An Interview with Chris Zelkovich

photo credit: Toronto Star

As a result of the lengthy discussion we had last week surrounding the lack of women and minorities in toronto sports radio and print I decided to contact Chris Zelkovich, The Star’s long time media critic, to see if he had any insights on the issue. So, instead of my usual ramblings, I am thrilled to present that interview. Mr. Zelkovich can currently be found at Yahoo Sports and on Twitter (@czelkov).


If you have questions of your own, please post them in the comments section and Chris will try to pop by and answer some of them, or I will collect them all and send them to him for a follow-up in the near future.


Background Questions


Q: How did you get started in sports?


CZ: My second job was as sports editor of the Oakville Beaver, which then led to me becoming assistant editor of The Hockey News in Montreal. After that, I came back to the Toronto area and was sports editor of the Mississauga Times.Then I was in the news department at the Star for 15 years and then moved over to the sports department when they created a new position. So I gave them an idea about how I would do the job and they liked it.


Q: So this wasn’t a position that already existed? Do you know why The Star thought it would important to have a media critic?


CZ: They felt, and I think rightfully so, given the way things had changed back in ’98 with all the extra sports media that had come along, that they needed a more comprehensive look at the industry. It’s even more true today, but given the state of the newspaper business we have fewer people covering media than ever before.


Q: Do you have sense of why, in this time when sports media is growing, no resources are being devoted to media criticism?


CZ: It’s just straight economics. It’s just a matter of numbers. If you’ve only got 7 guys in your department then you’re spread pretty thin. Even in the last 5 years of my stay at The Star, I went from full-time covering sports media to doing that only part of the time. I became a football writer as well, and then the last years I became literally an “everything” writer. The value of the media beat is not as high as other things. If they have to choose between having a guy who covers the Leafs and a guy who covers the media, they’ll go with the team sports.


Q: So the current lack of media critics isn’t an expression of a lack if interest in media criticism?


CZ: Not at all. In fact, it bothered me when they cut my job in half and asked me to stop doing the sports media blog on The Star’s website because it turns out that was one their most popular blogs.


Q: What kind of reaction to your column did you get from the people in the media you were critiquing?


CZ: That was one of things that was so difficult about the job: expressing strong opinions on Monday about people and then seeing those same people that I had carved up and interviewing them on issues in the business. It was a tough juggling act because I was both a reporter and a columnist. It made for some uncomfortable moments. To be honest though, I was surprised about how little criticism I did receive. I would occasionally get comments from executives saying “your comments on so-and-so were unfair …” but most people just accepted things as my opinion and that this was my job.

The guy I was the hardest on was Don Cherry, yet in Don’s defence, he never dodged me, he usually returned my phone calls. I know for a fact he wasn’t happy about my comments at all. I think I was one of the few guys who did cut him up. I also remember Scott Moore when he was the head of CBC sports, telling me that one Saturday night Don Cherry had referred to me – not by name, but it was obvious who he was talking about – in a negative light due to the fact that I had knocked him in my column. Moore said to me that Don and I had a symbiotic relationship: he gets upset even if you don’t mention him in your column. I still go to media golf tournaments and think to myself “what did I say about this guy 5 years ago?”


Q: How did you approach your column? Were you thinking about things as media member or as a listener?


CZ: I would not approach it from the view of an insider. The concept I came up with was that I would be “Joe Fan.”  I’m at home watching as a fan and reporting what is good and what is bad. It was one of the things that bothered me when people in the business would come up to me and say “everybody in the industry is reading you” because that’s not who I was aiming for. What I want to do is hit the average reader, and what struck me the most about that job was just how much interest there was among the average reader. I went on The Fan once early after I started the column and they had me scheduled for one segment and we ended up doing 2 hours since they had so many calls. This speaks to how important this is for so many of us. Most of us get our sports through TV and radio, and we get to know these people, and we either like them or hate them.


Q: Did you ever receive positive feedback from people in the industry whose work you were critiquing?


CZ: Yes. When I started criticizing Don Cherry the majority of the feedback was negative. But within a couple of years that moved to 50-50, which is really the balance you want. As a columnist you want half the people to think you’re a genius and the other half ago think you’re an idiot. But in the final few years, most of the feedback was agreeing with me about Don.


On Ratings


Q: One of the biggest discussion generators we have on the site is the ratings book. We tend to dissect every decimal point. How are ratings books viewed by people in the industry?


CZ: They care a lot. Somebody in the business once told me “you don’t want to be writing about ratings because nobody cares outside of the business” and that turned out to be wrong. One of the most popular things on my blog was the weekly ratings report. To this day I don’t understand why sports fans care, but to the people in the industry … that’s their currency. If they’re not getting the ratings then they’re not succeeding. Nothing I would print would be news to them though. They have information on the ratings that is far more detailed than what I can print. They pay for regional breakdowns and things that just don’t get released … except when they are in a positive light. And when I would write about how, for example, the Raptors are one of the least watched sports in the country, then I would hear from the team or the rights-holder that things aren’t that bad.


Q: How trustworthy are the ratings? Every now and then we receive reports that the sample sizes used to generate these ratings are very small, and not constant across demographic groups. Should we view these numbers as statistically reliable?


CZ: Prior to the Personal People Meters (PPM) the radio numbers were a joke. People could just make up whatever they wanted and put that in their diaries. But you know, it doesn’t really matter. Even if this stuff is completely unreliable, that’s irrelevant. That’s the currency of the business. And even if the executives don’t trust the numbers – and some of them don’t – that’s all there is to go off of. But the PPMs have been an improvement. Many executives complained that sports numbers are under-reported. And when they brought in PPMs, they were proved right. No ratings went up more than sports ratings.


Q: Whose job is most affected by ratings?


CZ: Sales. That’s what they use to sell. If a game gets a million viewers then you sell ads based on that. If it’s half that then you get the thing they dread most, which is the “make goods” which means you have to give away free advertising to make up for the shortfall. So, nobody cares more than the ad people. But the people on the air, they may say they don’t care, but they do. It’s a matter of pride.


On Convergence


Q: One of the biggest crossovers we’ve seen is newspaper guys moving to radio. How much does smoothness or delivery matter really? Some people on the site – myself included – complain about how people like Blair and Grange seem incapable of delivering a sentence without interrupting themselves, or of forming a question that can be asked in fewer than 30 seconds.


CZ: It matters if people are putting off the listeners. If people can’t stand listening to you then that’s just bad business. But don’t confuse that with they can’t stand you. That can be good. Bob McCown is a perfect example of a guy who probably has an audience 50% of whom think he’s a genius and 50% of whom hate the guy. That’s probably perfection in that business. The smoothness and the professionalism? It probably matters a lot less in sports than it would say on a news station. In sports, it’s all about opinions. If a guy is rough around the edges you may not like to listen to him but if he gives good opinions then he’s doing his job.


Q: You mentioned McCown and people tuning in because they love to hate him. Does that actually ring true of your own listening experiences? If you can’t stand a guy’s opinions do you actually tune in to listen?


CZ: There’s a difference between a guy whose opinion you think is dumb and a guy whose opinion you hate. In radio more than anything, if someone is on and it’s clear they don’t know what they are talking about, then they’ve lost all credibility. The lifeblood of sports radio is informed opinions. When you have the host of the show not knowing who won the World Series last year, then you’ve got a serious problem.


Q: The job of a radio host is to be entertaining, but the job of a journalist is to be factual and sometimes venture an opinion. These strike me as very different priorities. Is it a bad thing for us as consumers of sports media that so many newspaper people are now turning to radio?


CZ: Suppose you’re the beat reporter for the Leafs. You can’t go on the radio and spout opinions about the Leafs because that’s not your job. If he does do that, then he’s going to have credibility issues because it’s going to colour everything he writes. That’s why almost all of the people who end up on radio are columnists. They are just doing the same job in a different medium. The real danger is with the idea of convergence. If you work for a newspaper as well as the radio station that is owned by the team, then it’s tough to go out and rip your employer in print.


Q: These same issues came out in the case of Wilner being suspended by Rogers for essentially doing his job criticizing the manager.


CZ: Right. But to be fair, they [Rogers] do draw a line. McCown rips the Jays and Rogers, but he can get away with it because of his role. I don’t think a Jeff Blair or a Damian Cox could rip Rogers. I often wonder though when you hear McCown rip Rogers whether I could ever imagine a newspaper guy ripping his paper in print. Doesn’t seem like it would happen. I often go back to the old saying “it’s not the conflict of interest that matters; it’s the perception.” If your company owns the team, then your comments will always be coloured as being those of the “house” reporter. You may not be … but people will think that.


Q: The problem seems even more acute since many “unaffiliated” newspaper guys have de facto become affiliated since they only appear on one or the other station. Zeisberger and Friedman only appear on the FAN, Griffin and Mirtle seem to be TSN guys. Do you worry about the overall objectivity of the media in Toronto?


CZ: Yeah. The only thing that probably saves these guys is that Toronto is an exceptionally competitive market. There are very few reporters who I would call homers. Those guys were around maybe 30 years ago, but they’re gone for the most part. So the newspaper guys make themselves a bit bulletproof that way. It would be hard to say of any of these guys that they are homers.


Q: One question about professional ethics. At Brian Burke’s press conference after his firing he went out of his way to call out Steve Simmons. Does this kind of attempt to publicly humiliate a member of the media cross a line, or is this just part of the social contract between columnists and the people they cover?


CZ: To me it demeans the guy who makes the comment. He looks petty. But as far as ethics goes, with my column I always felt that if someone took a shot at me then that was fair game. If I’m going to be taking shots at others then I have to be willing to take them in return. I know Steve Simmons fairly well and I don’t think he would be put off by that remark at all. If it were said about me, frankly I’d take some pride in it. And I’m sure Steve did too.


Q: Stephen Brunt left a large national audience at the Globe for a much smaller audience with Sportsnet’s magazine and assorted other outlets. Do you have a sense of how well that is working out for both sides?


CZ: Well my understanding is that he got a hefty raise. So that’s worked out well for him. They made good use of him during the Olympics, and essentially brought something new to the broadcasting side of things with the essays he was doing. That worked well at the time, but now there is less of platform for him. Brunt is a great writer but he’s not a hockey guy. He’s good at overviews. So it’s a challenge for Sportsnet to find a new role for him. I don’t know how much impact he has with the magazine. He has a presence on TV but it’s not huge at this point. On the FAN, he’s the perfect foil for McCown’s bombast. That didn’t work so well when he was on the Team, because he was paired with Jim Van Horne, who was basically the same personality — a guy giving you reasoned, sober commentary. Now with McCown, you’ve got the perfect mix of a guy who’s outrageous and one who brings him back to Earth. It’s hurt the Globe because their sports section has lost a lot of cachet with him moving on.


On the future of media


Q: Blogs seem to exist where newspapers can’t or won’t devote resources (e.g. sports media criticism, baseball analytics). How do you see the trajectories of blogs and newspapers going forward? Do you see more convergence or more divergence?


CZ: We’ve seen a huge jump in stature in blogs.  They are doing a lot of the work that papers are passing up. The Mante T’eo story being broken by Deadpsin was a perfect example. Fewer newspaper have the resources to do the digging. I’m still not sure of the economics of the online publications. The ad world has not bought in as much as they might. They might buy in more. Or, you may see blogs being bought by newspapers; though few newspapers would be confident enough in their futures to do so. But until the ad world buys in to blogs then things will stay the same. We’ve seen advertising buy-in with social media, but that’s not all the way there. But as newspapers have cut back and back, they have lost a lot of their authority to television websites. Sportsnet, ESPN, TSN are all doing a lot of good work on their websites that used to only be done by newspapers. And a lot of the blogs have picked that up too. Everything hinges on whether newspapers can figure themselves out. There’s  still a lot of cachet in newspapers though. I did a golf series last year for a website. Hardly anybody noticed it. But then the Globe picked it up and ran 6 of the articles, and I was flooded with responses, as were the guys I was writing about. So there’s still something that newspapers have that blogs lack, but blogs are catching up.


Q: Do you think it is a good thing for journalists to be on Twitter? Some people use it in fairly benign ways while others use it to generate controversy in which they are the star attraction. Is this a good thing from a journalistic standpoint?


CZ: No. Again, it comes down to credibility. One problem with Twitter is that it is instant. How many times have we seen erroneous reports? The Pat Burns incident was picked up by everybody. And that’s the thing I see abused more than anything else on Twitter. In the race to be 1st, people are not doing their work. And at that point what’s the difference between you and the guy in his mother’s basement making stuff up? You’re both just repeating rumours. That’s something about the whole business that bothers me. In the last few years things are reported on Twitter which may or may not be true and within 2 minutes it’s made its way across the world. And that’s where credibility comes in again: if I can’t believe this, how can I believe anything else you’re going to say? The other thing that makes me nauseated it when people get in to Twitter battles. I just don’t care and it doesn’t make anybody look good.


On women and minorities in radio and print


Q: You read my piece so you know what I think. What do you think? Is there a gender or racial bias that explains why these groups are almost non-existent in radio and print?


CZ: This is actually a story I first thought of 2 years into my tenure at The Star. And maybe I chickened out, who knows? But I had a problem approaching the story for one big reason. All I had to do was look around The Star’s newsroom, particularly its sports department: it was probably 90% male and 90% white. As a columnist it was hard for me to look around and knock the radio and TV people for doing what we were doing. In fact, at that time, TV was probably doing much better than us. So I just dropped the story.

I don’t think there is any racial bias at all. I’ve spoken to journalism classes at several schools and it struck me as I was standing at the head of these classes that there were very few nonwhite faces. And if it was a sports talk, then there were very few women. So it seems like a chicken and egg thing: are women and minorities staying away because they see no future in this industry, or is the industry keeping them away by denying them jobs? I really don’t know. I really don’t think there is a racial bias. TSN had the 1st all Indian desk one night. There have been reporters and anchors of all colours at Sportsnet.

But I do think there is a gender bias when it comes to radio. The FAN had the syndicated US show The Fabulous Sports Babe. She wasn’t popular, partly because she was American and talking about college football. But some of it was “what is this woman doing talking about sports?” and some of the negative reaction was more pronounced than it would have been had they put someone like Jim Rome on, who might have been talking about the very same subjects. Other than Barb Digiulio – who was more of a newsreader – it real is an old-boys club in radio. I have no doubt that it’s because it’s macho world and it probably never even occurred to them to hire a woman. Sports radio is probably the last bastion … it’s a locker room of the air. Women are allowed in from time to time, Mary Ormsby for example, but for the most part it’s been few and far between. But then again, since most people on radio come from the newspaper world, and there are so few women in sports print media, they share some of the blame as well.


Q: Would it be a good thing for either radio station to hire a woman?


CZ: Well, it would need to be the right person. Sports radio is about A) knowledge and B) opinion. I have no doubt that if Christie Blatchford had continued in sports then she would be doing that now. But there aren’t that many women out there who would could step in or be willing to do it. I think the worst thing would be to designate a woman as a new host and throw her in to it. But there have been lots of women reporters and some of them would have done a great job. I presume some of them were interested. I have no idea why they have not landed these jobs.


On the Rogers/NHL deal


Q: What’s in it for the NHL? I can see why Rogers wants exclusivity, but what does the NHL get out of this deal that outweighs the risks of only being on one network?


CZ: Money. Pure and simple. 5.2 billion is a number the NHL has never seen before. This number blew everyone else out of the water, and the NHL is not going to take less once this is on the table. But there are lots of reasons to question the deal, one reason being the length of the contract. This deal might not look so great 6-7 years from now. When the NFL broke the billion dollar barrier, people were floored. That looks cheap today. That’s the real risk when it comes to the NHL’s decision. It’s possible they could have got more down the road on a shorter deal. But Rogers was not interested in that.


Q: Is there a risk of the average fan being short-shifted by having the NHL so deeply partnered with one major media outlet?


CZ: The consumer has been short-shifted for some time now. Compare with newspapers. The paper sends someone to the game, that person gets in for free but that’s about it. With what the networks are paying for sports content now, you are never going to get a really objective look at the issues of the game.


Q: Why?


CZ: For example, take the NFL concussions story. If NBC/ESPN/Fox/CBS have spent billions of dollars on the NFL rights, do they want to go and stand in front of a camera on Sunday and tell you that the players playing the game you are watching are doing damage to their brains and will end up at higher risks of suicide or needing to be institutionalised at an early age? No, because then you’re less likely to watch. And I think that’s where the fan gets short-changed in these monster deals. These networks have so much invested, so they can’t give you the real goods. That would be bad business.


Q: I guess we’ll see, since the NHL has its own concussion storm brewing.


CZ: Right. What will be interesting to see if how CBC, which in my mind is a cheerleader for the NHL, how they will approach things a year from now when they have no financial interest in the NHL, if they will become a little less booster-ish. I doubt it.


Q: If you’re running Rogers, what’s your approach to Don Cherry?


CZ: What I would do, and what I think they will do is reduce his role. They are not going to get rid of him. That makes no sense at all. And I think they also know that he’s 80 years old … realistically he’s got a couple of years left. So I think he stays, but I think we’ll see one appearance after the 1st period and not after that. He won’t be the centre-piece that CBC has made him. If you were from another planet and tuned in to CBC you would think it was a show about an old man who dresses funny. The guy is front and centre in everything they do. They have tried to make him bigger than the game, and that is not something I think Rogers will do.


Q: What happens to TSN as a result of this deal?


CZ: The 1st impact is going to be a loss of viewers. Nothing draws viewers to sports in this country more than NHL hockey. So they will lose viewers and I think you’ll see their ad rates drop. You’re not the destination for hockey anymore, and unfortunately in this country nothing else even comes close. They now have all the NFL games, but outside of the playoffs the NFL doesn’t draw huge numbers in this country … it doesn’t come close to hockey, or even to the CFL. They will add more basketball, but that’s adding games that nobody watches. TSN is currently the most watched specialty channel in the country. Without the NHL, that is in jeopardy.


Q: How quickly will that happen? Is it as simple as the games going to a different channel and now all of a sudden TSN is no longer regarded as having credibility with respect to hockey and viewers tuning them out?


CZ: No. I think it was a smart move to keep the people they kept, as far as credibility goes. TSN can still be a destination, but for what? The truth is no one watches those panel shows unless they are attached to a game. I’m not going to flip over to TSN from Sportsnet during intermission and see what they are saying about the game. I’m not going to say it’s just window-dressing. I can compare it to the money the networks spend on Sportscentre and  the other sports desk shows, even though these shows don’t really attract a lot of viewers. That’s what TSN is doing by re-signing all these guys. But, the audience that watches these panel shows is a fraction of the audience that watches the actual games.


Q: How do you see the future of TSN Radio?


CZ: TSN radio was created to counter what Rogers was doing. I’m not sure they ever hoped to make money, they just didn’t want to lose a lot of money. In the first few years they definitely did lose money. To be honest, I’m doubtful about the future of TSN Radio. With the loss of income that accompanies losing the NHL, there are going to be a lot of efficiencies looked at. I don’t know the financial story at TSN Radio but I don’t imagine things are rosy. If I worked there I would be sending out some feelers. If they can maintain the national network – and my understanding is that outside of Toronto and Montreal they do pretty well because they are the only show in town – then hopefully they can sustain things. But with the loss of hockey my impression is that something along the way has to give, and radio might be something they look at cutting. What might save TSN Radio is that it provides cheap content for the TV channel.


Quick Hits


Q: if you had to pick your favourite radio show or personality in your years covering the beat, who would it be?


CZ: McCown. I think he does a great job. He defines that whole business: he’s entertaining; he’s informative. He’s not the best interviewer in the world, but he keeps you on the edge. Whoever it is who designs the show – him or his producer – does a great job in getting great guests. That’s one of the main reasons you listen, to hear the newsmakers on there.


Q: You don’t have to answer this one … worst radio show in the last 20 years?


CZ: There was a show back 12 years ago: Norm Rumak and Marty York. I can’t remember what the point of the show was, or if there was one. It was pretty dreadful. A second one would be on The Team 1050 … Gene Valaitis & whoever his co-host was. Gene knew nothing about sports and it was just sad to listen to. Valaitis was a rock jock and suddenly he was in this job where he was way over his head.


Q: If you could cover one person or event from sporting history, who/what would it be?


CZ: The Grey Cup. I grew up with the CFL and to me that is at a gut level what excites me more than anything.


Q: Do you have a favourite Grey Cup city?


CZ: Regina, but only if I was guaranteed enough warm clothing.


Q: If you weren’t covering sports, what would you be doing?


CZ: I’d like to think I would be a humour writer. That’s what I’d love to do more than anything else.


Q: What/who are your comic heroes?


CZ: Chris Rock. Woody Allen. Monty Python.



Thanks a million to Chris for doing this. I have a lot of things to say about some of these points, but I’ll hold off and let others have a chance to chime in first.


until next time …

mike (in Boston)

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