photo credit: Sad Walks
by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / hatemailaccount at gmail
Well, that sucked. Dalton Pompey did everything to become this city’s Dave Roberts but the offence could not get him home. In future weeks we can discuss whether AA deserves blame for not having built a better bullpen for the playoffs. But for now let’s just revel in the season that was. No one will ever be able to take that 7th inning away from us. On to this week’s column.
5 Questions with David Alter (National Post)
David very generously agreed to talk with me about his new role, how it compares with his last job, and how he sees this year’s Leafs. Here is our conversation:
Have you noticed any major differences in being a beat reporter for a newspaper rather than a radio station?
Yes. With a newspaper there are deadlines involved. But also you have to learn to be less concise and more compelling in terms of telling a story. With radio there was more of a “news of the day” component where my job was to break the news. With a newspaper you have to hammer home why what you’re saying is important to your readership. That’s been the biggest difference. With radio I was mostly focused on analysis of what’s going. With reporting for a paper it’s story telling along with news, analysis, and establishing importance. So there’s a couple more elements.
Do you enjoy having this kind of flexibility in terms of the job?
Definitely. When I grew up I wasn’t really focused on writing … I studied economics at Western and then fell into broadcasting, which I really enjoyed. At the FAN, I was doing Leafs reports but a lot more things too. At the Post they are going to have me do a video and multimedia component as well, so there are some new elements but a lot of it is similar.
As a writer you report to an editor, and as a radio station employee you reported to a Program Director. Is there a difference there?
Huge. With a PD their biggest concern is keeping the station afloat, and so their #1 priority becomes the shows and the producers, because that is where the books are created. So everything else becomes a B or C to that goal. A PD is always worried about growing from the previous ratings book. With a sports editor, it’s more direct … my job has more importance because the content I’m providing is priority #1. It’s more of a coach-QB relationship; my role was much smaller under the previous job.
By the time I was done at the FAN, I was doing 45 seconds voicers for updates. That went to 40 seconds, to 35, to 18 without a sound byte, to 18 seconds with a sound byte. So you can imagine how little you can get across within that little window. I had the chance to blog on Sportsnet but when they have so many other voices who are all very good, being a radio guy means you’re not going to get as much attention.
Lots of people who read TSM are trying to get in to the business so I wanted to ask about your career path. You worked your way into being a beat reporter by doing a bunch of other work at the FAN. What do you think made them choose you?
It was definitely a job I wanted. I started at the FAN in Dec ’06 as a part-time employee. From that point for the next 5 years I never said no to anything. I tried to make myself into the best employee I could be … even if I wasn’t the 1st choice I was the most convenient choice. Sometimes that matters a lot … being in the right place at the right time. They did what they did with Howard Berger, and I applied but they gave the job to Dan Dunleavy, who then got a better offer and went to do play by play. So it fell together very quickly.
Phil Kessel became a lighting rod for controversy last year. Some media members thought he was responsible in part for a lack of professionalism in the locker room and in dealing with the media. What were your experiences with Phil?
It was OK. I remember when he came over he was fine, but over time he became the way people saw in terms of his interview style. For me, even on his best days he didn’t really have much to say but it didn’t bother me. If someone doesn’t want to talk I can always find a different way to tell the story. Could he have been more chatty? Sure, but I never had a problem with Phil. Sometimes you have to know when to press and when to lay off.
In your time covering the Leafs have you noticed athlete-media relations changing for the worse?
As you get more experience, you get better stuff from athletes. When I was at the FAN they cared mostly about getting the quote of the day so you end up sticking a big microphone in people’s face a lot of the time. And that’s not a pleasant experience for a lot of people. If you put the everyday person in front of the camera, they are not going to be themselves. So for me I would try to find the guy no one was paying attention to and pull him aside, and you get better stuff that way. It’s not getting worse; people have to be smarter about how they do their jobs, and build trust.
Does that suggest that there is a kind of value that beat reporters are uniquely situated to provide?
100%. Part of my disagreements with the FAN stemmed from when they took me off the road. It took away from that ability to develop relationships. If they don’t see you then it doesn’t stick in their heads that you’re committed. When you’re always there then they are more likely to pull back the curtain a bit. Especially on the road when they can’t duck away as much … you get a lot more candid responses when you’re on the road. I do think beat reporters need to exist. That’s where you get a lot of the stuff that you won’t see on camera. In the pack reporting environment it just conditions athletes to think more about what they are going to say, as opposed to just having a conversation. It’s more real and you get more of the real person. I can do more of that now that I’m in this job.
In addition to Phil’s departure, the management and coaching overhaul has been significant. Have you noticed a change in the locker room culture this season?
Yeah … people seem to be a bit more accountable in terms of being available and putting their best selves forward. That’s the influence of Babcock and Lou, who run a tight ship. But it’s early. The true selves will come out more as we move through the season.
One of the most tired media talking points is that the fans won’t accept a true rebuild. Do you think there’s truth to that?
The fans will accept a rebuild as long as the results are the right ones under a cap system. The real question will be about temptation. Will they feel the need to add someone if they are a bubble team around deadline time? But things look good so far … Nylander and Brown looked like the best guys in camp but they kept them with the Marlies for their benefit, and for the benefit of the build. Same with Marner. This is a reversal of past behaviour and I think fans see that. What fans won’t accept is going back to past mistakes.
You have been working in Toronto sports media during some pretty dark days. Even though you don’t cover the Jays, has their success made going to work more enjoyable?
It has been. One of the selfish things for me is that the pressure on the Leafs side is lower since the focal point has been on the Jays. And reporters enjoy winning too. That whole notion that reporters root for losing because it makes for a better story is not true. When guys are in a better mood you can get more compelling stories and it’s great. No one wants to carve the people they cover and winning allows you to write about a lot more things.
Thanks very much to David for his candid and insightful answers. I found his point about the way that radio stations value content really interesting, and one that I had not appreciated before. You can find him on Twitter here and read his stuff in the National Post here. If these questions did not satisfy your hunger, TorontoMike had David on his podcast.
Kayla Harris Leaves the Company
Dave Cadeau (FAN PD) has only been on the job a short while but he decided to shake up Blundell&Co by trimming the company down to just George Rusic and producer Ryan Fabro. You’ll recall this is the same trio that brought you laughing about fans dying at stadiums in recent weeks. Leaving are Kayla Harris (sports updates) and paid intern “Johnnie” who was a regular part of the show.
When Blundell’s show was launched on the FAN back in March the press release touted the diverse voices that would be represented, including not one but two females. (It turned out one of those voices was long time traffic reporter Halina Balka.) This announcement generated mixed emotions for those of us who think there should be more women hosting and guesting on Toronto’s sports radio airwaves. On the one hand, it was great the station was hiring from within and adding a woman to a prominent show. On the other, they were adding a woman to a show hosted by someone who has been sanctioned during his career for misogyny.
As it turned out, Kayla’s role was not very prominent and she quickly settled into being a traditional sports anchor, giving listeners the updates at the top and bottom of the hour. So, despite all the promotion about varied voices, the staffing of Blundell&Co did not push the cause of gender diversity forward. This is hardly a damning complaint, since the rest of the industry is guilty of the same charge, but the PR surrounding the show did give observers some reason to think they were going to try to be more inclusive. They didn’t try very hard.
The decision to let her go raises many questions. First, why make this move? If the issue is cost, I can’t see how this saves much money. If it’s about ratings, I can’t see that this will make a difference. If it’s about shaking up the culture of the show, this doesn’t achieve that objective at all since her role was so minor. So I don’t really get the logic here. Second, is this a prelude to more significant changes? Everyone in the industry with whom I have spoken agrees that Cadeau has one move and one move only when it comes to saving Blundell’s show: change the co-host and bring in someone with a high profile who can raise the sports IQ. I have no antipathy towards Rusic … he earned this job through his hard work at the station … but even he knows that he wasn’t the first or second choice. So maybe this is just the first of a series of moves. We will have to wait and see.
Overall I’m sad for Kayla that this ended so quickly. To be honest, this feels like a merciful end to a poorly executed concept. They should have given her a bigger role. Here’s hoping for better things in the future. I’m also sad for Ryan Walsh that his household is no longer fully employed by Sportsnet. That has to make things a little awkward around the office. But I’m also disappointed that in 2015 the best either station could muster was a few appearances of Kate Beirness on TSN1050, and yet another female voice doing little more than sports updates. The industry can do better and should do better.
Over to you: Will you miss Kayla on Blundell’s show? Does anyone even remember when Mary Ormsby used to be on PTS? Should TSN give Beirness a radio show?
TSM has been tweeting that job cuts are coming to the Canadian media scene as recent data show that cord cutting continues. The same is true at ESPN with Bloomberg reporting that the company is looking to trim its roster in light of recent cable subscriber losses.
At the same time, ESPN continues to throw gigantic mounds of money at Stephen A. Smith, who recently “threatened” NBA superstar Kevin Durant. It’s got to suck to be a hard working staffer and see your position axed while that guy remains gainfully employed.
Christine Dobby at the Globe is reporting that “Rogers added 24,000 Internet customers while shedding 31,000 cable-television subscribers and 14,000 home-phone customers” in Q3 while also adding “77,000 new postpaid wireless subscribers in the three-month period ended Sept. 30.” When you combine that with the revenue jump from the Jays, things are looking good at Rogers. Look for their radio and TV numbers to benefit as well this fall.
This financial picture is also good news for Rogers’ NHL coverage, since it has sheltered that TV property from scrutiny after ratings fell below expectations in the 1st year. Shoalts had a piece detailing the small changes being made for year 2.
The National Post continues to lose money, although less than in the past. Paul Godfrey tells us “the year ahead will see us leveraging our new scale and launching expanded product and service offerings to Canadian audiences and marketers.” Great.
Michael Grange has a very nice piece on Mark Buehrle with some really great quotes. One gets the sense from reading Grange’s work that people really like talking to him. He has fallen off the PTS map for the most part, but maybe with the Brunt co-host shake-up we will hear more Grange in the future. The content is reliably good and he is an under-utilized asset at Sportsnet.
Low Hanging Fruit
- I had the misfortune of catching TSN’s fantasy football commercial featuring Chris Shultz and others. That thing is an embarrassment for all parties. It looks like someone’s teenage son was put in charge of the project.
- I’m never a fan of the line “just stick to sports” when it is directed to athletes airing their political views, but I am a big fan when it is said to sports media members on Twitter during an election. For the love of God, start a blog for that stuff.
- TSN’s The Reporters is moving to Mondays, and shifting from a live show to a taped format. Do you care? People at TSN have made a very big deal about this. Was this appointment viewing for many of you? (0 comments on the linked video as of this morning)
- Driving around yesterday I tuned in to the 9am hour of Blair and Brunt. If you are paying Brunt a huge salary to do radio, why on earth would you make him take calls? I can’t think of a bigger waste of his time, and ours.
- With the Jays season ending, the full court print media press will also come to an end and writers like Arthur, Kelly, Brady, Rosie, and others will return to their normal range of topics and regular beats. Good thing or bad thing? Have you enjoyed having this many people writing about the Jays? Has anyone’s work stood out?
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)