Arky Shea is one of my favorite people in sports radio. He’s a guy that always strives to put entertainment above information. That doesn’t mean he has bad information. It’s just less important to him to be the guy breaking news than it is to be the one with the best joke about it.
When he was partnered with Cole Cubelic on WUMP’s morning show, they had two of my favorite regular bits. One, Arky Reads Rap, had Shea giving his spoken word interpretations of some of Cubelic’s favorite rhymes. The other, True Southern Gentlemen, saw the two put on very fancy, southern affectations to discuss the issues of the day. In one episode Cubelic referred to fans rushing the field after Auburn beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl by saying “there they go jumping around like a bunch of new money again.” It is a line that still makes me laugh whenever I think of it.
It shouldn’t be a surprise really that the guy has a track record of funny, memorable bits. Arky has one of the most entertaining Twitter feeds you could come across. Plus, he spent time as a stand-up comedian.
Last month I had to go to Alabama to pick up my kids, who had just spent the last week with my mother, who lives in Birmingham. I decided to drive the hour and twenty minutes north to Huntsville to sit down with Arky.
His studios at WUMP are mostly empty. The station will soon launch a new morning show with Arky and former NFL defensive bark Jerraud Powers. For now though, the station syndicates morning and midday shows from its sister station, Jox 94.5 in Birmingham, and its afternoon host Thom Abraham actually lives in Tennessee and does his show over a Comrex. Arky, who is the station’s PD, will serve as Thom’s producer until next week when the new morning show launches.
The WUMP studios look like a very fancy fallout shelter. There’s red soundproof foam on the walls, but those walls are made out of cinderblocks. My initial idea was to do this interview while modeling western wear for each other, but time got in the way, so we are here.
Thom is ranting about how baseball players wear their socks when I walk in. Arky isn’t having it and calling Thom old and crotchety. They seem to like each other, but my first thought is that maybe it’s a relationship that is strengthened by knowing they won’t be working together much longer.
After a little basketball talk (Arky is a Knicks fan. I love the Celtics.) we dive into a conversation that touched on Arky’s hatred of other cities, the Three Stooges, minor league baseball, and why Arky never wants to leave Huntsville.
Did you always want to be in sports radio or was it just media of some sort?
It was always sports radio. When I first went into college, I wanted to be a high school English teacher, but then I got into college and the reading list was impressively bad.
Bad, like you couldn’t believe what they were making you read?
Oh no. I mean like too many books.
So I thought “well, then what do I want to do most?”. First it was writing and then sports. I still do a little writing if I’m asked, but mainly I realized I wanted to talk about sports. I was doing this college show, where we were being filmed by the mass communications department, and I was the guy that was at all the games anyway, so I was being asked my professional opinion, at 20 years old, about these games.
The University of Montevallo. The show was called Falcon Fever, and we had it! I would just give my opinions on the baseball and basketball team. One day I got a call from the sports information director at the time, Alfred Kojima. He said “I want you to audition to be the play-by-play guy for the baseball team.” I thought that was great, so I came out that next Sunday. It was February. It was very cold.
The guy who was doing it at the time, would let me call an inning or two. It was great! I thought this could be really fun. He says “Why don’t you just come back tomorrow and we can do it all again.” So I came out the next day and the other guy was not there. I got the job not knowing I would be doing the whole series and then the whole season and then for a few years after that.
I kinda walked into this backwards. Even though I kinda knew where I was going, I didn’t really have the path or the destination figured out. I just knew that if I stayed in the woods of sports and talking, eventually I’d find the campfire I wanted to sit down at.
So we talked a little bit about your passion for the market. I know you’re from this area originally, did you always feel that way, or was it a matter of finding the right situation for you to feel like you could be here for a long time?
I definitely didn’t always feel that way. I always thought I wanted to be regional. My ultimate, big goal was to be sort of be a regional sports radio guy, so to do something in Birmingham, Charlotte, or Nashville would probably have been the most ideal.
I came back home to Huntsville after college and really thought I was outgrowing it after high school. I thought I was over it, but I was really just outgrowing some of the more country parts of the market. That’s just not the kind of personality I am. I started to really fall in love with the city itself. Then I met my wife. My wife has family here.
I had done a little bit of traveling with radio before. I thought Huntsville is a big enough market for me where I can make enough money, I can accomplish what I want, and I can reach a big enough fanbase. I can be happy here. Plus there are enough play-by-play gigs around for me.
The market I think is like 106 or something right now, but it won’t be that in ten years. By the time I retire, there’s a real chance it could be a top 50 market. I don’t know if it will ever get there, but I don’t want to be…Like SEC Media Days were in Atlanta and I fucking hated it. I never want to go to Atlanta if I don’t have to.
My wife and I went to DC. I hated DC. Never want to go back. That one’s mainly a traffic thing, but like look, I come back to Huntsville and people complain about traffic here and I’m like “What? Come on!” Highway 72 and University Drive are nothing compared to the interchange in Atlanta or what people in DC go through every single day.
When did you become PD of the station?
What has that experience been like? Thom Abraham has always been remote and is kind of his own deal. Cole was just starting to really establish his national identity at that point. What sort of credit do you take for those guys on air? How frustrating can the set up like that be? Give me the overall feeling of what you have accomplished in these two and a half years.
I take all the credit for Cole. I also should be getting a percentage of whatever he makes. He’s late this month, by the way.
For Thom especially, I take some credit for Thom being more open to ideas. I think I’ve been able to open his eyes to different…It’s weird, because he’s 58. I’m not.
I’m technically his boss, but in a way I’m not because he really advocated for me to get the PD spot. It can be weird. I try to caress him and push him in certain directions, but I can’t take away from Thom who he is, so I don’t want to take a lot of credit for Thom.
For Cole, I think I brought a lot of good out of Cole. I think I brought out fun, radio Cole, because when he started, I was an intern and it felt like Cole was talking at people. It felt like he was just trying to get through a show.
When we started doing a show together, we had a show. We started having fun, and we figured out the silly parts of sports radio that some people gloss over to get in more numbers and facts. For us, it was morning radio. We wanted to make it fun, so to be able to let his silly side come out and let him be who he is and is capable of being in that space, I take credit for making him comfortable there.
I…you know, I don’t really want to take credit for anything with them. That’s just sort of the way you phrased it. My job is to be a brick wall for you to play handball off of. I want you to be able bounce stuff off me and go back and forth, because if you’re playing handball against the curtain, you’re not getting anything back, and it’s awful to listen to.
I want to be the brick wall that gives you just enough. I want you to bounce something to me and I get it back to you to set you up to bounce it again. That’s my role as the PD and as a co-host.
It sounds like from a show perspective you realize you might be better as a number 2, that that is where your strength is.
Well, it depends on who it is. When I had my own show, I thought I did fine. If I ever get the chance in the future, I would have no problem running a show again.
The guys I was dealing with, Cole and Thom, those are dominant personalities. Those guys were brought here to make it their show. So, I was brought on with Cole because Cole wanted someone he trusted. At first it was the Cole Cubelic Show, but because of who we are and our relationship it became the Cube Show. With Thom, it may be the Thom Abraham Show with Arky Shea, but it’s really just Thom. He is the one getting the talent salary in that slot, so I have to be his number two.
It’s not about being comfortable being a number two. It’s about being comfortable in my environment. I’m comfortable with being a number one, but I am comfortable with number 2 too.
Beyond just the fact that your friend isn’t here every morning, was there ever a worry for the station in losing Cole? I know technically he is still on in the midday (Cubelic is part of 3 Man Front, which is syndicated from WUMP’s sister station Jox 94.5 in Birmingham), but you don’t have that kind of presence in mornings now. So when he says “hey, I’ve been offered this thing in Birmingham and I am going to take it,” what were your first thoughts not from the show standpoint, but from a PD standpoint?
Ratings-wise and financially we had built something pretty good. We built something where Jason Barrett recognizes our little show as a top 25 mid-market show. I even got a plaque printed for Cole. Jason doesn’t send them. I went and got one made. I mean, it is a huge honor that in little Huntsville, we could accomplish something like that.
I was proud for Cole because that was his dream, so I can’t be mad. Cole is my guy and he got his dream and I want him to be able to chase it.
From a station standpoint it was sad, because we had built a good following. We just had people start buying t-shirts with our show logo and some sayings on it. We had won two Alabama Broadcasters Association awards for best morning show in the state. We were doing something really special. It was kind of hard to see that the end of that special thing was there.
It was hard from a station standpoint too. I have nothing against anyone in Birmingham. Ryan Haney (Jox 94.5 PD) has been very good to me. I like The Roundtable (Jox 94.5’s morning show, which is also syndicated to WUMP) guys a lot. But it sort of felt like that we were becoming a satellite station and I thought that could really hurt us.
Just so I understand, you are talking about feeling like a satellite station after Cole left and your first two daypaerts are coming from Jox, right?
With that being the case right now, do you ever feel the right or ability, as a PD carrying that programming on his station, if you hear something that you think is detrimental to The Ump, can you pick up the phone and call Ryan Haney?
I have before. Especially trying to figure out technical things that allow a station in Birmingham to play a local spot on our airwaves.
I wouldn’t have a problem going to Ryan if there were an issue, but there has never been an issue. The only issue I have ever had is on the technical side.
Is Alabama and Auburn fandom so overwhelming across the state that you can pretty much count on that programming coming from Birmingham matching what your listeners want to hear?
Not completely. This area is so transient. We have so many people from so many different places.
I was at a big Fourth of July fireworks show. There were a couple thousand people there. Everybody is in their lawn chairs, and so many of them had some kind of team logo on them. I was at this dinner, which was overlooking the field where all these chairs were, so I watched all the people walking in and saw all the people set up their chairs and blankets. You would be surprised by how many of those people coming through had hats or logos on their chairs that were not Alabama and Auburn – that weren’t even Tennessee. They were Iowa and Michigan State and Florida State.
Our listenership, I feel, gets a discredit done to it if the hosts are only catering to Alabama and Auburn. That’s not what those Jox shows are doing all the time. Their hosts have done a better job covering the Braves. We have tons of Braves fans here.
Hockey is big for us here. The minor league team here sells out regularly. People like to hear some talk about hockey, especially too with the Predators being right up the road.
Huntsville is a much different city than Birmingham. The county might be Alabama and Auburn die hards, and there’s plenty of that in the city too. The metro just cares a lot about other things. We have opinions on other sports.
In football season though, does the SEC still blanket everything, or are there enough people here that care about the Titans that make it so their games will be a big part of a Monday morning show too?
Alabama and Auburn are still number one for us, but absolutely the Titans get a lot of coverage. During football season it will be almost all football. Basketball doesn’t really show up until January or late December. It is better now that those two teams with the most fans are better.
It will be Alabama first, Auburn second, and probably Tennessee third. College always comes before pro, but people here love the NFL. We have a lot of Cowboys fans and Steelers fans to go along with the Titans fans. Trying to cater to all of that is difficult, but it is also a challenge that can be met.
A good reflection of how much you want to focus on the market instead of doing all Alabama and Auburn talk all the time is this new double-A team coming to town. I think 70% of what I have seen you post on Twitter over the last few weeks has been about the team’s naming contest. Did they come to you with that, or is that something that, as the PD, you recognized an opportunity for your station to get involved and throw your arms around this?
I was doing a little bit of reporting. I broke the story that we were going to get a new team. The Baybears were moving here (the Baybears are the Dodgers’ double-A affiliate and currently play at the other end of the state in my hometown of Mobile).
Did you have on a fedora with a piece of paper that said “press” sticking out of it while you were breaking the story?
Ol’ Scoops Shea
It was that old Three Stooges joke with the three hats that said “Press,” “Press,” “Pull”.
I started with that story and I just kept following up and following up to put a timeline together. When is the stadium going to be voted on? When will we vote on a tax to put funding together? That eventually got me in contact with the CEO of the ownership group that had just bought the Baybears.
We set up a partnership where they saw value with being associated with us and our cluster. Cumulus Huntsville covers every format you’d want. We struck things up from there.
We broke the news about the top ten teams for the team. That took some work, but it was a situation that turned from me reporting on them to them seeing the value of our reach and saying “let’s see if we can work together on some things.”
I don’t consider myself a reporter. I am a radio entertainer. I am prideful of the area. I want the baseball team to succeed. I am not going to hold my tongue if they make bad decisions, but I’m not out to submarine the team.
Very selfishly, I want baseball back in North Alabama. It’s coming. I think it makes our area look better and is more family friendly.
And the name you want to win the contest is?
The Madison Moon Possums. It’s alliteration. The stadium will be in Madison, but I picked Moon Possums first.
When you are sampling other shows, what is it you think sports radio is getting wrong about guys in their 20s and 30s?
Fun. So much of it is missing any sense of fun. I think we lecture too much. I think it is good to go on rants. Passion is always good, but there are still too many hosts that want to lecture you about their opinion.
Look, it’s fine for Joe Simpson to go on TV and complain about the Dodgers taking batting practice in shorts and a t-shirt, but don’t come on and talk about it the next day if all you are going to do is tell me why you agree or disagree. It’s the laziest kind of radio to do – someone gives an opinion and then asks the listeners if they agree or disagree. I hate that.
Do something with it. Ask listeners to give you ideas of what you want to see them wear. I don’t care. I hate to hear hosts read an article on air and go line by line and telling me if you agree or disagre. I hate lecture radio.
One of my favorite shows is Toucher and Rich in Boston. They’re what radio is supposed to be. We’re passionate about our team. We’re going to scream about Gronk retiring and joining the WWE. We’ll also do funny bits about Guy Fieri, and then we’ll all go home and live our lives.
What else do you listen to?
Really other than those guys it’s mostly just podcasts.
Do you see their influence on radio? Like do you look at podcasts and take away something that other program directors should be paying attention to?
Hmm…I don’t think there is a lot radio can learn from podcasting right now, because until podcasting gets past the point where so many of those shows are long discussions, we are just so different. I really don’t know the answer there.
Maybe it is not a content lesson other than you’ve gotta always be thinking about how to innovate.
Yeah. You’ve gotta innovate, but podcasts have to deal with that. Sometimes you get a guy you like but he is just talking forever. There’s nothing radio can really do with that.
But radio has to embrace podcasting. You have to put up everything. It is almost ridiculous not to at this point. I have fought with people about this before because their mentality is “Well, sponsors pay for the show. Why put it somewhere that sponsors aren’t paying for it.”
Look, that’s not a crazy mentality to have, but I have…what? Maybe 2 listeners that will stay with all four hours of a show? Maybe one that listens to the station the entire day?
People work. They want to go back and find what they missed. People want interviews. They want to hear your best bits.