Like a circus ringmaster, Mitch Melnick co-ordinates sports, music, interviews and occasionally – live performances on his daily show, Melnick in the Afternoon

Mitch Melnick is the host of Melnick in the Afternoon on TSN 690, Montreal’s premiere sports program; whose mostly male listeners have the highest incomes of any Montreal Bell Media radio station. Mitch’s show is an interesting and eclectic mix of sports, music, and interviews that are more like conversations. His guests include athletes, coaches and fellow sports media personalities that read like a list of Who’s Who in sports media.

Regular on-air personalities include Pierre McGuire of NBC, Elliotte Friedman (former Hockey Night In Canada commentator), Ray Ferraro of TSN, and former baseball pitcher Bill “The Spaceman” Lee (who in his mid-60s is still pitching and winning). Listeners will also hear celebrated sports commentators from Toronto, New York, Boston and other North American sports centres. In his 35-year broadcast career, Mitch has built an impressive network of colleagues who respect him. It’s also because Melnick in the Afternoon is the #1 sports show in Montreal; so an on-air appearance with Mitch is a valuable addition to anyone’s broadcast resume.

Long-time producer Rod Francis with Mitch in the new TSN 690 studio on Papineau St.

Melnick is what many would describe as ‘a character’ – a broadcaster who speaks his mind, often with a different perspective that his fellow sports colleagues. Music occupies an important space in his life, and is an integral part of his daily drive-time program. Not surprisingly, he favours artists who push the envelope in their respective genres, people like Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and early Elvis. All unique, all breaking the mold – and not unlike Melnick himself. It takes confidence and courage step out of line in any given field. And while the rewards cans be great – they don’t do it for the rewards. Like Melnick, they do it because that’s the right way for them. It’s the only way that makes sense to them.

Mitch is one of four children, two older sisters and a younger brother and grew up on Chomedey. “I loved sports from an early age, and was especially drawn to baseball. I was also excellent in math. The Star didn’t publish league-wide stats; and I so used to make my own tables. My father rarely got to see the Sports section, because I’d grab it and take it up to my room so that I could use the previous day’s box scores to add to my charts. By the time I brought it downstairs after supper, he’d be asleep.”

“I listened to baseball and basketball on some of the powerful American stations that you could tune-in at night. My favourite was Johnny Most calling the Celtics games. His distinctive raspy voice and the sound of the basketball being dribbled and the sneakers squeaking on the floor – I loved the image those sounds created for me.”

Even as a pre-teen, music played an important role in Mitch’s life. “I was a huge Elvis fan. I used to use my mother’s eyebrow pencil to draw sideburns on my nine-year-old face. I must have looked ridiculous going into the dépanneur with them.”

“My Dad took me to my first hockey game in 1966. It was an Old-Timers game. That game was on TV the next night and it was the first time I heard Danny Gallivan doing the play-by-play. It prompted me to really hear other voices, and it was the beginning of me thinking that I’d like to do that.”

But it was baseball that would eventually capture Mitch’s heart.

“I remember my parents taking me to see the first Expos game at Jarry Park. It was a great day. We couldn’t afford season tickets, but they wanted me to see that first home game. Two or three other couples had season tickets, and they’d often ask me to join them – knowing how much I loved the game. I didn’t go to summer camp like the other kids; I spent my summers at Jarry Park.”

Countdown to airtime - 3, 2, 1

Countdown to airtime – 3, 2, 1

Mitch recounts those summers days; “I’d get on my bike with my glove and ride to the bus; and take the bus to the ball park. I’d go to the swimming pool during batting practice, because that’s where a lot of the balls landed, and I’d catch them when they landed in the pool. The back door to the Visitors’ dressing room was actually outside the stadium, and some of the guys would go outside for a smoke. I’d hang around – and they’d often give me a ticket for the game. If all else failed – I’d buy a ticket in the bleachers for a buck! However I got in – I remember always looking up at the Press Box, wondering what it would be like to work up there.”

“When the team was travelling for away games, I’d bounce a tennis ball off the garage door and invent games, calling them to myself. I remember thinking, ‘This is what I’d like to do’.

It’s one thing to want to be a broadcaster, but first you have to learn how. “I enrolled in Steve Shannon’s broadcast school, and Robert Viro was also working there. Robert knew that Rob Joyce was managing CKO News, having taken over the West Island studios of the defunct CFOX. They were right over the Hymus Tavern. I also learned what not to do if you wanted a career in radio…”

“I interviewed with Rob Joyce, and he saw something in me, and hired me full time. I was 18 and getting $6,500 a year in 1977. It was a hike to get from my parents’ place in Chomedey out to the West Island, but I did it. I was willing to do anything that needed to be done, and they called me ‘Super Mel’ – my first nickname. There were nights when I literally turned off the station at night before going home. My Dad sold aluminium siding, and if he was in the Cornwall area, he’d stop by on the way home and pick me up.”

It was a terrific work experience for Mitch, but he began to get restless after a few years. “Everyone was much older than me – and I felt that I was missing out on something. I also thought that I’d better get an education, and so I enrolled at Concordia as a mature student; registering in American Political Science.”

“I had read about a bus service called The Gray Rabbit. It went from Berkley, California to Boston for $99, and it was basically run by and for hippies. The bus was a 1948 Greyhound bus that had been converted to include mattresses in the back section of the bus to people could sleep when they weren’t sitting up watching the countryside go by.”

“There was a baseball strike in 1981, and with no baseball that summer, I thought that this would be the time to make that trek. Plus – I had always wanted to go to San Francisco. So I made my way to Vancouver and stayed with my older sister. My plan was to earn some money and then head down to San Francisco and Berkley.”

“I took any work that I could get – and it gave me a whole new appreciation for people who do hard physical labour. I worked as a longshoreman, I delivered furniture, and I even worked as a janitor for a McDonald’s. I lasted two days!”

“My sister knew an architect/builder who was building a solar-powered house; and he needed a labourer. I hauled building materials from dawn to dusk, and it was hard, hard work. After two weekends, I had enough saved up so that I could head down to San Francisco and my dream cross-country trek in the Gray Rabbit.”

When I arrived in San Francisco, I thought; “Man – this is where I was meant to be”. I called my Mom from Sausalito, and told her that. I tried to stretch my time out for 3 or 4 days, just soaking up everything that San Francisco had to offer.

“I had made my reservation for the Gray Rabbit, and took the Bay Area Rapid Transit to Berkley and met the bus. They had two drivers who shared the driving.” Mitch’s expression becomes somewhat wistful; “It was everything you’d imagine with a bunch of young men and women mixed in with various mind-altering substances. We’d vote on where to stop or what side trips to take to see something interesting. We arrived in Boston and I came home to my parents’ place to recover.”

Listening to Dylan at the top of the show

Listening to Dylan at the top of the show

“Before leaving for San Francisco, I had mentioned to Barry Wilson that I would be looking for work when I got back. The day after I got back, Jeff Rimmer called and asked if I’d consider working full time on the weekends at CFCF radio. Working morning and afternoon shifts on the weekends, I was putting in pretty much a full week’s hours in two days. I had rented a place on Hutchison in the McGill ghetto, and it became the scene of many parties.”

The return of Baseball in 1982 would draw Mitch to CJAD, back to the Expos, and teamed him with Elliott Price. “Bob Dunn was the Sports Director at CJAD, and he made Elliot and I work. Elliott and I had an instant on-air chemistry. We did a magazine-style show, and it involved longer post-game interviews with the players. The older reporters soon realized that we kids actually knew what we were doing, and would just hold their mics into the space between Elliott and me and whoever we were interviewing. They’d get their sound clips and we’d get our interviews.”

I did Sports Digest every night from 7 to 8, and worked with people like Chris Cuthbert. (Who went on to a successful career in sports television.) I was doing well, but… Elliott was doing the play-by-play; and I was not… I was beginning to get restless again, and made plans to go back to San Francisco.”

I resigned from CJAD, and was all set to go to out west. I made arrangements to lease my apartment to a female friend of mine – and said she could move in on the weekend before I was to leave. Well, romance happened and I never left. She became my wife and though we’re now divorced, we remain good friends. She managed a health club, and I spent the summer working out; and did some odds and ends for broadcast work.”

The Montreal Daily News would come calling for Mitch to join their Sports department. “I had a few conversations with Jim Duff, but in the end we didn’t come to an agreement.”

Mitch returned to CJAD with a show airing from 11:30 to 1am. “They call that slot ‘Death Valley’ in the radio business, because it’s so hard to build an audience and survive. But I actually developed an audience, and my show gradually evolved into the Expos post-game show. This was also the time when I began to incorporate music into my show. I used a Miles Davis jazz recording to intro the show.”

The Expos moved to CIQC, and Elliott Price left to follow the team. “They also hired Ted Tevan for Sunday nights (the late veteran broadcaster was a unique personality and a kind of mentor for Mitch), Terry Haig, and Joe Cannon. They asked me to come for the drive-home slot, saying that they were negotiating with Rush Limbaugh for the afternoon and lead into my show. It’s important to have a strong lead into your show – so that you already have an audience tuned in.”

“I had the first sports drive show in the city. The owners were great – and they let me run my show. I brought Bill “The Spaceman” Lee onboard as a daily and off-the-wall baseball commentator. I sat beside Pierre McGuire at some hockey games when he was working as a scout; and I never heard anyone analyze the game the way he did. He saw things that none of us saw. I asked Pierre if he’d come on the air as a semi-regular. I told him that we didn’t have money to pay him, but I knew that Ted Blackman over at CJAD listened to my show, and that one day he might find a place for Pierre in their Canadiens broadcasts. I knew that Ted was pulling for me.”

Ted Blackman was impressed with Pierre McGuire’s hockey vision and analysis, and hired him to be the colour commentator for the Montreal Canadiens on CJAD, before moving to TSN in Toronto and now NBC in New York, where Pierre McGuire does colour commentary and is part of the NBC Olympic coverage team. To this day, Pierre calls in from all over North America for his daily conversation with Mitch. It’s become a deep friendship and listeners are treated to an in-depth hockey analysis interspersed with some valuable life-lessons.

CIQC moved to an all-news format and also lost the rights to The Expos games. There was no room for Mitch’s sports program, and he continued to do The Habs This Week on CFCF television. After clearing up a misunderstanding with then CJAD General Manager, Rob Braide, Mitch was back on the air at CJAD.

All sports radio came to Montreal in May 2001 with a national radio network called The Team, which broadcast from the CKGM studios on Greene in Westmount and used the 990 AM frequency. Mitch and the late Ted Blackman anchored the morning show, and the fledgling station grew exponentially. However, the station did not have broadcast rights to any professional sports teams. “Sam Eltes of Silver Star Mercedes called me and asked what it would take to get The Expos on air; and I told him that it would require a major sponsorship, because The Expos weren’t about to give away the rights to their games. And so Sam wrote the cheque and we were able to broadcast The Expos on The Team 990, now TSN 690.”

The station provided employment for up and coming broadcasters, and gave advertisers a chance to reach the elusive demographic category of Men 25 – 54. As the station grew and the broadcasters matured, Mitch moved to the afternoon drive slot, where his ratings have grown to the extent that in the Bell Media English radio family, Melnick in the Afternoon listeners have the highest incomes.

As part of a huge corporation and media empire, TSN 690 recently had to fight for its life on two occasions when the parent company had other plans for the station. “Our listeners were terrific – they flooded the CRTC with complaints and demands that the station would remain as an English-language sports broadcaster. We’ve always been out in the community, and their support is why we are still on the air.”

Mitch Melnick is host of TSN 690’s top-rated program – Melnick in the Afternoon

Mitch Melnick is host of TSN 690’s top-rated program – Melnick in the Afternoon

Mitch has encouraged retired professional athletes like PJ Stock and Chris Nilan to start broadcast careers with TSN. Stock credits his now successful TV career to Mitch and his start on TSN. Regarding Chris Nilan, Mitch states, “When Chris was playing for The Canadiens, he used to go on his own to visit kids at The Children’s Hospital. Chris is one of the smartest people I know… it’s easy to do what you can to help a guy like that start a new career.”

The sports station that started without a professional team now has the rights to The Montreal Canadiens, The Montreal Alouettes and The Montreal Impact Soccer Club – all three of the city’s professional sports franchises.

Melnick in the Afternoon continues to be one of the hottest radio shows on English radio in Montreal. In addition to the athletes and sports personalities, Mitch will invite artists like Allan Doyle from Great Big Sea, Shaun Murphy, Rob Lutes and Nikki Yanofsky into the studio to perform and talk about upcoming shows. At times it’s a bit like a circus with Mitch in the role of Ringmaster. However you describe it, the show is tuned-in by sports fans from the executive suite to the shop floor – all enjoying the eclectic mix of Sports, music and the occasional commentary on Melnick in the Afternoon.

Mitch Melnick can be heard on TSN 690 weekdays from 4 – 7pm.