He owned the night: Dan Russell looks back at 30 years of Sportstalk in a new memoir

His radio show was considered appointment listening among local sports fans for years.  In Pleasant Good Evening – A Memoir.  My 30 Wild and Turbulent Years of Sportstalk, Dan Russell provides an elbows-up, not-afraid-to-go-into-the corners look at his time as host of Canada’s longest-running nightly sports talk show.

From its humble beginnings at CJOR to its final days on CISL 30 years later, the book explores the highs and lows of Sportstalk and offers a candid look at the bridges Russell built, and burned, along the way.

To this day, he remains the titleholder as host of Canada’s longest-running night-time sports radio show.   But Russell insists he had never intended to make a career out of it.  In fact, his dream was hockey play-by-play, not talk radio.

“Even doing Sportstalk was [just] a way to get more airtime,” he says.  “I wasn’t thinking of a 30-year run, I was just thinking, ‘Get me on the radio, get me some more on-air hours, and hopefully, one day, [I’ll] have a chance to call games.'”

Still, he saw an opportunity to create something new.

“There had been a few Vancouver [sports] talk shows in the `60s and `70s, those were on before the games.  I think that part of my secret sauce was to come on right after the games.  The games were fresh.  And, you know, it was just filling that void.”

Russell was a few years into his broadcast career when he came up with the Sportstalk concept.  He says there was nothing like it on the dial when he started, certainly not when the Vancouver Canucks made it to their first Stanley Cup final 40 years ago.

“And I thought, ‘I can’t be the only one that is craving more discussion.’  A couple of years later, Sportstalk began, so I think the impetus was really that ’82 series,” he explains.

Russell would provide fans with that post-game meeting place during the team’s next two Stanley Cup runs in 1994 and 2011.  Regular callers like The Pauser and Ranger Smith became the stars of the show as well as weekly appearances by the likes of former Vancouver Canucks executive Brian Burke, who Russell still considers his greatest guest of all time.

Russell figures he conducted more than 25,000 interviews over the 30 years Sportstalk was on the air.  He always prided himself on building — and maintaining — an audience.

“I want people to remember how many times, for example, they may have been in their car, coming home from a beer league hockey game, and there was a guest on, and they pull into their driveway and they’re sitting in their because I’m still interviewing the person and they don’t want to turn off the car and go in the house.”

He also valued objectivity, even if it meant alienating fans, and he did not put up with homerism from callers, guests, or contributors – some of whom he calls out in the book.

“I want to be remembered most as a broadcaster who happened to have a sports show, not a sports fan who happened to be on the radio,” he says.

Given that approach, Russell made some enemies along the way.  However, he is surprisingly candid in the book about his own failings and the ruined friendships and professional relationships he left in his wake.  Many of the stories he tells end with “and we never spoke again” or “that spelled the end of that friendship.”

“Is there one friendship or professional relationship you regret losing more than others,” I asked.

“Well, I think I regret all of them to be honest,” he replied.

One such relationship was with former CKWX Sports Director Greg “Dr. Sport” Douglas.  After Russell’s initial run on CJOR ended with that station’s demise in 1988, he signed a one-year contract with ‘WX.  But when management didn’t renew his contract, he was on the move again, this time to CFMI.

“I left CKWX, and he felt betrayed,” he explains.  “I get it.  CKWX had asked me to come over.  But I just needed more assurances.  They didn’t come up with any contract talks or anything like that.  [Douglas] had a column in the [Vancouver Sun] and it was a lot of shots taken at me afterwards, but still, I would like bygones to be bygones.”


Sportstalk on WX

(Source: Dan Russell)

Following stints at CFMI and CKNW, Russell would call time on Sportstalk in 2014 after one year at CISL.

“At that point, radio had changed so much that, if I wanted to keep making the kind of living I was doing, and have the freedoms that I wanted, I was going to have to actually purchase airtime, and then sell that time to make ends meet,” he explains.

“Initially, we did very, very well — actually better than I ever thought — but it became a grind.  I couldn’t find a sales manager, so I was doing all of it myself.  And it was really tiring me out.”

Russell was worried his off-air fatigue was starting to affect his on-air performance.

“I just felt at that point I just didn’t have much new to offer and I didn’t want to fake it to my listeners,” he says.  “We did a lot of great things.  I [didn’t] want to sound like a broken record.”

Related link: Red Robinson looks back at his final day on-air in new book 

However, the work of writing and now promoting the book has him itching to work again.  But what form that work will take, whether it’s a weekly podcast or something involving his decades of archived shows, Russell isn’t sure.

“I feel I still have something to offer. I think the break has been good.  I feel more rejuvenated.  The question is what’s out there?  And is there any appetite for what I could offer?  And maybe the answer to that is no.  Maybe I have had my run and, if that’s the case, great.  I’ve had a great run and now the book documents it all.”

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