The Fan 590 turns 15 today

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 7:28 AM ET

Fifteen years ago today, to the acclaim of almost no one, Bob McCown and Dan Shulman went on the air and sports radio in Canada essentially was born.

It wasn't an easy birth.

"In a way, it was a perfect time to launch The Fan," said Shulman, the superb broadcaster for ESPN. "The city was at a fever pitch for baseball. Everybody was talking Blue Jays. And still, just about everyone said we would fail.

"They didn't give us 15 years. They gave us about six months and some didn't think we'd last that long."

So what happened? The Blue Jays won their first World Series about a month after the radio station went to air and their second a year later. The Maple Leafs had just hired a coach named Pat Burns and traded for a centre named Doug Gilmour and were about to have two magical seasons that rarely have been matched since.

The Fan 590, born at Foster Hewitt's 1430 on the radio dial, brought a new format to a country that had been marginally exposed to sports radio before. The early bumps were inevitable. The forgettable team of Mike Inglis and Joe Bowen formed about as awful a morning show as was possible. Just as forgettable was the 10 a.m - noon lineup of Mary Ormsby and yours truly, two newspaper hacks trying to learn on the job. Shulman did the afternoon shows leading into Prime Time Sports with McCown and the late, loud, Jim Hunt.

"There was no model for sports radio," said Nelson Millman, the program director the past 10 years and part of The Fan from the beginning.

"Our idea was, get it on the air and we'll figure it out from there.

"That's still our idea and we're still trying to figure it out."

There now is a sports radio station in every major market in this country. The format no longer is an experiment. The brand has been built.

The arms and legs of The Fan are seen and heard across North America. Shulman does baseball and basketball for ESPN and there isn't a better play-by-play announcer in sports today. He learned at The Fan. So did Elliotte Friedman, who does a whole lot of everything and all of it well for CBC Sports. So did George Stroumboulopoulos, former veejay and impressive host of The Hour on CBC television. So did Ken Daniels, the play-by-play voice of the Detroit Red Wings.

The offshoot of 15 years of sports radio hasn't been only about building a name and a station and a destination for sports fans. The Fan has been a training ground for producers, directors, on-air people, off-air people: Jim Richards on CFRB Radio, Greg Sansone on The Score, Jeff Marek on AM 640, Jim Lang and Barry Davis on Rogers Sportsnet: All of them and a whole lot more started at The Fan.

"Most of us were young and inexperienced but we all had a great passion for what we were doing even though we didn't always know what we were doing," Shulman said. "A lot of us go to muddle through our mistakes and get better.

"In those early days, there was such energy there. We all thought we should be paying them (instead of the alternative)."

Shulman was lucky he got paid at all. In the early days of the radio station, getting paid was an art. You had to invoice, beg, invoice again, beg some more, and call the first program director, Allan Davis, numerous times before anything resembling a cheque would arrive.

OUT OF MONEY

And that was before a financial crunch hit the station.

I was a victim of one of those money things. I had one of my three ill-fated shows at The Fan cancelled because Bruce Dowbiggin and Steve Paikin actually thought they could make money buying the air time and selling it themselves. Their notion cost all of us money.

In 1996, four years after the launch, Millman figured they were out of money and time. A corporate slasher named Doug Ackhurst came in and was supposed to blow up the all-sports format. The only thing was, in time he came not just to like it, but to find a way it could make money.

"You look back and in some ways it feels like no time at all and in some ways it feels like it's been 30 years," Millman said. "We've been through a lot of ups and downs. But I'm proud of what the station is and what it's become."

It has become many things over the years: A television show at dinner time, where McCown has become a national star. A place where Howard Berger breaks hockey news. Tom and Jerry's home on baseball. The station that brought Chuck Swirsky to Toronto. Pat Marsden's last stop as a broadcaster. Norm Rumack driving home late at night. Commercials by the local tag-team of Wajid Khan and Saul Korman. Don Landry's impressions. Gord Stellick being everybody's best friend.

A destination to which the Toronto sports fan turns when he needs to know what's going on.

"The Fan has branded itself, the way TSN has or ESPN has," Shulman said. "It's now a mature entity in the market place. For every sports fan, it's the station you listen to."


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