In 1984, Gerry Patterson, an agent and entrepreneur, walked into the offices of CFRB radio in Toronto with a proposition.
He told CFRB chairman Mac McCurdy he wanted to help his client and friend Don Cherry launch a syndicated radio show. Patterson was gently dismissed by McCurdy, who suggested he talk to Prior Smith, a reporter at the station.
"I responded in a jocular way," said Smith, who had experience in syndication. "I said, 'Gerry, the line of people who want to do a radio show on hockey in this country starts down the hall and around the corner.' "
Patterson dug into his wallet and produced a cheque written by Bridgestone Tire for an amount exceeding $100,000.
"When do you think we might be able to start?" Patterson asked.
"I took a look at the cheque and said, 'How about next week?' " recalled Smith.
That's how Don Cherry's Grapeline started. This morning, Cherry, his co-host Brian Williams and Smith, the producer, will tape five shows for the first week of their 24th season.
It's been a remarkable success story.
The twice-daily, four-minute spot is heard on about 110 radio stations, including Canadian Forces Radio. It is in every major and secondary market in Canada. It also airs on stations in Texas, New York and Minnesota.
It has a cumulative weekly audience of one million listeners, the most for any radio show in the country, according to Smith. Advertising for the full season is already sold.
"There's nothing else like it," Smith said. "Never has been."
Early on, Cherry asked Williams, who was brought in by Smith to be the co-host because he felt Cherry needed to work with a professional broadcaster, "Do you think I'll have enough stories to last until Christmas?"
Ten years later, in the summer of 1994, the Cherry was ready to close it down. A meeting was scheduled with executives at the show's flagship station, The FAN 590 in Toronto.
"Half an hour later, we went waltzing out the door with another contract," Smith said. "And here we are."
Cherry's mind was changed because Grapeline's broadcasting year was shortened. Instead of running from the start of the hockey season through the NHL playoffs, it would begin in November and end in early April.
Smith attributes the show's long life to its short season, six months, and the fact the four-minute segment keeps the listeners wanting more.
"There's also spontaneity to it," he said. "I don't allow scripts or second takes."
The three usually meet Sunday mornings to tape five shows for that week. A brain-storming session will often jog Cherry's memory about a story from his days as a hockey player or coach.
"His memory is unbelievable," Williams said. "He has an amazing ability to recount stories and yet make them relevant to today."
The segments on topical issues go early in the week. Cherry, as a rule, visits memory lane on Thursdays and Fridays.
Grapeline works because Cherry, the long time Hockey Night in Canada commentator, is a showman and enormously popular. But his chemistry with Williams, a veteran sports journalist, is another important element.
If Cherry represents blue-collar conservatism, Williams's constituency swings to the left.
"Talk about opposites attracting," Cherry says. "He doesn't really believe in some of the things I say. In fact, sometimes he gets very upset and says, 'Prior, are we going to run that?'
"Don't get me wrong. He likes doing it. But he'll say, 'Just because somebody disagrees with you doesn't mean they're bad people.' "
"I tell him when he crosses the line," Williams said. "But that's part of the appeal of the show. It's not staged."
The Cherry-Williams-Smith partnership has been cemented only by a handshake. The Grapeline business model is relatively simple. One segment contains two commercial spots. The first is bought by a national advertiser, with the money going to the three partners. Revenue from the second spot, from a local advertiser, is paid to the station.
The partners won't discuss how they share the profit, but each of the three has done well by the show, earning annual incomes well into six figures.
It's not clear how many years Grapeline will continue, but there are no plans to end it.
Said Williams: "After our final show of last season, Don said, 'You know, I'm going to miss it during the summer.'
"I said I would too."