Battle of the big mouths

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 6:59 AM ET

Birthday greetings bottle of wine.

Will you still need me, will you still feed me,

When I'm sixty-four.

-- The Beatles

AM-640 Radio is betting that when it comes to Bill Watters, listeners will answer with a resounding "Yes!"

Watters, in his latest incarnation as talk show host, was singing a few bars of the 1960s rock ditty yesterday. "Just turned 64!" warbled Watters, who has a lot to sing about these days -- including the notion that he is emerging as one of hockey's most listened-to voices.

More than a million people listen to him on Sportsnet's Hockey Central. His Leafs Lunch spot on AM-640 radio has, since its inception four years ago, become a must-listen for Mapleholics. This winter he'll do 22 televised Leafs games for Sportsnet and now there's his foray into the ultra-competitive four to seven o'clock drive-home slot.

He, along with co-host Jeff Marek, can be heard on AM 640 five nights a week in a bold frontal assault on The Fan and Bob McCown, who have owned the ears, if not the hearts, of Toronto sports fans for nearly a generation.

"AM-640 is the Leafs' station and we're trying to grow our market share," Watters said from his cottage near Orillia. The official line is that Watters' yakfest will bring in new listeners. Station bosses promoted the show as a move to take market share from news radio 680 and CFRB.

Let's be clear: This radio war is mano-a-mano, Watters versus McCown, his one-time partner on The Fan.

And Watters knows it, even as he heaps praise at Marek. "Jeff's a wonderful broadcaster and knows sports. Basically," he admits, "you're really trying to chip away at McCown's Mountain.

"I used to work with Bob and know how good he is. We're not taking it lightly but we're hoping that we can do the type of job that will encourage some listeners to switch over."

While McCown's show runs the broad spectrum of sports, Watters and Marek will be playing to their strengths.

"We might attract people looking for a change ... it's going to be different in that we'll be doing a lot more hockey. It's a news and sports show that's hockeycentric."

McCown, meantime, doesn't hide his disdain for Toronto's pervasive -- sometimes suffocating -- hockey culture so, in that sense perhaps Watters & Marek are aiming at the soft underbelly of the sports radio juggernaut. "We're taking on formidable opposition," Watters said.

Formidable opposition is nothing new to him. He has spent a lifetime swimming with sharks and not only survived but thrived since walking away from a high-school teaching job in 1970 to join Alan Eagleson's sports consulting firm.

When Eagleson's meteroric career flamed out, Watters was long gone on his own. He went from agent into a dream job as assistant general manager of the Leafs under Cliff Fletcher. When that ended in 2003, he parachuted softly into the bankroll offered by Sportsnet and talk radio.

Not that he's flashing any banknotes, but he's probably earning more than ever -- not to mention, he's having twice the fun.

"I loved the competition of being a player agent and (assistant Leafs GM). But in all honesty, I've had as much fun doing radio and television the last four years as I've ever had. I don't want that to be perceived as an insult to my past professions because I put everything I had into those things. When you're in the hockey business, whether you're competing with agents, or competing with 29 other teams, it's a business that consumes you for 24 hours. When you're involved with the Maple Leafs you're on call 24 hours a day.

"In this business I can go to sleep at night. I'm not awake running up and down a lineup; thinking how I'm going to finesse an agent out of some money, thinking of how we can make a trade. I'm trying to maintain as much knowledge about the business as I can so that I can sound like I know what I'm talking about. That consumes me, but not on a 24-hour basis."

His experiences in hockey management and as a player agent colour his journalism. "I think you have to be sensitive of the move from one to the other and how it's going to affect your relationships. There are a lot of guys I've worked with who are general managers who I run into. I have too much respect for the job and what they do on a daily basis to expect any favours. So if I hear something interesting and they can't say anything I'd hope they'd just be honest with me and say, `Willie, you're on to something but I can't comment. And then I'll have to find an answer from someone else.

"Also, I try to preface my questions, which a professional journalist won't do ... with the knowledge someone I'm interviewing might not be able to answer me. I'd like to be able to give people the out without them having to say: 'What a stupid ass he was asking me that question?' Whereas a guy who's a professional journalist doesn't have to concern himself with that stuff; he doesn't give a s--- what they think about him."


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