Podcast Plan B: Melnick Underground

Podcast Plan B is a blog series about four Montreal radio personalities that have begun independent podcasts over the past few months. It’s an expansion of a Gazette article I wrote on the topic, explained here.

  • Name: Mitch Melnick
  • Radio job: Afternoon host on The Team 990
  • Podcast: Melnick Underground
  • Podcast URLhttp://mitchmelnick.com/webshow/
  • Podcast feed URL: N/A
  • Length: About half an hour
  • Format: Flash video (hosted on Vimeo)
  • Frequency: Weekly (recorded Saturday afternoons and uploaded Saturday night or Sunday morning)
  • Subject: Chats with regulars and guests about sports (particularly the Canadiens), music and Montreal
Mitch Melnick

Mitch Melnick

“This is something I’m doing because nobody else is doing it.”

That was the basic message from Mitch Melnick as I interviewed him earlier this month. He had just finished taping his final show of the fall season at Hurley’s Irish Pub on Crescent St., and took some time to chat while he waited for his daughter to show up.

Melnick was discouraged by the decision of CFCF 12 last fall to expand the weekend newscasts and cancel SportsNight 360, the only anglophone sports television talk show in the city. Well, maybe “discouraged” is too soft a word. “It really pissed me off,” he said.

“What they seem to be saying is there’s no room on local television for something that’s been here for 25-30 years, 30 minutes of sports discussion.”

When you consider the massive anglophone fan base of the Canadiens (Habs Inside/Out‘s stats are rising by the week, and there are dozens of amateur Canadiens blogs out there), it seemed ludicrous to him that none of the three television stations based here could keep a simple weekly sports talk show on the air.

The termination of Ron Reusch didn’t help matters either.

Of course, because The Team 990 is owned by CTVglobemedia, it places Melnick in an odd situation. He doesn’t want to shit all over his employer. Instead, his criticisms are directed at the television media in general. CBC and Global are no more or less guilty than CTV in his mind, whether it’s the lack of local programming or the Local TV Matters campaign he says he doesn’t understand because he doesn’t know what they’re trying to protect.

Why can’t we do that?

“During Wimbledon, I was checking Damien Cox of the Toronto Star,” Melnick said.

He was impressed that rather than a simple written wrapup of what was going on, Cox would file short videos (you can see an example here).

“I’m looking at that and going ‘Jeez, if he can do that, why can’t we do what I do in the afternoon (on the radio) but a shorter version on camera? That was my additional thought, to just stare into a camera for 20 minutes.”

Upon further reflection, Melnick decided he needed some people to talk to, and a location to do it.

“If Ron Reusch was still doing his show, I probably wouldn’t be doing this,” Melnick said. “Maybe it would be in a different form, maybe I’d be doing a podcast.”

But because there wasn’t anything out there on video, Melnick decided his show had to be on camera. “I don’t see that everywhere. Everybody does a podcast,” he said, but nobody is doing it on a screen.

A television studio was out of the question, even if he could afford it. “I have no interest in doing this in a TV studio,” he said. It’s unfriendly, it’s dry, it’s unconnected to the city.

In comes Hurley’s Irish Pub, a bar Melnick has frequented for as long as it’s been here. He’s friends with the owner, and getting to use it as a set wasn’t a problem – provided they wrapped up their shooting before the crowds started pouring in for the Saturday night hockey game. Which is why they tape the show in the afternoon. The bar even kicks in some money as an official sponsor, figuring that the set is an advertisement in itself.

After considering some locations upstairs or outside, Melnick settled on a spot facing the bar. “It’s just a very warm feeling when you look at it,” he explained.

“This is like my old basement when I was a teenager. I had a room like this, except there was white stucco on the ceiling. It was ’70s Chomedey, I had a big fireplace, and I watched sports and played sports games and listened to music. I was always underground. I’m very at home here. … Except there’s a little more booze involved.”

On Oct. 3, Episode 1 of Melnick Underground hit the Internet and his website. The peanut gallery was quick to respond.

Chris Robitaille (right) produces Melnick Underground, and has recently brought in Cameron Campbell to help him out.

Organized rawness

The concept of Melnick Underground is simple enough: Mitch Melnick stands in front of a camera at Hurley’s, and talks with his friends about hockey, other sports and music, along with anything else that comes to mind. “It’s a 30-minute snapshot of Montreal on a Saturday,” Melnick explained. “It’s just having a conversation at a bar.”

Behind the camera is Chris Robitaille, whose day job is chief engineer of The Team 990. Robitaille shoots the show, zooming and panning as necessary, and then takes care of post-production work (adding the segment intros, putting it all together and uploading it).

“I’m stupid when it comes to computers,” Melnick said, so Robitaille does the complicated work. Robitaille in turn brought in Cameron Campbell to help him out over the last two shows (he would have been there sooner if not for a scheduling conflict). It’s their first weekly video project, and they’re learning a lot as they go along.

“The original plan was to get this on the website before 6:30pm so people could watch it before the hockey game, but there’s lots of postproduction work involved,” Melnick said. So while it’s shot on Saturday afternoons, the show doesn’t go up until late Saturday night or early Sunday morning. Robitaille says the part that takes forever isn’t editing, but transcoding a 1GB video file and uploading it.

If the show feels a bit raw, that’s because it’s supposed to. The show is packaged, with a spinning graphic and some minor effects, but the segments themselves aren’t edited.

“I said if I fuck up, I don’t want you to take it out,” Melnick said. “Our first show with Frank Marino, the light went out. (Chris) took that out.”

But while it may have seemed like just another blooper, which can be clipped away from the final product, the edit removed a cute moment from the show.

Marino made a joke about the light going out. “I was just about to say when Jimmy Hendrix died the lights went out on rock and roll,” Melnick quoted Marino as saying. “But Chris took that all out.”

“The whole idea is we don’t have to worry about what it looks like or what it sounds like. It’s just happening. We don’t have to adhere to any previous standard of what a television show looks like.”

Robitaille learned his lesson. When a light went out last month during a segment with Mike Boone and Pierre McGuire (see about 29 minutes in), the camera kept rolling. Boone made a joke about it, and they went on.

The result is less polished, but also more realistic. These aren’t robots standing in front of you giving you sports analysis. They’re human beings who live in real life. And real life isn’t edited.

Conor McKenna (left) chats with Sgt. Dave Strickland during McKenna's regular interview segment.

The show is also loose with its structure. When I visited earlier this month, Rod Applebee wasn’t available for his weekly segment, so they just picked some guy they found in the bar by the name of Dave Strickland, an American who served in Afghanistan and was visiting Montreal. It led to a short but interesting discussion about what it’s like in Afghanistan and why he wanted to come to Montreal.

The show’s flexibility also applies to length.

“The goal is to end in 30 minutes, but if we do go over, what’s the penalty? Are local affiliates not going to get to their commercials? I don’t stress over it.”

It helps to have friends

Unlike the other people I profiled for this series, Melnick is already a pretty big name in local radio (he’s a regular on the Mirror’s Best of Montreal list), and his show allows him a lot of editorial freedom.

“I don’t think there are too many people on commercial radio who have the freedom I do,” he said. “I’m very lucky.”

But in addition to putting something out there that connects English Montreal to its own community, the show gives Melnick a chance to flex his online skills.

“I don’t want to get lost in the technology dust,” he said. There are lots of people his age who ignored the Internet, and have suffered because of it. This show (along with blogging, Twitter and other technologies he’s embraced) gives him an opportunity to build an online personal brand that meets the level of his radio brand.

Melnick Underground is still in its infancy. But, with a little help from the occasional mention on his radio show, the audience is growing. Shows get a few hundred views on average, with some peaking over the 1,000 mark.

Watch his show and you’ll find a few familiar faces: guests have included McGuire and Elliotte Friedman of TSN, Boone and Bill Brownstein from The Gazette, and Reusch (who’s now blogging). This lends it a lot of credibility when it comes to sports talk.

Melnick’s mom Mitzi has also been on the show, telling embarrassing stories about her son.

People who come on talk hockey and talk music, which is a bit odd. It’s odd to see Bill Brownstein talk about the Canadiens. It’s odd to see Pierre McGuire talk about his favourite CDs. It’s taking them out of their element. And then it makes you wonder why people aren’t taken out of their element more often.

It’s not TV

The cancellation of Reusch’s SportsNight 360 had an impact on this show’s genesis (you can see an interesting discussion Melnick had with Reusch, La Presse’s François Gagnon and Sports Illustrated’s Michael Farber about the future of sports media on the last episode of SportsNight 360 in December 2008, which has been posted on Reusch’s website). But Melnick knows this kind of show would never fly on CFCF, CBMT or CKMI.

“There’s no way you could do this on network TV,” he said. “They wouldn’t allow it. They wouldn’t allow Sean Gordon of the Globe and Mail to say ‘that was fucking brutal.’ That’s not to say the show isn’t clean, but it’s a control thing.”

Melnick thinks people in board rooms at both television and radio broadcasters have missed the boat entirely. They’re entirely unwilling to take risks. They’re more willing to write a massive cheque for a prepackaged U.S. program than to give a few bucks to a local kid who wants to try something new.

Like embracing bilingualism.

“I wanted to have a bilingual sports station, because that’s very Montreal,” he said. “But you won’t see that on commercial radio.”

He’s also not a fan of how distant media has become from its audience. “There are too many people who have operated like they’re an island.”

Instead, he said, listeners and viewers are looking to get closer, want to see behind the scenes (and here I thought I was the only one interested in what goes on behind the camera). “You’ve got to bring people closer,” he said. Athletes are using Twitter, and it’s helping fans connect with them because it bypasses the media and whitewashing PR. But while some people are on Twitter and organizations have setup Facebook pages, there’s very little interesting communication between the media and the audience.

Melnick also thinks there needs to be a lot more experimentation.

“You have to think outside the box right now, so I’d like to think that’s what we’re doing,” he said. “I applaud anyone doing something that’s not typical media.”

He cited the work at Rue Frontenac, the website setup by locked-out Journal de Montréal workers. He’s surprised there isn’t an English online-only news source to compete with The Gazette. He’s surprised there isn’t an English equivalent to RDS (TSN isn’t – they often couldn’t care less about the Habs).

“I hope some kid is inspired to think different,” he said.

Proud Montrealer

If Melnick seems passionate about the need for local programming, it’s because he loves this city and the people in it.

“Most of the people who’ve done what I’ve done have moved somewhere else,” he said. “But I don’t want to live anywhere else.”

He could be making more money hosting an FM morning show in Toronto or Calgary, but he likes what he’s doing now.

Mitch Melnick talks with Conor McKenna during the show.

That pesky money thing

It surprised me to learn that Melnick is paying for the show out of pocket, including paying for the services of Robitaille (wait, that sounded dirty, but you know what I mean). Needless to say Melnick Underground is a money-losing operation, even with the few bucks it gets from sponsors.

Approaching more sponsors and advertisers is in the plans when the show returns from the holidays in January. Melnick has managed to put quite a lot together by using his connections, but it will be interesting to see if he can get some money out of people he’s not already friends with.

Not that this is supposed to be a profit-making venture. “It’s not to get rich,” he said. “It’s just fun.” Making enough money to break even would be fine by him.

The future

Melnick plans to keep the podcast going as long as the Canadiens are still alive this season. That could mean until April or (much less likely, I’m afraid) until June.

There’s plenty on his wish list to improve the program. Since it started, they’ve already worked on improving audio with new microphones, and getting better lighting.

In the next year, Robitaille said, they plan to get a second camera. Melnick said he’d like to incorporate some sort of live music segment (right now guests just hold up CDs when they talk about them). He’d also like to get more women on the show, which has been pretty male-centric of late, and he’d like to get out of his hockey-analyst comfort zone and talk to some real Montrealers.

“I don’t want to talk to sports media people every week.”

Afternoon delight

As much as he has enjoyed being on the radio for the past 30 years, Melnick doesn’t see himself doing it into his 80s, or even his 60s.

“I just turned 50,” he said. “Will I be doing this when I’m 60, what I’m doing now? I hope not. I don’t want to be in the press box when I’m in my 60s.”

“I don’t want to have that period where the quality of what you’re doing drops noticeably.” He cites Dick Clark and Harry Caray as people who worked well past their prime.

And as free-flowing and relaxed as Melnick seems, his show does involve a lot of work.

“I have to read a lot,” he said. Every newspaper sports section, every respectable sports blogger, every hockey summary, every baseball boxscore. He needs to know what’s going on if he’s going to talk about it.

Even just watching hockey games takes a lot of time away from his life. He hasn’t been able to read as much fiction as he would like, and that book he’s been writing for the past 35 years (just like the rest of us) isn’t any closer to being finished.

“Maybe part of me realizes I’m on my last legs in radio,” he said.

He does his show in the afternoon because he can’t do it in the morning. “I have respect for people who do morning radio. I did it for two years and it almost killed me.”

So when Melnick does finally hang up the mic, he sees himself eventually moving on to other projects. Writing, documentary filmmaking, maybe some teaching. “I’d like to work at HBO,” he said. “There’s an standard of excellence there that doesn’t exist in other places.”

He could also see himself owning a tiny club, “so we can book our own music and not lose money on it.” Maybe 100-125 seats. A small, intimate venue. Melnick has dabbled in music promotion in the past, but once you count ticket sales against the cost of renting a venue and booking the talent, there’s very little left over. Owning his own venue would change that.

“I’ve always supported local musicians and local artists,” he said. And he wants to keep doing that, if only by promoting them on his show.

But that’s all long-term dreaming. Until HBO comes calling, until his manuscript is handed in and until he’s handed the keys to his own music hall, he’s sticking with the radio show, and the podcast.

The latter is something he sees himself having fun with for a while.

“How can I get tired of this?” he said. After all, he’s just talking to people and having beers. How does anyone tire of that?

But, most of all: “This is my thing. This is my baby.”

Fagstein’s review

The good: It’s Montreal. It’s fun. It’s casual. It’s real. There’s a lot about this show that fills a gaping hole left by the lack of local programming on television. And it does so on a shoestring budget.

The bad: Melnick’s point about the lack of local anglo sports programming is a good one, but he also works for a station that seems to talk about the Canadiens 24/7. Not to mention that lots of anglos watch RDS, which is also heavy on the Habs. The hole is pretty small when it comes to anglo sports talk, and most anglos have found other ways to fill it.

The ugly: When it comes down to it, this show is some guys standing behind a bar talking about sports and music. Sure, it’s Mitch Melnick and some of his media-connected friends, but is that really enough to draw enough viewers to make this worthwhile?

Also in this series:

1 thoughts on “Podcast Plan B: Melnick Underground

  1. PS

    i think the reason Sports Night 360 was cancelled was because it should have been called Hockey Night 360. All they discussed 90% of the time was hockey. No tennis, no curling, no amateur sports, just hockey. Melnick is upset cause he loses more income, undeclared revenue as the others who appeared on this lame production.
    Ruesh should have been cut years ago. CFCF laying others off while I was told by one of the guests who appeared on this 30 minute so called sports show, a good amount of “CASH” money was paid to appear for 30 mins every week. Hope Revenue Quebec audits all of them.
    i enjoy the 60 min news show a lot more on saturday & sunday.


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