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.
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.