The Kaufman Show: Deadlines to Meet

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By Avi Goldberg, Featured Writer,  All Habs Hockey Magazine

MONTREAL, QC. — It’s two hours after a Montreal Canadiens victory and only minutes after midnight in the early morning of what will become opening day for the Toronto Blue Jays. With the Arkells’ song, “Deadlines,” having heightened the collective energy of those present in the studio, Dave Kaufman, host of the The Kaufman Show on TSN 690 radio in Montreal, is interviewing Toronto Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos shortly after his plane landed in Toronto fresh from spring training.

upcloseIt’s unclear whether Montreal sports fans can really embrace Major League Baseball, let alone the Toronto Blue Jays, after suffering through the loss of their beloved Expos. Kaufman, a lover of the game, knows the dilemma his listeners are surely living.

When Anthopoulos endorsed a plan for Expos fans to converge at a Blue Jays home game this July by remarking that the Rogers Centre was a great environment compared to the Olympic Stadium, Kaufman delivered a shot on behalf of those whose backs may have gotten up over the not-so-subtle diss delivered by the former Montrealer and Expos employee.

“Another way that the Rogers Centre has it all over the Olympic Stadium, Alex,” Kaufman retorted, “is that there’s no more baseball at the Olympic Stadium.”

The two men shared a hearty laugh, and the GM of the team that was favored by many to play in the World Series understood Kaufman’s move to set the record straight. Toronto has the team, the downtown ballpark, and the resources to build a contender, but none of that strips value from Montreal and the city’s relationship with baseball.

Speaking the truth about sports and life is in The Kaufman Show’s DNA. Dave Kaufman and his co-host, Jay Farrar, wouldn’t think of having it any other way.

A Journalist Meets An Entertainer

In addition to hosting, Dave Kaufman, 32, is the creator, producer, and music programmer of The Kaufman Show.

Kaufman grew up in Montreal as a sports fan. He loved the Montreal Canadiens, and he vividly remembers the pull of the atmosphere that permeated games played at the famous Forum. The Montreal Expos, and the game of baseball, were also vital to Kaufman throughout his youth. Kaufman recalls what led him to attend so many Expos games in the painful final years of the franchise’s existence in Montreal.

“I took it for granted that the Expos would always be a constant in my life,” Kaufman said. “When I realized that wouldn’t be the case, I wanted to be there to document the end. I went and I cheered as loud as I could. I showed up, and when they left, I knew that I couldn’t have done any more as a fan. I knew that that was what I had to do.”

The inclination to capture the scene was always there, but Kaufman’s goal of working in sports media came to him not very long ago.

7652cbb9e4eec30a925304db0c4cfc9ekaufmanAfter earning a degree in history from the University of Western Ontario in 2004, Kaufman begged Montreal radio legend, Mitch Melnick, to give him an internship on the Team 990’s Melnick in the Afternoon. After interning with Melnick, and hoping that more education would help land him a media gig, Kaufman completed a Graduate Diploma in Journalism at Concordia University. A stint in the business world, followed by a whirlwind experience working in logistics at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, confirmed to Kaufman that sports radio was where he wanted to be. He returned to the Team 990 in 2010 wanting to run a show of his own.

After helping out with different shows, Kaufman’s shot came in the summer of 2011. On Saturday afternoons, from July until the end of the World Series, Kaufman, and an alternating roster of co-hosts, delivered Balls the Baseball Show. Kaufman moved Balls to Monday nights after the playoffs, started talking sports other than baseball, and renamed it The Kaufman Show. July will mark two years that Kaufman will have been hosting his own show on what is now TSN 690.

Kaufman’s radio partner, Jay Farrar, is a full time Manager of McLean’s Pub in Montreal.

Also raised in Montreal, Farrar was first introduced to sports by his father and grandfather. As huge Expos fans, Farrar credits the two of them with pushing him to be both a fan and player in organized baseball. While Farrar calls hockey his favourite sport today, he says baseball would be his clear number one if the Expos were still playing in Montreal.

Farrar’s push into sports media hasn’t been as formal and directed as Kaufman’s.

Though Farrar, 36, loved talk-radio in his teens, the idea of actually being on the radio himself didn’t occur to him until he accompanied his older brother, hip hop artist Annakin Slayd, on a few appearances he made on Melnick in the Afternoon. Recognizing similarities between the rush of the on air banter and the buzz he got from entertaining audiences as a private events MC at the pub, Farrar began to imagine working behind a radio mic.

One of the people Farrar met through his Team 990 connections was Kaufman. When Kaufman needed someone to help out with Balls in the summer of 2011, he brought Farrar on board. As the show morphed into The Kaufman Show, Kaufman wanted Farrar to stay on as the full-time co-host. Farrar was thrilled that Kaufman asked.

Both Kaufman and Farrar are Montrealers and into music. They both stayed up late at night as kids listening to sports talk radio hosts Ted Tevan and Mitch Melnick. They both love the Habs, the game of baseball, and especially the Montreal Expos. They work the airwaves together every Monday night. But, to really get it, their unique visions and contributions to The Kaufman Show must be accounted for.

Going Big

If you ask Dave Kaufman what it was about the radio he listened to that drew him in, he’ll tell you about sports talk, being part of a community of listeners, and about the special feelings that accompany staying up late listening. But, another feature of sports talk radio that appealed to him was when the host looked beyond who scored the goal and talked about how sports was connected to bigger issues faced in society.

Kaufman has memories of compelling radio conversations he listened to at earlier points in his life, ones he now tries to emulate on his show.

“I remember an interview Mitch [Melnick] and Terry [former Montreal radio announcer, Hague] did with former Expos pitcher, Brian Barnes,” Kaufman said. “Barnes said something along the lines of, ‘I wouldn’t want a gay guy on the team or to shower with him,’ something very homophobic. They debated it. They didn’t just let it slide. That left an impression on me on the power of the medium. It resonated and it’s something I still talk about on my show today.”

Though The Kaufman Show has tackled issues like homophobia and racism in sports, and even the question of the Quebec student protests of 2012 and whether the movement would try to shut down the Montreal Grand Prix, presenting the big picture wasn’t always Kaufman’s intention.

According to Max Harris, one of the first contributors to Balls and close friend of Kaufman, the first few weeks of the show frequently strayed both from sports and from serious content. Harris describes the early Kaufman Show from his perspective as a listener.

“Dave’s interests are beyond sports,” Harris said. “He’d bring on comedians and musicians, and some were good. He tried to really broaden the show, but when you swim too far out in sea, sometimes there’s a risk of drowning.”

Kaufman agrees that it took a while for the show to find its voice. He says a turning point occurred over several shows that ran in late-2011 and early-2012.

In December of 2011, Kaufman engaged listener frustration that flowed after Montreal Gazette columnist Pat Hickey used the publication of Theoren Fleury’s book on his sexual abuse as an opportunity to call the former NHL player a hypocrite for previously employing his abuser. Several weeks later, a February, 2012 episode of the show that was set to feature a tribute to 500 episodes of The Simpsons was quickly adapted to include and highlight a celebration of the life of Gary Carter following the death of the former Expos catcher. Listener response to both shows was strong.

Having to move quickly to report on sudden developments, fielding call after call from sports fans wanting to weigh in on questions of life and death, and needing to organize and interview guests during the watershed shows gave Kaufman confidence in his ability to strike a balance between sports and social issues. Influenced by radio he liked to listen to, Kaufman began to see where he wanted his show to go.

“I really try to dig deep and get guests that make me think, that I respect, and that I want to know more from,” Kaufman said. “I think people appreciate the fact that sports can be a nasty place, and that we’re willing to talk about the ugly side. There was a point along the way where I realized that if I challenge myself and my audience, then I feel I’m doing what I want to do.”

While Kaufman will say that his show goes big by digging and reporting on sports in ways that transcend fascination with star athletes and the stats, there is a second voice and vision. Jay Farrar represents The Kaufman Show’s alter ego.

Going Small

Jay Farrar readily admits that Kaufman does the bulk of the work in setting the show’s direction, keeping it running, and landing its top quality guests. Farrar also speaks passionately about what he brings to the agenda.

337037_10150296327902242_781017651_oFarrarWhereas Farrar admires Kaufman’s skills as the journalist on the show, he calls himself the guy who’s there to put an entertaining spin on the information Kaufman brings to their listeners.

“You can’t have an interesting show without having some kind of dichotomy,” Farrar said. “Dave’s the journalist. He asks good questions [to the show’s guests] and he’s got great timing and instincts. I’m reactive. I’m there to make people laugh, to ease everybody up, and to give an edgy viewpoint. Dave’s not safe. He’ll ask a question that’s controversial and he’ll challenge me. But, I’m there to give a side and, sometimes, I like being immature.”

For a show that’s investigated the shortcomings of sports media’s coverage of the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide, women in sports, and the Jason Collins coming out story, immaturity doesn’t seem to fit. Yet, true to his self-designation as the show’s entertainer, Farrar cites one of his heroes, George Carlin, in explaining his use of levity and the common person’s viewpoint as he debates with Kaufman.

“Carlin taught me to think three dimensionally, to question everything I see, to find a different angle on it,” Farrar said. “The show is about three dimensional thinking. It’s trying to explore issues that nobody either wants to talk about or is afraid to talk about. But, I love to talk about huge things or the really really small things. I can make a transition from homophobia and racism to little things we can all relate to. So, I like to go big or go small, and that was the Carlin way of doing things.”

In one recent example of going from big to small with almost no middle ground, Farrar moved a discussion Kaufman was having about the Boston Marathon shooting with in-studio guest, Brian Wilde of CTV Montreal, to a debate about whether it was self-serving for people to use social media to express solidarity with the citizens of Boston. While Kaufman and Wilde defended the sincerity of the outpouring of grief, Farrar claimed that, since it’s meant to be quiet and introspective, the public offering of prayers on Twitter amounts to nothing more than personal PR.

“They [Kaufman and Wilde] totally ganged up on me,” Farrar said. “But, I gave my side. Not just to give a side, but because I believe in what I said and because there’s shades of grey in everything.”

Going Big and Going Small

In producing a show that pushes sports talk to its limits, and that includes topics other than sports, Kaufman and Farrar are following in the footsteps of an icon of Montreal radio, Mitch Melnick. Melnick pioneered a sports talk show whose focus went beyond just sports on CIQC radio in the early-1990s because he liked to talk music, politics, comedy, and movies. When he first took the chance to try it on Melnick No Limit, not all the listeners jumped on board. Melnick describes the situation.

“The one thing I prided myself on was being able to talk about a lot of different subjects,” Melnick said. “But, [the response] was like Dylan going electric, it was ridiculous. E-mails were coming in as, I guess, fans lost their sports fix. But, in the end, it worked. In the end, we weeded out the people who were just one trick ponies.”

For Max Harris, any previous questions he had about the The Kaufman Show’s focus have been resolved. He believes Kaufman has brought the show to a place where it’s simply delivering interesting radio to its listeners.

“What has made his show really good right now is that he can address non-sports issues, or go a segment without talking sports, but at no point do you ever think this isn’t a sports show,” Harris said. “He’s definitely found a happy medium, and he’s better for it.”

From the perspective of the audience, it was risky for Kaufman and Farrar to mix serious talk about the public expression of grief over tragedy in Boston with sarcastic banter about the ulterior motives some may have for doing so. But, the discussion went on, the phone lines lit up, and the tweets started flying. The listeners wanted to have their say.

Both Kaufman and Farrar have the versatility take it big or take it small, and to move the focus away from sports. And, whichever way they go, listener and guest involvement is a big part of the show.

The Audience Isn’t Only Listening

Dave Kaufman wasn’t a regular caller to the sports talk radio shows he listened to as a kid. Today, he relishes the multi-platform contributions made by callers, listeners, and guests to his show.

Attesting to its wide appeal, The Kaufman Show receives calls from listeners all across North America. The callers are as young as 17 and as old 86. Because they can do things such as describe their firsthand experiences during historic events like the Richard Riots, Kaufman says calls from the octogenarians create some of the show’s most special moments.

Kaufman is also active on Twitter. Like many of us, Kaufman wonders about the depth and meaning of the friendships he strikes with listeners via Twitter, but he makes a serious effort to respond to questions he receives. Now that he’s the one supplying media content, Kaufman says he’s honoured that people reach out to chat about ideas he puts out on his show.

419038_299588186768890_1256582268_nThere is mutual respect between Kaufman, his audience, and his contributors.

For Max Harris, sports and sports talk radio have always been places that enabled him to create connections that were more compelling than those he experienced elsewhere. Currently working on a master’s degree in Sports Management at the University of San Francisco, Harris says that attending Montreal Expos games in the dying years of the franchise offered him membership in a community of hardcore fans where group ties were renewed every night he returned to the ballpark.

It was at the Olympic Stadium where a young Harris first met Kaufman. Over time, and despite a ten-year difference in age, the two became friends. Harris says Kaufman breaks down distances between himself and his audience on his show. Beyond enjoying the baseball talk, listening in from the West Coast helps him maintain a connection to his hometown.

“For a show that has a lot of reach,” Harris said, “it’s a show about Montreal. [Dave] paints a very good picture, capturing what’s going on in the city, how people are feeling, what the mood is. In moving here, you miss people. That show makes me miss Montreal.”

As much as the show can facilitate relationships with Montreal, listeners and contributors also tune in for issue-based conversations that are relevant to sports fans and communities throughout North America.

Mike Spry, Senior Editor and co-founder of the literary sports journal, The Barnstormer, is a frequent contributor to The Kaufman Show. Spry sees shared sensibilities between The Barnstormer’s promotion of open dialogue on sports and the way Kaufman and Farrar explore connections between sports and social issues.

This past March, one day after a guilty verdict was rendered in the Steubenville, Ohio rape case against two high school football players, the story that was given little play on commercial sports talk radio was engaged on The Kaufman Show. Spry relished the opportunity he was given to talk about the need to open a broader discussion about rape culture in sports.

“Dave is very supportive of our projects and gives them a nice push on the show,” Spry wrote in an e-mail. “It’s a difficult subject, but I got great feedback from my discussion with Dave about Steubenville. We started the Barn because the sports media has a very difficult time being sports journalists. I like the broad range of Dave’s discourse. That’s why we [at The Barnstormer] get along so well with The Kaufman Show.”

Limits to critical investigative journalism in sports media is a topic of expertise for one of Kaufman’s prized guests, Richard Deitsch. Sports Illustrated reporter on women’s basketball, the Olympics, and sports media, Deitsch most recently appeared on the show to talk about the media’s coverage of the Manti Teo story and Lance Armstrong’s performance enhancing drug confession. When it’s warranted, Deitsch pulls few punches in his reporting on the failings of big U.S. media like CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and ESPN.

Even with the challenges posed to journalism in today’s corporate media climate, Deitsch believes there are plenty of sports reporters who do high quality journalism and many sports fans looking to consume it. Reflecting on his on-air discussions with Kaufman, Deitsch views The Kaufman Show in high regard.

“Where I really like the show is that Dave researches his topics, he’s thoughtful, and he’s well-educated, and it changes the conversation about sports when you have a host who is all those things,” Deitsch said. “The biggest difference between that show and most of the sports talk shows that I appear on, is that you’re given time to have a conversation. In the formatted world of sports talk in the States, it generally just doesn’t happen.”

Listeners and contributors relate to The Kaufman Shows format and content, but will the sports-and-more formula allow Kaufman and Farrar to take the show where they’d like it to go?

Deadlines

The Kaufman Show airs one night per week. Neither Dave Kaufman nor Jay Farrar is paid for their work, and Kaufman foots the bill for the website that hosts show podcasts. Despite Kaufman’s efforts to speak to TSN 690 management about more airtime and remuneration, the station’s crowded schedule currently has no openings.

Kaufman and Farrar are proud of the product they put out, but they’ve also spoken about whether adjustments are needed to help them make a jump to the next level. They’re confronting a difficult question: can The Kaufman Show grow its audience, and attract sponsors to a sports radio station, when a good amount of the show’s content transcends sports?

The sports-and-more format did end up working for Mitch Melnick in the 1990s, and it’s still in place for him today. Melnick would like to see Kaufman and Farrar on the air more often, and he says he has let his views be known at the station. Despite his belief that Kaufman has the bug for radio and the skill to make it work, Melnick wonders whether there’s room for his kind of show in Canada’s media environment today.

“In commercial radio in this country, it would have to be someone like me in the corner office, and I don’t see too many people like me in management positions,” Melnick said. “It’s all corporate, and the more the corporate people are involved, the fewer chances they’re going to take.”

From his own work, Richard Deitsch knows the dilemma faced by Kaufman and Farrar quite well. In identifying industry realities that the two are grappling with, Deitsch adds a layer to Melnick’s view.

“The tough thing is going to be, is there enough of an audience that’s interested in that kind of quality sports talk, as opposed to sports talk which is [premised upon] taking the biggest topic of the day, and debate that thing, and run it into the ground,” Deitsch asked. “Whether you like it or not, that formula has proven to be a commercial success.”

For his part, Jay Farrar calls their show the 60 Minutes of TSN 690, and he finds it discouraging that calls and hits on the show’s podcast page spike when Kaufman lands what he calls lowest common denominator guests like Jose Canseco. But, as frustrating as it may be, Farrar also finds it understandable that titillation draws attention.

Farrar wants the show to grow, to be on the air more than one night a week, and to continue to address social issues. At the same time, Farrar admits that the entertainer in him supports some modification to the formula to help make it happen.

“Without compromising your integrity, it’s ok to be a little silly,” Farrar said. “You don’t want to be intellectually elite because you estrange people that way. You’d like to open the minds of the people. Sometimes, the way to attract their attention is to tell a joke, and then start talking intellectual. Then, maybe more of them will start listening.”

Dave Kaufman believes that he and Farrar are on the precipice of breaking out. With its grounding in sports, investigation, growing roster of guests, passionate listeners, willingness to go deep on important issues, and timely showcasing of pop culture, music, and comedy, Kaufman sees the show educating and entertaining in ways that are accessible rather than elitist.

“Your brain’s engaged and it’s a feeling of comfort,” Kaufman said. “We’ll go somewhere really hard and then we’ll tone it down in the next segment. We’ll talk about something really serious or we’ll talk about something completely preposterous. I feel like I’m doing what I want to do on the show, and the more people that catch on, the bigger and better it’s going to get.”

Mitch Melnick says he always benefited from having Program Directors that let him do what he wanted to do on his shows. And, as compelling as the content and vibe of their show may be, Richard Deitsch says that Kaufman and Farrar will need that kind of help if they’re going to attract both a larger audience and a steady supply of clients that’s needed to satisfy a radio station’s bottom line.

“Dave’s toughest challenge is that he wants to do things that go a little outside the normal convention,” Deitsch said. “You need management to allow a show like that to grow and find its audience. Dave has to find a place that’s willing to have a sports show that isn’t always going to react off the games of the day before. It can definitely work, you just have to find the right place.”

It’s not that time is running out on The Kaufman Show. But, as told by the show’s opening song, and as the baseball pundits are saying about Alex Anthopoulos’ version of the Toronto Blue Jays this year, there’s a sense that Dave Kaufman has some kind of a due date on his mind by which he’d like to achieve an upgrade in the status of the show.

Kaufman’s put in a lot of work to create a contemporary model of the type of Montreal sports talk radio show he, and many others, got hooked on while growing up. And, for all the talk about growing audiences, elitism, content, and the bottom line, for the optimistic Kaufman, the matter is actually quite simple.

“Somebody, at 11 at night, can maybe get a little smarter listening to sports talk radio,” Kaufman said. “And, how awesome is that?”

Given what they’re putting out over the airwaves, the listeners are hoping that Kaufman and Farrar will continue to meet their deadlines for some time to come.


The Kaufman Show airs Monday nights on TSN 690

Follow me on Twitter @AviGoldberg

1 COMMENT

  1. Well written article regarding the Kaufman show. Intelligent conversation from hosts and guests. As a daytime listener to 990 station lacks content in the evenings. Establish a schedule in prime time 10:00pm and watch the growth in a starved evening market

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