by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / hatemailaccount at gmail
With the start of the hockey season upon us I reached out to long time FAN590 Leafs beat reporter Howard Berger for some comments on life on the road and the state of the industry. Howard's thoughts on the Leafs and all things in the world of sports can be found at Berger Bytes. I strongly recommend reading his two excellent pieces on the 25th anniversary of PTS here and here.
Howard graciously invited me into his home and spent 3 hours talking with me. Here is (most of) our conversation.
Did you always know you wanted to work in sports?
Well, sports was always in my family growing up. Watching TV in the mid to late 60s, I got it from my dad and so it was always something I was really interested in. I always said that it would be my dream to cover a hockey club day and night.
Did you go to school for journalism? How did you end up at CJCL?
I went through high school and I wasn't in a very good student. I paid attention to what I was interested in, and not much to the stuff I wasn't. I was always good in English and I could write and speak well. After high school I was probably the only person you wanted to do journalism who turned down Ryerson. I went to Humber College because you can apply your trade a little more quickly. In 1978 and 79, as part of a school project, I covered the North York Rangers for a whole season as a beat writer.
Through that I got my first job writing for the Etobicoke Guardian. After that I very briefly worked out in Calgary, then in the early 80s I freelanced in Toronto for a bit and got to know people. Then Ken Daniels introduced me to Allan Davis who ran the network for Telemedia who owned CJCL 1430 and one thing led to another and I started working for the station.
In 1988 The Blue Jays rights were coming up for renewal and they suggested to the station that they would like it to have more of a sports presence. At that time the station was still doing music during the day – "music if your life" was what they called it … but the running joke was that it was the music of your death – but no sports during the day. So I was hired as the gopher to go around with the microphone and cover interviews and press conferences. The general manager, a guy named Doug Ackhurst, was so embarrassed at what they were paying me – $275 a week – he said why don't you come in just a few hours a week. But for me I was so happy to have the job and didn't care what I was being paid, so I would put in 12 hour days and do everything I could to show my worth, which led to them putting me in bigger and better situations.
Was there excitement about the station transitioning towards all sports?
The Jays were doing really well and Bob was doing his show and now they had me doing interviews and I also did Saturday and Sunday morning sportscasts. The FAN in New York and the one in Philadelphia were doing well, and in Toronto we were in a market where you had to find some kind of niche because just about very radio station on AM was already doing music. We weren't doing great because before 7pm we were being destroyed by CHUM. So it was a risk to go all-sports but the alternative was worse. So, in 1989, I went to Doug and told him that I couldn't afford to live on what I was making anymore and that I was willing to work 8 days a week if necessary. He called me in a day later and told me he was binging me on full-time and would double my salary and put me to work on developing the concept for Prime Time Sports. They wanted something that would lead in to the ballgames and a regular talk show wasn't going to cut it. It was really important that PTS make it because the viability of the station was riding on it. And it worked. It was a perfect storm … the Jays were improving, the Argos won in 1991, then the two World Series championships, then the Gilmour trade … all of that helped.
Prime Time Sports
Did you enjoy being the producer for PTS?
Absolutely. It was great to be there on the ground floor of the roundtable format.You didn't want just guys off the street talking sports and so we went out and got big names in Canadian sports. And Bob and I decided to keep consistent pairings rather than having whoever was available. But at the beginning we were flying by the seat of our pants in terms of content … often Bob would come in 30 seconds before we went live and he would look at the sheet I had put together. Nine times out of ten he would glare at me and say "this is crap" but then he would just do the first segment flawlessly.
That's his talent. Bob was always an entrepreneur and had businesses he ran during the day which took up most of his time. So he would come in and wouldn't be aware of even the major breaking stories. But then we would go to a 3 minute commercial set and I would press the button from the control room and fill Bob in, and we would come back and he would pull it off as if he had been studying all day.
So Bob's comments about he does no show prep are true and that's always been the case?
Well, he used to live close to the Holly Street studio and I would go over to his house and talk, and Bob was one-on-one a great person to talk to, and I would fill him in on what we were doing. I don't think he was lazy … he was just busy with other things. And he knew that between me and Bill Watters, we could bring him enough up to speed where his natural ability would take over. Now, I'm not saying he was BS'ing. The audience would have been able to tell. He was incredible, he just had a way of pulling it off and I assume he still does. But back then, he knew that I would do the groundwork and I was always there as a back-up, as was Bill.
Was Bob's curmudgeon persona as prevalent back then?
Yeah. It was his shtick. But I don't think it's that far off who he is in real life. He and I were both type-A and occasionally we would blow up like crazy and so I don't think his persona is artificial. But it's definitely a shtick he plays for the audience. The same is true of Don Cherry. He's the quietest and nicest man you'd ever meet. He goes out of his way to help others less fortunate than himself. But he goes on the air and delivers what makes money. And so does Bob.
What should the FAN do when Bob retires?
It's the same situation HNIC has with Coach's Corner. And I think in that situation there will be no more Coach's Corner; they'll do something else. With PTS, there probably are people who can do it and it will be an adjustment, but I don't think the show will die without him. I think it might be a different show, but PTS is a brand now unto itself and the format could continue without Bob. That said, I don't have the impression wants to give it up any time soon. He makes a lot of money, works essentially 3 hours a day, and does a terrific job. He's among the most recognizable sports faces in the country.
How did you transition to doing Leafs full-time?
Back in 1994 I was essentially the station's reporter and would go cover stories and get sound, including home Leafs games. But with the lockout I was going to New York all the time to cover negotiations. When the NHL lockout was over I got a call from Warwick Publishing, with whom I had worked, asking me if the FAN would be OK with me writing a book about being on the road with the team. They offered to pay the costs of my travel, so I figured the station would be fine with it and they were. And the station had the broadcast rights so they worked me in to the pre-game and intermission. So the station was really happy about it. Then the FAN lost the radio rights to 640 in 1995 and it was a real stroke of luck for me because Doug Ackhurst decided to put me on the beat full-time and have the station pay for it. And that was pretty groundbreaking that we don't get enough credit for … we basically invented the role of the every day radio beat reporter.
How did you conceive of your job? Whose interests were you trying to serve with your reporting?
I got myself in a little trouble at the beginning when I did the weekend morning sportscasts. I was too much of a Blue Jays fan, to be honest with you, and so if Jimmy Williams botched something I would go on air full of piss and vinegar and be giving it to him. But I worked for great people who had my back. So Allan called me in and said: "look I know you're doing well, you know you're doing well because of the feedback you're getting, but the Blue Jays have got to know you too because you cover them, and you're going overboard on the editorial stuff. Not that what you're saying is wrong but you really haven't been around long enough to be saying these things. You have to earn that type of freedom."
So, I guess some people at the Jays had mentioned it to Allan and he mentioned it to me, and I said you're right. I can see that point of view and had to tone it down a bit without turning into a cheerleader. That's the way I felt and still do about how the Maple Leafs should be covered … with a critical eye. I tried to cover them on radio the way a writer would for a newspaper. And we were fortunate because we weren't encumbered by any broadcast rights issues – I'm not saying the rights holders now are encumbered – nor were we half-owned by the team itself as things are now. So, no one said to me "here's how to cover the Leafs," so I just went and did it the way I felt it should be done. And once that was established, then I would take heat from Leafs fans for being hard on the team, but if I ever went soft then my bosses would call me in and turn me around.
There was only one exception. Pat Quinn and I had a terrible relationship the first few years he was coach. He was very combative and so he and I always clashed. Nelson Millman came in one day and called me aside and said "I'm not telling you what to do …" – and this is what was great about Nelson: he never told anyone what to do – "but there is a bit of a perception out there that it's a personal thing between you and Pat." And I was mortified because I always thought I kept things separate. So when he said that then I knew I had to make an adjustment. So it wasn't an act on my part. Here we had a team that had not been to the Cup final in 25 years. Expansion teams were passing them. And I thought this was a team that deserved to be covered with a critical eye.
Your dispute with Ron Wilson made headlines. Was he especially difficult to deal with relative to other coaches?
No. You couldn't find a better guy away from the action. You're born a certain way, and you are who you are, and Ron was a guy who spoke his mind. People all saw the press conference where we argued and assume that this is the way all of our interactions were and that's not true. It was the exception to the rule.
When I asked him the question about Spezza's stick he answered it honestly and didn't seem annoyed about it. After the next game I asked the first question, as I usually did, and Wilson had been laying in wait all day for me, and so when I asked him if he was annoyed about the imbalance between penalty calls during the game, that's when he let loose with his "I'm annoyed at YOU" comment and we went back and forth. And this was really an exception. People who know me know that I wasn't someone who was loud or tried to puff out my chest. I mostly went about my job quietly. But I wasn't going to let him get away with that.
And it became this huge story. I remember being told by James Cybulski – I think – who was covering the GM meetings for TSN … "Howard, you're the hit of this meeting!" because apparently someone's iPhone was being passed around the room and Burke wanted to see it. Of course Burke would never admit this, but they were all laughing and having a good time with it. The next day I did 11 interviews I think. But, anyway, a week later I walked out of the rink and Wilson was there doing something on his phone. So I put my arm around his shoulder and said "You're nuts! You're 4th or 5th in total wins, and I'm going to say something to impugn your integrity? Why?" So we laughed and and that was it. Everybody thinks to this day that we're enemies but we're not.
Was that kind of burying the hatchet characteristic of your relations with the players too?
Absolutely. I can't think of any players who I really didn't like. Darcy Tucker and I fought endlessly. He listened to the station all the time and if I said something about how he played lousily he would go after me. I had a whole incident with Owen Nolan. He told me his back was "about to explode" and that he was going to need surgery. So I went with it, but then Nolan denied making those comments. But I had it on tape. I remember sitting in this arena in Sweden and Mike Hogan was on the air. And we played back his original comment and then the denial. I didn't want to make him look bad, but he had just gone into a scrum and essentially said that Howard Berger had fabricated this story. So I had to stand up for myself. And we patched things up eventually. You could tell he wasn't happy with me, but one day a few months later I ran into him coming out of the practice arena and I asked him why he had denied it. And he said "it's water under the bridge … I thought maybe you'd protect me." So, I told him that I understood and I never had another problem with him. He's my Facebook friend now.
Did players respect the job you had to do?
Any Leaf player knows what it's like to play in Toronto and respects the media's job. I remember covering Mats Sundin – the finest gentleman I have ever had the pleasure of covering – in his first interview after coming to the Leafs in exchange for Wendel Clark. And we all came to know Mats' impressive command in interviews, but at the time he was so incredibly nervous. Before you get to Toronto you learn what it's going to be like, if not because of your agent then because of some other media person you know.
But you still have to be professional as a member of the media. You're going into the room when someone has just thrown the puck away to lose the game, and it's not like failing at a regular job. Everybody sees it, and so you have to take that into consideration when you enter the locker room. And I think that builds trust too. I think my record has shown that both players and managers could trust me in how I did my job. I can't tell you the number of times John Ferguson would pour his heart out to me when things weren't going well. He would sit with me and he knew the specifics weren't going anywhere. The whole key to being a reporter, especially a Leafs reporter, is you have to cultivate trust. It doesn't mean they won't still get ticked off at you, but that really helps people work through issues with you.
And there are some people in the business, I won't name names, who have an agenda when they go to do their work. I never did. Pat Quinn felt I did at times, but I didn't. In his final 4 years he became like an uncle to me. The key was going to practice with an idea – sometimes an obvious one – but often it was my own idea for a storyline. That was harder work than just following the story lines dictated by the papers or electronic media, or even worse, reporting on line combinations.
When did the decision to take you off road games happen?
Summer of 2009. Before that, in summers of '95, '96, '97 I would always ask if we were going to continue covering the team full time. And they would say yes, and I would wait for seat sales and go book a block of tickets for the trips. After a while, it was just part of the cost of doing business at an all-sports radio station and I stopped needing to ask. That said, I would still usually give Doug Farraway a courtesy call before I booked anything in the summer. In the summer of '09 I got an email from Doug saying "check with me before booking anything." And that was a red flag. So I called him and he told me that we were not going to do every game this year, and weren't going to travel during the pre-season. So I put together a schedule were I eliminated a bunch of trips and just focused on the longer road swings. But it turned out there had been a major financial clampdown and I think I did one third road games in 09-10. And I could sense that this was the beginning. The next year I did no road games.
I'm not going to get into the details, but Don Kollins had a different mandate than Nelson. The economy had gone south and the radio station was not making as much money. And they felt this was one aspect they could cut back on. Needless to say, I disagreed. I told Don as much: this isn't personal, I know what your mandate is, you've come from Kitchener with your family, you're making good money at this job, I don't begrudge you anything. Yet, even with all of that, the decision didn't make sense to me. And I can't claim to be objective about it, but of all the things to cut back in the city of Toronto … covering the Leafs? I didn't get it.
640 had the rights and had Jonas Siegel, and that was the main competition for sports. When Nelson was at the FAN and particularly when Ted Rogers was still alive, the whole mandate was built around competition and wanting to win. And as I said, I just assumed that going on the road was an accepted part of the cost of doing business. So, not only did this decision take away something I loved and was a huge privilege, I never accepted the logic behind it.
The problem showed itself in the playoffs the next year. What do I do for those two months when I had for the previous 11 years been the busiest guy at the station? So I took it upon myself to go in and spend an hour with Andrew Krystal on his show, but I didn't want to just sit around and collect a salary. But when you're so involved and then go to doing this in May and June? It never got to the point where we were arguing, Don and me, but there was nothing for me to do.
Perhaps they saw the co-ownership of the team coming, and maybe I was a bit too "hot" for them. That's just a guess. I watch Sportsnet's coverage and there is a bit of infomercial to it, but how can there not be when you have invested that much money. I see it as a conflict of interest.
It looks like they are not going to replace David Alter and will go without a radio beat reporter. Are you surprised?
I think the way they look at it is that Chris Johnston covers the team for Sportsnet and that means the company has a presence and that's good enough because it's the bigger thing – the TV element. And I can't argue with that – it's cross-promotion. Rogers is not in the sports business so that the FAN does well, it's in the sports business so that Sportsnet does well.
I recall before I was fired we were all called into a theatre and Scott Moore – who I have great respect for – stood up in front of us and said "I didn't come here to finish 2nd to TSN. We are going to make inroads." None of us were thinking 5.2 billion dollars. Many people rolled their eyes, but look at what he's done. I'm not saying TSN is going to die, because they kept a bunch of their key people, but Rogers wrestled TV rights away and you have to hand it to him. But, I think that you have to have a radio guy there there. Not for ratings, because those are generated by the hosts. But you need a beat guy for credibility.
I agree. Scott MacArthur's recent interview with Colby Rasmus testifies to the value of a radio beat guy. The travel budget has to be tiny in the grand scheme of things.
I heard that interview. I had a couple of those with Gilmour, one in particular the year they traded him to New Jersey. He wasn't happy, the team was falling apart, and I met him at a hotel in Santa Monica. I knew he wasn't in a great mood but I had become tight with him and asked him for a quote for my pre game report, thinking he's just give me the regular stuff. But he just took a breath and poured his heart out.
So, I can't say what they are thinking. I said my piece, I told them what I thought was best and they decide otherwise. Let's talk numbers: suppose for argument's sake it's $100,000 to send a guy on the road … it's probably less than that, but whatever. You get a sponsor for $30,000. Is Rogers a company that can't afford the remaining balance? I know how they used me when I had the job and I was on all day everyday, so they got quite a return in the investment. But I don't know how things are now.
Does this give TSN Radio an advantage?
Let me be clear: I have a huge amount of respect for the people at Sportsnet and the FAN. If you read any story since I was let go I have always recognized that the FAN is responsible for the profile – whatever it is – that I have today. So I am not going to blast them.
Put it this way. If I were new to the city, and there's two sports radio stations. And on the day of the game I want to get the quickest info on the radio. Am I going to go to the station with the full time person with the Leafs or the one that doesn't? If you're a real die-hard there's no question.
The other side is the perception in terms of credibility. The FAN didn't "need" to send me on the road to cover the playoffs when the Leafs weren't in it. They could have gotten tape from any number of places. But when I went on the road I would wait for a lull and get my voice on tape as part of the scrum, and that kind of thing matters … it's a little extra thing that establishes that you're there on the ground and asking the questions as opposed to some other person. And that feeds the perception in the eyes of the audience … it makes the radio side sound big time. Maybe the strategy is different now that the radio and TV are so closely connected. I don't know.
The Strombo hiring seems to be about drawing in a new audience. What do you think about this strategy? Is there a risk of alienating your existing audience?
I think what they saw was that their demographics were in the late 30s and 40s. These people have finished buying. What you want is to get younger: 18-30, when people are looking for houses, and furniture, and cars. That's the demo everyone wants to get to. To make up 5.2 billion dollars, Rogers' advertising people are going to have to working 24 hours per day, and my guess is that George is the answer. Ron was established, he's a legend. But he's in the older demo. George gets you into that buyer's demo.
The only risk I see is how Rogers' ownership stake in the Leafs will be perceived outside of Toronto. Out West they are going to be watching closely to see if HNIC people are favouring the Leafs. Other than that … it's hockey and it's a religion here. And if you give Strombo a chance, you'll see that the guy can do everything well. You may not like his style, but there's nothing he can't do as an interviewer and host, whether he's talking to the Prime Minister or a 3rd line centre. He's proven he can do it. That doesn't mean Ron is less good. It's just different.
Do you think there is any basis to the theory that Bettman's fights with Ron affected negotiations and the eventual death of HNIC on CBC?
No, not from a business side. Rogers wanted editorial control over everything. I don't believe the Bettman/MacLean thing had anything to do with it. I know Gary well, I get along with him well. Ron is like a brother to me. I sat down with Gary in his office after the FAN let me go. He asked me what happened and I told him. I asked him about MacLean. He told me on the record that Ron was more of an entertainer and not as much of a journalist, and that he thought Ron had gone overboard in his line of questioning. I wrote a blog about it, and Ron got back to me to tell his side. There's clearly something there … they are not at the top of each other's Christmas card lists. But, when someone comes along with 5.2 billion dollars then that is what matters.
Do you have a prediction about what will happen to TSN?
I suspect not much will change. I thought there would be major defections but they managed to keep their people. The Rogers deal happened in November but by the new year it was clear almost everyone was staying at TSN. I don't think it was just about money. I think it was about loyalty to that network, but also I think they felt commonly "slighted" by the NHL. And I think they like each other. You can tell they have great chemistry on those panels. And no disrespect to Sportsnet, but the other night after the game ended, I switched over to TSN because I wanted to hear what the pioneers had to say about the game.
Did you have a problem with Dave Feschuk's use on anonymous sources in the Kessel story?
I found it to be a very interesting story. I think Dave is a credible journalist. I don't think he made it up or embellished it. I have been through it. You get a story and it gets corroborated by someone else. But you can't go fully public while still protecting the source. I think Dave probably did all he could to verify and talk to sources. He probably spoke to his superiors at the Star with what he had. If you have a story and you know there is some truth to it then you have to go with it. With the level of competition in the industry, especially Leafs – and this is what I loved about my job – you want to be first. And sometimes that means not identifying a source. If you did it every day that would be bad. But you can pick your spots. And I guarantee that the Star knew what Dave was doing.
Do you try to stay in touch with sources and break news?
Not as much. I still do talk to scouts and GMs but with Twitter now everyone claims to be first on anything that breaks. Does it even matter anymore who is first? It used to matter because radio was the only real-time medium. Nowadays the size of the story matters much more. And you can see the dangers of trying to be first. Pat Burns had to call people to tell say "I'm still alive."
What's your plan going forward?
I'm really enjoying doing the blog. I'm in constant redesign mode. It gives me a chance to continue doing what I did all those years in radio: react to something I see, and tell it the way I see it. Most of the time when people got annoyed with me it was because I was saying something they didn't want to hear but knew had an element of truth to it. All that time at the FAN what I was told was to give strong opinions: be fair, be accurate, don't cross that line and make it personal, but give me all you got. That's changed a little now due to the media landscape. What do I want to do now? Well, I'm available. But it has to be the right fit. You can't stay stuck in the past – I can't just talk about Doug Gilmour anymore since you have to be over 30 to remember it – but having experience still matters.
Thank you so much to Howard for agreeing to talk with me, and for his candid answers. Speaking for myself, I miss his voice on the radio
Have a great weekend everyone, and thanks for reading.
mike (in boston)