An old line from the movie Bull Durham sums up a lot of sports radio hosts these days; “I want to announce my presence with authority.” Many hosts try to stand out by being the loudest, or the smartest, or the most daring. They start to resemble peacocks strutting around while trying to grab the audience’s attention. A huge ingredient of enjoying sports radio success is being able to connect with the audience. Some hosts simply forget to ask themselves, am I someone people want to be around?
Mike Bell is an afternoon drive host on 92.9 The Game in Atlanta. He’s also a master at connecting with people. Mike doesn’t want to sit atop his press box perch while looking down upon the unwashed peasants in attendance. The native of Long Island, New York has had Falcons season tickets since 1998. He wants to slap high fives, yell at the top of his lungs, and have enough room to frolic around if Matt Ryan and company have it rolling. In essence, he is his audience.
Mike talks about his relationship on and off the air with tag team partner Carl Dukes. Although Nielsen has a gleam in its eye for Dukes & Bell, Mike mentions having bigger goals than reigning supreme in sports radio. Hey Man beer, being vulnerable on the air, a past mistake with Jessica Mendoza, and his side of a head-scratching radio beef are a few of the other subjects we dive into as well. Enjoy!
BN: When and why did you make your way to the Atlanta area?
MB: I was in Fort Myers, Florida. I was doing morning drive in a top 40 format. I was kind of on hold with my career because of my grandmother; I was taking care of my nana. My dad had passed away and I was kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop. I had her in assisted living. Her money ran out and I had her living with me. It was like a sitcom; a guy in his mid-20s with an 80-year-old lady in his house. [Laughs]
I think you’ll get a kick out of this, it’s very analog, in the old days obviously as the internet was just getting traction, you had Radio & Records. They had like the old blind box ad that said top 10 market seeks comedian with sports knowledge. I was recruited unbeknownst to me by 790 The Zone. I think they had something like 500 tapes and they narrowed it down to five finalists. I was the leader in the clubhouse. They liked me and they brought me in on a Friday. I did my morning show in Fort Myers and flew up and did the interview. I was on afternoon drive as a live audition back in 1998. And it stuck.
It was really like the last of the mom-and-pop stations. I remember we went to the Palm. Everybody was there. We were doing shots. I remember going out with my boss at the time till like five in the morning at a local bar. I finally turned to him and go hey, by the way did I get the job? [Laughs] And he’s like oh yeah, we need you to give them two weeks notice as soon as you can. It was old school when Atlanta was like the Wild Wild West.
BN: Who were your favorite teams when you were growing up?
MB: Being a New Yorker, a big Mets fan. When I was a kid, the Yankees were winning back-to-back World Series and Shea Stadium was falling apart. It was another typical rainy night. If you were at Shea in the old days, you look out, you’d see the World’s Fair, you could see over the Manhattan skyline. It’s a rain delay and I asked my dad the existential question, why are we Mets fans? Let’s go over by these Yankees fans. Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, and the Mets are terrible.
My old man takes a drag off his Marlboro, and he’s literally like, I’ll tell you why buddy boy, anybody can root for the Yankees. It takes character to be a Mets fan. He said being a Yankee fan was like rooting for the IRS; it was like rooting for the sun to come up. He said yes, we’re like the red-haired stepchildren in New York, but we’re the real New York. We’re the minorities. It was kind of fun. He said by the way if we ever win the World Series, it’ll be ten times sweeter for us as it is for a Yankee fan. That kind of mindset always stuck with me about always sticking with your team or your underdog.
BN: How have your team preferences changed over the years with you being in Atlanta for so long?
MB: I lived in South Florida, so I had Dolphin tickets. I love going to live events. I love live music. I love live sports. So I’ve always tried to support the team wherever I lived. When I moved to Atlanta, I got season tickets for the Falcons. And I’ve had season tickets since 1998. Then it’s kind of cool; you’re invested.
It’s funny when we talk to the players or we have a general manager on, it’s like hey I’m paying for this. Carl too, he also has season tickets, so we don’t sit in the press box. The idea is that we’re invested. We’re speaking for the fan. And not to get all high and mighty, but we put our money where our mouth is. We pay for the tickets. But I’m a big Falcons fan.
The Hawks obviously over the years I’ve gone to a lot of Hawks games. I loved the Thrashers when we had hockey. [Laughs] That ship has sailed. It’s difficult when you do afternoons to go to Braves games because you miss the start, but we try to catch at least maybe 10 during the season on the weekends.
BN: What’s the story about you wanting to work with Carl, but him not wanting to leave Houston initially?
MB: I wouldn’t want to leave Houston if they were going to pay me more money either. [Laughs] I’ve known Carl — we traced it back to the Super Bowl in 2002, the one in New Orleans after 9/11. He was doing middays in Houston and I was doing morning drive in Atlanta. We were like the table across from each other. We just kind of hit it off. We were friends and we’d see each other at Final Fours and Super Bowls, boxing matches in Vegas. Then in 2010 or something like that, we hooked up in Vegas and I said man I’d love to get you to Atlanta. My partner at the time was David Pollack. He was about to head to ESPN full-time.
I had reached out to my management and they at least had a conversation, but I don’t think they ever got close with the money. Then ironically when 92.9 The Game launches, my boss is like, who’s this Carl Dukes working opposite you? I’m like that’s the guy I wanted you to hire. We just got along. We always felt the dynamic of our personalities would be great. And our old agent, rest his soul, Norm Schrutt — Carl and I had the same agent — he used to joke around like, ‘just ‘cause you laugh at the same jokes, who knows if the show will be any good?’ But we always knew it would be a hit if we had the opportunity.
BN: How did Hey Man beer originate?
MB: A couple of years ago, our former program director, Terry Foxx, came to us and said hey there’s this local brewery. They’ve got some marketing people and they’ve reached out to us. They’re interested in doing a beer with you guys. To be quite honest we didn’t really think much of it at the time. But it’s a great local brewery called Oconee, which is halfway to Augusta from Atlanta off I-20. It’s a mom-and-pop brewery. If you’re familiar with SweetWater, it kind of reminds you of the early days of SweetWater here in Atlanta.
We had a meeting, hit it off, then we agreed we’d come up with some different flavors, and do a taste test to see what we liked. Then we would start off on draft. We started off on draft and the next thing you know they want to put it in cans. I’ve been in radio since ‘87; it’s arguably the best guerrilla marketing. It’s better than billboards. The listeners will buy the beer. They’ll take photos of them drinking the beer. They’ll take pictures of them at the store buying the beer. It’s a great way to connect and most importantly it’s not a money grab. The product is really good. It’s a great tasting beer so we did a blonde ale with 5% alcohol by volume. We’ve had it in restaurants and we’ve had it in bars all around Georgia.
Before COVID, we were going to do the watermelon lime. We did a small batch of that and we had it at a pregame party for the Braves. We’re not a rights holder so we were at a distant parking lot, but we had our tailgate going. Everybody went bananas. We went through however many gallons of beer we had in like minutes. We knew it’d be a big hit. We just obviously couldn’t launch it last year when COVID hit. It just dropped on April 1. It’s been a huge hit.
BN: What are your thoughts on the All-Star Game moving out of Atlanta?
MB: That’s a hot potato. In Carl and I, because you have an African-American host and you have a white guy, you can tackle some of these issues that maybe other shows might want to shy away from. It’s a difficult discussion because the demographics here in our city, it’s kind of like a blue center of a red donut when you’re speaking to the audience, so you’ve got everything from folks out of the rural parts of our listening audience, to folks right in the heart of the city. The All-Star Game, it came so quickly. There was some talk that the players union was discussing it and then boom, the decision was made.
The problem is like everything else in 2021, people immediately look at the headline but they don’t read the story. People went to their corner and started shouting about it. It’s frustrating because the people who ultimately suffer are the folks who need it the most. The folks that are going to be selling the beer, the folks working at the hotels, working at the restaurants. While I understand the logic behind Major League Baseball doing it, I didn’t think the execution made sense. Especially to pull it out of a city like Atlanta and take it to a city like Denver. Those demographics are completely different.
BN: When topics dip into politics, how do you guys like to handle it on the show?
MB: I think in this day and age people turn to sports as a release. It’s my escape from the real world. It’s my escape from everything else that I’m bombarded with. But there are some stories you just can’t ignore. Carl and I have always made it a point to say we’re not going to ignore it. When we had the social justice protests, we weren’t going to not talk about that. We got very emotional talking about that.
We talked about Kaepernick. I said look, I grew up hand over my heart singing the national anthem. I think my phrase was my American journey is a lot different than other people. We use phrases like empathy and try to put yourself in another person’s shoes and then have a discussion about it. Now of course there are people out there, the moment you talk about Kaepernick and you try to rationalize something like that, boom they’re gone. They’re not going to listen to that. I think the ratings reflect that when we do get into these issues, it doesn’t hurt us. It’s definitely something that is too big to ignore.
BN: Why do you think the 2 Live Stews aren’t back on the air in Atlanta right now?
MB: I couldn’t speak to that. I’m out of my depth. I know that they did a fantastic job when we were together at 790. But I can’t speak to that. I know they had the same representation that I had back in the day with Norm, my old agent. But I don’t know what’s going on with those guys.
BN: What’s something you’ve shared about yourself on the air or been vulnerable about over the years?
MB: That’s a good question. It’s kind of what you just talked about; we talk about sports and things that are lifestyle. We just talked about it last week with Mother’s Day. I’m adopted and at times in my life it was difficult. We connected with my biological mom. We talked about that, not that there was a stigma to it, but how you go through your life’s journey and eventually you get closure. That’s probably the most intimate detail I’ve shared.
BN: How difficult was that for you to do?
MB: Once you get rolling it’s pretty easy. It’s conversations I’ve had with Carl in private so we just kind of extended it to on air.
BN: What do you think is the key to connecting with listeners?
MB: I’m never going to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, I just think I communicate and connect with people in our city. And being straight with them. When we talk about something, people know we’re not manufacturing a topic. It’s not you take this side and I’ll take that side. Sometimes when Carl and I get into a real raging argument, it’s almost like the kids are listening to mom and dad, like please guys, don’t fight. We don’t manufacture fake, phony arguments. It’s all coming from the heart. It’s legit.
BN: What was your reaction to what Mark Zinno had to say about you recently?
MB: [Laughs] You know what, I don’t really know where he’s coming from. If he felt that there was a text message back four years ago when we were talking about the show and I used a take of his — I would say this, it’d be the first time I’ve ever agreed with him. No good deed goes unpunished with Zinno. I tried to give him advice about the market when I first met him and he first came to the station. I tried to help him get representation. We look at the world through two different lenses. Honestly I have no idea what he was talking about, but apparently it was a red-letter day for him I guess.
BN: Any regrets about calling Jessica Mendoza “Tits McGhee”?
MB: Yeah, that was dumb. Again it’s a changing landscape of pop culture and radio. Luckily my bosses allowed me to speak from the heart when I made my apology. But more importantly, learning about it. There’s things you just can’t do. Carl and I were having this discussion, I forget how it came up, not specifically about Jessica Mendoza but it was a politician or an athlete who got in trouble. We talked about it; there are things you cannot do in the workplace anymore. It’s a lesson learned.
BN: Dan McNeil in Chicago got fired for tweeting something critical about Maria Taylor. Do you ever see stories like that and think you’re lucky to still have your gig?
MB: It’s definitely when you think of the timing of things. There’s right and wrong in the world and what I did was clearly wrong. I was suspended for it and came back. If the audience likes you or believes in you, and they realize where you’re coming from, and realize you made a mistake — on the flip side, there’s also cancel culture. Would I have survived something like that today? I don’t know.
BN: What’s your favorite sports radio moment that you might flash back to from time to time?
MB: Wow, that’s a great one. The Falcons going to the Super Bowl was surreal. It’s kind of like it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The week in Houston was so awesome. The funny part of it was nobody liked the Patriots. All the Texans fans we met, everywhere we went, people were pulling for Atlanta. We had a big pep rally. CeeLo played the thing. The place was off the chain. It was a perfect buildup just to have your heart broken.
That week we did a bus trip. One of our sponsors Wade Ford — we took a bus with all of our personalities. We drove down to Houston in this bus with a wrap of our logo. It was freaking great. The whole week, the best building up to a moment, you’ve got this big lead and then only to have the rug pulled out from under your feet. It was obviously heartbreaking. Matter of fact, it was so heartbreaking, I think the only time we’ve had a period where there was a dip in the ratings, were people literally so heartbroken that they didn’t even want to talk about it in February that year.
BN: What has it been like to see anything related to 28-3 after that loss?
MB: There are so many angles to it. The Saints are our mortal enemy. I think it’s the greatest rivalry in the NFL. I don’t think people appreciate just how passionate the fan bases are. Two primarily African American fan bases in the South. The trash talking.
We had Saints fans flying banners over us “28-3 never forget”. It’s got so much more juice and so much more heat than something like what the Packers and Bears are supposed to be. Even when we’re bad, it’s the greatest rivalry. Just the fact that they’ve got the ring, and obviously the ring is the thing, it validates you. Unfortunately for Atlanta, we call it Atlanta-itis on the radio, where sometimes you feel like whether it’s Georgia football or the Braves, you just have a sense of fatalism that something’s not going to turn out, which I hate it. I don’t think anything is interconnected, but it’s just part of the psyche now.
BN: When you look to the future, do you have any goals or things in mind you’d like to experience over the next five to 10 years?
MB: Well I’m 52, so I probably missed my window to get syndicated. [Laughs] I’m very happy. I’m truly happy and just blessed. I hope that Carl and I can at least — I don’t know if we can make it to retirement because we might get retired in this business. I would love to be number one overall in the city. That’s big to us. The political world just keeps on churning, so that news cycle doesn’t end. To be number one in the city for us would truly be my goal at this stage.
BN: Interesting. So you look at it not just as number one in sports radio, but you want to be number one in any radio format?
MB: Correct. That’s just it. We’re consistently, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a breakdown of our demographics, but we’re always consistently top three, or top two. In 18-49 we’ve been consistently number one in a number of books over the last couple of years. There are heritage stations in town and we’re still a relative newbie by radio standards, but we have the best station in town. We just have to keep plugging away.
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.