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Usual Suspects

TSN's Mike Richards set to debut in the Big Smoke Add to ...

Mike Richards is ready for what comes next. The TSN Radio 1050 morning drive host debuts at 5:30 a.m. ET Wednesday, and he's heard all the talk. His success in Calgary is a product of a smaller market that won't fly in his cosmopolitan hometown of Toronto. He will redefine the 25-54 male radio demographic in Canada's largest market. Or something in between.

Characteristically, Richards eschews modesty. He's not worried, for instance, about Greg Brady and Jim Lang at the rival Fan 590 morning show. "My goal is not to beat the Fan 590 in the ratings," he said in a phone interview. "My goal is to be No. 1 in the entire demographic." Hello, John Derringer of Q107.

Verging on No. 1 in radio's most lucrative demographic is where Richards was in Calgary when he signed with TSN in January. With virtually no promotion in Calgary, he'd equalled or surpassed FM giants in the demographic that benefited from lavish promotion and better signals. This from a standing start in the ratings in 2005.

It's no exaggeration to say that if Richards can seize a sizable chunk of the lucrative morning drive market for the newcomers from Bell Media, he will change the state of play in a way rarely seen in the Toronto market. There are millions in billings at stake. And bragging rights in the larger Bell/ Rogers grudge match, too.

It's a tall assignment to translate his Calgary success to Toronto, but one that TSN/CHUM Radio executives are betting on heavily as they launch their quest to unseat Rogers's hold on the sports-radio listener.

Richards's former employer, Rogers (which owns both Fan 590 in Toronto and Fan 960 in Calgary), was also willing to give Richards his own Toronto morning show until TSN swept Richards away with an offer that guaranteed more money- lots more- and creative control. (Neglecting to have Richards sign a contract calling for a non-compete clause also expedited his move.)

"I'm very grateful to Rogers for giving me the chance in Calgary," the 47-year-old said. "I didn't have a lot of options when they brought me in. But the chance to come home with my own show, start a new station and improve my financial situation was too good an offer to turn down."

So what should listeners - who might have heard Richards as a comedic sidekick in previous Toronto incarnations on The Fan or The TEAM networks - expect Wednesday? Spoiler alert: Like fellow Globe and Mail columnist Stephen Brunt, we did a regular turn on Richards's show in Calgary. Living there, we also had a chance to hear how Richards transformed a morning drive program from crickets chirping in 2005 to a top-three program in its time slot.

Don't expect a lot of inside baseball from Richards. The Stouffville, Ont., product doesn't see himself as a sports journalist. What sets him apart is a blend of irreverence, juvenile humour and provocation that the opposition in the 25-54 range simply doesn't have at the moment. "I'm being a fan in our listening audience who loves sports, spends a lot of time in his car for work or enjoys pushing the envelope for some laughs. We'll have the experts like Bob McKenzie and Chris Schultz to do the journalism."

What will be interesting, broadcast insiders say, is how conservative TSN reacts when a questionable skit annoys sensitive listeners. And make no mistake, not everyone will love Richards's shtick. Montreal Gazette reporter Stephanie Myles famously hung up when she perceived anti-French bias in a prepared bit. And there was his Bad-Mouth Bettman, a rap parody that had Bettman f-bombing (quickly deep-sixed after the league protested to the FAN 960, the Flames' host broadcaster).

There have also been unsuccessful complaints to the CRTC about racial, sexual and ethnic material. "The material is parody, it's comedy, and as such you can't treat it as hate speech under our laws," Richards explained. "The funny thing is that the biggest fans of Vijay [Singh, whom Richards regularly pokes fun at]are the Indian guys in our audience who also laugh at Russell Peters."

Is he expecting more flak in socially conscious Toronto than in red-neck Alberta? "Could be," he laughed.

One thing he will do in Toronto that worked for him in Calgary is to get out of the studio. When Richards arrived in Calgary, he knew next to nothing about the local culture. He quickly learned two things. Any joke about Edmonton is a good joke. (He called it Dumpsville in a mock soap opera with Oiler fans who didn't know Kevin Lowe from Rob Lowe.) So expect Hamilton, Buffalo and Montreal to take a licking.

And word of mouth works if you go to the dinners, golf tournaments and events where your audience can meet you. He's told his new bosses that they won't see him saying no to public appearances.

So buckle up. It won't be boring.

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