Stop me if you've heard this one before: They're bringing back Terry DiMonte.
It was with a lot of excitement (well, one exclamation mark anyway) that Astral announced (in English and French) that DiMonte has been hired to host the morning show at CHOM for a third time. For DiMonte, the news was "a little bit bittersweet", having to leave this new home in Calgary he had tried to make his own over the past three and a half years.
There is no word on who his co-hosts will be, but so far Pete Marier and Chantal Desjardins are expected to be able to keep their jobs at the station, even if they're not on the morning show team.
The Gazette has posted a story about DiMonte's return, as well as some videos that were created as part of a series on expat Montrealers in 2009: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. There were also briefs on CTV News and Global's local newscast, but otherwise coverage has been light.
No date yet
When DiMonte will return to Montreal and its airwaves is still undecided. DiMonte signed a five-year contract with Calgary's Q107 in late 2007, which means he still has about a year and a half left. The deal does allow him to get out early with six months notice, which was given on Wednesday. So depending on how the station plans to play this, it could be as late as Christmas before he's allowed to return to Montreal.
"My intention was and is to fulfill my obligation for the next six months," DiMonte told me over the phone on Thursday. Still, the decision is up to the station. They could have him keep working until December, or they could pay him not to work. But a small radio station with only four full-time staff that paid decent money to lure DiMonte to Calgary in the first place probably isn't too eager to waste it on talent it can't use.
"A bit defeated"
Though demand for DiMonte as a Montreal radio host was apparently high enough that Astral went out to get him, he admits that his time at Q107 hasn't been a runaway success. "I didn't meet my own expectations in Calgary," he said, though he did say that "things have gone relatively well here." Aside from some Montreal expats who remember him from his days here, there isn't nearly the kind of familiarity in Calgary as there was here. Part of that is the simple fact that he's only been in Calgary for three and a half years. But he also said he was disappointed that there wasn't more done to market his station and its morning show. His face wasn't on billboards or on TV, despite how much effort and money Corus went through to bring him there. The fact that the economy went down the toilet shortly after his contract began probably had something to do with that.
The result is that Q107 has been stagnant in the ratings. Its morning show has a 6.7% commercial market share, making it eighth out of 15 stations in that market. They're better, but not much better. And as this 2008 Calgary Herald story made pretty clear, Q107 expected significant results by taking DiMonte on board.
"I believed that by the time 2012 comes around, my contract would expire and I wouldn't be offered another one," DiMonte said.
Still, it wasn't him that made the first overture about coming back to Montreal. He was wooed.
"We made a mistake"
DiMonte said the first move happened in December, when he got an email just before Christmas from Martin Spalding, the Astral VP who is in charge of CHOM, CJFM and CJAD. The two have known each other for a long time. Spalding was once DiMonte's personal assistant. So DiMonte didn't think anything of it when this friend wanted to take him out to dinner during a visit to Calgary.
What DiMonte didn't know at the time was that Spalding wasn't on some tourist visit or there for some corporate meeting. The dinner with DiMonte was the purpose of the trip. Spalding wanted to bring DiMonte back to CHOM.
"I was, to be frank, a little stunned," DiMonte said. Not only at the discussion of his coming back to CHOM, but at the idea that someone would fly to Calgary just to discuss the matter with him.
Spalding, DiMonte said, "paid me probably the highest complement I've ever had. He said: 'When we let you get away we made a mistake, and we want you to come home.'"
Discussions continued over the coming months, and Spalding flew back and presented an offer.
Here's where DiMonte did something that he wouldn't have done five years ago: He took the deal to his lawyer. In 2007, he didn't even have one for negotiating contracts. He has since learned their value. By March, it was clear DiMonte was going to be coming back, but the fine print had to be ironed out. Everything became official when he submitted his notice on Wednesday and Astral sent out its press release.
DiMonte said he has no regrets about going to Calgary when he did. "I was broken-hearted when I left Montreal," he said, but "I think I did the right thing. I got out when I needed to get out."
The story of DiMonte's break from CHOM in 2007 is one of a personal conflict. His contract was up, and he was being asked to sign a document with a lot of fine print, he told The Gazette in 2009. "Don't you dare bring in a lawyer," he was reportedly told.
DiMonte said he had no issue with the station or its owners (CHOM was in the process of being purchased by Astral Media when he left), but said the problem was local management at the station, and particularly one individual, whose name he didn't utter during our interview, perhaps out of fear he would have to follow it by spitting somewhere.
"My beef was not with Astral because I never got the chance to work with Astral," DiMonte said. "My beef was with one guy running the radio station."
A lot has changed since then. Former program director Bob Harris is in Hamilton, and Astral VP Rob Braide left the company and works as a consultant. CHOM's management isn't what it used to be. It isn't even what it was when Ted Bird left - program director (they call them "brand directors" now) Daniel Tremblay, who replaced Harris and was the focus of Bird's fallout with the station, left his position recently.
Glad to be back
"I try not to let sentiment interfere with any kind of business decision I'm making," said DiMonte, who at 53 is a lot wiser about the business of radio than he was before he left CHOM.
An offer to go back to his old job, live in his home town again, just as it was becoming clear that his future in Calgary might not be so bright, seemed perfect.
The first thing he did, he said, was look at his contract with Q107, where he was "pleased and surprised to read" that the five-year contract had a clause allowing him to leave early on six months' notice.
Thank God for lawyers, he thought. His had served him well here.
Still, even with the deal done, DiMonte had worries about returning to CHOM.
"I was concerned," he said. "Am I going backwards? Am I covering territory I've already covered?" - These are sentiments echoed by a few online commenters who see this move as CHOM regressing to its comfortable old ways. DiMonte, like Bird, they say, is boring and stale, and CHOM should save its money and instead hire new, young, dynamic talent. There certainly in't a labour shortage in Montreal's radio industry.
When asked how much of his decision to return was a personal desire to move back home versus a business decision that this was best for his career, DiMonte said it was "50/50."
"Okay, 60/40. Because money isn't everything."
DiMonte didn't tell me what kind of money he'd be making at CHOM, but he did say the offer was "very reasonable" and fair for someone of his experience coming into a market like (anglo) Montreal.
He also pointed out that rumours of how much he was making at Q107 were wildly exaggerated.
"There seems to be a fair amount of goodwill associated with my name," DiMonte said, as if he was genuinely surprised of this fact. "I'm pleased as punch that people still remember me four years after I left."
That's a bit of an understatement. Since news came out on Wednesday afternoon, DiMonte has been flooded with messages of congratulations from his Montreal fans. In the less than 48 hours since, he has received 316 posts on his Facebook wall (not including comments added to his messages, which also number in the hundreds), a few dozen messages of congratulations on Twitter (his name was even trending in the city when news erupted), and all sorts of other, less public messages from friends and fans.
It was so much that DiMonte at first clammed up online. A prolific Facebooker and budding Twitterrer, he stopped posting on both as the messages flooded in. I thought at first he might have been under some sort of gag order, unable to confirm the news. But he said he just couldn't handle the sheer volume of messages. He's put up a few mass thank-yous, and hopes to get back to everyone individually - maybe he'll succeed by the time he starts at CHOM.
DiMonte mused that social media might have a lot to do with why he's still remembered here. Rather than have him disappear completely from their minds, they can follow him online. He has more than 4,000 friends on Facebook, where he posts links that are of interest to fans in both cities. He also has 948 followers on Twitter.
While social media certainly helps, I think DiMonte underestimates the long memories of Montreal radio listeners.
The story was similar before DiMonte became active on social media, when he left the city in 2007.
"I was at my parents' place just before Christmas when I left, with tears in my eyes trying to answer all the emails I got," he said. "I had no idea I was reaching people in this way."
Mostly quiet on the Calgary front
While reaction to DiMonte's return has been mostly positive here, it made a much smaller splash in Calgary. A handful of the Facebook posts he received were from disappointed Q107 listeners, and some took issue with the fact that they learned about this news through social networking or via Montreal media online rather than from DiMonte himself.
DiMonte hasn't formally announced to his listeners that he's leaving. He said he wanted to let Q107 make the call on his future there first, and give them something a little more definitive than saying he'll be leaving at some point over the next six months. The Internet being what it is, many of his listeners still found out.
DiMonte knows he's a smaller fish (somewhat literally, he's lost a lot of weight since going to Calgary) in a bigger pond there. "I haven't been here long enough to make the kind of impact I made in Montreal," he said.
While news of his return resulted in an article in the Gazette and mention on at least two local TV newscasts, in Calgary there was just a brief in the Herald (and the comments on it are not particularly flattering to DiMonte - then again those on the Gazette piece aren't the nicest either).
That said, DiMonte asked me to emphasize that he loves Calgary (particularly its lack of sales tax) and he appreciates the support he's received from his listeners there. He also has nothing but kind words for Q107 and Corus, who have been good to him despite the tiny resources at the station.
He said he's learned through his experiences that stereotypes about Canada's regions are all bull, whether they're Quebecers' views about Calgary or Calgarians' views of Quebec. Albertans aren't all ultraconservative oil baron cowboys, and Quebecers aren't all lazy separatist unilingual francophones.
Getting back into the Montreal mindset
When DiMonte first started at Q107, he found he had to let go of Montreal. "I was watching RDS and reading The Gazette and said 'I gotta stop this.'" Though he remained a Montrealer at heart, he started transforming himself into a Calgarian.
Now he has to change back. He's been watching Mutsumi Takahashi and this new kid Van der Heyden, "trying to replug a bit."
Asked by Gazette managing editor Ray Brassard whether this means we can stop sending bagels, DiMonte laughed. But he added that he is a bit worried about coming back to Montreal and its food. He lost quite a bit of weight since moving out there, as he told The Gazette's June Thompson last year, and credited being away from some Montreal restaurants with helping him keep it off. He said he's "terrified" of gaining it all back.
One of the nice things about being wooed for a job is being able to get some concessions. DiMonte didn't demand a gold-plated helicopter or anything, but he did ask for - and receive - more creative control.
"I refuse to go into an office at 10 o'clock and have philosophical arguments with a guy who's never done this before about what I've done on the air," DiMonte said he told Spalding before accepting his offer. "I'm not going back into a situation like that."
I know a few radio veterans who know very well what he's talking about. I've heard stories of program directors - some with little or no on-air radio experience - critiquing the work of radio personalities who started in the business before those pencil-pushers were even born. This issue is a large part of why Ted Bird and Aaron Rand left their jobs.
You're nobody, DiMonte
When DiMonte first started working at CHOM in 1984, he said he was making $30,000 a year. Seeing the ratings go up with him at the mic, he asked for - and was denied - a raise. He ended up leaving for CJFM, which at the time was owned by a different company. He recalls clearly being told he'd be nothing without rock records, and his boss at the time telling him not to bother coming back crawling to CHOM.
Of course, we all know DiMonte didn't go crawling to any job since. He worked five years at Mix 96, another four at CJAD to replace (he preferred to use the term "follow") George Balcan, and then back at CHOM where he was reunited with Ted Bird in an attempt to rebuild the station's ratings after the station made the mistake of moving to a more alternative rock format to compete with WBTZ (99.9 The Buzz) across the border.
Terry and ...
The big question on everyone's minds, other than when he's coming back, is who's going to be sitting with him. Lots of his fans want him to be reunited with Bird yet again, even though Bird's statements since indicate he's happy at K103 in Kahnawake and he's not expecting to come back.
What makes this debate interesting is that one of the concessions DiMonte sought in his contract with CHOM is co-approval of his morning team. Forced marriages, he said, don't work, and he didn't want to be in a position of working in a team that didn't have chemistry.
DiMonte has seen the comments about Bird, and so far the response is "we'll see." DiMonte and Bird are good friends, and he certainly isn't against the idea at first glance.
"There's been two people in my work life that have been absolute dreams to work with, one is Patti and the other is Ted."
Patti, of course, is "Peppermint" Patti MacNeil (formerly Lorange), who worked with DiMonte in Montreal and was reunited with him as his cohost at Q107 before she was dismissed last year. DiMonte currently does the Q107 morning show with another former Montrealer, Tim Morgan.
So could we see Terry and Ted again at CHOM? Maybe. Daniel Tremblay, the man most responsible for Bird's departure, is no longer there. But there's still a pretty scorched bridge between Bird and Astral, far more precarious than DiMonte's. It will depend a lot on how bitter Astral's management is about Bird's departure, and how willing Bird is to forgive CHOM for the sake of working with DiMonte again. At the moment, there is no sign that Bird is on his way out at K103, even though he's probably being paid more than they can afford there, and advertising hasn't been as huge as the station might have hoped when it signed Bird.
UPDATE (June 29): Bird says as much in his own words on his Gazette blog:
To answer the obvious question: no, there are no plans for a Terry and Ted reunion at CHOM. That bridge is in worse shape than the Mercier, and even if I hadn’t blown it to bits, I’m having too much fun in Kahnawake to entertain a return to the corporate radio milieu, even with someone I admire and respect professionally, and with whom my friendship is as strong as ever.
Aaron Rand, who recently left the Q for similar reasons as Bird and DiMonte left CHOM (though on much better terms), is another possibility, technically. But Rand seemed to close the door on that shortly after the announcement about DiMonte's return, posting on Facebook that he won't be going to CHOM. He also hinted that "I hope to have an announcement soon to let you know what's next for me." Rand had considered going to CHOM, and there were discussions with Astral, but the fact that Rand wants to be repaired with Paul (Tasso) Zakaib means there's not much room for DiMonte as well.
A more likely scenario might be DiMonte being teamed up with existing hosts Pete Marier and Chantal Desjardins, or something entirely different that nobody predicted. In any case, he and CHOM have some time to think about it.
CHOM indicated to The Gazette's Brendan Kelly that there would be a shuffle of personalities, and that none of them would be kicked out. This presumably means Marier and Desjardins will get slots at other points of the schedule.
Two years, at least
Since DiMonte was able to get out of his Calgary contract early, I wondered about his deal in Montreal. It, too, has an out clause, though DiMonte has agreed to guarantee at least two years to the station. The contract is for five.
DiMonte knows this is all just business, and he can't guarantee this latest job is for life. But, he said, at the end of this contract he'll be 58, and he has no intention of moving again. One can never say never, but he's pretty sure he's back in Montreal to stay.
A reversal in Montreal radio
The most surprising thing about DiMonte's return to the Montreal airwaves is that it seems to be going in the opposite direction of some recent moves. The music stations particularly have been shedding veteran talent and replacing them with younger, cheaper and less stubborn hosts. Bringing DiMonte back is the opposite.
When Spalding told DiMonte that letting him go was a mistake, was this a sign of some deeper change in perspective on behalf of Astral?
DiMonte said he looks to the United States, which he describes as a few years ahead of Canada in terms of trends in radio programming. He pointed to decisions made by ClearChannel to cut on-air staff, reduce talking time and play more music. He said the strategy worked in the short term, but people started to tune out as they lost their connections with the personalities.
"They've damaged their relationship with the community," he said.
On the other hand, DiMonte said he looks at developments like a 10-year contract offered to John Derringer at Toronto's Q107, which he described as "unheard of" in the radio business, as a sign that radio executives are starting to appreciate the value of veteran, familiar talent again.
UPDATE: Spalding's view
I met with Spalding later to talk about DiMonte and other issues at Astral's radio stations. You can read about that talk here.
Go to hell: Astral VP I called up Spalding, the Astral VP in charge of CHOM, CJFM and CJAD who brought DiMonte back to Montreal, to get his take on this story and answer a few questions about the station's plans. Unfortunately, Spalding wasn't interested in talking to me. The man who appeared in DiMonte's story to be the height of professionalism and class said he was "not in the mood" to have a conversation with me about DiMonte (or anything else), suggested it had something to do with something I posted on Twitter (he didn't specify what that was) and then said "this conversation is over" before hanging up the phone. Mere moments after hearing praise from DiMonte about how fair I was in my reporting on this blog (compared to other Internet gossipers who spread bull around, he said), I had a surreal conversation with a media executive I had never met or written about (beyond quoting press releases) who apparently doesn't appreciate what I say and figures the best way to deal with it is to childishly refuse to talk. I guess some things don't change. UPDATE (June 27): Spalding sent me an email this morning - a mere five business minutes after this post was published - saying "Perhaps I was a little curt with you the other day." He's promised a meeting to explain. I'll update afterward to include his take on DiMonte's return.