If you mistake Mike Salk for a dumb guy, you’re the one who’s lacking intelligence. He’s had quite the range of experiences in his career — from Seattle to Boston mixed with a side of Bristol — and has formulated many wise and helpful observations about the sports radio industry along the way.
It’s funny, just the other day I read about Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. blaming his former employer. He said the New York Giants held him back. Never mind the times Odell got in Odell’s own way by melting down on the sideline, getting suspended for going psycho on Josh Norman, and stinking up the joint in his only playoff appearance against the Packers. In many ways Mike Salk is the anti-OBJ. Instead of pointing the finger at WEEI in Boston for a relationship that didn’t work out, Mike points the finger at himself. It’s refreshing when men act like men by owning their shortcomings.
Mike made his way back to Seattle in 2014 where he doubles as a host and PD at 710 ESPN. He makes one of the most brilliant observations I’ve ever heard about working with an ex-athlete. He also describes how jealousy can limit the growth of hosts, and that viewing a rival sports station as the only competition is shortsighted. Enjoy.
Brian Noe: Over the 10 years that you and Brock Huard have done a show together, what area has your show gelled the most?
Mike Salk: In order to answer that you have to understand how little things gelled when we first started. I mean really, the show was troubled. I was from the Northeast and trying to make my way as a first time talk show host in a completely foreign city. Brock, who’s the nicest human being in the world, had never done talk either. In the first couple of weeks on the air, rather than saying something he once nodded on the air, which didn’t make for great radio.
The more Brock didn’t say much, didn’t offer a ton of opinion, the more over the top I was. I don’t want to quite call it hot take radio, but just the more opinionated and sort of east coast I would be, which didn’t fit the market at all. It took us a long time to meet in the middle.
I’m sure there are still times where we’re not perfect, but I think over those first couple of years he learned how to give an opinion on things — now he’s unbelievable at it — and I learned how to tone it down a little bit in order to kind of grow up and understand the market that I was talking to every day.
Noe: How difficult was it for you to adjust to the Northwest?
Salk: Hard. At first, really hard. I spent probably the first two years not understanding it at all. Then finally the next two years I started to grasp it a whole lot better. Maybe I even took it for granted when I went to Boston for the year because I think I had sort of become much more northwest at heart by the time I attempted that.
Noe: For anybody who hasn’t done radio in the Northwest, how would you describe some of the ways it differs from the Northeast?
Salk: It differs a lot. Seattle is known for being passive-aggressive. That sort of its M.O. It’s not an aggressive city. People don’t respond well to daily bashing of the teams, daily bashing of your fellow hosts, daily bashing of much of anything. They generally want an honest but friendly and sometimes positive take on the world. It’s not always my natural inclination, so I think maybe at times I stand out in that regard. I think generally Seattle’s a pretty happy place and people want to be pretty happy here.
Noe: What area of being a manager do you think you’ve grown the most?
Salk: I think unfortunately you’d probably have to ask the people I manage. I have really tried to grow the most in terms of putting the growth of their careers first. Putting aside my own show, my own hosting desires. Taking a backseat to what the hosts, producers, board operators, and everybody else on our team want to accomplish in their careers. That’s generally what I find most rewarding is seeing them succeed.
Noe: Parents sometimes learn from their kids. Do you find yourself learning how to be a better host through the talent you oversee as a manager?
Salk: 100 percent. Yes. Everyone does this differently, right? There’s no one right way to do radio. There’s not even any common thread that runs through every host or every show on any station, including ours. I think every day I’m either listening to shows on our station or other stations around the country.
I find myself learning from people all the time. It’s so easy as a radio host to be jealous of other talk shows that sound good. Rather than give into the jealousy part of it, I try to just incorporate and use it to remind myself of the things that can help make our show better at times.
Noe: Can you walk me through the timeline of you joining 710 and then going back to WEEI? How did that unfold?
Salk: Timeline wise? I moved out here in April of ‘09. I did (2) two-year contracts here in Seattle. Then I went to WEEI in March of 2013. I left there just under a year later. I’ve been back here as the PD and host since.
Noe: What was it like for you to adapt while doing radio in two very different cities — Boston and Seattle?
Salk: I think the problem was that I didn’t adapt very well. I’d like to tell you that I did, but I didn’t. I didn’t adapt very well to what Boston needed. I wasn’t a very good fit there. I didn’t handle that situation particularly well.
It’s a hard question for me to answer because I just didn’t do it very well. I didn’t make enough of an adjustment. I was pretty relieved to come back to a town that really had become home, meaning Seattle.
Noe: What did you learn the most throughout that whole experience?
Salk: I think I started to learn even more the differences between the way radio is done in the Northeast versus the Northwest. I don’t think I understood it particularly well even though I probably should have. I thought there was a market in Boston for doing things differently and there wasn’t really. There didn’t need to be.
I also learned a lot about how to enter new into a situation. I didn’t handle myself particularly well in Boston at WEEI. There were some issues with what I was told versus what ended up happening.
Overall I’m the one who showed up and I think I probably approached that job with far too much confidence — talking too much, not listening enough — and ultimately it led to a massive failure. I tried to learn from it. That’s been my goal.
Noe: What advice would you give to a host that’s trying to adapt after moving to an unfamiliar area?
Salk: I think it’s a really tricky balance of maintaining who you are while still listening, understanding, and coming to learn about the city that you’re moving to. It’s easy to learn the sports history of a town. It’s easy to learn the sports issues that you’re going to be dealing with on a day-to-day basis, but it’s hard to learn the style and personality of a region.
I think trying to ask as many people as possible about it — immerse yourself in whatever the local culture is. That’s enormous. Wherever you are, I think immersing yourself, doing the types of things people in that region do is pretty important to feeling like you truly belong there. There’s no substitute for time either.
Noe: Which do you think is more important — is it knowing the sports history, or understanding the vibe of a new place?
Salk: Oh, I think it’s the vibe. The internet can tell you anything. You can always look something up. You can always rely on your co-host for that part of it. But actually understanding what people are looking for and just the personality of a city, I don’t know that you can substitute for that. That’s why it takes shows — especially ones with people coming from out of town — it can take them a little bit longer to succeed because the sound may be different and it may be evolving. That takes some patience on the part of a program director.
Noe: As a host, if you went back and listened to one of your old shows from years ago, you would absolutely hear how much progress you’ve made. How do you gauge the improvements you’ve made as a manager?
Salk: Good question. I think in an alternate world in which we taped all of the behind-the-scenes conversations that we have and you played the ones from five years ago versus the ones now, I think they’d be pretty different.
I think that being a first-time manager is hard. Doing it while you’re doing a radio show every day is complicated. I hope they’d sound different. I hope that they’d show more improvement. I hope that I’m doing a better job of listening to people instead of spouting my mouth off. I think that’s — I’m learning — more and more important to management.
Noe: As a host or manager, what area have you changed your approach the most?
Salk: The management job is really divided up into a couple of different parts. On one hand you have the upward and outward facing elements of strategy. Trying to determine what a radio station should sound like, and what digital should look like, and what the interplay between them should be like moving forward. The other side of it is the true managing of people.
They’re completely different skills and completely different parts of the day other than that nexus point of trying to translate, here’s the plan for where we’re going, into managing the people who are actually going to be executing that vision. They are two very different skills. You’ve got to find a way to put them together while handling all of the day-to-day parts of running a radio station — things that just have to be done every day.
I will say for me — and especially given that I have the other part of my job — the team I have working on those things, they’re incredible. I have an APD in Kyle Brown who is top-notch. I have a social engagement, imaging, and digital team with James Osborn and Taylor Jacobs who are incredible. They are creative every day. Executive producer Jessamyn McIntyre takes care of so many little details. Then just all the way through with producers and hosts. It’s a really incredible team that makes it so much easier to do all of those things.
Noe: How closely do you pay attention to your competition in Seattle?
Salk: I just try to focus on what we’re doing. It’s not that they’re doing anything good or bad. We try to pay attention to what we’re doing. If we are doing our job right, that should be the only thing that matters. I want all stations to succeed. A rising tide would lift all boats. The more people interested in sports in Seattle, the better for me, but I really try not to think of any specific station as our competition.
If our demo was men 25-54, our competition is any station that is registering ratings in men 25-54. I think the radio industry is constantly focused inward on itself. Really, I think Jason has done a great job of this trying to unite parts of the industry, trying to find ways to say, no, television is the competition in some ways. XM might be part of the competition and part of the solution. Same with podcasts. Same with Pandora and anything else.
Noe: What’s important for a host to be aware of when working with an ex-athlete as a partner?
Salk: They’re much better athletes than you realize. I didn’t find that out until about a year or so in when Brock and I went to spring training and we worked out together one day. I was like, “Oh, he’s not just this chump backup quarterback.” He’s just throwing weight around and running like it’s nothing. It’s just totally different than I realized.
It’s a couple of things. One, in terms of the management side of it, ex-athletes are generally really coachable. They’ve been coached their entire life. They’re looking for feedback. They’re looking for help getting better and they genuinely want to improve. In terms of being a co-host, they have so many stories. They have such a unique ability to relate to professional athletes in a way that the rest of us simply can’t.
They just gather so much immediate respect. The whole you-can’t-talk-about-it-because-you’ve-never-played-it crowd that’s out there, they do want to hear from those ex-athletes who have the experience and have played at that highest level. You’ve got to find a way to tap into all of that. At the same time, and Brock has been incredible at this, the ex-athlete has to find a way to legitimize their co-host. The best ones don’t just revel in the fact that they’re the experts. They do that and they handled that, but they also throw questions back to their co-host and even if they disagree with the position, they don’t kill the position. They don’t illegitimize the position.
It’s something that I know is important to me and probably a lot of other hosts who’ve never played the game at a level above high school. We want to argue but that ability goes away if the ex-athlete is just saying, “Well you didn’t play so your opinion doesn’t matter.” Nobody wants to then start fighting about whose opinion matters. That’s bad radio. You just want to be able to dig into the whole thing. Brock’s been fantastic at that and I think nowadays most everybody seems to understand that thankfully.
Noe: That’s a great point. When Brock continues to grow in terms of play-by-play on a national stage, how does that affect your show?
Salk: It’s generally been really positive. First of all Brock’s access to premium guests that just want to go on with him is incredible. Just the number of national play-by-play and color commentators we’ve had on the show in the last few years, I think we’ve had each of the number one teams for all four NFL top broadcasting teams. At least before Romo replaced Phil. It’s not me. It’s not our producers. It’s Brock and just the reputation that he has. They respect him for how great he is.
I don’t think people truly understand how hard Brock works at both our job and at his college football gig. He is so well prepared every single week for that. I listen to a lot of guys around the country when I’m watching games. There are a lot of people who are really good at it. I don’t think there’s anyone in the country who prepares any harder than Brock does for those games. That’s the work during the week preparing at home, but then the amount of time he spends really thinking about the questions and taking stuff out of the in-person interviews they do leading up to it, he’s incredible at it.
Noe: If some major network lured him away, what would be your next step?
Salk: I’m probably not interested in starting another new radio show. So, I don’t know. Thankfully, I don’t have that situation. The real answer is just working with Brock every day — it’s one of my favorite parts about my job. I just love that relationship and that conversation. I’ve not spent a ton of time thinking about what the world would look like if he were lured away somewhere else.
Noe: If you think back to the time when you needed to tone it down and Brock needed to be more talkative, did you guys have a breakthrough where you thought, “Okay, we’ve finally gotten over the hump?”
Salk: I think it was just over a year in, we went to spring training together. We had a chance to get away. I think we went out for sushi one night and we just really talked about it. We’re really different people — politically, religiously, we come from completely different ends of the Earth. I think at that point we just kind of made a deal that the one thing we had in common was our desire to make this thing work. We wanted to win. That day we just sort of — I don’t want to call it quite a pact — but it was like, “Hey, we’re going to do everything we can to make this work.” Since then that seemed to kind of bind us together instead of apart.
Noe: When it comes to career goals, do you think about what you’d like to accomplish, or are you more of a day-to-day thinker based on your day-to-day workload?
Salk: Somewhere in between I guess. I don’t believe you can think too far down the line. I think I did when I first got into this. Before I got into the management side of it, I think like every young radio host my initial goal was I wanted to be on the air somewhere. I didn’t even care if it was sports radio. I just wanted to get into radio. Once that happened, my next goal was I wanted a steady gig. Then I wanted a drive-time gig.
There was a part of me that wanted to see what it would be like to go back to Boston and try to perform in the city that I had originally grown up in and love sports in. There was a part of me that wondered can I be the next Mike Greenberg? Can I host a big-time national radio show? I think along the way some of those goals fall off. You learn kind of your place in this landscape. I don’t think I’m going be the next Mike Greenberg. I’m not going to host a big-time national show. My goals just sort of shifted.
I’m really focused on the city I live in and my life here — a work-life balance, raising kids, being a good husband, trying to be a good leader for 710 and just push the station forward. The station has been incredible to me. Twice it’s helped me. The first time in 2009 I was unemployed and trying to figure out what the heck I was going to do. I had just gotten married. The station started and I was lucky enough to be invited out to work with Brock. Then when things went wrong in Boston, the station kind of magically was there for me again. I feel an immense sense of debt — a responsibility to a station and to my boss who’s taken a chance on me twice. It’s really important to me to try to pay that off.
Noe: When you think back to just trying to get on the air initially, could you have imagined that you’d have the career you’ve experienced?
Salk: Some of those nights when I was parking cars in the winter outside the John Hancock building in Boston in 20-degree weather, I would have just been happy to have a job inside on some of those nights. Being on the air was a thrill. There’s nothing quite like the exhilaration of starting a radio show every day. It hits you every single day.
I’ll never forget during the first couple of shows I did in Bristol. Louise Cornetta invited me to Bristol to do some shows, and driving back the two hours from Bristol to Boston and just feeling like I was going to drive 1,000 miles an hour home because I was just so amped up from doing those shows.
Working with Jeff Rickard and Freddie Coleman and some of the folks who were doing GameNight at the time who are awesome, and just couldn’t have treated me better, just amazingly easy to work with. Those moments were spectacular. Just the adrenaline rush of it was hard to forget.
Noe: What would you say is the biggest bright spot of your entire career?
Salk: The biggest bright spot? That’s a good question. I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked that question before. I don’t know that I have one. There’s no one moment. I think the first time our ratings turned for me and Brock, the first time we ended up getting good ratings after the first year or so of ratings that were not impressive, we were pretty excited. I wouldn’t say I did like the Merton Hanks, but I mean we were pretty pumped when those ratings turned for the first time.
I think over time ratings stop defining shows, so I’m really proud more for the whole package. I’m really proud of the stuff we’ve done at 710 this year. The station has been around for 10 years and we’ve never had one specific charitable function that we’ve been known for.
Finally this year we worked together as a whole group — and I’m talking everyone from hosts, producers, sales, promotions — everybody kind of got together and decided to work with this group called Coaching Boys Into Men. It’s a local group that does some really cool stuff on teaching high school kids how to respect women, consent, it’s an anti-domestic violence group, a leadership group and that’s been incredibly rewarding to see this group grow as we’ve worked with them.
Noe: When you wake up tomorrow morning, what is the one thing above all else that gives you the most enjoyment and excites you to run into the radio station?
Salk: The real answer is coming home for the nap later in the day.
(Laughs.) Honestly it’s the people. I know that’s sort of a cop-out answer, but it’s been really important to me, to my predecessor Brian Long, to my boss Dave Pridemore. It’s been really important to the people that have run 710 and Bonneville Seattle in general that we have a group of good people.
There are days that I don’t want to leave work. Heather my wife will be like, “Hey when are you coming home?” I’ll say, “I’ll be home soon.” Then I just sort of dawdle on my way out the door because I keep running into people that I want to talk to. It’s the people. It’s far and away that. All of the other stuff — ratings, revenue, digital, coaching, managing, strategy — all of that kind of pales in comparison to just getting to work with fun people.
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.