photo credit: AP
Good morning sports media watchers, and welcome to new readers coming over from Jonah’s appearance on CTV.
After being off last weekend I have a mountain of things to comment on but some of them will have to wait until next time. So hold on to your MLSE CEO, Sepp Blatter, and “we’re number 1!” thoughts. As always, if there are other things I should be talking about or good work I should be highlighting, please get in touch.
We spend a lot of time dissecting the work of the people in front of the microphones, cameras, and keyboards in this space. I have been trying for a while to interview someone who works behind the proverbial glass to provide a different perspective on sports media. I am thrilled this week to have had the chance to trade questions with Ryan Walsh, longtime producer of Prime Time sports. Walsh recently announced that he is moving on to work on the new Tim & Sid television show, and very graciously agreed to answer some questions. Here is our conversation.
How did you get your start in radio?
Oddly enough, it was at 680 News. I got a co-op placement doing a victory lap semester in high school. That was before Rogers bought the Fan so 680 had its own sports department. Peter Gross brought me in and I got to work with great reporters and sportscasters like Peter, Sara Buchan (great reporter), Bill Cole (maybe the best voice I’ve ever heard on radio) and Mike Wilner. I learned a lot from them but Mike gave me the extra time I needed to learn the ins and outs of the business. I owe my career to him.
So I had a press pass to the Raptors and Leafs when I was 19 and was petrified to make eye contact, let alone talk to some of the best athletes on the planet. It was overwhelming at that age but Learning how to deal with the slings & arrows at that young an age made the difference later on.
I went from there to a two year program at Seneca college for radio and after working a real job for six months, I applied for a Fan internship and was denied. I had to work Jack FM promotions, putting up banners for concerts, etc.
I even had to put on the opposing team’s jersey during the Leafs playoff run one year and sit in a dunk tank… In April… In Toronto (if you’re reading this and you remember doing that to a dude years back, I still hate you). I’ll never forget sitting in a Jack FM van, shivering in a soaking wet jersey and a frogman suit, watching reporters and media trucks out in front of the ACC and I promised myself that I was going to be a part of that sports world. I applied a few days later again at the Fan and they let me intern on weekends. I was producing the International Sports Report within six weeks because it interfered with another producer’s weekend drinking. That morphed into nightly producing, Sports Central, inside The Lines, Hoops, Dream Job, Blue Jays and Raptors producing and the main fill in for the daily show. I worked 72 straight days at one point. Day 73 was Christmas. I was back at work Boxing Day. And I loved it.
What does an average day producing PTS look like?
The average day involves a lot of reading. The way McCown always described the stories that he wanted to do was that tiny blurb in a sports page. Not the scores or the basic ins and outs of a long season, find the issues. So you spend a ton of time the night before and the morning getting a skeleton of the stories you want to do then find the best person to tell that story. And you can’t forget the entertainment factor. If the article is great but the guy who wrote it is a terrible talker, the impact of the story isn’t conveyed correctly.
Then it’s comparing notes with the guys that you work with. Matt Marchese, who I brought in over three years ago when they decided to move Fabro to the morning show, is one of the co-producers on PTS now. He’s got a great eye for what a ‘Bob’ story is. Matty and former Tim & Sid producer Jeff Azzopardi will do a phenomenal job on that show. You tell your AP on the TV side what visual elements you’d like and then the chasing begins.
There are certain guests you have on a specific day, that helps your workload. The key is, even if you’re freaking out that no guests are calling back or you can’t think of a topic, keep it inside. Never show fear to Bob… He can smell it. And there’s no room for it. Man, we’ve had a few doozies where we needed four guests less than an hour before showtime. Our TV director Jennifer Rolnick (she runs the backstagePTS account and makes that job look easy. She’s an artist). will come find us around 3:00 and ask what we got, and we have no clue but we always know that 4 PM will come no matter what, keep calling and we’ll be fine. We annoy so many people.
How much of the work of producing is done while the show is actually going on?
During the show, if you’ve done it right? Very little. You slide stats in, answer questions as you go, keep buzzing the hosts to break, that kind of stuff but your job is done by 4:00… Preparing yourself by trying to be on top of every story. But when something breaks, that’s when shit gets real. That’s the fun part of the job.
What is the process of booking new guests? Does anyone ever get angry at you for calling? Do you ever have to say no to people wanting to be on the show?
The process of booking new guests always varies. Can be through them pimping a book or a product, an event or charity. Can be through their agent, can be a number that I magically acquired. A cell is key because you can throw out the odd text and no matter what, you look at a text, you don’t always answer the phone if it’s a number you don’t know. That gets the ball rolling sometimes.
Tons of people you cold call get pissed. But put yourself in their situation. They made tons of money playing a sport or they’ve made tons of money in sports then an unrecognized number shows up on their phone, and as I’m making terrible small talk, all he’s thinking is ‘how did this ass get my number?’
I’ve had one boxing analyst tell me to go F myself on two separate occasions. But it’s part of the job. Your potential embarrassment is far outweighed by the 5% chance some big name says yes.
Are there any common disasters that crop up during the day or during the show?
The worst thing on the planet is spending six or seven minutes talking to your hosts in a break and then calling your guest that you just talked to and he doesn’t answer. Now you have one minute where you keep calling and pray they pick up. Because when that music starts a segment and he puts those headphones on and I have to say I don’t have a guest yet, you can see the dead eye stare through those sunglasses.
Once Bob broke so damn late and Dan Marino called in early, that he was on hold for 12 minutes. I thought for sure he’d hang up, I mean I would have.
You have to understand that these people have families, they may be picking their kids up from soccer practice or something and I’m blowing up their phone. You give them the benefit of the doubt but you just hope they remembered they are on at a specific time. You can remind them all you want, if I call and you have to go to the bathroom, I’m expecting a missed call.
In your experience how important is the producer-host relationship to putting out a good radio show?
I think it’s extremely important to understand each other. You don’t have to be besties. Bob’s an icon. When you understand his expectations and meet them, you get his trust. He gets focused for the show but he’s like one of those big deals I was talking about earlier. Dude’s got two wineries, a production company and has to hold up a radio station. That’s a ton for one man. So he’s gotta have good people around him.
I think you need a better relationship with the co hosts to be honest. Because they can fill the holes that need to be filled, we can steer the conversation in different ways… It’s key to have someone play that role correctly.
Did it take time to develop a good rhythm with Bob?
For sure. It took a little while, mostly because I went from booking people who talked about the stars to booking the stars. It’s a very different kind of show. Bob has his strengths and you learn how to play those up. And his harsh ‘no athlete’ policy can be broken if you find the right one. And sneaking back in Doug MacLean when Bob was on vacation and eventually back in the rotation was one of my favourite things. That and booking Wilner when Bob’s off. Little things that the audience understands and is in on the joke.
What is something about Bob that the audience would be surprised to know?
I don’t know how many people know why he wears sunglasses indoors. He wore normal glasses when he was doing the business of sports and everything was fine but our first radio studio was so tiny for TV. The lights were right over you. Bob kept getting headaches and didn’t know why. One day, he forgot his regular glasses, wore his prescription shades and boom, no headache. So the shtick started right there.
How much of the job did you learn while on the job, as opposed to in school?
None in school. Honestly. My school was hands on and even that didn’t teach me the tools for this job. It’s a talent and performance based industry that like in most disciplines involves tons of luck for your break. If you have it, you have it, and if you don’t, you’ll know very soon. You have to be a sicko to want to do what we do.
What advice would you give to young people trying to make a living in the radio business?
As my friend Jeff Blair told my class (I teach at Centennial): Go to law school.
Know what you’re going against. Because if you always won the sports argument at the bar, it doesn’t mean that conversation will translate on radio. Think of how many colleges offer broadcasting courses, now think of how many graduate every semester. And old mules like me aren’t going away quietly so there are so few gigs and an over saturation of graduates. You have to stand out.
People always told me in school you have to move out to the middle of nowhere before making it in Toronto. That’s such BS. If you have an in, take it. Talent breeds talent. Be around the best possible group you can be around. Do as much as you possibly can and shut up while doing it. Let your talent talk.
How do you see your job changing producing a TV show rather than a radio show?
Oh man, I’ve been doing this for just a few days and it’s already very different. Tons of meetings, tons of prep and a huge team. But these are some of the most talented people in television. It’s surreal that I’m on this side and that they wanted me. We are going to emphasize more on in studio guests and double Enders, obviously… But in my role, that’s about all that changes.
What did you like most about being in sports radio?
The immediacy of it. If it breaks, you learn with the audience. I think that’s where Bob excels more than anyone. To ask the right questions that he and the audience want to know. It makes you think on your feet. Radio is grittier. It’s the message more than how it looks. You’re getting people in their cars, it just you and them. I love that.
Who are some of your favourite PTS guests?
My favourite guests were the people I either idolized or represented an era that I wish I was a part of. Like Bert Sugar. He is my all time favourite guest because he was what I associated with boxing from when I was small. I love boxing and every fight I watch, I think of him. His sound. The times I called him for the most obscure reasons or anniversaries, just to have the excuse of having him on. Every single time I called, I got excited. We had a full conversation. He’d try one liners and material on me before he went on. Even his ever changing voicemails made you smile. He didn’t have email, didn’t have a cell. You had to call him. And I would never regret it.
My other favourite regulars include Bob Elliott, Morosi, Kyper, MacLean and Richard Deitsch… Those are off the top of my head. They all provide so much and I love those guys as people too. Love Blair, I consider him a good friend, there’s nobody like him. And Brunt gets me through the day to day grind of the show. He’s my idol in this industry and the best part of doing that job is grabbing a beer and a burger and talking shop with a guy I owe so much to and respect more than anybody else I know.
Thanks so much to Ryan for these candid and thoughtful answers. He has agreed to check in on the comments section in the next few days so if you have questions about producing radio or about PTS or want to follow up on anything, ask away below.
The Blue Jays are in the midst of another up and down season, the likes of which we have seen many times before over the course of the last decade. For some local perspective, Griff argues the team is better than their record, while Elliott thinks the team is simply not very good. Tao of Stieb also has a nice forward looking piece about the possible ways to fix the roster.
The main media story this week is the criticism of Jose Reyes by Jays play-by-play man Jerry Howarth. Jerry called out Reyes during the broadcast and then elaborated during an interview on the FAN morning show. BlueBirdBanter has the recap of the interview.
Howarth’s list of grievances includes the following: sub-par defense, too many injuries, declining offense, and too many smiles. Reyes responded to these complaints in a lengthy interview with the excellent Shi Davidi. (Make sure you read TSM’s interview with Shi, who, in my opinion, is the most talented and rational Jays observer at Sportsnet. He deserves a bigger profile at the network.)
Jerry is in the wrong here, though he didn’t have to be. The Jays blogging community was worried about Reyes’ defense the day the Marlins trade was made. There is no question that this is a concern, and that Reyes’ play has substantiated the concern. But Jerry made the mistake of packing that criticism in with some pretty frivolous ones. To describe Reyes’ offense as declining is simply not supported by the facts. Further, EE and Bautista have both spent significant time on the DL over the last 3 seasons, so picking on Reyes for injuries seems arbitrary and capricious.
But the worst part of Jerry’s comments is the reference to Reyes’ penchant for smiling. It invalidates the substance of his argument entirely. There is simply no relationship between a sunny disposition and defensive woes or injuries.
To be honest, I understand that watching guys goof it up when the team has underperformed over the last few seasons is frustrating. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Zaun for referring to the Jays as the “league leaders in secret handshakes.” But it’s just not relevant baseball analysis.
Dirk “the blocker” Hayhurst contributed his take in his trademark style:
I've no respect for Howarth's player-effort analytics, and his rant on Reyes being a defensive liability who is always injured cements it.
— Dirk Hayhurst (@TheGarfoose) June 3, 2015
There has been a trend to Jerry’s criticisms. He seems to go after guys based on very personal sounding considerations. Jerry complained about R.A. Dickey not speaking with him enough, and then said that he was not doing enough to mentor young pitchers. He also intimated that Jose Bautista was not a good leader in the clubhouse, and in one famous incident blamed a loss on Jose after he was thrown out of a game in which his defensive replacement misjudged a fly ball allowing runs to score.
This is not good for fans, nor is it good for the team. Jerry’s skill is calling a game, not judging the character of the players. If he wants to write a tell-all book some day I’m sure people will read it. We have seen a revolving door of colour commentators over the last few years. We now we have a Wilner-Howarth hybrid in the other seat for home games. As a life-long listener to baseball on radio, the broadcast could use some major refreshing.
Sean Fitz-Gerald of the National Post sat down with The Godfather of hockey. It’s a good interview.
Rachel Brady of the Globe wrote a nice profile on Canada’s keeper at the Women’s World Cup. She is a good writer and it’s nice to read her on more than just the Raptors/NBA.
TSN’s Rick Westhead reports on a $200 million dollar lawsuit against the CFL, its former commissioner, and a leading brain injury doctor. It will be interesting to watch if Bell’s recent acquisition of the Argos will influence how Toronto-based TSN covers these issues. So far so good.
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)