"You only have one chance to make a first impression."
It's a cliché, but I thought it was funny when I heard it come out of the mouth of Martin Spalding, the vice-president at Astral Media who is in charge of its three English-language stations in Montreal: CHOM, Virgin Radio (CJFM) and CJAD. The fact that we were talking to each other was kind of proving that assertion wrong. Or at least it was strong evidence against it.
Eleven days earlier, I called Spalding at his office to talk to him about the return of Terry DiMonte to CHOM, a move he arranged. But our conversation was brief.
"I know who you are," he said after I introduced myself. Just as I was starting to feel relieved that I wouldn't have to go through the trouble of convincing him to speak to some guy on the Internet as if he was a journalist, Spalding put the brakes on the interview. "I'm not in the mood to have this conversation," he said.
I asked why. "Let's just say you should be careful what you post on Twitter," he said, without elaborating. He followed that with "this conversation is over."
There was a slight hesitation in his voice, as if even he couldn't believe he was saying this.
I didn't know how to react. I don't expect that everyone I contact will be interested in talking to me - mostly because I'm not a traditional journalist and my audience is not that of a metro newspaper or a supper-hour TV newscast. But I'd never had someone answer me like this before. This conversation sounded like it would be in the script from a bad movie.
What got me most is that I had no idea what set him off. Other than quoting some press releases with his name in them, I'd never talked about him on my blog. I'd never mentioned his name on Twitter. I didn't even know what he looked like.
And I've posted thousands of things on Twitter. Plenty of stuff has been negative about CHOM and other Astral stations. I couldn't really narrow it down.
The call was just before the end of business on June 23. My post about DiMonte - with the bit about Spalding at the end - was published the next day.
An email from Spalding was dated 9:05am the next Monday. He said he realizes he may have been a little "curt" in our phone conversation, and offered to take me out to lunch to explain. We scheduled a meeting for the following Monday at noon - July 4.
After seeing Spalding's office - a corner office with wood panelling - and meeting Virgin Radio Brand Director Mark Bergman, we went to a Chinese place nearby and discussed our respective pasts a bit. Everything was cordial.
It was actually quite a while into our conversation at the lunch table until Spalding set the record straight about that minute-long conversation.
He said he had taken exception to something I tweeted the day before, suggesting that CHOM's promotions department was lacking because its website had no mention of DiMonte a day after a press release announcing he was coming back to the station.
Spalding explained that it wasn't because they'd simply forgotten about this or were lazy about it. Because DiMonte was still contracted to Q107 in Calgary, Spalding said that CHOM couldn't use his image or promote him. Even issuing the press release was "playing with fire," he said.
Spalding took my ill-informed tweet as an attack on the employees who work for him, and for me to then call and ask for comment after bashing his radio station didn't exactly put him in the mood to cooperate.
By Monday morning, he had read my post on DiMonte, and his mood changed. He apologized for the curt tone on the phone, and went out of his way to compliment me on posts I had written, including the DiMonte one and an earlier one on Cogeco's CRTC application for all-traffic radio stations, which he considered much more solid journalism than some of the shoot-from-the-hip tweets that are based on incomplete information.
It's amazing how a simple conversation can change your perspective.
I, in turn, asked Spalding to apologize on my behalf to CHOM's promotions department, an apology I repeat here. I jumped to an incorrect assumption (not the first time I've done so with CHOM-related news), and I should have checked. Just because it's on Twitter doesn't mean it's exempt from basic journalistic rigour. I'll try to do better in the future.
So we're good now. Spalding gave me his card (asking me to call him before I tweet next time), paid for my lunch (the next one will be on me - I want to try to have at least some journalistic ethics here) and gave me two hours of his time - even pushing back a conference call so he could give me a few extra minutes.
The image of the super-professional businessman that DiMonte had painted for me during our conversation turned out to be a lot more accurate than I had thought after that brief phone conversation.
So, now on to the good stuff. I had a good bank of questions related to recent events at his radio stations, so I posed as many as I could fit in before I started to feel really guilty about taking him away from his real job.
Terry DiMonte: star power
Spalding has known DiMonte for a long time. In fact, one of his earliest jobs in radio was acting as DiMonte's assistant. He told me a story about ironing DiMonte's jacket before the radio jock was set to make a public appearance. At the time, DiMonte the radio guy bachelor didn't really appreciate the need to look professional.
Spalding worked with DiMonte from 1986 to 1991. "For five years, we were inseparable," Spalding said. He then worked another five years for former Standard Radio manager Rob Braide (Spalding said his first job in radio was moving boxes for Braide). He later worked as promotions director for what was then FM96 (CJFM, now Virgin Radio) and then for the Canadian Grand Prix before returning to radio as an Astral VP in 2009.
"Last fall, I knew the combination of Pete (Marier), Chantal (Desjardins), P.J. (Stock) and Merv (Williams) wasn't jelling," Spalding said. This led to the canning of Stock and Williams in March.
"I know what CHOM represented 26 years ago. It's kind of lost its way over the past four or five years," Spalding said (covering about the amount of time DiMonte was gone). He wanted to get it back on track. That started with the morning show.
"We needed someone who would resonate with the listenership. We needed star power," he said.
In discussions about who that star could be, Spalding said one name kept coming up: DiMonte.
So Spalding flew to Calgary to try to convince the well-known former Montreal morning man (and local-consumer-affairs TV show host) to come back home. "I wanted to demonstrate that we were seriously interested in bringing him back," Spalding said of the decision to meet in person rather than converse on the phone or via email.
DiMonte "is one of the best interviewers I've heard on radio," Spalding said. He explained that DiMonte has fantastic comedic timing, but "he knows his role. He won't try to our-star a star."
But part of being a good interviewer isn't just being funny and friendly. It's also about knowing your stuff. Asking a guy the same questions he gets from hundreds of other media is going to prompt a canned answer. But asking questions that make it clear you're familiar with someone's work can lead to a lot more depth, and the interviewee becoming a lot more comfortable and more likely to open up.
DiMonte, Spalding said, is a generalist, who will read everything he can get his hands on (this is easily confirmed by looking at all the stuff he posts on Facebook). That's what makes him a great interviewer and a great host, Spalding said.
Like DiMonte, Spalding sees this deal lasting longer than its contract specifies. "This is a long-term play," Spalding said.
Other talent at CHOM
Though the online rumour mill is buzzing with speculation about who's going where on CHOM's schedule, no official decisions have been made yet. And they won't be until the morning team is figured out, and that won't happen until DiMonte gets to Montreal, which won't happen until he's released from Q107.
Spalding said that after hearing about DiMonte coming back to CHOM, "people have reached out to us" about becoming DiMonte's cohost. But whether they hire from outside or just reshuffle their existing talent remains to be seen. DiMonte and Chantal Desjardins will at some point be introduced, but "there has to be chemistry" in any morning team, Spalding said. So they'll see how that plays out.
Pete Marier, meanwhile, is expected to go back to an afternoon drive-time show. His gruffy voice is much better suited to destressing after a day at work than waking up in the morning. Spalding said Marier is better as a drive-time host than a morning man, a sentiment I've heard from others who follow the industry.
For the rest of the schedule, it's still up in the air, though two changes have been made already: Tootall, one of CHOM's most ancient veterans (and a man filled with crazy stories from decades past), has been moved to mid-mornings, doing the 10am to 1pm shift. "We want him to be one of our pillars," Spalding said. He replaces Sharon Hyland, who has moved to weekends.
The other change is the show Amped with Jason Rockman (one of the station's young talents) on Friday and Saturday nights. It features more up-tempo music that Spalding described as "a soundtrack to a corporate party with your buddies."
Though Spalding said the station "worked very hard to keep our staff," he does expect some attrition. He doesn't know who that is yet, but he does seem to expect some announcers to leave for other opportunities elsewhere.
One thing is for sure, he wants the station to be local. While Q107 in Calgary can get away with having only four announcers (two in the morning, one in the afternoon and one on weekends), that wouldn't fly in Montreal. Nor does Spalding want it to.
"Given the choice between Alice Cooper - which is syndicated - and local, I'll always choose local," he said. "Our strategic advantage is to stay local."
That means local announcers - who can tell you what happened during the Habs game, who know the difference between Pie IX and "pie nine" - even during the overnight hours.
Mind you, Virgin Radio's schedule still features quite a bit of syndicated content, especially on weekends.
Ted Bird: never say never
Ask the Internet who Terry's cohost should be, and you'll probably get "Ted Bird" as an answer. But is such a thing possible, or likely? Bird has said it isn't - even though he and DiMonte are good friends.
I wondered, from Spalding's perspective, how torched the bridge between CHOM and Bird was. "Ted is an incredibly talented broadcaster. Very passionate, very emotional," he said.
Spalding also pointed out that "people's memories are very short."
In Spalding's world of media management, letting your ego get in the way of a good business decision means you're not doing your job. "You hire the act," he said. In media, being controversial can be as much a benefit as it is a liability. If CHOM wanted to hire this act back, there's nothing legally preventing it.
And, Spalding reminded me, it was Bird who made the decision to leave CHOM.
"Never say never," he said.
But don't get your hopes too far up. Bird has said he's happy at K103 in Kahnawake. And Spalding said that there have been no conversations with Bird about rejoining the station.
"But I'm not closed to the idea," Spalding said. "I'm not closed to anything."
Bird's main beef at CHOM was with the program director, Daniel Tremblay. For Bird, he was this guy who bragged about never being on the air and who started bossing people around at CHOM after working at some French stations in another city. For Spalding, Tremblay was a man with lots of experience in the industry in a management role. "Daniel has done one thing in his life, and that's work in radio," Spalding said.
Now that Tremblay no longer works at CHOM, and DiMonte is coming back, the chances of reconciliation with Bird are much higher. But still not high enough that I actually expect it to happen. Public demand would have to be much higher to force CHOM to put enough resources into luring Bird back.
Poaching at Virgin Radio
The biggest pieces of news to happen to CJFM in the past few months are remarkably similar: Two of the station's big names - Cat Spencer and Nat Lauzon, have left the station and will take jobs at competitor CFQR (92.5 the Q) in the fall. I asked Spalding about this, and whether this is just a coincidence or if he's worried about losing top talent to Cogeco.
It's business, he said, and the two left under different circumstances. Spencer got a better offer at the Q, and apparently felt it was a better opportunity for career advancement, while Lauzon wanted to reduce her work hours to concentrate on other projects.
These things happen. And if you're looking for talent, it makes sense to target the big stars at the No. 1 station in the market. But Spalding isn't worried.
Besides, he said, Freeway Frank Depalo, who was hired to replace Spencer on Virgin's morning show, has been "a blessing in disguise," and ratings have gone up since the former Montrealer joined the team.
Spalding isn't panicked about competition, particularly since Astral has a 76% market share with its three stations, which includes the top-rated station in the market, CJFM.
But the competition is constant, and Spalding said his goal is to make his stations' programming as seamless as possible. What he called "errors" are what lead listeners to switch stations. Long pauses, technical snafus, or just songs and segments that don't hold the listener's interest.
"The one who makes the fewer errors wins," he said.
For CJAD, the biggest news recently has been the loss of broadcast rights of Canadiens games to Bell's CKGM (Team 990). Though Spalding took issue with how I phrase the question.
"Losing broadcast rights to Team 990 is a misrepresentation of what happened," he said.
The writing was on the wall not for weeks or months but since way back when Bell purchased CTV and Team 990, Spalding said. The business connections between Bell and the Canadiens are almost too numerous to mention. Bell owns a minority stake in the team, it owns the French-language TV broadcaster (RDS), the English-language regional TV broadcaster (TSN), the naming rights to the team's arena, lots of exclusive rights for mobile, and it produced a special TV series profiling Canadiens players that was available exclusively on Bell video on demand before airing on RDS and TSN2. And that's just the stuff I can think of off the top of my head.
To suggest that Team 990 won the rights to Canadiens games strictly on its own merits is ludicrous, according to Spalding.
Spalding's interpretation jives with that of Mike Boone, who wrote shortly before the announcement that the deal was essentially forged when Bell negotiated regional TV broadcast rights for Canadiens games (they air on a special "TSN Habs" channel that's so far available only on Bell and Bell Alliant).
I asked Spalding if he thought this was unfair. A slight grin developed on his face.
"Unfair? Life is unfair," he said, returning to his this-is-just-business philosophy. There's no bitterness, no anger, just acceptance. This is how things work in the media business, and you have to understand that and get used to it.
So CJAD will move on. "We'll keep covering the team as a news item," he said. And regular programming will be more consistent (though CJAD still retains the rights to things like Alouettes games). And Spalding said he doesn't expect ratings to suffer hugely.
"It wasn't a huge ratings benefit to us," he said. But it was "prestigious" to be known as the official Canadiens broadcaster.
Asked whether there will be significant programming changes to expect for the fall now that there are about 10 more hours a week to fill during the season, Spalding answers simply: "Aren't we always?"
Cogeco's all-traffic stations
Spalding mentioned a post I wrote about Cogeco's proposal for all-traffic AM stations in Montreal. I asked him what he thought of it.
"It's opportunistic," he said, a way to make use of transmitters and antennas they bought as part of the purchase of Corus Quebec. Give him $1.5 million a year and he'd be more than happy to setup his own traffic station.
Astral Media Radio has submitted an intervention in the application that largely echoes the points raised by Spalding and myself.