One of the longest-running and most successful acts in Canadian broadcasting is looking at a curtain call.
Bob McCown, the ringmaster of the afternoon drive-time radio show Prime Time Sports since it hit Toronto's airwaves in 1989, says he has no plans to continue with the show when his contract with Rogers Communications Inc. expires in early 2018. He will be 65 then but does not expect to retire, just turn to something different, such as the Stoney Ridge winery he bought 18 months ago, or television projects with his company, Fadoo Productions Inc.
The one constant in Prime Time's various incarnations over the years is McCown. He's had a remarkable run in a business known mostly for turnover, but he says it feels like a long time and "that leads me to where I am now, which is a little bit bored."
Listeners across Canada well know the McCown persona: the cranky, sarcastic radio host now seen on television screens in headphones and sunglasses (he doesn't like the studio lights). What they probably don't know is that the persona is a creation – a character McCown plays for fun and profit. It has made him the highest-paid broadcaster in Canada, according to some sources, with an annual salary believed to be more than $1-million.
"He's created this character that's embedded in listeners' heads," said sometime co-host Stephen Brunt. "It's Bob of the imagination."
In the process, McCown has helped stoke a very real phenomenon: the exponential growth in the sports-talk radio business in Canada. When Toronto's CJCL went all sports as The Fan 1430 in 1992, the first voice on the air was McCown's. Over the next decade, all-sports radio stations popped up in most major Canadian cities – Toronto and Vancouver each have two. (Full disclosure: I have been on McCown's show as both a paid guest and co-host many times over the past 15 years or so.)
These days, listeners might think their favourite curmudgeon is a little extra grumpy. Taking shots at Rogers bigwigs has been a McCown staple, but it seems to happen more frequently now as the 12-year, $5.2-billion contract Rogers signed with the NHL to be its Canadian national broadcaster has caught Prime Time in its wake.
The roster of co-hosts was shaken up, with Brunt and Damien Cox, who once alternated as co-hosts, heard less and less. Appearances on Sportsnet's hockey broadcasts mean Cox no longer has time to be a co-host and Brunt's television obligations mean he will only be at McCown's side for 20 weeks this year. Also limited is Hockey Night in Canada broadcaster Elliotte Friedman, who, like Cox and Brunt, has good chemistry with McCown.
"There's no question the hockey contract has changed things and not for the good for me," McCown said.
Sportsnet television anchor Ken Reid has taken Cox's place and tries to bring a hip, pop-culture sense of humour to the show. The kindest thing to say is the chemistry with McCown is still developing. However, when Brunt or old hand John Shannon or Sportsnet broadcaster Arash Madani are in the co-pilot's seat, McCown is still at the top of his game.
Some of McCown's colleagues also say he is not pleased with the move of The Fan's popular afternoon duo of Tim Micallef and Sid Seixeiro to Sportsnet television. They went from a strong lead-in to McCown's radio show to direct competition from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays.
Management's thinking is that Tim and Sid appeal to a younger and less sports-oriented audience, so they will boost Sportsnet's numbers while not stealing McCown's audience. "There's room for both," outgoing Rogers Media president Keith Pelley said in an e-mail message.
McCown said Rogers executives did not consult him about any of those moves. While he said he likes working with Reid and would have resisted if he did not, he also said, "I'm at the point in my life where I don't fight any more. I spent my whole life trying to fight people who, quite frankly, don't know much about broadcasting."
At the same time, Pelley is one of McCown's best friends. He left the direct McCown wrangling to Scott Moore, Rogers's president of Sportsnet and NHL. But both men regard McCown's kvetching as part of his schtick. McCown's long-term success also makes the shots easier to digest.
"Part of what makes Bob so great is that he doesn't pull any punches," Pelley said. "He calls it as he sees it – even if it means questioning company management or the teams/players in which the company has an ownership stake." Pelley added that Rogers will support McCown in any new venture: "I've got all of the time in the world for Bob. He's a genius at his craft and has moulded the Canadian sports radio scene."
Colleagues are skeptical he will cut the cord
While Prime Time no longer gets the 8- to 10-per-cent share of the overall radio audience in Toronto it once did thanks to the splintering of traditional media audiences, especially among younger people, the show maintains its rule of sports talk in the 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. time slot. This is especially true for sports radio's target audience. For the spring ratings period of March 1 through the end of May, Sportsnet says Prime Time's share of the male 25-54 audience was 6.8 per cent, compared with 2.5 for TSN Drive with host David Naylor on TSN Radio 1050.
McCown's fade from the show will begin shortly, as he negotiated a reduction in the number of weeks he hosts annually to 37 this year from 43 to accommodate the first of two television shows on Rogers' Sportsnet network. The TV show, which is expected to air six times this year, will see McCown interview a major sports personality and give viewers a glimpse of the person's lifestyle. By 2016, McCown says, he expects to be Prime Time's host for no more than 30 weeks a year.
"I do not see myself doing this after this contract," he said.
If so – and at least some of McCown's colleagues are skeptical he will cut the Prime Time cord – it will bring down the curtain on an act like no other.
"There's no one currently on the air in Canada you can tap as the next McCown, none," said Mike Gentile, who was both a colleague of McCown, as his producer from 1997 to 2006, and a competitor as the former producer of TSN Drive. "The only guys you can compare him to across North America who've built their brand like that are Jim Rome, Dan Patrick and Howard Stern. That's his company."
The keywords are act and brand. McCown and those who know him best say the abrasive radio host with an opinion on everything really isn't him off the air. He is described as an introvert who is uncomfortable in large groups of strangers. He rarely makes public appearances. His off-hours are spent with his wife Christina, his daughter and stepson and a small circle of friends. McCown also has two adult daughters and a son from a previous marriage.
In broadcasting, it is common to find people with that unusual mix of shyness and a towering ego. McCown, by his own account, has no shortage of self-confidence.
"When it comes to sports talk, I'm the only one who's done it for 40 years, no one else can say that," he said. "There's a skill to it, you have to understand the entire genre. I worked in it all my life, I understand it. I created most of it."
It was created after McCown – who was born in Columbus, Ohio, and moved with his mother to her native Toronto as a toddler when his father died – started his working life as a professional at a Toronto golf club. He decided the radio business looked more interesting. One of the members at his club got him a job as an advertising salesman at CKFH. When McCown tired of selling, he talked the station into giving him a nightly sports talk show.
But things did not start well. "You realize if you are only getting two calls a night, you are doing something wrong," he said. "What came into my head was change the character, change who you are."
So he created what he calls an obnoxious talk-show host, someone who baited callers or put them down or hung up on them. The response was quick and heated, but in two months McCown's ratings jumped. "I realized I was on to something, so I kept going," he said.
The character followed him to a Toronto Blue Jays postgame phone-in show, a run in the 1980s on the Global television network as host of a nightly sports highlight show, and then to Prime Time. But over the years, McCown said, he has toned down the character.
"I still try to be opinionated and to a certain extent controversial, but not in the same way I was in the '70s," he said.
Brunt said the Prime Time television simulcasts propelled McCown and his sunglasses into the consciousness of Canadians who don't even get the show on radio. And when those people come up to Brunt, they usually have the same thing to say: "You put that Bob in his place, don't take any crap from him," Brunt said.
"Bob is not a jerk on the air," Brunt went on. "There's always a smile underneath it. You might disagree with him, but you don't hate him."
Brunt learned how solid McCown's place is with listeners when he left Prime Time for a year in 2001 to compete against him on CHUM Ltd.'s ill-fated The Team experiment in sports radio. "To fight against Bob, you're asking people to change habits they've had their entire lives," he said. "In the car, you have your presets where you go for traffic, weather and listen to sports. How often do you change them?"
Bill Watters also knows that McCown makes a formidable opponent. He served as McCown's first co-host when Prime Time launched, then as a competitor with his own show for four years on AM 640 until it was cancelled in 2011. In his first year, Watters said his show drew a 4.5-per-cent audience share compared with 6.5 for McCown, "and that's as close as anybody's got to Bob."
'I've done all five topics 500 times'
In the broadcast industry, McCown is famous for arriving at The Fan studio minutes before the show starts at 4 p.m. and hitting the exit equally quickly at 7 p.m. But Gentile says those who mock his apparent lack of preparation have no idea how the show works.
"That guy, when the clock hits 4 and the microphone is on, it doesn't matter when he walks in the door," Gentile said. "He's outstanding."
McCown checks newspapers and websites before he hits the studio, but does not see endless research as necessary.
"In the early days I would do 10 hours of research every day," he said. "Obviously now I've got 40 years of experience and what I understand is there are only five topics and I've done all five topics 500 times. You're not going to fool me any more. I came to the conclusion it's okay not to know stuff. The audience will forgive you. I don't have to know a lot, just know how to interview. I believe it's the overall quality of the conversation, not the questions."
Both Gentile and his successor as producer, Ryan Walsh, worked with McCown long enough to know how to put together a show lineup of topics and guests he would like. But, said McCown, "spontaneity is the key. We go in there and make it happen, fly by the seat of our pants. And it's worked. How can you say it's the wrong thing to do?"
Once the red light is on, there is no doubt who is in charge. "It's Bob's show," Cox said.
"Your role is the co-host. Brunt and I joke about this, that with Bob you're always the most popular co-host when it's not your turn. When you come back he's happy to see you and then after a couple of days he wants the next guy."
Brunt is considered the most skillful McCown wrangler. "My role is to be the amiable co-host," he said. "He's the star and I'm the guy that tees him up."
Despite McCown's insistence he wants a change at the end of his contract, this is not a sure thing. Graceful exits are not part of the Canadian media landscape. There is no shortage of sports broadcast legends hanging on in reduced roles at Canadian networks.
McCown must also see if his persona will translate to another medium. When The Fan tried to make him a Morning Zoo-style morning man in the mid-1990s, the experiment failed and McCown was fortunate to land back at Prime Time.
But his supreme self-confidence has him looking to the wine business – despite the fact he rarely drinks. He even has an allergy to red wine. But just as in broadcasting, he believes, it's about the brand, not a passion for the product.
McCown has dabbled in outside ventures with varying success, but friends told him he wasn't doing enough to "build his brand." So he decided on wine. "I wanted a product I could hold in my hand," he said. "My whole life all I produced was air."
He bought Stoney Ridge 18 months ago along with an interest in the Mike Weir Winery. The professional golfer is in the process of selling the rest of his winery to McCown, who hopes to add a third winery. He might even bring a touch of the obnoxious radio host to the new venture.
The wine business, McCown said, is "run by a bunch of farmers and wine growers who don't know jack shit about marketing or promotion or anything. They've been to Toronto, but they never lived here. They have no concept of how a business really runs.
"I thought if you bring a little level of sophistication to this thing, if I can use my contacts maybe we can change it. In 18 months, boy, we've changed it and we've barely started. It's about understanding how to market, it's not about the product. It's not what's inside the bottle. Now what we produce is as good as anybody's. I'll put our wines up against anybody's in the country.
"In March of last year we went into the LCBO with Stoney Ridge and now we have two of the top 10 [sellers]. That's never been done. To a certain extent my involvement with the winery created that marketplace. But they don't buy a second bottle because of me, they buy it because they like it."
Listeners continue to like his radio act, too, even if his sports knowledge is not exactly encyclopedic. "He's still the best," Watters said. "Bob knows the tricks. He knows how to deliver sports in a fashion that makes you think he's forgotten more than you'll ever know, when in fact that's not the case. That's a master stroke. He's always been confident in his own ability to deliver what he wants."