I’ve been a little pissed at Tommy Schnurmacher, on and off, for nearly 40 years.
This feeling started on January 23, 1981 at the Montreal Forum. I was working part-time in the CFCF Radio sports department. Barely had enough money to rent a 1 1/2 on Hutchison Street in the McGill Ghetto. Or maybe by then I had moved all the way up to a 1 1/2 at 3429 Drummond St. above Sherbrooke. I was regularly eating Chef Boyrdee ravioli out of a can. Sometimes I was so hungry I didn’t even wait to heat it it up. I still considered myself lucky because I knew there were other 21 year olds living alone downtown who might have had to dip into dog food. It was my choice to move out and I wasn’t going to get help from anybody other than an occasional home cooked meal by my mom. I didn’t mind shit-in-a-can. I just had a real belief that eventually everything would work out. And once it did I’d make certain to never serve it to my kids.
But back to January of 1981. Fuck it was cold that night, like it usually is in January. But, like most twenty somethings, I didn’t dress warmly enough for the walk from Sherbrooke and Drummond to Atwater where the Forum entrance was. Somehow I had managed to scrape together enough money, as did a couple of my friends, to buy tickets to a concert by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The Boss was touring in support of the double album The River. And if you missed Springsteen, you were missing the greatest live act in rock and roll. (Nothing has changed. Except the time between visits to Montreal which gets longer and longer.)
How cheap were the tickets? We were in the balcony under the roof. Behind the stage. It was a weird sight, the first time I had seen a concert from that peculiar angle. But I didn’t mind it at all once I saw the stack of speakers facing our way. We knew who everybody in the band was. We didn’t need to see their faces all night. And besides, Springsteen was enough of a pro to make sure he and his band turned to us quite a few times. I warmed up in a hurry.
It was also via this vantage point that I was able to see directly into the front row of seats. By the second song, which I’m pretty sure was “Out in the Streets”, the entire floor was up dancing. But my eyes were focused on the first four seats in the front row by the left aisle. They were occupied by promoter Donald K Donald, Ted Blackman, George Balcan and Tommy. There might have been other members in that party in seats 5 to wherever but as somebody who was already three years into a radio career I knew who they were, even though I was months away from my first meeting with any of them (Blackman – Thats another long story). And they were having such a great time. I remember thinking, “One day if this radio gig works out, maybe I’ll be in those seats rockin’ away to one of my favourite bands.” But then it got dark. Donald was the promoter. George and Ted were best friends and more or less owned the English airwaves. But WTF was Tommy doing there? I mean, I knew he did daily radio entertainment hits and wrote film reviews for The Gazette but still, it bothered me. It’s funny now, but I was thinking that Tommy wasn’t worthy to be part of that Montreal Rat Pack scene. I thought somebody like Don MacGowan or Nick Auf der Maur should have been in that seat. Where were they? (MacGowan was likely on the set of CFCF-12 preparing to do the weather while Nick was probably in the middle of a friendly argument at Grumpy’s or Winnie’s.)
Fast forward about 12 years. After working for and alongside Blackman and Balcan at CJAD for 11 years I had just been hired by CIQC to host the Drive Home Show. I called it “Sportsphone with Mitch Melnick”, just adding my name to the show’s title which had been running late nights on CJAD. One week in, we received a lawyer’s letter, with Ted’s signature on it. I needed to stop calling it “Sportsphone”. (Yet another long story.)
Pierre Beland and Pierre Arcand had ditched their country music format at 600 and decided to take a run at the Good Ol’ Boys on Fort Street. They hired Joe Cannon to host the morning show. Elliott Price anchored sports and filled in on Expos broadcasts when Dave Van Horne moved to TV. And that was pretty much all they had. Until they hired me and I more or less forced them to bring along Terry Haig, Ted Tevan and a young lawyer who had been handling my contract – Mitch Garber. (He also used to sit on his living room floor while going through all of my receipts. Yes, I wish I had pictures.) Garber was just beginning to make a name for himself as the host of a Sunday night show on the multi ethnic CFMB Radio. Once they hired my friends – and one of my mentors – I couldn’t really ask for more but I was curious who my lead-in was going to be. Program Director Claude Dufault (I remember Claude and the two Pierre’s very fondly. They treated us well and knew how to have fun) excitedly pitched me on Rush Limbaugh. That CIQC would be the first Canadian station to carry the right wing talk radio star. He’d be on 1-3 PM. This excited me. I cared only that Limbaugh was a terrific broadcaster who would hand listeners to me. It would be my job to keep as many as possible. But, I suppose rights fees got in the way. Or a reality cheque. So I went from Rush Limbaugh as a lead-in to Chris Motta who I think was on loan from Concordia University. Eventually the show was hosted by Haig.
Pierre Arcand, Pierre Beland and Claude Dufault were definitely star-driven. They had success on the French side and were now swinging for the English fences. They yearned for a colourful political host to follow the heavy issues-oriented show hosted by Cannon. Enter Tommy Schnurmacher.
Everybody at CIQC was excited about Tommy joining the family. And not just because he’d be replacing over-the-top astrologist Jo Jo Savard (a perfect example of the two solitudes not meshing). But I couldn’t get the sight of him moving to Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Forum 12 years earlier out of my head. As mixed as my feelings were the night of the concert I now thought it was so cool he’d be coming on board to try to steal listeners away from CJAD where Balcan and Blackman still ruled. And much like my first impression of Tommy was off base in 1981, here I was, fully aware that enough people would be tuning in specifically to hear him. It was an incredible adrenalin shot for the station. What I was not aware of was Tommy’s street fighting mentality he brought into the McGill College headquarters of CIQC. He was out for blood. And I found a kindred spirit in that regard. While the people who ran and managed the place thought they could slowly build an audience we wanted it immediately. We knew we had to strike fast. Whenever meetings were held on how to best go after CJAD I was so impressed by Tommy’s relentless pursuit of what was at stake. We both wanted to aggressively attack CJAD in ad campaigns. We were over ruled, on more than a couple of occasions. We didn’t see anything wrong with stating the obvious. Others wanted to take the high road. I developed a great deal of respect for Tommy as a result. We could all sense some momentum. Sure enough, after our first ratings book with Tommy the station showed real signs of life, not just growth.
Too much too soon as it turned out. And CJAD wasn’t going to stand idly by.
In 1996 CJAD stole Tommy away from us. And I was devastated. I foolishly tried to talk him out of jumping to ‘AD, pointing out that we were doing exactly what we had planned to do, and were starting to gain real traction. I was regularly taking my show to bars and pubs downtown, even with some live music. Melnick on the Road CIQC caps and t-shirts were popping up a lot. I pressed, to no avail, that it was more challenging to build something out of nothing than to inherit a large and what I thought was a stale base of listeners.
I don’t know if Tommy will remember any of this. Maybe he doesn’t want to. You won’t find a CIQC reference on his Wikipedia page. But I’m here to make sure people know it happened. It was a small flame, perhaps not much more than a spark. But it was there alright. In the mid 90s. Only to slowly burn out after Tommy left.
The terrific broadcaster who signed off at CJAD Wednesday December 13, 2017 left a proud legacy. His strong opinions might have rubbed some people the wrong way but that is the basis of successful talk radio. I saw his combative nature at work everyday when he was at his desk, long before most of his loyal listeners tuned in to hear it on the air. Tommy also had a great sense of timing. On the air, he was a natural. Off the air, he seized the moment.
So how could I remain angry at his decision to cash in at CJAD following his short stint at CIQC when I ended up back there myself after 600 morphed into an all news station (while moving up the dial to 940.)?
Our paths rarely crossed again, even after TSN 690 moved into the Bell Media building and was forced into a working environment with CJAD. It was initially very awkward but everybody at CJAD went out of their way to make us feel less tense, especially an old school claw-your-eyes-out-for-a-ratings-point dude like myself who was still in the process of trying to figure out what Tommy had already known decades earlier. That if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
Well done Tommy.
(Cut & paste above link for an even better feel for what it was like that night in 1981)
PS (Kind of like a hidden track) In July of 1985 I witnessed the greatest single set of live music I’ve ever experienced. It was by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. They were the opening act for Dire Straits. I was sitting next to Elliott Price in the front row at the Montreal Forum. On the aisle. In seats that belonged to Ted Blackman and Donald K Donald.