Davidson’s polarizing on-air personality made listeners tune in for 30 years
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
“If you were his [manager] you always had extra Aspirin in the drawer,”– Ron Bremner ’80s CKNW station manager
August marks 30 years since the death of Vancouver sports radio legend, Al Davidson—affectionately known by colleagues as “Big Al.” He passed away on August 9, 1991, at age 65.
His oftentimes edgy and blunt assessments about the BC Lions and the Vancouver Canucks made listeners frequently yell at their radios. Davidson began his radio career in Port Arthur, Ontario in 1946. He later moved to Regina to work at CKCK where he met his eventual wife, Patricia (who passed away in September 2020 at age 94). Davidson made other radio stops in Winnipeg and Toronto before moving to Vancouver to work at CKNW anchoring the sports department from 1958 to 1987.
At CKNW, Davidson was a prominent figure covering the Vancouver Canucks and BC Lions (hosting pre-game and post-game shows and conducting player interviews and profiles). Davidson was outspoken in his commentaries, creating controversy whenever he could. He also caused controversy off the air. In 1986, he was acquitted of arson charges pertaining to a 1985 fire that had damaged a company boat called SeaWatch.
Furthermore, Davidson was involved in a high-profile dispute with another Vancouver sports announcer, Neil Macrae (who died of breast cancer in March 2017 at age 65). The Vancouver Sun reported in 1987 that Davidson had been fired by CKNW for “threatening” Macrae’s life. Davidson later won a wrongful dismissal lawsuit. Ironically, Davidson had hired Macrae. Davidson ended his radio career at CJOR (1986 to 1988).
Davidson, when interviewed, could be very engaging, self-deprecating, and funny. In an October 1982 television interview with the late Jack Webster, Davidson was asked by Webster to respond to people who had been calling him names. Davidson replied, “Nobody calls me names Jack, only you call me names!” Webster then asked Davidson if he was ready to be his usual “ubiquitous self.” Davidson quipped, “I’ll try. You taught me!”
Interestingly, Davidson was a WWII veteran prior to starting his radio career. In 1943, he was only 16 years old when he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was later sent overseas serving on battlefields (438 Wildcat Squadron) that included being a radio operator during D-Day.
Ron Bremner was the station manager at CKNW radio in the late 1980s. He said managing Davidson at times was very challenging. “If you were his [manager] you always had extra Aspirin in the drawer,” he said in an email interview with the Other Press. “His antics and on-air comments would drive Head Office crazy and keep our lawyers busy full-time. Former [CKNW] President and GM Ted Smith used to say that he got two holidays per year: one [when] he went on holiday and one when Al went on holiday.”
But Bremner has fond memories of Davidson, who he thought of as an uncle. Bremner said underneath Davidson’s cantankerous gruff exterior, he was a devoted husband and father who loved sports and fishing; “Lesser known were his many selfless and quiet acts of kindness in the community. A visit to a retirement home to cheer up an elderly cancer victim, a few encouraging words and an autographed hockey stick to a kid in the hospital, a visit to a local Little League Park to cheer on a hometown team, or perhaps a drop-in chat with an old friend ‘down on his luck.’ This was the soft side of ‘Big Al’ that most never saw or heard of.”
In 2011, Davidson was inducted into the BC Football Hall of Fame (media category). His daily “Spotlight on Sport” segment regularly featured his opinions about the BC Lions. Davidson was also an important figure on Lions radio broadcasts. In addition, he was an esteemed member of the Football Reporters of Canada. As well, Davidson was a member of the Schenley Award selection committee acknowledging the CFL’s outstanding players until 1988.
The late Vancouver Sun columnist Denny Boyd, who was a longtime friend and colleague, once wrote about Davidson summarizing his legacy appropriately: “I hated the infuriating way Davidson [practiced] his trade. He was biased, bigoted, vindictive, and inaccurate. Put him in front of a microphone and he became as unpredictably dangerous as an exploding stove. But, God help me, I would get out of bed early every morning to hear him commit all the foregoing sins…”