Wed. Jul 18th, 2018

How Pursuing a Passion Fueled Mike Florio’s Media Rise

There are people in sports media that reach a certain level of success and simply mail it in. Mike Florio is not one of them. He’s a true grinder that has remained hungry to work in spite of achieving noticeable success in print, radio, and TV. With an extensive law background, Mike is a bright guy that knows the meaning of the word complacency but rages against the concept.

Jason Witten announced his retirement from the NFL last Thursday. Some of his words stood out. “Other players might have been more talented, but I can assure you, no one was going to outwork me. Whenever young kids come up to me and ask me how do you grow up and play for the Dallas Cowboys, have that type of career, my answer is always the same, ‘The secret is in the dirt.’ I learned early on in my life through many challenges that I could change my circumstances with hard work, but I would have to be willing to go out and earn it. I yearned for the daily grind, and I couldn’t get enough of it.”

I don’t know if Witten read a few posts on Pro Football Talk from Florio before giving that speech, but a lot of those same qualities can be found in Mike. Good luck outworking that guy. He has changed his circumstances through hard work and also yearns for the daily grind. “The moment you let yourself get complacent is the moment that it all turns around.” That quote is actually from Mike below, not Witten.

Mike’s journey throughout the world of sports media is an interesting one. There are epic stories about how he became a fill-in host for the Dan Patrick Show and his introduction to the radio hard out. In between a few laughs, you will get a sense that the key to Mike’s success is the time that he devotes to his craft. Like Witten said, “The secret is in the dirt.” A keyboard and microphone aren’t literally “the dirt,” but the idea of being committed to hard work still figuratively applies. Mike. 5’7. 167. Ding.

Brian Noe: Do you have an offseason personally?

Mike Florio: Not really. I’m on the same schedule that the NFL is on. Things slow down from the middle of June until the end of July when training camps open, but there is still always something happening. I get a little bit more free time because we take time off the radio and the TV show, but I still work on the website everyday. It really isn’t all that hard to open a computer and type. If we have a family vacation I’ll take it with me and I’ll work. If I’m just hanging out here I’ll make sure that I work during that time that we’re off on radio and TV.

It does slow down after the draft. The workload begins to diminish some, but by the middle of June it’s the lowest point. Even then I keep putting news out there for people to read or they’re going to go somewhere else. You can’t shut it down or you’ll lose your audience. We keep it going, but it’s coming — middle of June, end of July, that’s a nice four-to-six-week period where it’s not the usual grind. Then the grind starts at the end of July and it ends the following draft.

Noe: Do you have any funny stories from when news has broken during a vacation and you had to work on a story?

Mike: No, because it’s rare that there’s anything huge that comes out when we’ve been out somewhere. I can remember being on a family vacation back when they didn’t sign draft picks until not long before the start of camp and having to step out from family dinners and stuff. The one thing this year when Josh McDaniels pulled the plug on going to the Colts, I had just gotten back from the Super Bowl and I was out to dinner with a bunch of family members. I had to get up and run out the door and drive home to work on that. Usually I can deal with whatever I’m dealing with without having to just flat-out vanish and disappear.

Noe: What is your busiest time of year?

Mike: Free agency is the busiest time because it has that build-up a couple of days in advance. Then once it starts who knows what’s going to happen or who’s going where? It’s more of a concentrated off-we-go kind of a thing for free agency. The draft is more sustained and never quite as hectic as it is on the first day of free agency. That’s typically our busiest day, our highest traffic day, and then the draft would be a close second. Obviously during the season there are different times where things get hectic, but during the offseason — free agency is number one and the draft is number two.

Noe: With the interest for the draft being so high, how noticeable is the drop-off once it’s over? 

Mike: After the draft people are still reacting to what happened. They want to get everyone’s perspective. They are curious about what’s said by coaches and general managers. If anything the traffic gradually levels off during the period of time after the draft. I mean our traffic has still been pretty good since the draft but around Memorial Day weekend I’ll notice it start to dip. Then it gets into June and starts to recover in July.

Unless something crazy happens — probably the biggest offseason story was that Aaron Hernandez case. It’s now five years ago. That happened in late June. That drove everything through the roof for a couple of weeks because no one saw that story coming. I just happened to be home and not away at the time. I remember that one vividly. Without something crazy like that it’s a gradual, slow decline that then bottoms out around the 4th of July and starts to pick up not long after that.

Noe: How did you get involved in this business, working in print, radio, and TV?

Mike: The internet is the great equalizer where you can be anywhere in the world and have a voice. I was attracted to that immediately because I live in West Virginia and it gave me an avenue to have a platform and to be able to say things that people would be interested in. I first tripped over a website that was called NFLtalk.com in April of 2000. Back in those days I very rarely left the stuff that became available to you when you pop in the old AOL DVD or CD, whatever it was. They had content and I remember reading Sporting News content on there.

I found NFLtalk.com in a USA Today article and I started going there on a regular basis. One thing led to another. They were looking for writers and I thought, “Well, this would be kind of fun.” I threw something together and they hired me. Of course by hired, it means I did a bunch of work and didn’t get paid, but I didn’t care because it was a hobby. It was fun. I just always had this vague sense that if I do this, and I keep doing it, and work at it, maybe it’ll lead somewhere. Who knows where it’s going to lead, but either way it’s just kind of fun.

I remember having that conversation with my wife because I’d write two, three things a week. Then they’d have me do a little bit more and never paid me. I didn’t care. I was just like this is fun. I enjoy it and she says wait a minute. Why? I’d say I could go golf and I’d spend 50 bucks and be gone for four hours and be pissed off when I get home. So I just view it as a hobby. I’m here at the house and yeah we’re not making any money off of it, but I just have this weird feeling if I keep doing it, it leads somewhere good. That’s how I got into it.

Radio opportunities came from there because people we’re looking for NFLtalk.com writers to come on different shows. The first show I ever did was WGR 550 in Buffalo. I realized how potent sports talk radio was just from the standpoint of getting reps, getting better at it, understanding the medium, understanding how to make your point quickly, which I’m not doing today. One thing led to another and here we are 18 years later.

Noe: When you initially broke into radio, how long were you doing hits and sporadic shows before you got a full-time opportunity?

Mike: What happened was I was doing 10-to-15 minutes spots all over the country. I got to a point around 2006, 2007 where I started trying to get paid for them. I understood at one level it was valuable marketing for the website because people didn’t realize it was even an ad. It’s part of the regular content. They’re hearing the name of the website and hopefully they’re coming to it. I thought that part of it was great but I was doing so many. I thought I was decent at it and hoped that maybe I could start getting paid to do it.

I started by encouraging some of the different stations, “Look find a sponsor for the segment and basically let’s split the money.” I t was becoming a little bit of a profit center. It wasn’t until July of 2010, I used to do spots at Dan Patrick and I still do whenever he calls me, but I was doing them after he left ESPN and started his own show in 2007, 2008 time frame whenever that was.

I remember one time as his show started to take off on its own — they had the TV simulcast, 200+ stations and it’s doing very well — somebody called me middle of July in 2010 and said, “Hey, Dan’s out next week and they want to know if you can do the show.” I was like, “Yeah, have the fill-in host call me and just let me know what time, 9 to 12, whenever just let me know and we’ll work it out.” They were like, “No, no, no you’re the fill-in host.” I was like, “Yeah, that’s funny. That’s a good one, but just have the actual host call me.” They’re like, “No, Dan thinks you speak in sound bites and you understand how it works and he wants you to be the guest host.”

I’m like wait a minute. I don’t know how to do this. I have no training in this. All I do is answer questions when people call me up from the radio shows. I have no clue what to do. I remember being so stressed out about it. I remember having a full binder full of notes. I had every segment of a 12 segment, three-hour show planned out like there was no extemporaneous thought. It was all, “I’ll say this, this, this, and this in the first segment, and the second segment I’ll say this, this, and this.” It’s stupid but I didn’t know what to do.

After doing it one time — and it went fairly well — they called me the next time he was going to be off. They had me go to the studio in Milford, Connecticut with his guys. I remember being a nervous wreck about that. I remember having a stack of notes for that. It was idiotic but I didn’t know what else to do because I wasn’t thinking of it as this medium where you have an idea of what you’re going to say, but it’s very freeform and flowing and you just go.

After doing it enough times it just gets to the point where I told my wife the other day, you could just give me a microphone right now and say, “Oh, we’re doing a three-hour radio show, start right now,” because I understand how it works. Any given moment you start talking about whatever the top story is and then you go for seven or eight minutes and you have five or six minutes to regroup and figure out what you’re going to say next.

That’s where it started. I sat in for Dan somewhere between 30 and 40 times, maybe more than that I lost track. When an opportunity came up to have a show on NBC Sports Radio, by that point it was natural. It was obvious and I was ready to do it. It wasn’t a question of can I do it. It’s like well this is just the next logical progression.

Noe: What do you remember most about those first couple of shows when you were so nervous? 

Mike: It’s like anything else, the more you do it the easier it gets. I remember the first time I did it, we had a hard break and I had no idea what a hard break was. I had no idea that not only was it mandatory you be done by then, you had to take it all the way to then. I thought you could just stop whenever. Well, if you stop a minute before a hard break, there’s going to be a minute of dead air before the news update takes over.

So I’m getting ready to throw it to break a minute before the hard break thing and hey, I saved some time. Good for me. Look I didn’t take the full time. I heard the engineer say, “Ahh, you have to keep going.” So I just completely froze. I was like, “Ahhhh, ooooo-kaaaay?” I got through it, but that was the most important aspect of on-the-job training. I had no idea that the hard break meant you talk up until the moment where the music stops and they go to the news update or whatever comes after the hard break. So, hard break 101 — don’t just stop talking when you feel like stopping.

Noe: (laughs) Yeah, that’s important. What did you learn either on your own or from someone else that you find the most valuable?

Mike: Well, nobody really taught me anything. It’s all self-taught because you watch and you listen and you learn. That’s how I became a decent writer — by reading and understanding how people communicate effectively in the written word. Picking up just the way of saying things. How to phrase a word in the active voice versus the passive voice. How to be concise and when not to be concise.

The same thing with radio, it’s just listening. I think I learned a lot from listening to Dan Patrick on how to aspire to be a good interviewer and how to try to have that conversational tone and get to a point where it just feels like two people shootin’ the breeze, not an interview per se. It’s just reps and reps and reps. The more you do it, the easier it gets. That’s always the key.

After so many shows, after so many interviews, and after so many times doing it, you feel like you get to a point where you understand it pretty well. Even after that I think you always strive to find ways to improve and ways to get better and not get complacent. I think the moment you let yourself get complacent is the moment that it all turns around.

Noe: What’s the most enjoyable part about all of the jobs that you have?

Mike: I think the most enjoyable part of it is, none of it’s really work. Right? I’m getting paid to do stuff that I would do for free. I always add the caveat don’t tell anybody I said that cuz they’ll try to stop paying me. I like that what I do now has very little stress. There are moments of stress when you’re on TV on Football Night in America, but it’s nothing compared to practicing law, which I did for 18 years before I got out of it for good in July of 2009, really into early 2010. I kept a couple of cases once we joined NBC just a wrap them all up properly.

When you’re handling someone else’s interests and they have one chance at justice and you’re the one who’s trying to get it for them, and if you make a tactical error or say the wrong thing at the wrong time or whatever the case may be, there are consequences for them. Consequences for you too, you look like an idiot, but beyond that there are consequences for them. That’s so different than this. If I screw up something now, I’m the only one who looks like an idiot. I’m not making anyone else look bad.

It’s just a much more enjoyable way to exist because there’s so much less stress in what I do. Even the worst day. Even the day that feels like the biggest grind is still so much better than so many of the “normal days” I used to have when I was running around trying to handle 25, 30, 40, 50 cases at once and try to juggle everything and not screw everything up for anyone and everyone I represented.

Noe: Is there anything from your law background that you bring into print, radio, or TV in terms of the way you think or present things?

Mike: Yeah, I remember feeling horribly inadequate when I first started in the website business because you’re trying to be a “journalist” with absolutely no training or experience. A lot of it I picked up on the fly. I realized based upon all of the various legal issues that have come up in professional football — whether it’s players in trouble, whether it’s labor issues, whether it’s employee rights as they develop in this anthem controversy — I would feel ridiculously inadequate trying to do the job if I didn’t have a legal background.

Again plenty of journalists are doing the job without a legal background, but I assume that a lot of them have lawyers they talk to all the time in order to understand what this all means. A lot of the things that happen, I know right away what it means. I can explain here’s what it means and here’s where it goes from here. I can’t imagine being efficient if I had to contact somebody every time that there was a different case, a proceeding, whatever and trying to find out exactly what it all means.

Noe: Do you see that with the media? If you hear a sports talk host or you read something online — with the legal background you have, are there common mistakes made by other media members?

Mike: Yeah, it’s obvious when the person has absolutely no idea how it works. I think most of them just stay away from it. What’s the old adage, it’s better to remain quiet and be perceived a fool than open your mouth and confirm it. Where there are gaps — the person who’s writing it, the person who’s talking about it just doesn’t understand how it all works and what’s next. How do you expect them to if they haven’t lived that life, if they haven’t done it, if they haven’t handled cases like that or understand the system enough to say this is what it all means and this is where it goes from here.

It’s not that there are people who have no idea what happens next so they say something that’s wrong. It’s just you get to a point where there’s a gap and you feel like I need to know more here. I feel like I’m in a position where, especially in those situations, I can add more about where it goes next.

That’s what we try to do when we aggregate. We try to take what someone else has reported and analyze it and say here’s where it goes next. There are so many of those opportunities to apply that, here’s what it means in the NFL from a legal perspective whether it’s a legal proceeding, whether it’s a labor issue, whether it’s analyzing a contract. Again I don’t know how I would have done this job and I don’t know how people do the job without having the ability to take that stuff and interpret it and analyze it.

Noe: How much of your radio show is tied to the metrics of your website? You’re obviously going to lead with what’s hot, but if there is something that you think is interesting, but you just don’t see the reaction you anticipated online, do you say, “Well I’m not going to talk about it. It’s not hot.”

Mike: I’ve always been guided by what I’m interested in. I think if I’m interested in something then I hope that the audience is going to be interested in it. I don’t know how accurate that is, but it’s worked. I think part of it is, if you care about something and you have genuine interest in it then it spills through into how you handle it — how you write about it, how you talk about it. You talk about something you just don’t give a crap about, I think the audience senses that and they think, “Well if this guy doesn’t give a crap about it why should I?” That’s always been the guiding principle for me.

People talk about clickbait. It’s funny, to me clickbait is when you misrepresent to someone what a story is about so you will bait them to click on to it when they otherwise wouldn’t have. I think that a lot of what we do, we entice people to come read about the things that we have written. It is bait, but it’s real. It’s not phony. It’s not bait and switch. It’s, “Hey, come find out more about this.”

If you do a tease at the end of a segment to carry people over to the next segment and what you talk about isn’t really meshed with the tease, the people have a right to be pissed off. I think the same thing if you have a tweet or a headline. If what’s there doesn’t mesh, then they have the right to say that’s just clickbait.

You want people to keep listening to your show. You want people to read your work. I think the key is, frame it in an interesting way and choose things that are interesting and people remain engaged. That’s what we do. We provide the context and the framework for talking about the things that are interesting when it comes to sports and specifically for me when it comes to football.

Noe: Over the next 10 years, do you still want to keep doing exactly what you’re doing or would you like to move to another realm?

Mike: I don’t know what else is out there. I mean I like doing what I do. Things evolve, opportunities arise. In any field, in any industry, there’s value in promoting your own agenda. Having a list of, “This is what I want to do next, and then I want to do this, and I aspire to this, that, and the other thing.” For me that has never really worked. You aspire to climb a mountain and the next thing you know you’ve climbed a mountain that you didn’t even know was there.

I just do what I do. I’m guided by my sense of what I’m interested in. If opportunities arise as a result of that, then so be it. I don’t have any grand plan other than keep doing the things I like to do, pivot and change as necessary to meet the changing landscape of however it may change, but to keep doing what I do. Keep doing things I’m interested in and hope there are people out there who will be interested in it as well — whatever format it happens to be in — and keep trying to get better at everything that I do and everything else takes care of itself.

There’s a certain point where your track record gets you where you are. That’s the best reason and the best argument for continuing to do that because here I am 18 years later and it’s worked. So the next 10 years, the next 20 years, however many years I’m able to walk upright and think straight and articulate my thoughts, I’ll just keep doing what I do.

I remember one time my wife said, “You ever think about when you’ll retire?” It’s like retire from what? If I have enough money to take care of myself, my kid, and his kids for their entire lives and you just shut it down and do nothing, what would I do? I would do what I’m doing now. So there’s the answer. You just keep doing it and you just see where it all goes.

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