For parts of four decades, Dan McNeil has been stirring up Chicago sports radio. In this three-part Q&A, McNeil (aka Danny Mac, Mac, Dan or Danny) discusses the shows he has hosted and career decisions he has made along the way. For me, Dan has been a radio mentor since the mid 90’s when I produced The Heavy Fuel Crew show which Dan hosted with Terry Boers.
In part one, we cover his current show McNeil and Parkins, his Dan McNeil: Unsupervised podcast, and his time co-hosting an FM morning show on Chicago classic rocker, The Drive.
McNeil and Parkins (March 2018-Present)
Matt Fishman: What was your reaction to getting the call to return to The Score Full-Time in afternoons?
Dan McNeil: I was delighted by the opportunity because it was with Parkins, because I thought it was an approach that really had never been attempted with that much disparity in age between two partners. As I think about it it’s like-how did it take so long for somebody to get that idea. Let’s cover a lot of demos. Have a guy who was born in 1986 with a guy who was born when JFK was in office.
He (Parkins) checks a lot of boxes for me on things that I’m interested in and things that I’m not interested in. I don’t have to do a whole lot of college and pro basketball. Number one, it’s not a college town unless there’s a good local team. I don’t mind following the Bulls but NBA stuff when we get to the Finals, he’ll watch all that shit. So if there’s a percentage of our audience that wants it, he’ll cover it and I’ll take care of hockey that he doesn’t want to watch. That’s a good counterbalance for the show.
We like a ton of the same movies that have been made in the last 20 years. He’s a devout sports wagerer and pot smoker which reminds me a lot of me at his age. A lot of his attitudes reflect how I looked at things when I was in my late 20s and early 30s. He’s very driven!
Fish: As a real inside radio question–you’ve always been the A-host or Driver of the show? What went into the decision to let Parkins “drive” the show?
Mac: It’s a little bit different being the 2-guard. It’s not as much work. Sometimes I have to work harder at staying dialed-in because he’ll stay with something longer than I probably would have. That doesn’t happen a lot but it does happen. I actually tried to play 2-guard in the short-lived FM thing I did with Pete McMurray so I got a little taste of it there.
I’ve done enough perfect, eloquent teases and given the telephone number with my gorgeous pipes (said sarcastically) so many times that I don’t mind. Let him do some of the f***ing heavy lifting. He’s going to be doing this for 25 years and I’m on the 16th tee box. I’m almost done with this. That’s fine to spend more time in the 2-guard role. I expend less energy and I go hard to the f***ing basket when I decide to take the ball.
Fish: What’s your favorite thing about this show?
Mac: I love afternoons. I always have felt most comfortable in afternoons. I’ve always favored having the morning and the midday to work my way up to that. I think my personality is probably best absorbed at the end of the day.
I used to joke–Adam Delevitt(PD at ESPN 1000) asked us “what do you think your calling is in life?” Mine is I take people home from work. I’m not gonna be the smartest guy on sports talk radio. I’m not necessarily going to be the most informed or well read but they’re gonna have fun and they’re gonna feel like they had a friend on the ride home with them.
Fish: I feel like that’s a key to your long standing appeal, is being a listener’s friend for the ride home.
Mac: It’s a very intimate medium. It’s the most personal. That’s something that makes my stomach turn about the evolution of our business when our images are shot out there on Facebook, the station’s video stream and podcasting. “Oh I’ll get to it later!” is the thought. No, I’m doing this for you now. We’re having drinks now!! You don’t get to my podcast later. I’m doing this now. This is our time together.
Dan McNeil Unsupervised (Podcast: September 2017-March 2018)
Fish: Great way to transition to your podcast– Dan McNeil: Unsupervised What was it like doing a podcast as opposed to a daily radio show?
Mac: I had to sharpen my tools. I hadn’t been on the air in a little while. I had thought for a while that I was done with radio and radio was also done with me. But I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and I was starting to look into how I could monetize (the podcast) and it’s a very difficult proposition.
I went into it with the idea that when I get to half a million downloads I’ll start knocking on advertisers doors. About three months into it, the Score thing started and that quelled my interest. But I had to have some sort of digital presence for a lot of newbies to sports radio. If they didn’t listen to me at The Drive and weren’t Score listeners back in June of 2014 when I last was there, they didn’t know who the fuck I was. So anything was good. That was to get the tools sharp more than anything. I didn’t make a dime on it.
Fish: In 1992 you’re competing with all the other Chicago radio stations. In 2019 you are also competing with satellite radio, streaming services, podcasts, with anything anyone can get on their phone. How does traditional radio beat that back and stay as relevant as it has always been?
Mac: There’s always gonna be a need for live and local. There’s no doubt that there are far more places where you can get content. But in big cities where sports are a huge part of a city’s culture there’s always going to be a place for live/local radio. You augment it by podcasting your own stuff and joining all the other technology opportunities.
I have felt for many years that if a radio station is doing it right that station is as integral a part of the city’s sports culture as the teams they follow. I felt that the “Mac, Jurko, and Harry” show had that sort of a feel. That we were almost a team in town. I felt that way at the Score in the 90s with the Monsters and Terry and me. Technology never will have the opportunity to abolish it completely. It has watered it down enormously but (radio) will always be there.
The Drive Morning Show (March 2015-June 2016)
Fish: Can you recall your excitement going into the start of that show–getting to be part of a rock station and a co-host on a truly “guy” morning show?
Mac: In 2014 when I did my last year at The Score with (Matt) Spiegel the sports landscape, other than the Hawks, was really shitty. Already for several years I had been wanting to do something different just to see if I could do it. The sports were so negative I started having that itch. At the end of my deal with no offer out there I said I’m going to look for something different. The Score made me a more than generous offer and I said no.
Then the opportunity with The Drive and Greg Solk came up. I think Greg is one of the best programmers I have ever worked for. I thought The Drive had a sparkling reputation. I thought it was a much classier presentation of that genre of music (Classic Rock/Classic Hits) than The Loop had been doing. So I jumped at it.
It wound up being a financial disaster. The money I didn’t make between the end of my run at The Score, the disparity in income, because The Score offered me an opportunity to come back again before The Drive actually hired me. The decision cost me more than seven figures of income and in 17 months (the show) was blown up.
What I didn’t know about FM life is that it’s not very organic and a lot of people who do it choose to do it in a very canned and contrived manner and that’s not how I’ve ever worked. It was the right idea but the execution of it was not good and it failed conclusively!
Fish: Despite the seven figure financial difference, do you have any regret about trying it? It seems like something you would have regretted not trying.
Mac: Not at all. I reconnected with some amazing people like Greg Solk, Bob Stroud, Kathy Voltmer, I enjoyed Pete’s company (co-host McMurray). The first programmer I had there, Curtiss Johnson, is one of my favorite programmers I’ve ever had. We became fast friends. I loved working for Curtiss.
Then after a year he got fired and the guy who replaced him is the biggest c**s***er I’ve ever worked for. (Dan then spelled out the word for me). His name is Rob Cressman as in penis. He’s just a pariah. He’s an interloper.
He had no knowledge of Chicago. He came in here not having any regard for the backgrounds of the personalities or what skins we had on the wall. Barking out cookie-cutter Program Director thoughts. He wanted us to stay around (at the station) until one in the afternoon. I said, “You know what? I don’t have tomorrow’s news. There’s no reason to be here. We can correspond via email or text if we need to.”
In part two of my Q&A with Dan McNeil we discuss his second tour of duty at The Score, going across to ESPN 1000 and his struggles with mental health issues.
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.