by Steve Clark
Twenty Five years is the long time to be on top in any profession, let the alone one as competitive as sports talk radio. Yet Bob McCown has been able to rise above all of his competitors. When he started in sports media there were no all sports radio stations. Now there are ones in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. Yet through it all no single personality has been at the top more than the irascible McCown. Pantload: 25 Years of PrimeTime Sports gives us some insight as to what makes McCown tick.
Narrated by long time DJ Alan Cross, a radio pioneer in his own right, Pantload starts with McCown walking down a hallway opining that entertainment is the key to good sports radio. It is a theme repeated throughout the documentary. In fact later in the production we find out that the acronym POKE (Passion, Opinion, Knowledge, Entertainment) are sort of the unofficial pillars of sports talk radio. Love him or hate him, there is no doubt that the enigmatic McCown checks all the four boxes.
Pantload not only manages to cover the rise of McCown, it also takes a look at the moments that defined and highlighted his long career and peel back the layers behind the Ohio born McCown. It also gives us a rare insight into his childhood, and upbringing and that is what works with the documentary. I did not know that his father died when he was one and that in high school the gruff McCown was even a male cheerleader. We even meet Bob’s mother, who is a sharper than her years would indicate and probably the only person on the planet who still could put McCown in his place.
McCown’s long career is traced back to the Foster Hewitt owned 1430 and also details the unique relationship he shared with the broadcast legend. A great anecdote was when Foster Hewitt, along with Bob walked out on a speech by baseball’s Mel Allen, the legendary voice of This Week in Baseball because he was too boring. It was at 1430 that McCown realized that in order to succeed in radio he had develop an on-air character and personality and so the “obnoxious” “larger than life” “opinionated” “a—hole”(Bob’s words, not mine) that exists to this very day.
Sprinkled throughout the rise of McCown are anecdotes from a who’s who of both sports and Canadian media. We hear from Peter Mansbridge, Brian Williams, Dan Shulman, Stephen Brunt, Allan Davis (the first Program Director of The Fan), Elliote Friedman and George Strombolopoulos. There are lots of anecdotes by Nelson Millman, former Station Manager of The Fan from 1995-2010. All are unanimous and effusive in their praise for McCown and his bombastic style.
McCown’s rise was not without its pitfalls along the way. Paired with Dan Shulman (and what a dream team that would have been), the choice was made to move McCown to mornings and Shulman to PrimeTime Sports, a move that backfired and led to McCown getting fired, and only rehired when Shulman accepted the job of Blue Jays TV Play by Play Voice. We did get to see a great and extremely cheesy commercial for the McCown morning show with Bob and Ricky Henderson on the golf course.
Where Pantload really shines are in its coverage of when Bob was accused of racism, along with Steve Simmons and Dave Langford by Cito Gaston back in 1997. McCown, a longstanding critic of Gaston’s managing style was blown off by the Blue Jays manager for an interview and that seemed to fuel him on the radio and led to Cito’s accusation. Paul Beeston’s attempt to mediate backfired and led to McCown calling Cito an a—hole and walking out. While we hear Beeston’s take on the matter, needless to say Cito was not consulted for the documentary.
The other definitive moment was the Fan’s outstanding coverage of 9/11 fuelled by McCown who seamlessly switched from sports to 9/11 along with the rest of the station. Sports would become escapism from the tragedy of 9/11 but at the time it was inconsequential. McCown’s balancing of emotion ranging from sympathy to anger was assuredly one of the finest moments of his career. If David Letterman and Howard Stern were the emotional media heartbeat of New York, McCown was the northern equivalent.
Produced by McCown’s Fadoo Productions, you knew that we were not going to see a hatchet job on Bob, but you did a fair and balanced account of McCown’s career as well as great insight into the genre of sports talk radio. The documentary reached out to New York broadcaster, Mike Francesa who helped pioneer WFAN, the first all talk sports radio station.
What the documentary showed was that it takes real talent and hard work to do what Bob McCown does on a daily basis. While one of the running jokes is that Bob sits behind a microphone a minute before his show begins, there is no doubt a lot of mental and physical preparation goes into the three hours that Bob McCown owns the airway. Many have tried but no one has been able to topple McCown from his lofty perch atop the sports talk radio. As McCown reaches the twilight of his career, one wonders who takes the Prime Time Sports big chair. It seems that while his successor can sit in his chair, he will be hard pressed to fill it.
For sports media geeks like me who also dabble in the industry, Pantload: 25 Years of Prime Time Sports was appointment viewing.
Steve is the TV play by play voice of both the Hamilton Bulldogs and Niagara IceDogs.