10 Questions with ... Michael Mergens
January 21, 2014
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Started out as a Program Producer at WSAU-AM in Wausau, Wisconsin in 1999 with the intention of pursuing news/talk, but ended up taking over the overnight slot on their heritage Top 40 sister station WIFC-FM and never looked back. Held stints at WWAX-FM in Duluth, Minnesota, WLRW-FM, WXTT-FM and WQQB-FM in Champaign, Illinois and WNSL-FM, WXTT-FM and WBBN-FM in Laurel/Hattiesburg, Mississippi before taking over Operations/On-Air at SuperTalk Mississippi network stations WFMM-FM and WLAU-FM in Laurel/Hattiesburg.
1. Normally, I ask people why they initially got into radio, but in your case, since you left radio for a short time after a Clear Channel mass layoff, and then returned, what made you decide to come back? What appeals to you about radio?
When the layoff happened, people immediately tried to pigeon hole me into this bitter anti-Clear Channel club. I wasnâ€™t bitter, and I certainly never took it personally, because, as much fun as this industry can be, itâ€™s still a business, and I get that. Iâ€™m in a band, I run it like a business, and at times decisions are made that arenâ€™t popular but they have to be made to benefit the band long term. I left radio because I had just gotten married the year prior, bought a house, and had the idea of settling down and I, pardon the WKRP theme song reference, got tired of moving town to town and up and down the dial! I had really fallen in love with South Mississippi and the Gulf Coast, and after ten years of living for myself, I was ready to live for someone else. But I am so blessed to have found my wife, because she knows why I love radio and that itâ€™s not about status or ego with me, itâ€™s just what I love, radio as a medium and its history and impact on the community. Because of that, she never let me let radio goâ€¦ So I guess sheâ€™s the biggest reason why I came backâ€¦ and thatâ€™s with her knowing what it pays!
2. You worked in music radio before doing talk; what, if anything, are the key differences in approaching hosting and managing talk as opposed to music radio, and what skills from your hosting music shows have proven useful in doing talk?
Transitioning from music radio where I had the quick, to the point, keep it simple stupid delivery mastered, then going to talk radio has been the biggest challenge of my career! After ten years as a DJ, I got really good at saying what I needed to say in at least 60 seconds. Now I have to talk for usually 20 minutes max, and when I first started, I realized that Iâ€™m not all that interesting of a person beyond 60 seconds, so my wife was right again!
My approach is the same though, Iâ€™m still trying to engage the listener and get them involved in the program. Only the subject matter and content is different. I wasnâ€™t sure how it would work in the beginning, but Iâ€™ve applied everything I ever learned in music radio to talk, and itâ€™s worked. If anything, itâ€™s helped give more energy and entertainment value to a station that was really nonexistent and ignored locally when I took over operations. Talk is a very important format and can have such a positive influence on the community, but that doesnâ€™t mean it canâ€™t sound fun!
3. What topic areas work best for you as a host and for the station in your market? Are there particular local issues that stand out in Laurel and Hattiesburg that are unique, or at least have greater significance, in that area?
Iâ€™m on between two very politically driven shows, so I try to be the cool-down and hit on light hearted and local community focused topics that our network shows donâ€™t cover. Being in a college town, our listeners tend to be more social minded and respond to community awareness topics along with entertainment and some pop-culture. I casually mentioned "Doctor Who"â€™s 50th Anniversary episode on a show, for my own benefit (Iâ€™m a proud nerd), and was genuinely shocked by the number of listeners who responded! Iâ€™ve even had a local paranormal society on a few times, like a "Coast To Coast" morning drive edition.
When we need to, though, we hit hard on the local political scene, which unlike the state as a whole, is evenly split down the middle and emotions between sides can run high, as was evident in the recent 2013 Hattiesburg mayoral election, which ended up going into a court battle and then a special election. Content like that is a local talk show hostâ€™s dream! But it comes in waves, so it doesnâ€™t dominate the programs. Plus my personality doesnâ€™t lend itself to being controversial or over political, though I do have strong conservative views. Because of that, Iâ€™ve found we have a unique mix of left and right listeners who appreciate that approach.
4. You're a musician as well, fronting a rock cover band, Radio Violence. Where did the name come from, and what role does being in the band play in your life -- what do you get out of playing and singing that you don't get elsewhere?
Having grown up in Rockford, Illinois, Iâ€™m a huge Cheap Trick fan and their first album is my favorite of all time. Thereâ€™s a song on their called "The Ballad of T.V. Violence (Iâ€™m Not The Only Boy)" and I thought T.V. Violence would be a cool name. I really believe there needs to be some edge and danger in rock and roll, even though musically where not that edgy. I researched the name and found there where some high school kids back in Illinois using it, at least they had a Myspace, and I didnâ€™t want to steal their name. Luckily, I was sitting in the studio doing my show when I had that aha moment, replace T.V. with radioâ€¦ well, it was more like, duh! I texted my wife (then girlfriend), who lives and breathes music (more than me in a lot of ways), and she texted back, â€œlove it!â€ I made sure no one else was using it, bought the web domain, and that was it. Over the years though, itâ€™s adopted more of a reference to the "War of The Worlds" broadcast, so people donâ€™t think weâ€™re a death metal band. Weâ€™ve used a lot of Orson Welles/UFO imagery in flyers and promotion.
As for what I get out of it and its role, I was a musician long before I was in radio, playing (and collecting) guitars since I was 15 and singing since I could remember. I grew up in a musical family, and there was always music playing somewhere. Music is so much of who I am, and though clichÃ©, as important as breathing to me. Having a band and performing live, thereâ€™s more personal control over my artistic expressions. I donâ€™t have to answer to anyone but myself. Thereâ€™s also an immediate response from audiences that you canâ€™t quite get from radio. You know people are listening to you on the radio, but playing music live, you know if they like you or not immediately! Plus, thereâ€™s an immense high I get from playing music and performing with talented musicians. I donâ€™t drink anymore and I donâ€™t do drugs, but that feeling, nothing has ever come close to it. I really believe thatâ€™s why so many musicians abuse various substances, they want that feeling all the time. I prefer the excitement and anticipation of when Iâ€™m granted the opportunity to play!
5. What role do you see social media playing in talk radio? How do you use it, if at all, and is it a show prep source, a tool to communicate with listeners, a promotional tool, all of the above, none of it?
All of the above, to an extent. As show prep, you can get so much local news and opinions on Facebook or Twitter, so it makes it easier to stay relevant and timely and ensure youâ€™re talking about what people want to hear. Itâ€™s also a great way to interact with the listener when theyâ€™re not listening, and considering how much time people spend online or on their smartphones, that exposure is invaluable. With social media, radio can be everywhere at all times, even when someone doesnâ€™t have the radio or streaming on, reminding them youâ€™re there and a part of their community, even if itâ€™s just an online community. But, like any technology, you have to tread carefully. You donâ€™t want to do so much online that the listener stops listening all together. I try to give just enough info online that will grab someoneâ€™s attention and give them a reason to tune in to get the rest or engage them enough to interact more and feel theyâ€™re apart of the conversation.
6. About what are you most passionate?
Life and all its aspects. Again, clichÃ©, I know. I want to be able to experience as much as I can though, and certainly radio and even music have helped give me some incredible experiences that have enhanced and enriched my life in so many ways.
7. Who are your heroes and influences?
Kevin Matthews. The Loop AM 1000 was the catalyst for my decision to pursue radio as a career. I had been doing impressions since I was five years old or so, and here was someone who was doing all these characters and making that show sound so fun and entertaining, and he was doing it for a living! I was obsessed with his show and the station and thatâ€™s still the format I dream of doing! I even have a â€œKev Headâ€ mirror that hung in the old Loop Store at Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Illinois. Thatâ€™s how influential Kevin and that station were on me!
8. Of what are you most proud?
Being able to be married to my best friend, being in a rock band and work in the industry I love and have it all work!
9. Fill in the blank: I can't make it through the day without _________________.
...a cup of coffee and some loud music!
10. What was the best advice you ever got? The worst?
Iâ€™ve been blessed to work with some great Program Directors whose advice has been so beneficial to my career, especial now that Iâ€™m in charge of operations. Danny Wright at WIFC got me off on the right track and helped me loose the ego and Jonathan Drake at WLRW helped me learn how to be personal and effective as a manager. I refer to the things I learned from them daily. But the best advice I got was from Wes McKane, whoâ€™s now doing mornings at 103.7 KISS-FM in Milwaukee. He told me I needed to learn how to do station imaging. I know I may not have been the best fit for some stations, but because I could, and enjoyed doing imaging, I got the job. Itâ€™s even helped me produce and track music!
As for worst, if I got any, I donâ€™t remember it and apparently didnâ€™t listen to it!