Imagine how you’d feel if an opportunity to audition at your favorite radio station came about. Not just the station you simply enjoy the most; the station you grew up listening to in your hometown; the station you dreamed of working for one day. You might be the opposite of Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed — “My hand does not shake. Ever.” This surprisingly was not the experience of sports radio host Ramie Makhlouf when he tried out for 670 The Score in Chicago. He felt at ease the whole time.
The Bears, Bulls, and Cubs fan who was born in Palatine, a suburb on the north side of Chicago, never thought he’d be that comfortable. Ramie talks about his experience at The Score, a series of events at SKOR North in Minneapolis, and his rapport with a man named Mitch that led to him reuniting with 1250AM The Fan in Milwaukee. If you’re scoring at home that’s The Score, SKOR, The Fan and about four moves in two years. Someone get this man a beer.
Ramie has been a stand-up comedian for the past eight years. It’s really interesting to hear how he applies aspects of stand-up to sports radio. Ramie describes what it’s like to have a laugh track in his head. He also talks about the necessity of having thick skin, the horrors of country music, and the meaning of “put a roof on it”. I thoroughly enjoyed our chat and didn’t even once mention that the Cardinals are better than the Cubs.
Brian Noe: How did you get your start in sports radio?
Ramie Makhlouf: When I graduated from college I saw that there was this brand new sports talk radio station starting up in Milwaukee. I had graduated from a small college in Kenosha, Wisconsin — UW Parkside. I grew up listening to two things; The Score in Chicago and the Howard Stern Show. Howard Stern would always say the best place to go especially if you’re getting your start in radio is either a really shitty radio station that was getting no ratings, or a brand new startup station. So I was like man, this is perfect. There’s this brand new startup station right here about 30 miles north. Really just got a foot in the door, man, a really low-level, entry-level job, weekend board up and doing a few things here and there during the week. Just climbed the ladder there over the course of about 14 years. After about seven, eight years I was hosting the afternoon show.
BN: With you being a Stern guy, do you think that sports talk is sometimes too sportsy?
RM: Yeah, for sure. Absolutely. I think the debate show phenomenon on ESPN and FOX Sports 1 and these networks has made that problem even worse. One of the things that — and not to say that I wasn’t having fun my first time around in Milwaukee, I had a great time my first time around in Milwaukee and couldn’t ask for a better group of guys to work with and to learn from — but when I went up to Minneapolis at SKOR North with Phil Mackey and those guys, there was a real emphasis put on let’s have fun. It was almost part of the job description that we need to have fun when we’re doing these radio shows because if we’re not having fun, then the people listening to us aren’t having fun. Ultimately this is entertainment, man. There’s no reason to take it too seriously. Not to say that you can’t have sportsy sports talk and you can’t get passionate about things, but at the end of the day there’s hardly ever anything going on in our world that needs to be taken that seriously that we can’t find a way to have fun and have some laughs around it.
BN: How does being a stand-up comedian help you build a show or choose content?
RM: I think it helps a lot. I think that they both help a lot. To be honest with you some of my best bits — not that I’m trying new material or running bits on the air, that’s something that I actively try not to do. Once I’ve written something into a joke or into a bit, I try not to recite that later on, on the air. But some of my best bits have just sort of come up accidentally on the air where I’ll be talking about something and just riffing and I’ll notice that the guys I’m working with are laughing or I’ll get a bunch of tweets like hey man that was hilarious. I’ll sort of form that into a joke or a story or a bit that I can tell on stage. It’s helped my stand-up comedy.
On the other end I think you kind of get a laugh track in your head after you do comedy for a while. When you’re going through the process of writing comedy, you can kind of hear where you’re getting the laughs over the course of writing a joke or writing a story. I think the same thing kind of applies. In radio you don’t get to hear their laughs, you don’t get to see how many people are tuning in or tuning out. I think that you do get sort of a sense of, or even a clock, that people are interested or are losing interest in what you’re doing and it’s time to move on.
BN: In stand-up comedy, the crowd is right there and you learn quickly what the crowd responds to. How do you take that and use it toward sports radio?
RM: I wrote a piece for Barrett Sports Media a few months ago and I talked about the similarities of the two and where there is crossover. One thing I talk about in that article, there’s what’s called the 12-second rule in stand-up comedy that you want to get a laugh every 12 seconds of a joke, or a story, or a bit that you’re telling. Otherwise you’re going to lose that crowd. You need to keep them hooked in to what you’re saying and what you’re doing so that they’re not — in our industry turning off the radio — or when they’re sitting in a comedy club losing interest, or talking to the person at their table next to them, or just spacing out and thinking about what they have to do the next day.
While it’s not always a joke or a punchline or a laugh that you’re trying to get when you’re doing the radio show, I think that there needs to be something every 12 seconds, or a handful of times every minute that’s keeping an audience — or I like to think of it as just one listener — that keeps them interested and keeps them hooked in to your radio show. That could be a sound bite. It could be a joke or a punchline where you’re going for a laugh. It could be an inflection or a change in your tone or a pregnant pause. But there has to be something where you’re changing it up and it’s not just you talking for 60 seconds straight. There has to be a handful of things every minute where you’re changing it up and giving the listener something to hook in to and stay tuned in to.
BN: Can you walk me through your timeline with SKOR North? Once the station went away, how did it unfold from there with The Score in Chicago and with Milwaukee?
RM: So I was laid off from SKOR North on May 31 last year. I had been in contact with Mitch Rosen before that. I had applied for jobs in Chicago at The Score and he kind of was coming into The Fan in Milwaukee just as I was on my way out. We had established a bit of a relationship already and a bit of a rapport. A few months after I was laid off in the Twin Cities, he asked me if I’d like to come back to Milwaukee and start doing some fill-in work there. I was doing that for a little bit.
Then the incident with Dan McNeil; one of the afternoon hosts at The Score tweeted some unfortunate things and lost his job as a result. They were looking for a co-host for Danny Parkins. I ended up on the short list. I tried out. It started off with a field of five or six people that they were trying out for that. Nobody told me this but just based on how far I went in the auditions, I think it came down to me and Matt Spiegel, who was already Danny Parkins’ co-host in a previous radio life before Dan McNeil came back to The Score. And Spiegs won it. And rightly so, man.
I got to know Matt Spiegel a little bit in my time working there and worked with him a handful of times. He’s a great dude and a radio professional. He gets this thing as well as anybody gets it. Obviously he and Danny have a lot of chemistry and a lot of history together. I’ve caught their show when I’m not working — we’re on at the same time — and those guys are great together. I’m happy for everybody involved and who knows? Like I said, I’m doing some weekends there so who knows what’s in the future. But I had a great time doing it, man. It was a dream come true being on those airwaves and that team of guys they have working behind the scenes with Danny Parkins and Matt Spiegel, the best in the business. They couldn’t have been nicer and more welcoming to me. It was a great experience.
BN: Is there anything about Danny’s approach to radio that differs from other hosts?
RM: I think he puts an emphasis on fun and being entertaining and not taking this thing so damn seriously. Bringing your life on to the air is something that I think Danny puts an emphasis on. It’s something that I put an emphasis on too. If there’s something that can make you relatable and entertaining to the audience that’s about you and outside the world of sports, I think that’s always a good thing to bring to a show. He does that and he encourages the people that he works with to do that.
As a kid growing up in Chicago listening to The Score and getting your shot on that station auditioning for the afternoon job that you always dreamed about having, there’s a lot of pressure with that. It can be a little bit nerve-racking. From day one starting with Danny and down to Shane Riordan and Chris Tannehill, his former producer Nick Shepkowski, and Spiegs when he was in there, all of them just made me feel like part of the team. Like hey, come in here and contribute, do what you do, just act like you’re part of the show and do what you’ve done on every other show that you’ve been on. I can’t tell you how easy that made the whole thing. I felt very at ease the first time I sat in that chair and was working in the shift on the station in the city that I had always dreamed about working with. I never thought I’d be that comfortable and a big part of the reason was because Danny and all those guys were so easy to work with and so welcoming to me.
BN: What do you like most about working for Mitch Rosen?
RM: One thing I love about working for Mitch Rosen — and I can’t say that about everybody who sits in that chair in radio stations across this country — he treats all of his employees like human beings and checks in on you and sees how you’re doing. How you’re doing on the air and with the job and if you need anything from him, he’ll help with that, but also how you’re doing just in general outside of work and in your day-to-day life. That’s a trait I’ve noticed about him in terms of how he handles the people that work for him is the same across the board whether you have the top rated show in the number three market in the country out there in The Score, or if you’re working at the 30th ranked market or whatever we are currently in Milwaukee. He treats all of his guys the same and I love that about him, man. He’s a really good sports radio program director, but he’s just a really good dude, and I appreciate working for a good dude.
BN: You’ve been outspoken about the abuse that Muslim people have faced and continue to face. What’s the reason you’ve been so involved?
RM: I’m not Muslim, but I am an Arab. Many people assume that all Arabs are Muslim, and so I catch blowback. When there’s an issue that has to do with Muslim people or the Muslim religion that might come up in sports or in the news or in pop culture, I get tweets, I get blowback, I get hate.
Just in general I try to push back on that stuff even if it has nothing to do with me. It has become like a personal thing even though it’s not my religion. I’ve caught so much flak for it. If there’s Muslim hate or just general Arab hate out there, I kind of feel like I need to take up for them in a sense. It’s an unfortunate part of people’s ignorance and blind spots that they don’t even know who they’re hating. Somebody told me to go back to Mexico on Twitter one time. I was like man, I’ve never been but I hear it’s nice. [Laughs]
BN: [Laughs] When you get off-the-wall hatred like that, does it ever make it hard to be funny if you aren’t feeling upbeat?
RM: Oh no. Nah, man. I learned a long time ago to let that stuff roll off my back. I feel like I had built-in defenses before I ever stepped on a stand-up comedy stage in terms of people heckling or throwing hate your way because when you work in the public eye, if you can’t handle that stuff and let it roll off your back, it’s going to be a long road to hoe and you probably won’t last long in this business. One of the things I always tell younger people when they’re getting into the business, if they’re dumb enough to ask me for advice, is have thick skin, man. Have thick skin about what’s going to happen in the industry and what people are going to throw your way from outside the industry because that’s just part of the job unfortunately.
BN: I have to ask about your stance that every stadium in the Midwest should have a roof. What’s this about?
RM: Not just every stadium in the Midwest, every stadium that’s not on the West Coast or in a desert should have a roof in Major League Baseball. Especially if it was built in the modern era. It blew my mind when I went to Minneapolis to work at SKOR North that you had a stadium built in 2010, in the northern most baseball city in these United States of America, where it regularly snows into April, and we have the technology to put retractable roofs onto buildings in 2010, and you just chose not to? You just decided, nah we’re good, we’ll play baseball in this crap? It makes no sense. It’s not good for the game. It’s not good for the fans who are sitting in the stands watching the game. There’s no benefit to it.
All you have to do is look however many miles to the east in Milwaukee and see what that stadium has done for the Brewers and the city of Milwaukee in terms of financial and business impact. People flock to the stadium because they know there isn’t going to be a rainout. And they just chose not to do that in Minneapolis and Detroit and in Cincinnati? It makes absolutely zero sense to me, so I started the ‘put a roof on it’ movement when I got to Minneapolis. I was surprised how it caught on. I just went with it because it became a thing that people knew me for. I’d go out to Target Field and people would be like, “Hey Ramie, put a roof on it.” I was like oh, this thing is working. I’m gonna keep going with it.
BN: That’s awesome, dude. It just pops into my head, Miguel Cabrera sliding into second base in Minneapolis because he didn’t know he hit a home run.
RM: He didn’t know! He couldn’t see the ball clearing the wall because there was just a curtain of snow covering the field. It was ridiculous. Why are we doing this?
BN: [Laughs] I have to ask you — your long hair made me think of music — what are your musical favorites?
RM: I’m all over the board. The one thing I can’t do — people think that I’m making this up just to be funny and I do maybe exaggerate a little bit but I have a literal phobia of country music. I have a fear of flying. I have a fear of heights. And I have a fear of country music. I get the same feeling in the pit of my stomach when I hear Luke Bryan or Morgan Wallen or whoever is today’s hot country music artist. I get the same bad feeling in the pit of my stomach as I do when I feel the wheels lifting up on an airplane and I’m sitting on that thing. [Laughs] I can’t do it.
I do love classic rock. That’s probably something that you would have assumed from the hair. The Beatles are the greatest band of all time and if you don’t believe that, don’t talk to me. Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, all the classics from those days. But more recently — the hair probably doesn’t indicate this — I’m more into hip-hop and rap. Kanye, Drake, Run The Jewels, that’s more often what I’m listening to nowadays than anything else.
BN: In terms of goals, is there anything specific that you would like to accomplish in the next few years?
RM: You know, man, to be honest I’ve never been shy about the fact that I want to land in Chicago. Like I said that’s the station I grew up listening to. That’s the city I grew up loving and the teams that I grew up rooting for.
The last few years of my life have been constant change. I think that if there’s one thing that I’ve learned through all of that it’s always be ready for change and be prepared for it and embrace it. I think we all kind of learned that lesson over that last year. A lot of things in my life have changed multiple times over the course of the last two years. That’s probably the case for a lot of people, so whatever comes, I’ll be ready for it.
Landing in Chicago would be great and I’m going to start getting some at-bats out there, but if that doesn’t happen, I’d love to build something great here in Milwaukee. I’m focused on what I’m doing now and whatever comes next I’ll be ready for it.