by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / email
Good morning sports media fans. We are headed into a busy part of the year and TSM will be here to provide news and analysis. As always, if there are things you think we missed please add links in the comments or email/DM me.
Blue Jays Radio Returns
If you have been thinking that the 2021 radio broadcasts of the Jays were inferior, Sportsnet wants you to know you’re wrong, or just too old to get it.
“It’s legacy, and it’s comfort. Different demographics have different ways that they consume content, and one of the traditional methods is obviously radio … anytime you take something away, people are not going to be happy.”
That quote is from Rob Corte, Vice-President of Sportsnet and NHL Productions at Rogers. In an interview with The Athletic he laid out the case for why the company has decided to temporarily reverse its earlier decision to simulcast their TV audio feed on radio. According to Corte:
“We had tried to get as close to the middle, and as close to satisfying both mediums, as well as we could. I think we did a pretty good job. It was never going to be perfect, and I think that’s where a lot of criticism came.”
In case you missed it, Corte believes that people expected perfection and that’s where the bulk of the criticism came from. Anyone who listened to Tabler and Martinez ignore the radio audience knows that the broadcast has been orders of magnitude removed from decent, let alone perfect. Jerry Howarth, who knows something about baseball on radio, offered this comment when interviewed on FAN590:
“I don’t think the TV broadcasters made enough of an adjustment to accommodate [radio] and that is why it is so good to have radio back.”
To recap how we got into this mess, when the pandemic hit in 2020, Ben Wagner and Mike Wilner called the shortened season and playoffs off monitors in Toronto for FAN590 and the Jays radio network. After the season Mike Wilner was let go by his bosses due to poor performance. No replacement was announced. As the 2021 season began to take shape the company announced that the radio booth would be canceled, with TV taking over for both mediums. This has been the status quo until Friday night, when Ben Wagner was taken off tweet duty and put back into the role for which he was hired. In addition to cutting the radio booth, Sportsnet has also significantly cut back on the Jays pre and post game shows. Fan favourite JaysTalk still exists but they rarely take calls. On Saturday there was no pre-game show, with FAN590 instead airing CBS radio. All of these moves involve cost savings for the network.
I’m back in Toronto! Thrilled to be part of @Sportsnet expanding coverage of the #BlueJays return with the radio broadcasts starting Friday night! There’s no substitute for the home town crowd – we are ready to be there too! 🗣🎙📻⚾️ pic.twitter.com/TH0VkeJA9H
— Ben Wagner (@benwag247) July 28, 2021
For the remainder of the season Wagner will call both road and home games from Toronto solo, meaning there will be no colour person to fill out the description of the action. This is a curious move since almost no other radio broadcast in the history of baseball has put the entirety of calling the game on the shoulders of one person, let alone someone who is only a few years in to his major league career. This burden could easily be obviated by moving the markedly improved Joe Siddall back to radio from his position on the TV desk. They could also re-start the process of auditioning longer term colour voices, starting with Canadians already in the country. As a last resort they could also ask existing Sportsnet personalities to put in some reps in the booth.
The fact that Rogers has chosen the cheapest path is not a good sign for fans hoping for a return to normal in 2022. Corte spoke to that issue in his interview:
“We haven’t made any decisions beyond this season.The last 16 months have been about adjusting on the fly. It’s been the craziest 16 months, I think, for anybody in this business. The reality of it is, we just don’t have the luxury to think that far ahead. We can think and look ahead, but we can’t make any concrete decisions because we don’t know what the landscape’s going to be like.”
This quote is equal parts incomprehensible and insulting. Rogers has the NHL rights for another five years and has made plenty of commitments to various announcers for that time. Why would things be any different for the Jays? Does this mean that Eric Smith and Paul Jones are possibly out of their jobs for next year, due to the uncertain landscape? Leagues are publishing schedules for next year as we speak. What uncertainty is Corte speaking to exactly?
As far as public relations goes, this interview was almost as bad as it gets. (It’s not quite Scott Moore tweeting about going to strip clubs bad, but close.) The theme of blaming the audience for complaining is a Sportsnet staple. The Corte quote about legacy is nearly identical to Moore’s comments about how people would eventually get used to Strombo when MacLean was initially jettisoned from the HNIC host chair. Two years later he sheepishly admitted that the move alienated hockey fans without bringing in much of the coveted younger demographic.
On the TV side, rumours continue to build that Buck Martinez won’t be back next season. He was not in Toronto for the Jays home opener on Friday, which seems very odd given all the fanfare about the game. Tabler has been providing colour for the series so far, despite universal agreement that Dan and Buck provide the better coverage.
So here we are with an exciting Jays team and inferior products on both radio and TV. Management at Rogers are being pennywise and pound-foolish, hoping the audience won’t notice. The Jays are reportedly not very happy with the way their parent company is handling their broadcasts either. All of this is trending in the direction of a big shake-up for the 2022 season. The fact that Corte couldn’t simply say “Ben Wagner is our guy on radio and we can’t wait for fans to hear our new booth in 2022” is foreboding, both for the future of baseball on radio, but for the future of dedicated radio booths for all Toronto sports.
TSN1050 Looks Forward
It’s impossible to look at the decision by Rogers to cut Jays radio without considering the context of the current slow death of sports talk radio as a medium. As we have been writing for a number of years, podcasts, streaming, and other on-demand options are changing people’s listening habits. This is eroding the market penetration of radio, especially among the sub-50 demographics. This means that if you’re an advertiser, you’re paying for less reach than you were just a few years ago. In the TV world there is a custom of giving away future ad slots to make up for the lost audience, as Rogers did with Jays playoff games to compensate hockey advertisers for poor ratings. In radio smaller audiences lead straightforwardly to lower rates.
What this means is that the main revenue stream that funds the whole operation is shrinking, and won’t go back up until more people start listening to radio again. In 2021, this seems beyond a hope or a prayer. So if you’re a radio station then you can only do one thing: cut costs to match the revenue losses you’re seeing on the advertising side. The main cost that you can control is salaries, since most others are either fixed or a small fraction of your overall budget. All of this brings us to the news that Michael Landsberg has mutually agreed with TSN to part ways. Here’s the press release. (Petty grievance: you would think a media company would know how to crop images for social media publication.)
— TSN PR (@TSN_PR) July 30, 2021
Landsberg added his own signature self-referential commentary on the end his time in sports media:
Okay, all kinds of nice things being said, but where are the "thank God he's gone. That guy was so annoying. He always thought he knew everything, And he was rude and OMG so arrogant, and those plastic surgeries? Good riddance ya douchebag."
— Michael Landsberg (@heylandsberg) July 30, 2021
Longtime readers will recall that Landsberg ended up on TSN1050 after his television show was canceled. The prevailing thought at the time was that TSN preferred to pay him to do radio rather than simply pay him to go away. Yet Landsberg found a second wind in radio after a rough start. He co-hosted with Dave Naylor in the mornings. Naylor was eventually re-assigned with Carlo Colaiacovo being paired with Landsberg. The two developed good chemistry and we are told that the network would have been happy for the show to continue. Their recent ratings were respectable, and they were beating FAN590’s morning show in recent books.
What is notable about the Landsberg departure is that he is one of a shrinking number of people remaining from the previous era of radio. Salaries are negotiated in the context of what others are making for similar roles. When McCown was around people could point to his supersalary as a benchmark and then negotiate from there. This is how Tim & Sid were, according to rumours, able to negotiate salaries in the half million dollar range for their show, with people like Brady earning around half of that, and people like Walker earning half of that. At FAN590 you still have Blair and Brunt and Deitsch who came in when there was a lot of gravy in the boat, but the rest of the line-up has been hired under more austere times.
So what do you do if you’re Jeff McDonald at TSN1050? The station has no development plan, since they choose to air cheap syndicated programming instead of going local in several slots. Matt Cauz is their super-utility player, and he’s a veteran rather than a rookie. So there is no young talent waiting to step in. Colaiacovo has improved significantly and has some established market presence, so if you’re planning to keep him then you need a host who can drive the show forward while keeping the existing audience. Who is that?
The strength and weakness of TSN1050 is hockey talk. Given Overdrive’s prominence in the ratings, it makes sense to stick with what is making a mark with the audience. However, if the station wants to take more market share from 590 they need to be credible on other sports. Personally I wouldn’t listen to any of their shows talk about baseball or basketball. Remember this?
As I see it, assuming TSN is still committed to the format, to replace Landsberg you can either double down on hockey or try to diversify. If the former, then there’s a big roster of established TSN personalities from which to draw, including people working at other TSN radio stations. If the latter, then there’s a lot of familiar names looking for work, including Cybulski, Walker, Brady, and McCown. Among these names I think Walker could step in and do a good job. He’s been part of a ratings winner in the time-slot, is in the millennial demo, and is great on all sports.
Aside from these options, I have been rooting for Kate Beirness to get a show for a while. She has a magnetic personality, is incredibly polished as a broadcaster, and is knowledgeable on many sports. This seems unlikely though, since TSN recently gave her enhanced responsibilities on their CFL coverage. There’s also Kayla Grey, but she also just launched a new show.
Over to you: Who would you like to see replace Landsberg? Which morning show are you listening to currently? Does any of this really matter?
The Athletic is raising their prices, after two failed attempts to sell the company. The annual price is now $72 (USD). Part of their rationale is that subscribers have access to way more writers than when the company launched. This is true, but I wonder how many subscribers read beyond their local markets and a few national writers. They also recently let go of popular hockey writer Scott Burnside.
There was tons of great coverage of the Jays trade deadline moves. Here’s a good read from Gregor Chisholm for the analytically minded. For a more mainstream read, this piece by Shi Davidi is also very good.
The NHL is now facing a second public relations crisis with the allegation by his wife that Evander Kane bet on NHL games. Rick Westhead of TSN also has an updated story on the most recent Blackhawks lawsuit developments.
Low Hanging Fruit
- First things first: Ben Wagner is doing amazing work calling the games all by himself. I hope he received a massive raise for doing the work of two people. If I can make one small observation, it’s that he is currently trying to fill every silence with descriptive content. As a listener it’s a little hard to follow when there’s no gaps or changes of voice. It’s too much content coming at you all at once. Let it breathe a little.
- Every time I turn on FAN590 on the weekend and hear Roger Lajoie, I think of the poor aspiring broadcasters who are being denied a chance to hone their craft.
- In other FAN590 weekend programming news, Joey Vendetta is no longer part of the line-up following his Canada Day tweet.
- Writers Bloc (hosted by Ben Ennis) interviewed Jerry Howarth on Friday. After commenting on the return of Jays radio he said this: “The real competition is not down on the field. It’s among the general managers. And it was Alex who put all that together. And it’s really a shame because as he put that together, he’d already lost his job, unbeknownst to him. In May the Blue Jays hired Mark Shapiro to take over the team. I think Rogers made a big mistake right there doing that, rather than letting the season play itself out, and guess what, not only would Alex have risen to the occasion, which he did, getting better and better as a GM, he’s a Canadian! What happened when he left? […] He’s won five straight division titles. Case closed.”
- As far as I am aware that is the first time Jerry has said something that critical of the Anthopoulos situation. He certainly didn’t when he was employed by Rogers. Deitsch followed up with a question about the quality of the team on the field and a reference to how much fun we are going to have this summer.
- After Steve Simmons reported on the air that Auston Matthews had tested positive for COVID, TSN1050 initially pulled the interview before reinstating it a few days later. All of that seems to be water under a bridge as Simmons co-hosted Overdrive last week:
Pretty pumped to be heading to @OverDrive1050 my favourite radio show today to co-host with @GMillerTSN. Lots to talk about. Olympics. NHL Draft. Leafs. Flyers Sabres trade. Blue Jays. Raps. Crazy busy July. Why not tune in 4-7 pm.
— steve simmons (@simmonssteve) July 23, 2021
- I’m not a regular Overdrive listener but one wonders what the effects of the extended summer vacations by their hosts are on the audience. With the recent departures and reductions by McKenzie, Ferraro, and McGuire they have lost a lot of content.
- Betting is infiltrating all aspects of sports media. Here at TSM we get several emails a week asking for us to post paid content promoting betting sites. Here is a piece on Sportsnet by OddShark staff with no indication anywhere that this is sponsored content. There are embedded links to the site in question. If you’re going to post adverts disguised as articles, the very least you can do is be up front about it. Not doing so hurts the credibility of every real journalist working there.
- The Star sent three sports columnists to the Tokyo Olympics in the midst of a pandemic. On the one hand this looks like a paper that is investing in sports coverage. On the other, this looks like a lot of money to spend on something most Canadians will watch on CBC rather than read about in the paper. Only management at The Star knows whether the return on investment is worth it. Part of my question here is that none of the columnists in question cover amateur athletics as part of their regular beat. Shouldn’t the experts on the sports in question be the ones rewarded with all expenses paid trips to the other side of the world?
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)
IMAGE CREDIT: Vaughn Ridley/Getty