The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Local Sports Talk Radio

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A couple of weeks back, on the Monday after Todd Bertuzzi signed his new contract, I tuned in to the TEAM at about 3:45 to catch the afternoon show.

Hosts Dave Pratt and Don Taylor, for whatever reason, were discussing football…on the day after arguably the biggest signing in Canuck history. In disgust, I turned the dial to AM 730, to catch The Sports Zone. Not only was the Todd Bertuzzi contract the only topic of discussion, host Bob Marjanovich was interviewing Bertuzzi live. Although disappointed I couldn’t hear this interview on my first choice of stations, I was pleased to be able to scan the dial and find another local show that was giving the hottest topic in Vancouver proper coverage. In that past, my only other choice would have been to turn to CKNW. The chances of hearing any sports coverage on CKNW, outside of the Bill Good show or hockey coverage are slim to none…unless one wanted to suffer the pain of enduring Dan Russell’s Sports Talk.

For local sports fans, we really are spoiled nowadays with local coverage. The TEAM 1040 has the always informative and entertaining John McKeachie show on, first thing in the morning. We then take a break between 9:00 and 3:00 (unless you’re a fan of the Jim Rome & Dan Patrick shows), when the TEAM again fires up with the Pratt & Taylor show, while over on MOJO Radio, Dave Pratt’s ex-sidekick Bob Marjonivich presides over The Sports Zone. Pratt & Taylor run until 6:00 (with Pratt running solo for the final hour), while The Sports Zone runs until 7:00. For the die-hards, CKNW and the “longest running sports show in town”, Sports Talk, kicks in at 9:00 until midnight.

All told, that’s 10 hours of local sports talk radio for local fans to sink their teeth into.

For this, we have mostly to thank the TEAM for bringing the all-sports format to Vancouver radio in 2001. There were some growing pains, and some terrible hosts to grow with, but for the most part the shows have been upbeat, informative, and entertaining; An addition to the local sports media scene.

The TEAM came in during the brief stint in which Don Taylor was hosting “The Grill” on CKNW between 10:00 and midnight. This had been a welcome change to Dan Russell and his mundane “Sports Talk” show, which had been pulled from the air after a very public and ugly contract dispute between the station and the host. Taylor brought something to the time slot that had, up until then, been seriously lacking: a view from the locker room. Don Taylor made it his priority to have fun on his show. Yes, he had some credible regular guests. He even managed to bring on Brian Burke a couple of times, which is no small feat for anyone. Taylor kept callers on the line to banter with them, or argue. He would give callers a fair shot at expressing their opinions, and a fair bit of rope in doing so. Taylor also has a good sense of humor, and would often involve his producers -either Rick Dahliwhal or John “The Beast” Connors- in regular segments and on-air discussion. His show was informative, offered opinion, but above all was fun to listen to too.

Don Taylor hosting The Grill was in strict contrast to the longtime host of the 10-12 slot, Dan Russell.

“And a pleasant good evening, on this our 5,284th installment of the longest running sports talk show in Vancouver!”

To any long time listener of Russell’s show, it is plainly obvious that he has never spent time inside a locker room as an athlete. He gives the impression that his locker room experience has been limited to that of a reporter, which is fine, but he clearly doesn’t “get it” when it comes to taking the piss. Dan Russell must have been a stats taker in high school for the New Westminster Bruins. He probably helped out at hockey games, recording goals, assists, penalty minutes, plus / minus…things of that nature. Presumably, he was proud to fill the water bottles, but only allowed to do so when the team was out on the ice. The players surely all called him Dave, because they didn’t know- and didn’t care to know- his real name. Because Russell was so happy to simply just be included, he wouldn’t correct anyone. Dan more than likely won all the hockey pools, because his obsession for the game as a non-participant left him plenty of time to memorize every player in the NHL inside out and backwards. Simply put, he’s a nerd.

Russell’s nerdiness is badly exposed on a regular basis on his show. More than occasionally, Dan will get a caller- the typical sports fan- who has a somewhat skewed and uneducated view on a subject. The subject is almost always the Canucks. Instead of bantering, or debating with a caller on the merits or flaws in his points, Russell will belittle him for “not doing his research”, or “not being prepared”. He will tirelessly pick apart minor inconsistencies in the caller’s argument, leaving the listening audience embarrassed for his behavior. For the most part, Russell’s callers nowadays are dry and uninteresting.

Russell seems to be especially defensive of the Vancouver Canucks. CKNW carries Canucks broadcasts, and Dan host the pre-game and post-game shows. It is also alleged that Brian Burke was instrumental in having Russell’s contract terminated at the end of its last term, after Russell and Burke had a nasty on-air disagreement. The result now seems to be that Russell will rarely come up with a negative word towards the Canucks, especially if it has to do with management, or coaching. Not only is Russell a nerd, he’s a spineless nerd.

The low quality level of Russell’s “Sport’s Talk” has been exposed by the arrival on the scene of the TEAM 1040. After a somewhat rough beginning (actually, with Russell co-hosting the morning show with longtime Fox & Rock 101 DJ Bill Courage…a match made in Hell), the Team has managed to rise to the top with some excellent programming.

The best of the TEAM’s offerings start with the morning drive, “The John McKeachie Show”. McKeachie is a long-time veteran of the local sports media. In strict contrast to Russell, McKeachie is at his best in the dressing room. He’s obviously a jock, and can banter with the best. Although clearly not used to the ins-and-outs of operating a phone board (“McGouchy” is notorious for cutting off callers), McKeachie has a thick Rolodex of some of the top names in sports, especially hockey. On any given morning, listeners will be treated to segments with the likes of John Davidson, Scotty Bowman, Wayne Gretzky…the list goes on. McKeach runs weekly segments and features, but if somebody bails out, he just reaches for his black book and calls somebody else up.

Along with being a professional and all-around good guy, McKeachie is also making a clear effort to groom his sidekick, Rick Ball. Ball gets more than his share of airtime, as McKeachie encourages him to partake in all interviews. The show has great flow, great banter, and best of all, great guests.

After The John McKeachie Show, the TEAM takes a break from local radio and treats listeners to feeds of the Jim Roam Show, followed by the Dan Patrick Show- both highly entertaining, if not acquired tastes.

At 3:00, the TEAM returns to local programming with Pratt and Taylor. Dave Pratt teamed up with Don Taylor this summer, after Pratt split with his first on-air partner, Bob Marjanovich.

Pratt, another veteran of local sports media, is an excellent, hard-hitting interviewer who doesn’t mind asking the tough question…. although his interviews are few and far in between. If Russell is the high school nerd, Pratt was the fat, mouthy little kid who tried out for the football team, made it on pure effort, but wasn’t good enough to get off the bench and into the game. He was the guy who’d hang out with the quarterback, and pounce on his leftovers. The fiery Irishman has a short fuse, which to the delight of listeners was lit on a regular basis by Marjanovich. Early this past summer, Marjanovich’s contract came up for renewal, and instead of opting to re-sign, he chose to take an offer from competing MOJO Radio to run opposite Pratt with “The Sports Zone”. Despite the fact that the listeners enjoyed the partnership, lack of chemistry was sited as the primary motive for the break-up. That, and the “Moj” didn’t like playing second fiddle to lead hand Pratt.

Enter Don Taylor, the king of local sports casters.

This, for all intents and purposes, was a huge deal. Bringing in Taylor represented a major coup for the Team. It was well known that Taylor went back to TV for more than one reason (money being the key issue): because he didn’t get as much as a rush out of radio as he did TV. While at CKNW, he increased ratings. Taylor has a unique ability to help callers relax, which in turn helps for better listening. He was patient with new callers, and welcomed back old callers who were obviously not very confident on the air. Taylor is everybody’s buddy- which may be the kiss of death for TEAM.

In losing Marjanovich, they not only lost a producer who could line up a surprisingly endless array of top level guests, but they lost the on-air spark that kept the show fired up. Although Don Taylor is funny, can banter, and his extremely knowledgeable, he’s too nice to Pratt. He keeps Pratt calm and cool, which unfortunately makes for less entertaining radio. Dave Pratt is at his best when he’s calling his partner a dumb shite-head, or a big baby. He’s best when he’s out of control. Although Pratt and Taylor seem to have a good time, and seem to enjoy working together, the edge has been lost. It also doesn’t help that Taylor is only on between 3:00 & 5:00, leaving Pratt to flounder on his own for another hour. Combine that with the fact that the show isn’t getting the same number of high quality guests anymore, and it leaves one wanting more.

The Sports Zone fires up at 3:00 every day, and runs until 7:00…one extra hour. Like McKeachie and Taylor, Marjanovich is at his best in the locker room. He’s a jock, though and through, and this shows in his ability to quickly gain the trust of his guests.

Over the years, the Moj has built up quite a Rolodex himself. Although not quite as deep in hockey experts as John McKeachie’s, Marjanovich’s is very expansive, ranging from hockey, to NFL, to CFL, to baseball, and to golf. On any given day, the listener will be treated to a massive array of guests, and a balanced program. Of all the sports radio shows in Vancouver, The Sports Zone offers the widest range.

For the sports fan in Vancouver, there is no better time than the present. Can it last forever? Doubtful. It remains to be seen if this region is big enough to support two call-in sports radio shows on the drive home. The TEAM did well to pull talk show fans away from CKNW, as well as convert the traditional follower of music radio. In doing so, they had created a niche. With the emergence of MOJO Radio (Talk Radio for Guys), and the successful debut of The Sports Zone, the pie is now being split. The smart betting should be on the TEAM to maintain their position, considering it is a far greater challenge for MOJO to draw the pure sports fan over to a new show.

The wild card may very well lie in the strength behind the shows. MOJO is sister stations with CKNW under the Chorus Entertainment Group of stations. While the TEAM is also backed by a heavy hitter- Chum Radio Network- CKNW is the undisputed heavyweight of local Radio. Chorus also controls notable high rating earners such as Rock 101, and the Fox. It’s conceivable that Chorus may be willing to give Marjanovich and The Sports Zone the extra rope he’ll need in order to bring ratings up to a respectable level, for no other reason than to hurt their competitor at the expense of decreasing returns.

At the end of the day, Bob Marjanovich is sitting pretty. He is well past the “cutting teeth” stage of radio entertainment, and should now be considered a legitimate go-to guy. In an ideal world, the Sports Zone will survive for another three years or so, just long enough for Dan Russell’s contract to expire again. This time, instead of taking a gamble on a host who may not be suitable for the job, they have a tried and true veteran sitting in the wings, ready to take over the late-night spot.

Whatever happens, enjoy the bonanza of sports talk while it last…
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"The Last Drop is the rant, musing, opinion, or random disturbing thought of a father-of-two weekend warrior who doesn’t really care what you think. From sports, to politics, to coffee girls, this @Dude will spew forth whatever comes to his mind. It may be useful. It will likely be useless. Either way, the reader will no doubt be a more confused individual after experiencing The Last Drop."

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