Seen & Heard – Weekday Edition

by mike in boston / @mikeinbostonemail

Good morning sports media fans. As the year winds down the sports media news seems to be ramping up. Here’s a collection of things on the radar. As always, if there are things you think we missed please add links in the comments or email/DM me.

Life After Wilner

Jonah wrote an eloquent post on the end of Mike Wilner’s tenure at Sportsnet. I’ll start this week’s column with a few follow-up thoughts of my own.

First, in my memory there have been only a few Toronto radio hosts who made their name by developing an antagonistic relationship with the audience. When I was a kid I enjoyed Norm Rumack and his “hammerhead alert” siren. I also liked that Norm was a huge Leafs fan. Most of the people whom Rumack would excoriate were supporters of the dreaded Red Wings, or sometimes the Habs. The difference with Wilner’s show was that the people on whom Mike would heap his derision were also Jays fans. So the dynamic was less of us against them, but rather a competition about who was the biggest fan of the home team.

 

The tributes to Wilner were quite touching. Many of his former colleagues gave very personal praise for Mike’s hard work and collegial spirit. One that resonated was this one:

 

 

“You either hated or loved Mike Wilner on radio. There’s no gray.”

 

The thing that sticks out for me is how different this description is from how we think about other hosts with similar roles. Does anyone hate Andy Frost? Did anyone hate Scott Ferguson? Gord Stellick? I imagine there’s lots of love and lots of grey for these folks among the audience, but not a lot of hate. Why would anyone aim at being either loved or hated as a baseball analyst when just being liked is also an option?

 

I suppose the answer is that this is better than indifference. But this is, in my opinion, a double-edged sword. Wilner’s caustic style was an inspiration to a generation of aspiring writers, leading to a lot of analytics vs eye-test debates on local blogs. As anyone who has spent a day at the ballpark talking about pitch selection or batting stances can attest, the joy of baseball analysis is sustaining the conversation rather than shutting it down. This sometimes means indulging dumb points for a moment or seeing if you can weave even the simplest of ideas into an interesting narrative. This requires patience and charity rather than talking to people in ways that make them hate you.

 

My own memory of the Wilner era of JaysTalk is that it was a joyless show (except for Wednesdays with JP). This is the downside of embracing being loved or hated without grey – people who just want a good conversation are going to be turned off by the nightly train wreck.

 

 

With all of that said, I think Mike Wilner was not treated very well by his bosses before and during his brief stint as a full-time Jays broadcaster. I wrote about this a while ago during the awkward audition phase that eventually led to Ben Wagner being hired to replace Jerry Howarth in 2018, with Dan Shulman also coming on board for a number of games on radio and TV. Wilner was allowed to get some reps on the mic that season but the audience was also told that “[w]orking alongside Wagner and Shulman throughout the season will be a rotating roster of analysts. More details will be released in the coming weeks.”

 

Those details never came and the rotating roster petered out over the course of the season with Wilner getting more and more time. He was eventually named Wagner’s co-host at the end of that season without much fanfare, with the two working together for all of 2019 and the abbreviated 2020 season. To recap, Wilner was passed over for Wagner despite being somewhat of an incumbent. He was not considered to be the main guy for the analyst role, but was eventually given the job after other options failed to materialize.

 

To fire Wilner after such a short time in the role feels wrong. If the network was that lukewarm on him as a long-term option then it would have been better not to give him the role in 2019, or to give him the role only on an interim basis while communicating to the audience that a search was underway for the next person. It’s worth noting that there have been some leadership changes at Rogers in the last few years and it is possible that Wilner had more support from the previous regime.

 

As Mike said in his message, this was a dream job and few people ever get to work in the job of their dreams so there is some solace therein. Mike has a good resume and will no doubt be considered for other announcing jobs in baseball. It would be a great story to see him put in some time in the minors and make it back to the big leagues some day.

 

Word around the virtual water-cooler is that someone has already been selected to replace Wilner in 2021. Ex-Jays John Axford, Josh Thole, and Ricky Romero have all put in some (limited) time calling games over the last couple of seasons. Romero has the best history with the team, while Thole has the advantage of being a catcher with all the perspective that brings to the analyst role. Axford has the ace in the sleeve of being Canadian.

One option that I hope it being considered for 2021 is simulcasting Dan and Buck from TV to radio. Before shouting down this idea, consider that all of 2020 was called off a monitor from a studio in Toronto. With limited directorial control over the cameras, the announcers had to provide a call that was less focused on the visuals and more on the game story. In other words, it sounded a lot more like a radio broadcast. If most of 2021 is going to be played without fans and with remote announcing, then a full season of Dan and Buck on the radio might be better than John Axford trying to learn the trade under difficult circumstances. There’s also the strong possibility of a labour disruption in 2022 so it would make sense to kick this can down the road.

Last thought: JaysTalk was canceled in 2020 for the most part. Sportsnet needs to bring it back in 2021. We are all expecting big things from the team over the next few years and a dynamic post-game show should be part of the package.

Over to you: What will you miss most about Wilner? 

McCown Unplugged

I have updated this post so I can devote a section to the most ground-shaking local sports media interview of the decade. Simon Houpt of The Globe spoke to McCown several times over the last few months. The results are amazing. Go read it, click on some links for wealth management, and consider buying a subscription to the paper.

Here are the highlights:

 

  • At 68 Bob is getting divorced for the fourth time. His home is for sale with Christina McCown as the listing agent. The house used to belong to Doug Gilmour.

 

  • “He’s lost about 30 pounds. “I went – whoa! If I’m going to find somebody else, I’d better look better than this!” he laughs. His lawyer’s girlfriend made him a profile on Match.com. “I’ve got broads coming out of the woodwork.”

 

  • According to Bob, Sportsnet tried to keep him around in a different capacity but the offer “didn’t fit my agenda.”

 

  • “McCown spent his career watching sports actively, as a film critic watches movies, “constantly absorbing things and making mental notes of things that may relate to something I should know, a question I may ask. Enjoyment has almost nothing to do with it.”” – This was the first belly laugh for me. Anyone who listened to the show or interacted with his producers knows that Bob hasn’t actively watched sports in a decade.

 

  • The article several times references without naming a mystery producer of The Bob McCown Podcast (with John Shannon). I have not ever heard Bob give this person credit either. Who is it?

 

  • “You know who I talk to? The 55-year-old millionaire, works on Bay Street. In my mind, that’s my target audience […] I saw the demographics of my audience [at The Fan], I owned Bay Street! There was nobody – now, this is all ego talking, but it’s true! – there was no radio show in Toronto, in Canada, that reached more wealthy, influential, white-collar people. Not one. Not a music station – nobody else. I owned them.”

 

  • “I generated between $7-million and $11-million of revenue. I generated between $4-million and $8-million in profit. Profit! Now, I love Kypreos – but what did he generate? John [Shannon]? Bit player. [Doug] MacLean? Bit player.”

 

  • “McCown says, he was the only person Rogers could point to directly and say, his contribution led directly to profits. “This little island in the middle of this gigantic continent makes money. You can see it! It’s easy to compute! And yeah, it cost them a lot, more than it cost anybody else. But it made a profit. Why would you [mess] that up? That makes no sense!””

 

  • “My [Sportsnet] audience, a significant percentage of it, probably the majority of it, are not traditional podcast listeners.  You have to spoon feed them how to do it on. That was part of the equation that we sort of missed.”

 

  • Bob was involved in a stadium proposal that included a monorail.

 

Go read the whole thing. You can decide for yourself how much of this interview is Bob building on his existing self-created mythology and how much is the unvarnished timber beneath it. A few items deserve deeper analysis, which I’ll start here and we can pick up in 2021.

 

The pandemic has decimated sports radio in two closely related ways: 1) advertisers are looking to cut costs, and 2) commuters are staying home. To describe this as a vicious cycle would be an understatement. A study from of office towers in Manhattan showed that about 10% of workers were in the office in October. That’s a huge number of people who are not stuck in traffic, or riding transit with their earbuds on. That’s the lifeblood of radio consumption.This too, of course, shall pass. But post-pandemic sports media is going to be a different world.

 

So, owning Bay Street is starting to look like a very 1990s business model for getting rich as a radio host. And McCown has run into the double-bind of trying to modernize that business model for 2020. His established audience doesn’t know or care to find him on youtube, and the next generation of millionaires isn’t especially interested in what he has to say. Rather than comparing himself to Joe Rogan he should be looking down the dial at Dean Blundell (dot com) for lessons on both what and what not to do.

 

At 68 Bob has every right to try to stay part of the conversation for as long as he feels up to it. The podcast is a nice way to tread water but there is no Canadian equivalent of Barstool or The Ringer yet. Without that Bob is going to have a hard time extending his reach and getting the six figure advertising revenue that comes with having a popular podcast. The larger issue is that, as I have written many times, there is virtually no appetite for national sports talk in this country. Outside of a segment of the Toronto sports radio market, who else is missing hearing from Bob McCown?

 

Bob has delivered so much entertainment to Toronto sports fans, and so much content to this site. No one has made more money in Canadian sports media, outside of possibly McKenzie and Don Cherry. Whatever Bob comes up with next – branded sunglasses, lifecoaching webinars, a gambling website, another book – we will be watching with great anticipation.

 

Quick Hits

 

Ashley Docking resurfaced since being fired from FAN590 and wrote a freelance article for The Star on sneaker culture and The Kickback, “a mentorship program using sneakers as a conduit to break down social and systemic barriers in underserved communities in Toronto.”

 

Sonny Sachdeva wrote a very thoughtful long read for Sportsnet on the history and cultural impact of  Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi Edition.

 

The Star ran a nice pairing of feature and opinion articles looking back on the 5 year mark of Shapiro and Atkins’ tenure running the Jays.

 

Richard Deitsch had a great interview with Andre Iguodala. They spent a lot of time on how athletes view their relationship with the media. This is a really skillful interview by Deitsch to get so much content out of his subject on a difficult topic. “You’re trying to form some relationships with people who you can be candid with, people who you can trust. But it is what it is in terms of that, and you can never fully trust.”

 

Low Hanging Fruit

 

  • I love Bob McCown. But sometimes he is a parody of himself: “I absolutely never felt threatened by what TSN was doing. The truth of the matter was I never listened to them.” That’s from this great scoop article by Sean Fitz-Gerald who deserves a ton of credit for getting McCown to talk on the record.
  • Speaking of The Athletic, they went from a $1/month deal in November to a 2-for-1 deal in December. I’m a huge fan of the product but at some point they need to think as much about retaining subscribers as they do about attracting new ones. We’re treading into “all three bananas free” territory.
  • I’m trying to find more time for local radio these days. My favourite interview of the last week or so (Dec. 1st, Lead Off) was listening to Scott MacArthur talk to his dad about Skydome. The latter was an early employee of the Dome and eventually became president.
  • BarDown is popular according to some. Regardless, trying to create viral videos where you get people to debate you in the midst of a pandemic is a little tone-deaf. We are all trying to keep our droplet output to a minimum these days.

 

 

  • Don Cherry gave his pal Joe Warmington the early Xmas gift of clicks with this glorious quote about himself and the fired Vancouver Canucks anthem singer: “When you give your opinion, you better be prepared to pay the price. Going to a ‘no-mask rally’ was not the politically correct thing to do. You have to do what the left media want now. I should know.”

 

  • Finally, the media is churning out a trough-full of content on the all-Canadian division for the 2021 NHL season. Here’s a question: given the pandemic nightmare unfolding in the US, I wonder if any American teams were given the option to move to Canada for the season? Hamilton and Quebec City, both have spaces available. If the Raptors can do it, so can the Panthers and Coyotes.

 

thanks for reading and commenting, stay safe

until next time …

mike (not really in boston)

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Jacob
Jacob
December 10, 2020 10:29 am

I won’t miss Wilner at all. The few times I was in the car following Jays games was like getting a root canal. I appreciate the fact he had to deal with some out to lunch callers now and then but that’s the job – either deal with it or quit. He seemed to be forever condescending, rude and standoffish. It was almost as if his goal was to turn people off, and guess what, it worked. Looking forward to someone else in that slot.

John
John
December 10, 2020 10:58 am

You might want to put the Bob Mccowan comment into context… Here is the full quote:

““I can tell you this: I absolutely never felt threatened by what TSN was doing,” he said. “The truth of the matter was I never listened to them. I couldn’t because I was on the air opposite them. And I’m not saying their show isn’t good.”

Kinda changes the tone of that comment doesn’t it?

WestdaleRocks
WestdaleRocks
December 10, 2020 12:12 pm

The McCown quote about never listening to TSN radio doesn’t include the sentence where he says he couldn’t listen to them because he was on the air opposite them.  Does anybody think a guy like McCown, or anybody who’s been in the biz for as long as he has been and has had the success he has, would air check an upstart competitor no matter how good they are?  I don’t think that’s arrogant, I just think he was happy to just keep doing what he’s doing.  Even if he did the odd air check, do we really think he’d hear something and think, “oh….I gotta do that”.  I doubt Bob would do that.  

John
John
December 10, 2020 12:28 pm

Do you think he needed to? TSN’s afternoon drive was a revolving door prior to Overdrive, which only started out in 2016 (?). Do you think he had any reason to?

My point is that the first part of the quote makes him come off as an arrogant SOB, but the part that you left out does provide context to his rationale for not listening to them. 1) he was on air at the same time and so would have had to listen through podcasts. Something which he didn’t feel was necessary because. 2) His show was consistently beating theirs by “4 to 1, 5 to 1, 10 to 1”. Does Microsoft pay much attention little software companies that are 1/10 their size??? Not really, maybe when the start to get bigger and pose more of a threat but arguably Overdrive never became that significant a threat while Bob was on the air.

Justin
Justin
December 10, 2020 1:38 pm

The Wilner story is a great example of how the FAN (and sports media generally) undervalues continuity. Love him or hate him, Wilner was a very familiar voice to all Jays fans and his staying power enabled him to really grow on large parts of the fanbase. As his experience grew, so did his abilities as a broadcaster and his popularity with the fanbase. Rogers was right to let him grow within the role, which they sadly scuttled by firing him just when he was getting really good. I feel bad for Wilner, as his bosses really messed this one up.

Mario
December 10, 2020 2:48 pm

I think it’s a great idea to reboot Jay’s talk ,don’t think you have to look any further than Scott MacArthur. I believe he did do it for a short period of time when he first came over to the Fan 590.
Not sure if he still would be able to do both with him doing the morning show? But I sure there are still many changes in the works so who knows.

Paul G.
Paul G.
December 10, 2020 7:52 pm

Agree with the comments about McCown…publish the quote in its entirety, or not at all.

As far as Wilner is concerned, all are entitled to their views; but the post termination crocodile tears are way too much. He was not a beloved by all, despite what his media peers would have you believe.

Liberty Village Bob
Liberty Village Bob
December 11, 2020 11:47 am

I wonder if the locals will warm to Wagner. It’s not like he’s mande a hue impression since arriving.

Bingo Bango Bongo
Bingo Bango Bongo
December 11, 2020 5:13 pm

I find it funny that people hated Wilner for his arrogance but loved McCown who was even more arrogant. My belief is that both Wilner and McCown were let go because of the NHL deal. The numbers from the bubble playoffs were abysmal and I doubt that the folks at Rogers are excited with the prospect of another strange NHL situation with no fans in the arena and no atmosphere. If this pandemic showed them anything, it’s that the crowds are a big part of the show. It’s atmosphere, and it’s been lacking since the pandemic arrived. Like many, I am looking forward to hockey’s return. It’s a badly needed diversion. I’m not sure that the numbers will be there until the fans come back. The way these broadcasts are sold is by guaranteed reach. When the audience isn’t there, the broadcaster has to make good. That means in essence they’re giving away free inventory and with a property like the NHL deal, that can be very costly. I’ve heard that Sportsnet has tried to bundle some of the package over to TSN, but TSN would demand some playoffs and some draft coverage. And they want good games, not just midweek games. I fully expect something to eventually give on this front.
You might ask, if they fired McCown and then had to pay out his full contract, why would they not just let him work out his contract. I’m guessing the decision came own to Tim & Sid or Bob. They saw T & S as the future and Bob as the past, but that’s just a guess. I would have kept him around but these decisions are usually not simple. One las thing on Wilner. Personally I think they made a big mistake keeping Wagner instead. He’s really weak. Wilner lived and breathed Blue Jays. Wagner is just a guy. Passion matters.

Warren
Warren
December 12, 2020 12:09 am

Toronto sports fans deserve better than hearing John Axford, Josh Thole or Ricky Romero learning on the job. And they deserve more than a TV simulcast – even if that does include Dan Shulman. Baseball on the radio is terrific; but it won’t be worth a nickel if it’s just TV played on the radio. Tom Cheek is rolling over in his grave.

Zebb
Zebb
December 12, 2020 3:16 pm

Interesting read on Bobcat in the Globe. Divorce and winery issues likely mean life isn’t quite what he expected. 

He looks at Rogan and hopes he can get $3 million a year through his podcast. If so, he is going to have to make some serious changes.  The 55 year old Bay Street millionaire is a small, small slice of the pie. He has to increase his profile and broaden his target audience, and I think he is loathe to do those things. 

I wonder if he has an advisor – he mentions that getting the podcast going was more difficult than anticipated. Scaling it up is, in my opinion, a much more difficult task. 

Original Mitch
Original Mitch
December 12, 2020 3:43 pm

@bingobango

The difference between the two is the sheer arrogance and downright meanest Wilner treated the listeners. Bob handled the same type of buffoon callers but was never outright
Jerks to them for their opinion. Bob was very smart about that, Wilner was never smart enough to realize that. 

Paul G.
Paul G.
December 12, 2020 3:45 pm

@Original Mitch…Exactly, Bang On!

Omario
Omario
December 13, 2020 1:35 am

My own memory of the Wilner era of JaysTalk is that it was a joyless show

^^^^^^^^^This in a nutshell.

On a personal level he may be a great guy but he is wooden a pbp guy.

Mike V
Mike V
December 13, 2020 6:40 am

That Globe article on Bob was something. From the revenue claims (no way of verifying but at the top end it’s 14% of all Toronto AM stations in 2018 CRTC disclosures. Not just 590, but 1050, 640, 680, 1010, whatever else too. Maybe it was true at some point but I doubt at the end)  to the Downsview stadium district plan that had to have originated as a late night joke to what sounds like a depressing personal situation to the notion that someone should pay him $3 million a different year so John Shannon can talk to Eugene Melynik about vaccines to 8 thousand listeners an episode. It all reads like he is not fully grounded yet, and probably will never will be.

The differences between him and Joe Rogan are vast beyond Canada/US population differences. Rogan has millions of listeners in a much harder to reach demographic than affluent 50+, worked at this for 10 years before the deal came along and Spotify paid for exclusivity of the deep back catalogue. Zebb is right, scaling beyond this base to 15/20/25k listeners is going to be tougher than what’s come so far. 

Daniel
Daniel
December 14, 2020 3:26 am

To me, radio is just a show. I don’t really care if Wilner or McCown seemed brash or rude to callers – if the end product was entertaining (which both were to me), then that’s all that really matters to me. I think good radio hosts put on their performer hat on the air, and that doesn’t necessarily reflect who they are as people. If they’re jerks off the mic, that’s another matter. (Side note – anecdotal, but I met Mike once and he was an extremely nice guy). I hope Mike gets another shot on a broadcast somewhere. I personally disagree with Mike In Boston that it was a joyless show. I thought Wilner’s Jays Talk was very funny.

The Bob story was a bit sad, but I think it’s impressive he was willing to share all that. It sounds to me like he could use a job again, and Sportsnet certainly seems like they could use Bob. I don’t know if Bob cares enough about sports anymore to grind out a three hour daily show, but if you gave him something shorter and let him talk about stuff he’s interested in, I bet you might be a really good show. Maybe a one hour 6pm show like As it Happens on CBC.

As for Bob’s podcast, I do think it’s a good listen. But I think he really needs to hook up with a good tech person who can make it sound a bit better. There’s also a lot more generic hockey talk than I would have guessed (which is not really my preference) but I’m guessing that’s John Shannon’s influence. Or possibly that John is stuck doing all the work booking the guests! Yeah, you kind of have to just laugh off the Joe Rogan comparison – that’s Bob being Bob for sure.

Lee (Oakville)
December 14, 2020 10:59 am

I read the McCown interview with a tinge of sadness. He obviously wants to be relevant again, yet his stories about the Downsview redevelopment project and his podcast ambitions seem far-fetched at best and delusional at worst. He has been out of touch for a long time and his usage of the word “broads” is unbelievably tone-deaf in today’s environment. I think this article proves that his best days are far behind him and will never be regained. 

Zebb
Zebb
December 14, 2020 8:48 pm

Bobcat’s stadium development plan sounded crazy. Also not sure what sort of expertise he brings to the table. 

Liberty Village Bob
Liberty Village Bob
December 15, 2020 7:32 am

Could Jeff Blair have a bigger role on Jays brodcasts? He’s a baseball guy, and could be a replacement for Wilner on the post game show.

Drumanchor
Drumanchor
December 15, 2020 12:18 pm

I’ve always enjoyed Bob’s work – like many who follow the site – but, sadly, there does come a time. This is the entertainment industry after all and if more and more people are finding you less and less entertaining, as hard as it is, it may be time to seriously look in the mirror and move on. I know there are other interests in his life but if broadcasting is still something he wants to do, best to give it some serious thought. You do not want to look like Larry King with badly dyed hair selling miracle cures on infomercials. 

FreeSam
FreeSam
February 6, 2021 11:26 pm

Thanks for your interesting article.

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