It’s not easy to change when you’re already in first place, but it’s the best way to avoid complacency. If you’re not growing and evolving, the people behind you will until they reach the top.
The Mike Valenti Show is winning on 97.1 The Ticket in Detroit, but that didn’t stop the longtime afternoon host from vouching for his friend and colleague Rico Beard to join the show. Not only does Beard bring his sports talk prowess, but he adds perspective to a station that admits they’ve missed the mark in reflecting Detroit’s diversity.
Valenti had a more than decade-long run The Ticket alongside Terry Foster and was equally successful as a solo host for the last four years. But even being in first place, Valenti believes the timing is right for change.
Brandon Contes: As successful as your show already is, why did you want to add a co-host?
Mike Valenti: It gets skipped in the headlines, but we lost an incredibly valuable part of the show in Mike Sullivan, because he’s not your regular producer. I’m a big believer in the Howard Stern model of using multiple voices. And when Terry [Foster] retired, we didn’t want to rush putting someone in that chair. It would be disrespectful to the 13-year run we had. We created characters, David Hull “Hatchet Man,” Roberto and Mike.
Mike is an unbelievable producer, he’s really good on-air, he also had several clients on annual deals. So I have to replace the position, the on-air aspect and the revenue. I’ve been interested in Rico for a long time. It’s no secret that I’m friends with him, I’ve tried to get him hired at the station for years, and now the timing is right.
“When Mike called me about joining him at 97.1, I thought it was the setup to a joke,” Beard said. “I was shocked, Mike doesn’t need help, he’s got the number one show. But the statement that sold me was when he said ‘we always talk about coaches that lose their edge because they won’t evolve.’ Mike wants to evolve, he hasn’t had a co-host in four years. He’s going to push me, I’m going to push him, we’re going to get the best out of each other and take this show to a new level.”
“I’ve had Rico on the radar for quite some time, but we didn’t have the right opportunity available,” Brand Manager of The Ticket Jimmy Powers added. “Mike Sullivan’s departure created an opening that allowed us to bring Rico on board. Sullivan was a valuable contributor to the show who will be greatly missed, but I couldn’t be more excited to hear what Rico will bring. Rico is the perfect fit to step in and provide his bold opinions and perspective, which will be different than Mike’s.”
BC: Did you recognize the importance of creating more diversity on the radio station’s lineup so that when you look at the name and faces of each show it’s not just mostly white males across the board?
MV: That’s not lost on anybody, and to be fair, it’s an industry issue. I’m not going to put other stations on blast, but go over the roster on a lot of stations and it’s a problem. It’s great to be part of positive change, but bottom line, we’ve had our eye on Rico for a long time. Am I happy I’m the one to have Rico join my show? Of course, but now it’s about winning. We’re already number one, let’s win by more. Let’s not look at what we’ve done the last five years, let’s program for the next five.
“You want to see and hear from people who look like you,” Beard added. “Throughout the country, radio stations should reflect the community. Stations should open up to new experiences, hear different stories and ways. By doing that, radio can do what a lot of politicians can’t do and bridge the gap between cultures. When you listen to radio, you hear another person’s life and experience, maybe you can now sympathize and empathize with that person. The power of radio can be tremendous.”
BC: Is Detroit a passionate sports fanbase? From the outside looking in, I’ve never viewed the city like I do Boston, Philly or New York.
MV: Everybody knows I’m from back east and I’ve always had an affinity for New York City, those are my teams. But I’ve always said this is one of the five best sports cities in America. Chicago, Detroit, New York, Boston and Philly. I’ve been blessed to have a long, great career here and people always ask, ‘how come you haven’t left to do something else?’ I already have one of the five jobs, I really believe that.
We have four pro teams, plus Michigan and Michigan State. We’re not New York, but we’re on par from a content standpoint. Even with our teams being awful, the passion is there. It’s a cold weather city and the winter means you’re watching TV. If you’re watching TV, you’re watching sports.
BC: How have you done without sports the last few months and more importantly, how would your audience say you’ve done? When sports shut down, there were a lot of hosts saying, ‘this is a chance to be creative’ and ‘this will separate the great hosts,’ but four months later, would your listeners say you delivered?
MV: I think you’re seeing a lot of the industry get exposed. Sports stations and talent got comfortable with being a ‘sports guy’ and operating in that box. But that’s not really where radio needs to go, it’s not where content needs to go. Our job was never to just beat the other sports station. Our expectation is to beat everybody.
I’ve enjoyed this. Are there days I pull my hair out and say this is a little harder? Sure, but most days, I’m proud of our content and the fact that we have a dozen different things on our show sheet. I’m also different, I’m not afraid to get into non-sports conversations. I say the things I feel and back it up with rational thought and facts.
I’ve never been prouder of a particular ratings book than the one we just had. 89 days, not a single game, we’re still number one. Obviously I want sports back, but it’s been awakening to show people I can do a lot more than what you think I can do.
“When I was his PD and hired him, he was raw,” said Kevin Graham, Valenti’s first program director at The Ticket. “He was a sports guy who grew up listening to the WFAN model which is X’s and O’s sports. But he’s evolved over the years as his comfort level increased and ratings went up and he’s been encouraged by other PD’s to go outside the sports bubble, so I’m not surprised he’s continued to be successful during the pandemic.”
BC: Does national radio appeal to you? There’s more freedom to build a show whereas local you’re obligated to talk Tigers all summer.
MV: Last summer I may have talked Tigers four or five times, they were irrelevant in my world. If your teams are that bad, you can’t talk about them every day, so I operate as a national show. The national platform used to appeal more, but I think you’re seeing a shift where the national platform doesn’t have the cache it used to have. All of my content is available to everyone everywhere through RADIO.COM and different platforms.
There’s no way to replace local. If you want to hear about your teams or a familiar voice, this is the place that does it and each city has that place. For national, I’d have to be presented with an opportunity I haven’t seen yet, I would never say never, but it doesn’t get the juices going like it used to.
BC: How strong was the WFAN appeal when you did test shows with Evan Roberts and Chris Simms in 2017 while they looked for Francesa’s replacement?
MV: As strong as it can be. It’s a dream job! That was my dream growing up and it doesn’t always work out. We started talking about what things would look like and it just wasn’t a fit. I’ve built a hell of a business, a hell of a career here in Detroit and I value my listeners and this station. It’s going to take a lot to pull you away from that. I’m not 25 anymore. You lose some of those dreams where you used to think you would walk on hot coals to get that job. It has to be right for me, for my wife and for my career. But with WFAN, I would never have gotten on the plane if it wasn’t serious.
“I couldn’t have been happier for Mike!” Powers said, “WFAN is a station he grew up listening to, so I know it’s been near and dear to him for a long time. I am a big fan of people pursuing their dreams and am an advocate for people going after life changing opportunities and fulfilling their professional goals.”
BC: What’s your mindset when with a new co-host? Do you tone down your intensity? Or are you yourself and if they can’t keep up that’s on them?
MV: A lot of conversations have to go into it before you hit the button to go on-air. Whether it was with Evan or Chris, there were a ton of phone calls between us. But you have to be a version of who you are, otherwise you’re really not helping yourself or the person you’re doing the show with.
Part of the fun of building a new show is being able to bring different things out of your co-host. That’s what talent’s supposed to do, and I take pride in that. I’m excited to have that opportunity now with Rico. It’s like unwrapping a present, let’s go on this journey and see what we can come up with.
BC: I never listened to you before you did those shows on WFAN in 2017. I enjoy Evan Roberts as a host, but when he was with you, it sounded like he was trying to keep up. Your brand of radio is different and it was intense for July radio where the homerun derby is usually the biggest sporting event.
MV: [Laughs] Or whether the Yankees should trade for Lucas Duda.
I can’t speak for Evan and how he felt about it, but all eyes were on him when he had random pairings coming in there. What you heard is my general approach, when you look at the PPM world we live in, you only get so many minutes from a person in a week. If you’re not passionate, find something else to do, if you’re not going to bring energy, find something else to do. I take great pride in that and it also requires an ample amount of coffee.
BC: Do you ever listen back to your famous 2006 MSU rant?
MV: I’ve listened back a couple times in 15 years. But for me, I feel like I’ve done so much that is far superior to that. It makes you laugh that choking on applesauce is what you’re remembered for.
I think that rant resonated with people because whether you were a Lions fan, Spartans fan, Texas A&M, any team who just couldn’t get it done, you can relate. That rant was 20 years in the making. I came in the Monday after that game against Notre Dame and my producer attempted to talk to me about the show. I said I’ll handle it on-air. I didn’t even talk to Terry.
The funny part is people who think a rant like that is even possible to be scripted. I put bullet points on my show sheet, there are no index cards, binders or written out takes. It’s an asinine way to think guys can do this. Just go, just speak and the rest takes care of itself.
BC: With that ‘just go, just speak’ approach, is there concern for crossing a line? I know you’re not on social media, but there are people listening that are on Twitter and they’re on Reddit waiting for someone to say something they can attack.
MV: ‘Just speak,’ but you have to have your career flash before your eyes when you’re doing this job. I pride myself on the uncomfortable conversations, but you must always be keenly aware. I’m not concerned with things that are considered unpopular or people disagreeing, but we have to be mindful as human beings not to be hurtful, not to cross the line.
It’s a challenge, no one’s perfect and when you color near the lines, you may go outside the edge. I’ve made mistakes in my career, but I pride myself on how fast I go and how hard I attack. I like to think, my listeners would say ‘hey, he’s pretty damn mindful.’
You mentioned social media. Part of the reason I got rid of it in 2013 is that it’s just noise. It takes away from the artform. We could do a whole separate interview on the damage social media has done to this country. If I ran a station, I swear I would just have producers on social media, I would forbid it for my hosts. Just lock in and do the job. Guys are too damn concerned with thumbs up, likes, hearts and getting something from total strangers who might not even listen to the show. One of the best things I ever did was getting rid of all that garbage.
BC: You mentioned the damage social media has done to this country. With your personality and intense brand of radio, if you were 18 years old today in 2020 and you’ve seen social media ruin careers, would it deter you from entering the business?
MV: Truthfully, I have the worst personality in the world for this job off-air and I’ve got the best personality for it on-air. Off-air, I’m laid back, I don’t need attention or want the spotlight. It’s tough for me to go back to 18 because nothing was going to stop me. I never wanted to write for a magazine, I had no desire to be on TV. This is the only job I wanted and it goes back to the summer driving around with my dad, listening to FAN through static in Albany. So I’d like to think the noise wouldn’t have deterred me.
BC: From a host’s perspective, how does the station having rights partnerships with a pro team impact your show?
MV: No one is ever going to deny that when a team is chasing a championship it’s going to help your numbers. But I don’t think rights are nearly as important as they used to be. You have entire networks whose purpose is to make that content available, dice it up, put it out, and get hits on social.
The most dishonest thing out there are teams with their own websites hiring their own writers. It’s propaganda, not journalism. Teams would be better served by not caring what people say about them. Just win games. Win games and your problems go away. Instead, these teams would rather call a program director or host and complain about a random segment from the middle of July. Do me a favor, don’t lose eight out of 10. Just win!
BC: When the Lions left 97.1, how did it feel to have the support of the radio station and know they weren’t going to let a team censor you?
MV: It was fine by me. I couldn’t stand the team. They had some really unprofessional people working there. They have no clue. You have one playoff win since 1957, but I’m your problem?
I tried to play the game. I tried to broker a relationship. I tried to do the things you’re “supposed to do” in this business. And the minute you say something they don’t like, everything else is washed down the toilet. They’d complain if I wasn’t at practice. Why? So I can see people stretch? Get the hell out of here.
I think the future model is the Barstool mentality. We don’t need access to give you the content you want. People don’t care about game stories anymore. People want to talk about what they watched and what their feelings are. It’s my job to translate what some of the numbers mean and maybe why you’re feeling that way is or isn’t correct. The industry needs to move on from that classic egomaniac radio guy who says ‘I was in the room last night.’ Nobody cares buddy, this isn’t 1985.
“Mike and I have always differed on this, he thinks I’m wasting my time, but I like going to games and hearing from coaches and players,” said Beard. “I was taught that by the late great Drew Sharp – if you say something about a player or coach, it’s your responsibility to show up at the next game or press conference. I like to hear what happened because sometimes there might be a reason, a player can pull you aside and off the record tell you something they’re going through that will explain their performance.”
BC: Do you feel added pressure with Rico joining the show? You have a top-rated show and you vouched for him, but if ratings drop, the finger gets pointed at him just because he’s the new addition.
MV: I disagree with that. I think the target will always be on me. I don’t make any secret about it, I advocated for this move. If you buy the groceries and dinner doesn’t turn out well, it’s your fault. I’m so conditioned to the pressure of it all, I’m used to it. My biggest concern is you have to have a very honest conversation with whoever you do radio with. But specifically, if you have a relationship with that person, playtime is over. This is a business and if it doesn’t work out, we have to be adults about it.
He’s someone I care about immensely. He’s tight with me and my family, we genuinely like each other. You don’t want to see that go south, but sometimes, that’s the risk of it all. There’s always a chance that it doesn’t end well. Everybody in this game is hired to be fired, at some point the music will stop and my goal is to get out before they stop the music on me. But I like to think I know something about radio after all these years. A lot of people are going to be surprised by us because they haven’t been exposed to Rico. I like to think I’m pretty damn good at bringing out the best in people and I have confidence this will work.
“There’s more pressure joining a show that’s already established,” said Beard. “On a new show, you’re allowed mistakes, but joining a show that’s already number one, there’s nowhere to go but down. I told Mike I want this to be like the Warriors adding Kevin Durant. They didn’t need Durant, but he took them to a new level where it was unfair for the rest of the NBA. I’m not coming to this show to be Mike’s sidekick and his cheerleader, I’m coming to this show because I have my own opinions, thoughts and life experiences. I’m from southwest Detroit, I know this city, I know the fans’ passion and frustrations.”