Mike Yam doesn’t do complacency well.
In his 7th year as the face of the PAC-12 Network, he finds a bit of fun in self-imposed challenges.
“This year,” he pauses, his signature grin audible through the phone, “it was no prompter. From football through basketball. The whole school year.”
A lot goes into a live sports broadcast. More times than not it’s organized chaos leading right up until that red light comes on. It’s in that moment that an anchor relies on experience, preparation, and – when available – the security of a prompter.
That safety net is something the San Francisco transplant has always preferred working without. “It just feels more natural that way,” he shrugged.
Those that know Yam are familiar with his quiet drive. His unique career ascension has left him to feel uncomfortable when things are too easy.
A prompter? Far too easy.
On any road to success, there are always those mentors, parents or guiding lights that push you on your direction to success. In the case of Mike Yam, one of those lights came his first semester at Fordham. It just so happened to be a solid red light.
“Dr. Bray,” Yam uttered through a somewhat clenched jaw, the words ushered past his lips with the help of on uneasy chuckle.
Whether she realizes it or not, a chemistry professor by the name of Dr. Diane Bray (whom now is a Professor Emerita for Fordham) had about as much to do with Mike Yam’s career path to the face of the PAC-12 Network as anyone.
We’ll get back to Dr. Bray in a bit.
As you can imagine, the majority of Yam’s guiding lights were positive. It all started with his grandfather.
“As far as best friends go,” the Jersey native has stated time and time again, “he’s my first.”
Eugene Galletta installed a lifelong love of sports into his grandson at a young age – as well as a decent amount of pizza. To this day, the upbeat sportscaster noticeably slows down when discussing his beloved Pop.
Galletta would live to see his favorite little leaguer grow into the man that would make any grandfather swell with pride. Regrettably, decades after trading baseball cards and pool lessons, Yam continues to deal with an eternally incomplete feeling when it comes to his best friend.
While the sports passion was undeniably in his DNA, that was not the career Mike had in mind during his high school days.
“It was always medicine. I wanted to be a pediatrician.”
Yam mulled over a few schools while preparing to leave Bergen Catholic, ultimately landing on Fordham. It’s a decision he can’t imagine his life without.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, and it’s hard to explain to people who don’t understand,” the proud Ram explained, the excitement rising in his voice.
“Fordham was special, man. It was just special. I understand a lot of colleges are great, but there really is something to the Jesuit College experience. If you’ve lived it or seen it, you know.”
Yam makes that claim as a distinguished success in his field. He’s not sure the 18 year old version of himself would share the opinion.
“Dude,” his voice lowered, as if there were other people on the line and he intended this information exclusively for me. Yam has a knack for this.
“I was doing fine as a pre-med. No problems with the core courses, I was great in biology.” He paused, “but chemistry. I can’t begin to tell you,”
He didn’t skip a beat before doing just that. Also a familiar Yam move.
“Bro, I had never even heard of grading on a curve, I walk into that class and we’re all working against each other.”
Flash forward to a late Saturday night early in Year 1 of the PAC-12 Network when Yam received a compliment for having so much energy for a promo read during a commercial break. Uncomfortable with the praise, he offered up the following; “if you don’t do your job everyday knowing there’s 15 people lining up waiting to take it from you, they will.”
You might think it odd that a man with that kind of resolve could balk at the concept of grading on a curve. It’s complicated. Sports television is among the most competitive industries in the world – but Yam and so many others at his level understand that competition has to end at the door. Everyone brings value to a quality production – and it’s the responsibility of leaders in the room not to exclude or alienate, but to lift. To encourage. It wouldn’t be until after college that Yam would learn that lesson from, of all things, an eagle.
“I didn’t get it,” he continued. “It was like Dr. Bray wanted to grade kids out. She took pride in it. My path toward medicine kind of ended in her classroom.”
In retrospect, Yam owes a lot to the concept of grading on a curve. The decision to change his focus to sports journalism came as easily to him as the craft itself.
Eugene Galleta’s grandson lived for pizza and baseball cards as a boy. Now he lived in the Fordham radio station. Dr Bray’s student once struggled to find his place in her lab of musical chairs.
Now the only thing he struggled to do was find time for his internship offers. His accomplishments as an undergrad include the Marty Glickman Award for Excellence in Play-by-Play. The rest are too lengthy to list.
Mike Yam entered Fordham as an out-of-place pre-med student. He left as a broadcast professional on a mission, and the opportunities came quick out of college.
“I was really lucky,” he claims. Other accounts would suggest luck played a smaller part than the 37-year-old admits to now.
One of his opportunities came in the form of Sirius radio. He worked as an update anchor one day a week. Before long it was five days a week. Then he was co-hosting Mike & Murray alongside Bruce Murray; a colleague nearly 20 years his elder.
“Dude it was awesome,” he exhaled in one breath. “I was working with my friends fresh out of college. In Manhattan,” he pauses. The glory days always seem a bit shinier in the rear view mirror – but to hear Yam describe those early times makes you think – if anything – he’s underselling. “Then things got a little crazy.”
Mike’s referring to the now historical Sirius signing of Chris Russo. It was tremendous for the company, not so much for the 26-year-old kid living his dream.
“They were shaking up a lot of things, naturally resources were going to the launch of Mad Dog Radio and I didn’t know where that was gonna leave me.”
Without a moment to spare, word came from Bristol for an audition. Yam was elated, but he shuttered to think of what his options would be if he couldn’t lock up the job.
“I went up for the audition, met a few people, then I was back in New York going crazy. I kept checking my phone.”
During one of those exacerbated phone checks, Mike noticed a voicemail from a Sirius mentor. It was Ian Eagle.
“He left a message, and he must have been knowing exactly what I was thinking. He assured me that whatever happens with Sirius – I had essentially outgrown my role there – which I can’t describe what that felt like to hear.”
In a time of uncertainty, when professionals were all preoccupied with their own job security, Eagle took a moment to reach out to Mike and it meant the world.
“I kept the voicemail for years. Would listen to it whenever I’d get frustrated or short on patience.”
Shortly after Eagle’s kind gesture, Yam’s concerns were put to rest. He got the call from ESPN – he was moving to Bristol.
“I wanted to scream into the phone, it was a moment I’ll never forget. I remember I went straight to my grandparents apartment to tell them.”
Yam’s grandmother was thrilled. Pop’s reaction was a bit more complicated. Over the previous decade as his grandson was wading his way through freshman chemistry and ascending the ladder at Sirius, he was waging his own war with Alzheimer’s.
Yam doesn’t offer up information about himself unprovoked. You would have to ask him to confirm whether or not he’s actually related to Joe DiMaggio. When you do, he’ll smile, nod slightly and ask; “can’t you see the resemblance?”
Yam would never tell you of his weekly drives from Bristol to Jersey to spend time with his grandparents in the years to follow. He’d never tell you about his membership with the Alzheimer’s Association or his recognition from Joe Girardi’s Catch 22 Foundation for all the work he’s done raising awareness for the disease. He won’t tell you, but he’d be happy to if you asked.
He doesn’t mind talking about Pop, but the cadence in Yam’s voice slows noticeably when the subject comes up. Anyone with a family member afflicted with the disease is perfectly familiar with how hard it is to see a loved one all but disappear. It’s taxing, physically and emotionally. Unlike reading highlights and conducting interviews, it’s real work.
Eugene Galleta was laid to rest in 2011, one year before Yam accepted the position to anchor the PAC-12 Networks alongside Ashley Adamson.
“Launch night – one of the most nervous moments of my career. My chest was pounding.”
From August of 2012 through this month’s PAC-12 Tournament in Las Vegas, Yam and the production staff have made no excuses while working through the daily issues of what is and remains a start-up company. He’s perfectly aware of the unique position he holds in the sports media world, and he’ll never hesitate to respond to an aspiring broadcaster’s email or call. He doesn’t dispense career advise on a curve.
As for his year long prompter-free challenge?
“Bro,” he offers in a tone that makes you think he’s about to disclose the details to an unsolved crime. “It was some weekday late February. I was doing women’s basketball halftimes at the end of a day that started with radio at 7 am, then things lined up leading to this live toss to a sit down feature with a coach. I thought I might as while just write something real quick. I was tired.”
Fatigue is a word that never comes to mind if you ever watch Yam on TV. Maybe it’s because he knows how many others are waiting for his job. Maybe it’s because he knows what real work is.
Whatever the reason, he quickly snapped out of his temptation. “I couldn’t do it,” another signature grin, “prompter stayed off.”
Asking The Right Questions Helps Create Interesting Content
Asking questions that can get a subject to talk about their feelings is a much better way to get an interesting answer.
When ESPN’s Mike Greenberg interviewed Paolo Banchero in the lead-up to the NBA lottery on Tuesday, he asked what I’ve concluded is the single most maddening question that can be asked of any athlete preparing for any draft.
“Why do you believe you should be No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft?” Greenberg said.
Before I point out exactly why I have such a visceral reaction to such a harmless question, I want to point out the positives because Greenberg’s question avoids some of the most common pitfalls:
1) It is an actual question. That’s not as automatic as you think given the number of poor souls who are handed a microphone and say to their subject, “Talk about (whatever issue they want a quote or a sound bite on).” This is the mark of an amateur, creating the opening for an uncooperative subject to slam the door by saying, “What do you want me to say?”
2) Greenberg’s question can not be answered with a yes or a no. Questions that start with the word “Can you …” or “Did you …” may sound like they’re tough questions for the subject, but they’re actually fairly easy if the subject wants to offer an answer. Now, most interview subjects won’t take that one-word exit, but some will in a touchy situation.
The problem with Greenberg’s question has to do with the result. Why do we ask questions of the athletes we cover? Seriously. That’s not rhetorical. What’s the goal? It’s to get interesting answers. At least that’s the hope whether it’s for a quote that will be included in a story, a sound bite to be replayed later or — like in this situation — during an interview that is airing live. The question should be engineered to elicit interesting content, and there was very little chance that the question Greenberg asked Banchero was going to produce anything close to that.
I know that because I have heard some version of this question asked hundreds of times. That’s not an exaggeration. I attended the NFL scouting combine annually for a number of years, and if a player wasn’t asked why he should be the first overall pick, he’d get asked why he should be a first-round pick or why he should be one of the first players chosen at his position. Never — in all that time — have I ever heard what would be considered an interesting or informative answer. In my experience, players tend to talk in incredibly general terms about their own abilities and then seek to compliment their peers in an effort to avoid coming off as cocky.
Here’s how Banchero answered Greenberg’s question: “Yeah, thank you all for having me, first off., I feel like I’m the number one pick in the draft because I’m the best overall player. I feel like I check all the boxes whether it’s being a great teammate, being the star player or doing whatever the coach needs. I’ve been a winner my whole life. Won everywhere I’ve went, and when I get to the NBA, that’s going to be the same goal for me. So just combining all those things, and knowing what I have to work on to be better is a formula for me.”
There’s nothing wrong with answer just as there was nothing wrong with the question. It’s just that both are really, really forgettable. ESPN did put a clip on YouTube with the headline “Paolo Banchero: I’m the best overall player in the NBA Draft | NBA Countdown” but I think I’m the only who will remember it and that’s only because I’m flapping my arms and squawking not because there was anything bad per se, but because there was nothing really good, either.
First of all, I’m not sure why it matters if Banchero thinks he should be the number one overall pick. He’s not going to be making that decision. The team that holds the top draft pick — in this case Orlando — is. Here’s a much better question: “How important is it for you to be the number one overall pick?” This would actually give an idea of the stakes for Banchero. What does this actually mean to him? Asking him why he should go number one is asking Banchero to tell us how others should see him. Asking Banchero how important it would be go number one is asking him to tell us about his feelings, something that’s much more likely to produce an interesting answer.
The point here isn’t to question Greenberg’s overall competence because I don’t. He’s as versatile a host as there is in the game, and anyone else in the industry has something to learn from the way he teases ahead to content. What I want to point out not just how we fail to maximize opportunities to generate interesting content, but why. Interviews are a staple of the sports-media industry. We rely on these interviews as both primary content that will be consumed directly, and as the genesis for our own opinions and reaction yet for all that importance we spend very little time thinking about the kind of answer this question is likely to produce.
The Client Just Said YES, Now What?
We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES.
One of the most significant moments in radio sales is when the client agrees to your proposal and says YES. But, when they do say YES, do you know what’s next? We better have an answer!
We spend a lot of time getting ready for clients with research, spec spots (thank you, radio sales trainer Chris Lytle-go to 22:30), proposals, and meetings. All of our focus is on getting the client to say YES. We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES. For example, getting newer sales reps to sell annual advertising contracts would be ideal for building a list. They would have less pressure, more job security, and could spend more time making the advertising work for their clients. But, since most newer reps don’t know the business yet, they don’t bite off more than they can chew and sell a package of the month.
When a client says yes to the weight loss promotion, it’s pretty clear how to write the ads, what the promos will say, etc. BUT, if a newer sales rep starts selling annual contracts to a direct local client who needs a resource, how will that work? Let’s make sure we paint the picture right upfront. More experienced reps know that they need to assume the client will say YES to the weight loss promo and have a plan accordingly.
They have the next steps to building copy and promos, a credit app or credit card payment form, and any other detail the client must provide. But, when we ask a direct local client for an annual advertising contract, watch out! You have just made a partnership. Why not lay out, upfront, what that will look like. And I understand not every local client needs the same level of service.
A car dealer has the factories pushing quarterly promotions, agencies producing ads, and in-house marketing directors pulling it all together sometimes. Other clients need your help in promotions, copywriting, or idea generation. Make a plan upfront with your client about when you will meet to discuss the next quarter’s ad program. Include your station’s promotions or inventory for football and basketball season, a summer NTR event, digital testimonials with on-air talent, etc., in your annual proposal. Go out as far as you can and show what you have to offer to the client and how you can execute it. This exercise is good for you and, once mastered, guides the client on how you will take care of them after the sale. It also opens your eyes to what it takes to have a successful client partnership inside and outside the station.
Media Noise – Episode 74
This week, Demetri is joined by Ian Casselberry and Ryan Brown. Demetri talks about the NBA Draft getting an ABC simulcast, Ian talks about Patrick Beverley’s breakout week on TV, and Ryan reminds us that Tom Brady may be the star, but Kevin Burkhardt is the story we shouldn’t forget.