Big read: Long-time listener, first-time caller

When your favourite team is down and troubled and nothing is going right, don’t worry—you’ve got a friend. And he’s just waiting to put you on the air.

By Shannon Proudfoot

Someone in Red Deer, please go find out if Mike is OK.

Last fall, after the Oilers were downed 7–1 by Chicago—their sixth consecutive loss—Mike called in to 630 CHED’s Overtime Openline show. “I am an Oilers season ticket holder. I’ve spent many years driving from Red Deer, sacrificed so much. But I do it because of my absolute, sheer love for the Oilers. And I have lived vicariously through the Oilers because I was never good enough to make the team, but I always had the heart to believe in a team,” he said, the words tumbling out like he couldn’t stop himself. “I now have a three-month-old son. I will not even allow him to go anywhere near an Oilers shirt. He will be put in nothing that has to do with the Oilers, and that’s because the heart and soul of this team is gone. It’s lost. The only thing I can do right now is beg Oiler fans to stop buying jerseys. Stop buying tickets. Until we stop pumping money into this stupidity, we’re gonna watch the same thing over and over and over. It’s just so sad.”

When Mike finally ran out of words, all the hosts could do was gently thank him for the call and acknowledge that there were probably a lot of fans out there feeling exactly like he was.

Welcome to sports call-in radio, the world’s cheapest therapy. You don’t have to wait too long for an appointment, and like a 12-step meeting, it’s first names only—and you can even lie about that if you want. There’s no real psychological expertise on offer, but that’s not why anyone tunes in. Call-in radio is, quite literally, about making your voice heard. These shows are their own intense little communities—complete with local celebrities, crackpot street-corner prophets and unwritten etiquette—built on the foundation of obsessive sports fandom. It’s a weird thing to have a team in your life that you care so much about, but which acknowledges you only fleetingly, like a wink from the prom queen striding past you in the cafeteria. On call-in radio, everyone gets it: strangers sitting in their cars or garages or rec rooms, connected only by a radio signal and the fact that the same team lights their emotions on fire. “They know they’re saying something to other people who care, to the other callers and listeners. They don’t have access to the players or the coaches or [the general managers], so who are they gonna vent to?” says Reid Wilkins, the host who fielded Mike’s call back in November. “The call-in show is that front line.”

Wilkins just finished his second season hosting the Oilers pre- and post-game shows; he talks about the job like someone who just moved to a new city, fell in love with it and got a job as a tour guide. “It’s weird. You almost feel like you know them a little bit, or you feel like, ‘I’m glad they’re out there tonight,’” he says of the voices on the line. Many more people call after a loss than a win, he’s learned, and there’s very little discussion of the game that just finished—it’s more of an existential teeth-gnashing over the state of the team. After one especially painful overtime loss to the Jets on Hockey Day in Canada in his first season with the show, Wilkins kept thinking they’d hit a point where everything had been said and people would move on with their day. It never happened. More than two hours after the final horn, they finally had to shut down the phone lines so the next program could start. Wilkins uses the word “beauty” a lot when he talks about people’s emotional investment in sports, and why caring that much about a game isn’t ridiculous. “That’s the beauty of it: At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter—but that’s why it matters,” he says.

The central truth of call-in shows is this: Good teams make for bad radio, and bad teams make for fantastic radio. After all, you don’t call up your best friend for a two-hour bitch session when things are awesome in your life. And every radio host’s nightmares are haunted by the same bogeyman: silence. “What if nobody calls? That is the greatest fear,” says Jamie Nye, host of The Green Zone, a Roughriders show on News Talk 980 CJME in Regina.

The past two seasons have been a little scary for Nye: The team started out 8-2 last season and 8-1 the year before, which meant a very contented Rider Nation and ghostly phone lines. “You’re almost looking for when this team is going to lose, because people are really gonna get involved again,” Nye says. “As much as that is the most cynical point of view you could possibly have.” The Riders obliged, with losing skids in the back half of both seasons and a season-ending injury to quarterback Darian Durant last September. No more quiet phones. “Then they can tell you who they want fired, who they want cut, who they want traded,” says Nye.

In Edmonton, the silent complacency of a happy fan base has not been a problem. Last season, Wilkins even noticed callers Debbie-downering the wins: The other team took the Oilers lightly, or Edmonton is playing loose because there’s nothing to lose (cue sad trombone solo). “There are still so many people who remember the 1980s. That’s the thing: In Edmonton, we know that winning is possible. A lot of people have seen Stanley Cup parades, they’ve seen great players. They just want to grab it at least one more time before they die,” Wilkins says. “I know that sounds kind of morbid.” In fact,

it sounds incredibly morbid—but also accurate. However, with the Oilers turning over their front office and coaching staff for next season, and the sun rising on the Connor McDavid era, things are about to change in Edmonton—and on Wilkins’s phone lines.

Depending on the night and the mood of the crowd, Wilkins sees his role as traffic cop, therapist or interviewer. Other hosts describe their job as emcee, warden, lion tamer or quarterback. “You set the table, and then the party’s going to go in the direction it’s going to take naturally,” says Fred Wallace, sports director at Bayshore Broadcasting in Owen Sound, Ont. “Sometimes it just flows, and you just have to sit there and watch it swirl around you.” John Short hosted call-in shows in Edmonton for 15 years, starting in the early 1980s (the station brought him back from vacation when the Gretzky trade broke because they thought listeners needed a familiar voice to help them cope). His mentor told him to think of the gig as riding in a car with some buddies—you’ve been friends forever, so you can argue, but you have to keep things civil, because you want to go to another game together tomorrow. “We all got to be sports fans who were entitled to disagree—and we did—but it was always, ‘I won’t call you a jerk because you’ll get out of my car,’” Short says.

Most hosts say their radio personality is just their real self puffed up a bit, but Bob McCown knitted himself a whole new identity out of desperation. With Prime Time Sports on Sportsnet 590 The Fan, his phone lines are always jammed, but when he was starting out in the mid-’70s with a late-night slot, there was a lot of terrifying silence. “I created this character, the asshole talk-show host,” he says. “It just snapped in my head: Be a jerk. Be a loudmouth. Yell at people. Hang up on people. Don’t just be smarter than them, tell them you’re smarter than them. I had nothing to lose, so I just went that route, and instantly the phones started to light up.” As his career grew, he let the anti-social radio guy mellow out a lot—but the persona’s still there, following him around like an evil twin. “As soon as the mic goes off, that’s over, because that’s not who I am,” McCown says. “It’s acting.” But when he runs into fans at Costco on the weekend, he’ll obligingly pop into character and offer some little acerbic tidbit so they don’t go away disappointed. “You become a friend to these people, and they think they know exactly who you are,” McCown says.

After so many hours listening to invisible strangers pour their guts out on air, hosts become Jane Goodalls, observing the hard-core sports fan in its natural habitat.

Insight No. 1 The player exchange rate is always ludicrously warped—but callers are blind to it. “Everybody overvalues their own players,” says Greg Brady, host of Brady and Walker on Sportsnet 590 The Fan. “They’ll mention three or four average-to-bad players and go, ‘Well, if we package them together, can’t we trade for Jonathan Toews?’ No, of course not!”

Insight No. 2 There is no physical tic too small for fans to extrapolate from it a player’s entire approach to life. Quarterback controversies are call-in catnip in Saskatchewan, for example, and God help the quarterback who grins a little after an interception, because he obviously doesn’t care and should be run out of town immediately. “People come up with amazing opinions on players based on how they walk around on the sideline,” says Nye. “And wow, do they take that little thing and run with it.”

Insight No. 3 Fans do not enjoy being disagreed with-—just back away slowly. Bob Irving is still laughing about something that happened in the 1970s on a Winnipeg show he hosted called The Football Hotline. An irate fan called 680 CJOB and unloaded on the Blue Bombers, while Irving and his co-host tried to politely defend the team. The caller screamed, “This is not The Football Hotline, it’s the bullshit line!” That became their unofficial motto.

Then there are the fans who take the time to dial the phone, talk to a producer, wait on the line—and have absolutely nothing to say, no point beyond the fact that a 37–3 loss is a real shame. You have to read those calls quickly, thank them and give them the hook, Nye says—their five seconds on the air was probably five seconds too many. Jeff Sammut, a host on Sportsnet 590 The Fan, sometimes finds himself shooting his producer a “What were you thinking?” scowl after getting stuck with a dud, but callers may offer a producer something good and then chicken out when they’re on the air. Still, it’s the people with no point at all who best encapsulate the urge behind call-in radio: to be part of the conversation. “They think it’s more of a coffee-room chat than anything, so they just want to weigh in,” Nye says.

Gord Tulk, on the other hand, is the most prized species of caller: the regular. The resident of Red Deer, Alta., is an insurance broker who spends a lot of time in his car, and he’s a frequent voice on Wilkins’s show using the handle “Serious Gord.” “The hottest, most immediate, most visceral form of fan input is the call-in show, because you get the inflection, you get the emotion, the in-your-face attitude,” he says, his Newfoundland upbringing swooping through his vowels. Tulk takes his role seriously, jotting down notes while he waits and tailoring his comments to how much time he knows is left before a break. “You’re part of the entertainment package, so for goodness sake, be entertaining!” he says. “Understand that this is a gift you’re being given and that you’ve got an audience of however many people—don’t mess with it.”

He believes a tweet just lands in the wilderness with a thousand others, but on the radio, you’re really heard—especially by those in power. In an amazing display of tone-deafness in 2013, Oilers president Kevin Lowe sneered at fans he didn’t consider to be “paying customers.” Tulk says they were waiting for him on the lunchtime show the next day, and his rant fuelled callers for hours. “I went off,” he says. “I was pissed.” He says someone in the know told him it freaked out Oilers brass to hear so much fan rage, and he notes with satisfaction that Lowe apologized immediately. That management was cowering could be apocryphal, of course, but the point is that Tulk felt like he had a megaphone. “It’s a cathartic thing. It’s just like, ‘This is driving me frickin’ nuts, I gotta get this off my chest,’” he says. “It’s a way to vent and get your opinion heard—not just heard, but listened to.”

Unless you run afoul of obscenity rules, call-in radio is like reality TV: It’s better to be crazy than boring. “Even if you have an idiot caller, you can play off that caller and go in a whole different direction,” says Wallace in Owen Sound. “You’d like to think every audience member is an A-student and a Rhodes Scholar and a right-thinking person, but that’s not the reality.”

The most frequent comment Rod Pedersen, host of The SportsCage on 620 CKRM in Regina, gets from listeners he runs into on the street is that he deserves a medal for putting up with some of the more colourful personalities who call his show; he just smiles and says he’s glad they call. “For me, the crazier, the better,” he says. “Those guys who are really coming from Mars are my favourite callers.” Pedersen revels in a certain manic brashness on his show: He’s instructed his producers that as long as they can understand what someone is saying, who cares how many beers they’ve had—put them on the air.

But fired-up callers are like wild animals on a live TV set: highly entertaining, but you’re worried they’re about to ruin the carpet. “You’re always nervous: ‘Oh, this person is really emotional about this. What language are they gonna use to express themselves?’” says Nye. That’s where the dump button comes in. Shows employ a delay system that imperceptibly slows the signal leaving the station, building up a gap of several seconds between what’s already happened in the studio or on the phone line and what listeners hear. If a caller drops an f-bomb or blathers some gossip about a player sleeping with another’s wife, the host or director hits the dump button, and those few seconds just disappear. On the air, it sounds like a momentary glitch, but any radio host who happens to be listening will know someone just went off the rails.

But increasingly, texts and tweets are replacing real voices. For today’s listeners, it’s faster and more instinctive to bang out their thoughts on a keyboard than to dial a phone. Reading comments on air is less risky than taking calls, because hosts can search out the best opinions and avoid lawsuits waiting to happen. But what’s lost is what makes call-in shows such fantastically weird places in the first place: the unpredictability and intimacy. “In a tweet or a text or an email, you don’t get the emotion you can get from a voice on the telephone of somebody who’s really upset or really happy,” says Irving.

In Edmonton, Wilkins has seen much more of one of those emotions than the other so far. Only one team in a league each year can sell its fans the ultimate victory. The way he sees it, everyone else is dining out on hope. And to Wilkins, the entire point of being a sports fan is hoping that things will be better—tomorrow, next season, someday soon. “You can never underestimate how much a city loves its sports team—that’s what I’ve learned,” he says. “It’s really beautiful, the commitment people have for the team, the love they have for the team. I’ve just learned to respect the passion and be prepared for it.”

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine.