TABLE OF CONTENTS Mar 2009 - 0 comments

Great Sports Programming a Real Achievement, but Two Hundred Grand Doesn't Hurt

Canadian Achievers

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By: Dick Drew
2009-03-01

Take it from me, Canadian produced syndicated radio programs are tough to keep on the air.

Over the years, I have produced and syndicated over 5000 episodes. Some in French, some in English. Some were barters. About 3000 were "Canadian Achievers".

No matter, it's tough, and for the following reasons:

• After a while national sponsors want something new.

• After a while, station PD's want something new.

There are 50 other reasons, but you get the picture.

That's why I pay tribute (and hope you will join me in doing so) in this column to the 25th Anniversary of Grapeline, the daily syndicated radio sports program.

It's the co-creation of three of the best in the business, as it is hosted by Don Cherry and Brian Williams, and produced by Prior Smith.

Would you believe they launched the show on a handshake!?! And now 25 years later, these three amigos still go to work on the basis of that handshake (and they still like one another)! Wow!

Of course, it helps if, in one of those shaking hands, a cheque for $200,000 is held!

That's just one of the stories in Don Cherry's new book Hockey Stories & Stuff. He tells many others. It's a hoot!

But recalls the wonderful story of how he first approached CFRB to host a sports show. Prior Smith, a producer at the station at the time, was charged with explaining to Don how, sorry, but there is already a long line of people wanting to do just that.

But Cherry handed Smith a cheque from Bridgestone Tire for $200,000 to sponsor the show! That's 1984 dollars, by the way, probably worth like billions today!

That powerfully simple act of commerce immediately convinced Prior Smith and CFRB that a show with Don Cherry was indeed a very good idea. Prior then convinced Brian Williams to co-host and the show was off and running.

Over the years, it moved to Telemedia for a while, but it now is produced at Rogers' The Fan 590 in Toronto, from where it is syndicated to about 100 radio stations across Canada and by Internet around the world.

Each of the amigos -- Don Cherry, Brian Williams and Prior Smith -- is a Canadian Achiever on their own merit.

Don Cherry because he is Don Cherry, need I say more. Read his book, it's all delightfully there. He talks openly about his many ups and downs.

He's also a very interesting interview because he gives straight answers, such as when I asked him why did not ever give up:

"Dick, I would like to say it was my character and upbringing. It was hunger, when you have no education, no trade and you are down and out as the old saying goes, nobody knows you when you are down and out and nobody was going to take it from me when I made a come back because I've been there and it ain't nice."

I believe him when he says he has no idea of how much money he earns. I also believe him when he says, "Everyday I thank the lord that he was kind..."

"Never in my wildest dreams," he continued, "did I ever think that I would be in the position I am now. All I wanted was to have a job in construction! Broadcasting and media never entered my mind. I was told I would never last a month on the air with my English..."

Don's delivery and his vocabulary are definitely part of the sizzle, and part of the reason he's been successful with TV with Coaches' Corner for 25 years (10 with co-host Dave Hodge, 15 with Ron McLean) and on radio for 25 years with Grapeline.

Working the other side of the Grapeline microphone is Brian Williams.

To better understand where Williams gets his energy, drive, determination and integrity, you have to take a moment to read the story of his remarkable dad, Dr. Kenneth Williams.

(At www.canadianachievers.com,you can find a free downloadable version of my book, The Canadian Achievers, with that remarkable story. Brian's dad, now 93, is still active, and he was in South America when I spoke with son Brian for this report. Dr. Williams is a remarkable person as is his son; achieving is in their genes.)

Brian was born in 1946 in Winnipeg but raised in Hamilton, where he developed a strong steel town determination common to people from Hamilton. It has helped make him one of North America's premier sportscasters, starting way back when with the Memorial Cup broadcast in the early 70s, from the old Montreal Forum.

Stints followed with CFRB and CHUM followed until 1974, when he began freelancing for the CBC. He continued as a freelance sportscaster for 32 years until June of 2006, when he shocked the sports world by announcing he was moving to rival CTV/TSN.

"I left the CBC for an opportunity of a lifetime," he explains. "That's to work a 3rd Olympics in my own country, the 2010 Winter Games Vancouver, and to be part of building an Olympics team at CTV."

He is already making plans for the 2012 Olympics in England, which will be his 14th Olympics! That's added to a long list of major sports he has also covered, including Blue Jays baseball, 25 Grey Cups, figure skating, hockey, the Brier. You name a sport, Brian has not only broadcast it, he will quote names and stats from it, up until the cows come home.

But I had to ask Brian the one question really on everyone's mind: 'What's it like working with Don Cherry?'

"He is exactly as he looks and sounds on TV and radio," Williams begins. "People might not always agree with him, but they know he is straightforward and honest. And of course he is always entertaining. He's as fresh and vibrant at 75 as he was in his 40's. When we started back in September 1984, he wondered if he had enough good stories to last until Christmas. Here we are decades later and he hasn't scratched the surface. Don is an unbelievable storyteller."

The glue that holds Grapeline together and helps keep the stories on track is veteran broadcast and show producer & co-creator, Prior Smith (and their brilliant broadcast editor Stan Matacki at Rogers). It was Prior who looked at the $200,000 cheque Cherry was holding and said "Let's do it!"

They have been doing it ever since.

Prior's voice is well known throughout the southern United States where for 31 years, he's been the voice (and the owner) of the daily radio series Canada Calling, now in its 50th year. The program is produced and syndicated out of his own home studio. It airs during the winter, keeping Canadian snowbirds up to date with Canadian news, weather, stock market information, and -- of course -hockey scores.

Between producing episodes of Canada Calling and episodes of Grapeline from November to April, Prior seldom has time to wipe his nose, but he still seems to have all the help he needs.

"The people who work on Grapeline bring unique talents to the studio each week," Smith explains. "The show is all about story telling. In that regard Don is in a class by himself. Brian is the ultimate radio pro. The two clicked from day one. As a producer, I learned a long time ago the best thing I can do aside from steering the ship is to get out of the way. When you are working with talent like this, the secret to success is the fact that just about everything is unscripted and first take. The show is seasonal so every six months, we have a chance to be fresh."

Fresh and new, after all this time? Now, that's an achievement!

Photos

Don Cherry, Brian Williams and Prior Smith (top to bottom) are the 'Three Amigos' responsible for some iconic Canadian programming, both for radio and TV.
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Caption: Don Cherry, Brian Williams and Prior Smith (top to bott...

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