One of the best scenes in the movie This Is Spinal Tap is when Nigel Tufnel explains that his guitar amps go to 11. “If we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do? 11. Exactly.”
There are many sports radio hosts that only go to six or seven in terms of passion, work ethic, and entertainment value. Dave “Softy” Mahler is not one of those hosts. He could coast by based on a long history of success. Instead Softy attacks each show as if he still has something to prove. That’s refreshing.
Softy has been a kingpin in Seattle dating back to 1997 when he got his first show on 950 KJR. The Bellevue native currently hosts afternoon drive from 3-7pm alongside Dick Fain. Softy talks about his East Coast delivery and unique sound in the market. It’s kind of like putting Slayer or Cannibal Corpse among the Seattle grunge scene, but it works. Softy also touches on what he regrets most in his career, the area as a host he isn’t good in, and what would be a dream come true before his career ends. Enjoy.
Brian Noe: How did you get your nickname?
Dave “Softy” Mahler: Basically I had erectile dysfunction when I was a teenager, which — no I’m kidding.
DM: I used to weigh 270 pounds. When I was hired at KJR back in the early ‘90s I worked with a producer named Pat Haller. For some reason he just started calling me Softy. He started poking me one day and just said “Man you’re kind of soft. You’re like the Pillsbury Doughboy.” It was back in the day when it was still acceptable to poke fun at people for their weight. I just took it all in stride and figured hell nobody else is nicknamed Softy so I guess I could be the first one. I’m either going to be a genius or a complete idiot. That’s how I got the nickname back in my fatter days.
DM: It’s been a while since you’ve been that big, right?
DM: Yeah almost five years. I ended the 30/10 program in November of 2015 and was down 70 pounds. That was four and a half years ago. I went from a double D cup to an A cup. I just got tired of waking up and being exhausted. I saw the pictures of myself and just said, man, I look disgusting. I just got tired of it. Ian Furness did 30/10. He lost a bunch of weight. I said hell if that bastard can do it then I can do it too. I lost 70 pounds and I’ve kept the weight off ever since so it’s pretty cool.
BN: You’re back in the studio now?
DM: Yeah back in the studio now, man. I had a chance to do the show from home. I basically turned it down. Dick Fain, who does the show with me, he’s doing the show from his house. He’s got kids. He’s got a wife at home as well. He felt more comfortable doing the show from home. Despite what people think in this business, we don’t have an endless supply of equipment for everybody. When you’ve got eight radio stations in the same cluster, you’ve got to share a lot. We just didn’t have enough equipment to go around for everyone to do their show from home.
Plus I think it’s good for one of us to be in the main studio. They set it up so nobody uses the same mic throughout the day. The chair that I sit in, the mic that I use is my mic and my chair. Nobody else uses it. They’ve done a great job of spreading everybody out and making sure everybody is staying healthy and safe and happy. I think I’d go freaking crazy if I was staying home all day long. Doing the show from home would drive me nuts. Just getting in the car and doing the drive to work is kind of giving me a sense of normalcy.
BN: What has it been like doing a show in general with the pandemic going on?
DM: It’s been fine. Honestly dude, with all the shit going on in the world right now and people out of work and struggling to get by, it just seems a little bit ridiculous for me to be complaining about putting together a radio show. Radio in the end is about entertainment. There are a million ways to keep people interested. There are a million things to talk about.
There’s never been an easier time to get guests on because guys are sitting around doing nothing. Guys that you’d normally have a hard time getting on are like, “Oh yeah, I’ll jump on. Sure, no problem.” We’ve had no problem putting together a show. We’ve had no problem putting together content.
I don’t know if anybody’s listening for God’s sake. It’s a double whammy; there are no sports and there’s nobody in their car. It’s been tough in that regard, but actually putting together a show and having content and creating good radio that you feel like is actually something that people want to listen to, it’s been the least of our concerns.
BN: You’ve been at KRJ for over 25 years. What did you do before that?
DM: Before KJR I worked as a producer on an alcohol recovery talk show. It was wild taking calls from alcoholics, running the board for Neil Scott, who hosted the radio show, who now works for us. I did play-by-play for Seattle Prep for two years. I basically was in school. I got hired at KJR when I was 21 years old as an intern in March of ‘94. I got hired full time in November of ‘94.
I was at a community college in Bellevue and got hired at KJR and just figured the hell with it. I already got the job I’m looking for. I can go to a four-year school somewhere else and just get in debt, but I’m going to end up looking for the same job I have now. I just left school early, did two years at JC, and went to KJR in November of ‘94 full time. I’ve never had a penny of school debt, which has been great obviously. I got lucky, man. I got that job right out of the gate and I’ve been there ever since.
BN: Has there been anything from those early days when you were just learning radio that you still incorporate in the show you’re doing now?
DM: Oh yeah, all the time. Working hard is working hard, right? Busting your ass is busting your ass whether it’s as a producer in the ‘90s or a guy that’s on the air right now in 2020. In the end I think all of us have certain philosophies about what’s kept us going and what’s kept us employed. I’ve always thought for me really before what we do on the air it’s about the clients. It’s about making money for the radio station. It’s about proving your worth financially. I think people tend to forget that sometimes in this business — that in the end are we in the ratings business? Yeah. Are we in the great content business? Yeah. But you know what? In the end honestly we’re all in the f***in’ making money business. That’s what we’re doing this for. That’s why we’ve been hired.
We’ve been hired to go on the air and make money for the company that we work for. If I’m not making money for iHeartMedia, then I’m worthless. If I’m not making money for KJR, then what’s the point of having me on the radio station? I’ve seen a lot of great shows that do great radio but can’t make money because their sales staff can’t sell makeup to a clown. I’ve heard some boring radio shows that put me to sleep but they make money because they work for a great sales staff and they have great relationship with their clients and they also have tremendous play-by-play partners that bring in big numbers for the radio station. Really when it’s all said and done, dude, doing great radio is awesome and having funny, entertaining content is awesome, but if you’re not making money for the station, if you’re not bringing in cash for the company you work for, then what good are you?
BN: I like your style; you sound Philly. You sound New York. You’ve got some edge. If you were brand new to the Seattle market, do you think that style would play?
DM: It’s a great question. I honestly have no idea, man. My father is from New York. My mother is from Michigan so I do have a little bit of East Coast blood in me for sure. Do people want maybe a little bit of a less abrasive guy now than they did 25, 30 years ago? I’ve got no idea. I really don’t. I just know one speed and one way. I kind of pride myself in believing that I’m the same guy on the air as I am off the air. People have told me that before and I really take that as a compliment.
Nothing drives me more crazy when I flip on a radio station or listen to a game on radio and I hear mister radio guy or mister broadcaster. All these cookie cutters out there that just do the same damn thing over and over again and have the same tired guests and the same tired ideas and the same tired segments and the same tired approach.
I want something unique. I want something that I can’t get on the other station. I want something that I can’t get in a different city. I want something that’s memorable. I want personality. Hopefully we give that to people. If we ever get to a point where they’re not getting it, then I’m probably doing something else to be honest with you.
BN: Who are some of the other hosts that you think are good?
DM: I love Cowherd. I think Cowherd is great at what he does. I think he’s full of shit half the time, but aren’t we all? So what. Who cares that I disagree with his takes? Who cares that I think his takes are out there? He’s entertaining. He entertains me. I think he’s funny as hell. I think his takes are strong as hell. I think his takes are intelligent. I may disagree with him half the time but they’re intelligent. They’re well thought out. He does a great job of basically presenting his arguments so everybody can understand it. I think he’s great at what he does.
I’m a big fan of Tony Bruno. I’ve known Tony for a long, long time going back to his days on ESPN Radio when it was him, Chuck Wilson, and Peter Brown. They were doing a three-man show on the weekends and it was the greatest sports talk radio I’ve ever heard. It was like 25 years ago.
T-Man Rob Tepper when he was doing a show for Sports Fan and then eventually working for us doing nine to midnight. I thought Rob was one of the best sports talk radio hosts I’ve ever heard in my life. It was great to get a chance to work with him for that short time.
Locally Mike Gastineau and Dave Grosby are the godfathers of sports talk radio in Seattle. Gas has been retired for a while and Groz is doing his gig on 710. Those two guys for me were one of the biggest reasons why I got in to radio. Hell I used to call both of those guys when I was just Dave in Bellevue calling KJR when Groz and Gas were doing shows together. Separately I would call Gas and I would call Groz and talk to both those guys as a caller. I’ve still got tapes of me calling Groz back when I was probably 19, 20 years old. Those guys inspired me. They were local heroes to me growing up and the fact that I was even able to remotely follow in their footsteps is pretty freaking crazy. It’s like a dream come true today even 25 years later.
BN: When you evaluate yourself as a host, what area do you look at and say, ‘I’m not the greatest at this?’
DM: I think most of the shows I do suck to be honest with you. I can’t stand listening to myself. I hate hearing myself. It drives me nuts when I’m in the car and I hear one of my spots come on the air, or I hear somebody replay an interview of mine. I just cringe. I just can’t stand listening to my own voice. It’s a miracle the audience doesn’t feel the same way to be totally honest with you. I’m always uber-critical. We could have a phenomenal show for 99 out of 100 minutes and that one minute that sucks is the one minute I’m going to dwell on for the rest of the evening.
I’m way too hard on myself when it comes to little things. Things that people that aren’t in this business probably for the most part wouldn’t even notice, I freakin’ hammer myself for. I wish I enjoyed it more because in the end as Kevin Calabro once told me we are all lucky enough to work in the toys and games department. We’re not curing polio. We’re not saving lives over here. We’re not putting our lives on the line like cops and firemen are every single day. We’re not fighting the pandemic the way nurses and doctors are. We are talking sports for f***’s sake. We should be enjoying this.
My biggest problem that I’ve had is that I get way too stressed out and I don’t enjoy it as much as I should. I would really, before it’s all said and done no matter when that is, I would like to find a way to slow down and actually enjoy this because we’re lucky as hell, both of us, to do what we do.
BN: No doubt about that. How about your biggest strength — what do you think it is?
DM: I think my biggest strength is I just maybe — first of all I just feel terrible talking about myself like this. It actually embarrasses me. To sit here and actually jump on the phone with you and have me talk about what I do well, it just makes me want to throw up. Guys that are self-congratulatory, guys that go out of their way to tell people how great they are, it makes me want to puke.
It’s not your job to decide what you’re good at. It’s your audience’s job. It’s your boss’s job. It’s your client’s job to decide what you’re good at. I could tell you I do a million things great. I think I do a great interview. I think I get to the damn point when it comes to interviews unlike some people who beat around the bush. I pride myself on being able to have a take on really any topic you can throw at me. If I don’t have a take I can bullshit my way through it. I just feel that it’s not our job to decide what we’re good at.
BN: As far as the future goes, man, what would you like to do before it’s over and you retire?
DM: Great question. I thought about that maybe 10, 15 years ago getting into play-by-play. I would have loved to have tried my hand at play-by-play. My dream job growing up as a kid was to be the voice of Husky football, to be the next Bob Rondeau and just for whatever reason didn’t put in the work to go down that road. I believe if I did put the work in there’s a chance I may have been pretty good at it. I just never got a chance to prove to myself whether I was right or wrong. I kind of regret that. That’s one regret that I have that I wish I would have put a little more effort into trying to get in to play-by-play.
Not that I don’t enjoy and love what I do as a talk radio host but I think I would have also enjoyed doing play-by-play. I wonder every now and then how things would have gone. Is it too late for me to get in to that side of the business? I’m 46. I’ll be 47 years old in August. Maybe that ship has sailed. Maybe I’m too abrasive to be in that role for certain people. Maybe they want more of a neutral type guy, a guy that’s not going to ruffle feathers. I’ve actually talked to folks in the industry before who say that maybe I would be way too opinionated on the air to be in that role. I don’t know. That’s one regret that I’ve got.
You know what I would love to do honestly? I would love to go on the air one day and tell my audience that the f***ing Sonics are coming back to Seattle. That’s a goal. That’s the kind of shit I dream about. Doing play-by-play one day would be great, but going on the air and telling people the Sonics are coming back to Seattle and the NBA has approved a relocation or an expansion team for Seattle, that’s the stuff that drives me. I hope I last long enough to be able to do something like that.
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.