘over-the-top’ presentation. Norm loved taking calls from listeners and his audience loved calling in. He was a big part of the overall personality of the station back then.
“As any manager knows, having to change someone’s life is not easy….nor should it be,” Millman continued. “At various points through my time running the station, changes had to be made. Sometimes because of performance (although that was rare) and sometimes it was the economics of running a business (not so rare) in a big company. Unfortunately, Norm was caught up in one of those economic crunches.
“It seems that is being said way too often these days.”
Whatever resentment Rumack feels toward Rogers and The FAN–590 relates to decisions he made on his own. “I invested my in career because I felt it would help the radio station,” Norm explained. “Whether it was taking a Greyhound bus to Pittsburgh for Mario Lemieux’s golf tournament or flying to Tampa to sit in the press box at the Lightning and Buccaneers games. I had access to internationally known people and interviewed them on tape for my radio show. I did it all on vacation time and at my own expense. I also invested in The FAN–590, itself. When I needed a car, I dropped $30,000 on a Toyota Corolla from Don Valley North Toyota, one of our sponsors. When I moved into the [Spadina] Village and needed a security system for my apartment, I used Alarm Force, another sponsor. I did it to help further my career at the radio station. If I knew I was going to be called in and dumped, I would’ve saved that 30 grand and bought a TTC pass.”
When Bell Media partially eviscerated its all–sports wing two weeks ago — costing hundreds of jobs — Rumack had a familiar sensation. “I feel for my former colleagues that were let go,” he said. “Some will bounce back; some will get help from family and friends. But, others will undoubtedly struggle as I’ve done. Which isn’t a lot of fun. Thankfully, I still have my health, yet I’m getting to an age where nothing is guaranteed. I work out regularly and eat properly. I do whatever I can to help myself. I’m still a happy guy that enjoys meeting and talking with people. It’s amazing how many come up and want to chat — all these years later — about my time at The FAN. But, I’d be lying if I said that getting bounced that day in 2009 doesn’t stick in my craw. It bothers me and always will. You work your tail off to build a successful career, then get pushed aside at a terrible time in life to gain re–employment. To be honest, sometimes I wonder if it was all worthwhile.”