Never confuse a person that has fun with someone who doesn’t work hard. The ’85 Bears made the infamous “Super Bowl Shuffle,” but no one ever accused Walter Payton and Mike Singletary of being slackers. Head coach Mike Ditka could be seen roller skating through the hallways of Halas Hall. However, it wasn’t exactly hard for Iron Mike to flip a switch and become incredibly intense.
It’s the same concept with John Mamola. Just like the childhood team he grew up rooting for, John knows when to have fun and when to get serious. It’s easy to tell that he has a great blend. “The Rock” can easily go from constructing a funny bit, to giving a professional critique and conducting a conference call. Hosts aren’t the only ones who succeed by being versatile. PD’s flourish too.
I don’t know if Jenna Jameson or the Kielbasa Queen had a bigger impact on John’s pursuit of a sports radio career, but the movie Private Parts played a big role in his journey. As the program director at WDAE in Tampa, it’s ironic that he has the same gig as Paul Giamatti’s character Pig Vomit — John’s creativity and charisma more closely resembles Howard Stern’s. Read below and find out yourself.
Brian Noe: How did you get the nickname John “The Rock” Mamola?
John Mamola: (laughs) Well, in high school I fell for a girl and it was my best friend’s girlfriend. We got into a little bit of a fistfight. I kept getting up and a guy said, “Man, he keeps getting up like a rock.” That’s just how it stuck. I have a Midwest work ethic. I work all morning, all afternoon, all night, and continue to grind on the weekends. It just kind of stuck and it just morphed itself into a personality in Chicago where that’s what I’m known as up there. Down here I’m known as John, but it’s inked on my arms and it’ll live with me forever.
Noe: So you have “The Rock” on your arms?
John: I do. I have my nickname on my right forearm and my last name on my left forearm.
Noe: That’s awesome, man. And is that your wife right now?
John: Ahh, no. No. The girl lasted about four months.
Noe: Oh, gosh. (laughs) But the nickname has stuck forever, huh?
John: The nickname has stuck for, God, how many years has it been? It’s 19 years. The nickname has stuck for 19 years.
Noe: So your early days in Chicago — is that where you initially broke into the sports talk business?
John: Yeah, I went to the Illinois Center for Broadcasting originally. I lived in Fort Worth, Texas for about 12 years. Went to high school down there and I was taking some junior college courses for Pre-Pharm. I wanted to be a pharmacist. I worked in pharmacy for about 3-4 years and I got that bug. I figured, “Okay, well, becoming a pharmacist out of school you’re making probably around $120-$130K a year. That seems like a pretty good living. I think I can do that.”
I started taking some junior college courses and working on the basics. Long story short we had a death in the family back in Chicago. My mom was needed to run the family business so we decided to ship everything back up to Chicago. Then, at that moment when you find out that your credits don’t transfer, especially after you move — it’s like, “Okay, well I have 62 credit hours and none of them transfer up here and I’m not in a place where I’m ready to live on my own yet, so I have to find something else.
The backstory is literally I watched Private Parts late at night. Got pretty hammered, looked up broadcasting schools on the internet just for the fun of it. I emailed a guy and literally got a response at like four in the morning that very night. He said come on in for a tour in the morning and I’ll show you around. You’ve had probably that same moment that we’ve all had — you walk into that radio studio for that first time and there’s something that seems very right about that. You don’t necessarily know what it is, but when you walk in that room and you see that board and you see the mic and all the equipment that goes with it, and you sit down in that chair, it’s like, “There’s something about this that feels right. So I’m going to go down that road in investigating a little bit.”
The basis of the curriculum up there was you have to get an internship about two and a half months into the 10-month course. I applied at about six different radio stations in Chicago. The Score was the only one I got an interview at. Matt Fishman, who writes for the [BSM] website as well, was the sports director at the time. I interviewed with him and got an internship and the rest is history.
I went from intern to part-time producer. I worked as a weekend producer, and then moved up to full-time producer in morning drive — that was my first full-time job in the market. It turned into a bunch of different opportunities at many of the CBS now Entercom brands in Chicago working with the Bears Radio Network. Then, it turned into hosting, co-hosting, etc. I spent about eight and a half years in the Chicago market.
Noe: I know that you worked with Mike North going back to your WSCR days. What was your favorite bit that North did while you were there working with him?
John: (laughs) We did a lot of bits because the crux of the show was we were going to be Imus for Chicago and it was something that at the time The Score had never done before — we were kind of straying away from an all-sports program. Especially in morning drive that can be a little risky, but that’s what Mike wanted to do. The execs at CBS at the time allowed him to do that. We tried to be a little edgy.
We had a three-man room between him, Fred Huebner, and Anne Maxfield. We brought in Steve Buckman — he used to work at WGN and we brought in Jen Patterson who was a waitress at Gibsons Steakhouse that went to I think Columbia. She wanted to get into media in some sort of fashion. I was just kind of there because I produced the Murph & Fred Show before that. I was the lone guy seeing over, outside of Fred Huebner.
We came up with some really risqué stuff. We had the Fred Huebner hip-hop moment of the day, which was basically — we imaged it (me and Russ Mitera) — because Fred hates hip hop and rap. I got him the dirtiest rap lyrics you can find and we read them like prose — like if you’re in a Def Jam Comedy kind of thing. We had the snaps in the background and the golf claps and the cheesy bass going on in the background. That was fuckin’ hilarious and actually got a lot of play for us.
We had the Bookie Priest, which I think Mike still does that on YouTube. That was a trip in itself coming up with that each and every morning at five in the morning. Here comes in Mike North and he’s going to sing basically his picks for the day.
We did a lot of risky kind of stuff, but it was fun. The one thing I’ll say about my time in Chicago — we had the freedom to be creative with whatever we wanted to do and have the backing of management in about 95 percent of the cases. That allowed the show to grow within itself and also extended into Mully & Hanley who have been dominating Chicago now for a while. Also for me personally, the fact that they trusted my vision within certain limits and gave me that flexibility to do what I wanted to do as long as it fit the show model then, “Yeah, let’s do it.” That’s the one thing that I took a lot of umbrage in is that they allowed me that window. It’s led me to some really, really great and memorable things. Now in my current role I’m trying to pay it forward. I’m trying to give my guys that same kind of door as long as obviously within the window of making sense.
If I had to list a couple, definitely the hip hop moments were my favorite because it’s funny watching Fred Huebner read hip hop lyrics that are just dirty as all sin. At the same time, the Bookie Priest was fun too. We had a lot of fun times on that show.
Noe: If you think about those days that you’re describing and the current climate of sports talk radio — do you think that it’s gotten a little less fun and more serious — maybe too serious?
John: I think it depends on the talent. The one thing I always respected about working for Mitch Rosen is he gave you tons of feedback. In my current role I try to do that for each and every one of my shows as much as I can, but there are just so many more duties now that are being put on the program director position in radio that it’s really, really hard to keep a keen ear on things. I always found it — when Mitch had great responses or even critiques to the stuff we were doing, that’s what made it more fun because we knew that the boss was paying attention. So, what more can we do to where he comes in the office and says, “Yeah, man, that’s awesome.” It was almost like motivation. Ya know?
Now look, you also need talent and producers and production staffs to work together and work on what is the image that we want to cast on what our show is. Too often I think people get stuck in this mentality as far as talent is concerned, where they got to be the Stephen A. Smith. Or they got to be the guy on Around the Horn. Or they got to be the Francesa type that basically everything is super serious and super sports geared.
Look at a station like KFAN up in Minneapolis. Their morning show is a good 50-50 split on sports and just other general stuff, but there are also characters, there are parodies, there are game shows. I mean that’s what works. What they’re doing with KFAN in Minneapolis is amazing, but it fits that market. I don’t know if you can do that in New York. I don’t know if you can do that honestly in Chicago. You could probably do something like that down here. Some of the more successful shows here are the ones that laugh a lot. It’s trying to find those avenues to have a little fun and kind of break away from sports a little bit, but it has to fit your market and it has to fit what the listeners are demanding of you. That’s where a very involved program director will help facilitate that and guide you on the right path.
Noe: How much of that have you done in Tampa in terms of coming up with bits and trying to encourage them from your hosts?
John: We have daily meetings with the morning show. I want them to be creative and try new things. I’ll give them feedback on things as soon as I hear it, believe me, you’re going to get an email, or text message, or in-person feedback thing to let them know. If it’s not right away, it’ll definitely be sent that night. I’m very involved when it comes to coming up with ideas and bits.
I have some very, very creative production staff members that are producers and co-hosts now. We have a lot of great ideas flowing all at the same time. Some are great, some are awful, but the fact that we’re trying to come up with new and fresh ideas to create unique opportunities for programming and on-air, that’s what you should be doing on a day-to-day basis because that’s what your audience is demanding.
Noe: What was it like when you initially moved from Chicago to Tampa and got away from your comfort zone?
John: Tampa’s very different. The people are extremely kind. When it comes to the area, it’s like living in Suburbia all over the place. I tried public transportation for a day and it took three and a half hours to get from where I lived to work when it used to take 45 on the brown line. It’s a culture shock because you’re going from a really busy, robust city of different cultures and diehard sports fans that have been there for 50, 100 years, and you’re coming to a market where the Rays are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year. The Lightning just celebrated I believe their 25th anniversary.
It’s a football state. It’s a college state. In Chicago, if DePaul was in the tournament maybe you talked about DePaul. Northwestern never really brought anything to the table at the time when I was there so we never embraced college outside of finding the local Michigan bar and going there on Saturday. Here though it’s religion. Gators, Noles, Miami, USF, UCF now with their recent success. It’s SEC country down here so I’m not used to that. It’s a little weird.
The weather — there’s no change in seasons, so it kind of bothers me that I have to wear shorts in December. I know a lot of people would say, “Oh, that’s paradise,” well yeah but I kind of like to dig in the snow in the slush a little bit once in a while. Not every day but it’d be nice to have a little snow on the ground during the holidays and it makes it easier for a cup of coffee and that kind of thing.
It’s a smaller market with a lot of great properties. It has very different fan bases because this is where a lot of people retire. There’s a lot of New York, Boston, Philly and the Midwest. You don’t have that hundreds of years of passion and attachment to the franchises that I had back home.
Look, I’m still a White Sox fan. I’m still a Blackhawks fan. Bulls, Bears, love ‘em. I have firsthand knowledge of moving here and it’s difficult to try to grasp onto the teams because all of your life you grew up knowing one thing. When that becomes the town you obviously want to go see that one thing because that’s what you grew up with. I can understand how it’s tough for some people to unplug.
But I’ll say this — all three of the pro franchises here have done a great job of welcoming in newcomers, and marketing themselves in a way that says, “Hey, give us a chance when it’s not your team playing here.” The Lightning sell out every single night. The Rays have a lot of attendance struggles but their TV and radio ratings are pretty good. Buccaneers, that’s the staple here. When it’s football season it’s all about the Bucs.
It’s a bit of culture shock, but you adjust and do the best job you can with the new staff you have, the new duties you have, and you just kind of go from there.
Noe: How exactly did you get to Tampa in the first place?
John: It got to a point in Chicago where I was working about six jobs all at the same time between The Score and a couple other Entercom properties. I was also doing stuff for the Chicago Tribune — they had this blog website called ChicagoNow.com, and I had just gotten married and became a new father. There was a lot on the plate. It reached a point where I walked into Mitch’s office one day and said, “Hey, man, I just kind of need to know where’s my future at here?”
The one thing I give Mitch Rosen a lot of credit for — and there will be many, many other people if you ever ask about Mitch Rosen that have worked or work for him, they will say the exact same thing that I’m about to say — that guy will tell you point blank exactly what he thinks and he will help you get somewhere else if you want to go somewhere else. And that’s exactly what he did. We sat down in the office and he told me, “Look, you’re doing a great job, but unfortunately right now there’s just no possible way to crack the daily lineup.” So I asked him, “Well in that case if I were to find something, could you assist in that process?” He didn’t hesitate. He said, “Absolutely. You’ve worked very hard for me. I’ll do my very best to help you build your future here in this business.”
I found a job posting at that time, I think on STAA. It was the APD job at DAE. I applied. Steve Versnick was the program director at the time for DAE as well as WFLA and WHNZ. I had a great interview process. It took about four and a half months to finally land the gig, and we moved here in April of 2011. That’s how I got to Tampa.
I always wanted to have a programming background because I felt that I understood radio and how to create good content. Being a host, sometimes you don’t listen to and critique yourself, but as a programmer you’re listening to other elements and everything that surrounds it and you’re expected to be able to critique it, mold it and turn it into something successful. That’s what I really enjoy.
Noe: What do you think might differentiate between your ear as a programmer and a host’s ear when it comes to their own show?
John: They’re always right. (laughs) Whatever they say, they’re always right. Different talent work differently. Not every piece of advice or critique that you give as a PD is going to be heard. For me it’s always been to focus on what they’re doing well and make it great. Then focus on something that they’re maybe like 50 percent good at, and make it 75. It doesn’t have to be 100 percent. It doesn’t have to be great. It just needs to be better than the last time you listened. That’s the way I’ve always gone about it.
It takes a great talent that’s receptive to criticism or critiques to be worthy of getting those critiques. If you’re going to be a talent and you think that everything you do is gold even though you’ve never listened back to your show, that’s where you’re going to run into problems. More people consume our product differently now. If it’s a tune out immediately, more often than not those people are going to go somewhere else. There are so many different options for an audience to get the content they’re looking for.
Noe: What aspect of being a program director is the most fun and the most rewarding?
John: The most fun aspect of my job is when I can stop at a gas station or go to a ball game or a sports bar, and you’re sitting there and you just overhear people talking about stuff on the station. That’s the most rewarding part because it means I’m doing my job. I never go out and introduce myself as, “Hey, I’m John Mamola from 620 WDAE” or iHeartMedia or anything like that. I’m a normal person outside of the office just like anyone else, but if I’m by Ferg’s down by the Trop and they’re talking about what Ronnie and TKras said that morning — it happens a lot more often than you think — that’s fulfilling because it means the station and our hosts are stirring the conversation that gets people talking.
I love going to Rays Fan Fest and seeing all the listeners come out and shake hands with all the talent. I love how our talent has been — especially in the past couple of years — more visible. We do suite nights with Ronnie and TKras where they go out to a Rays game and take a bunch of listeners out. We stay in a suite and we watch a ball game together. We do the same thing at Amalie Arena when there’s a Lightning game. We’re just much more focused on reaching out and making those bonds and getting stronger with face-to-face interaction with the listening base.
Jay Recher, who’s one of our producers, is now a fill in co-host on 12 to 3. He does a lot of stuff on high school baseball getting local communities involved with him. Putting local baseball content on our website and getting coaches on. At the University of Tampa, the Saladino Tournament is really big out here. Doing coverage of that just tying yourself to the community a little bit. That’s rewarding. The charity golf tournaments we do and all those kind of things. They’re all rewarding.
It’s a grind of a job as you well know talking to other PD’s around the country, but there are moments where you can just sit back and smile and say, “Yeah, we’re doing the right thing and we’re doing a really, really good job.” That’s when I’m smiling probably the most.
Noe: You mentioned the grind of the gig — what is your biggest challenge?
John: I don’t have enough time in the day. I wish I had more time to sit down and listen and have immediate critiques. Right now I’ll wake up at 5:30 in the morning. Take the kids to school. Listen for an hour on the way in. Then it’s the usual day-to-day stuff for a PD — meet with the sales staff, meet with the promotion staff. There are other daily meetings and conference calls you have to do to. A lot of web elements, social stuff. Then you’re done at four and you try to catch some of the afternoon show, but then the phone rings and you’re on a family call, and pick up the kids from daycare.
I just wish I had a little more time in the day. It’s all in how you delegate too. I’m a very hands-on person. I like having my feet in the mud and digging in with my teams. We all do too much already so I’d hate to put some of my stuff that I can take of on their plate. I don’t mind delegating, but I also know they don’t have as much time for it.
We work as a very well-oiled machine in this building between the production staff and the talent where everybody knows their role and what they have to do. Everybody picks up for each other when one’s out. It’s just the time element. I wish we had more time to sit down and intensively listen to what we’re doing as opposed to catching it on a podcast or something like that.
Noe: 5-10 years from now, what type of scenario do you think would make you the most happy when it comes to work? What does that situation look like?
John: I think radio in general is going to look dramatically different in the next 5-10 years. I guess it depends on how we evolve and manage the change that’s going to judge how successful we are with it. I love working for iHeart because I think iHeart is by far and away the most forward-thinking company in radio. Between the app and all of the tremendous things that you can do with it. I think smart speakers are going to be a huge, huge thing for radio and lead to more on-demand listening tools for people to consume content.
For me personally, I would love to be at DAE or at a station — because you never know in this business — but I would love to be at a station that has adapted to the change where they’re the most successful at it in the country. I’m not just talking locally because I think it’s going to get to a point where people can be in their car — and a perfect example is Tampa — I think it’s going to be a real challenge for a lot of people that move to listen to local content because the accessibility of the content from their home or on demand is going to be so much easier when you get 5-10 years down the road. It’s going to be really interesting to see how success is judged when it comes to radio.
That’s what I’m excited about. I think we’re at a turning point where audio has never been bigger between terrestrial radio, satellite radio, podcasts, the on-demand audio on all the iHeart channels is just an example. I think we’re at an interesting point in the history of this business where we’re going to see some real quick and rapid change. I’m interested to see how it plays out.