A couple of years ago, Michael Sharkey was in Los Angeles for a concert by Mumford and Sons when he and colleague Dan Connelly decided to drop in on a buddy. A buddy named Jared Leto.
"We were just sitting on his couch with him, and then he showed Dan and I the first picture on his phone of his character in Dallas Buyers Club," Sharkey recalled. "And we looked at him, and we were like, 'Dude, you look like a woman!' He was thin as a rail at that moment, but he even said at that time, 'Man, I really feel like there's something with this role.' "
One Oscar later, Leto was proven right. And Sharkey was, as usual, on board from the beginning.
It wasn't the first time. "Shark," as he's known to nearly all, was named program director of WSUN-FM 97.1 in late 2000, a month after the Cox Media Group-owned station switched formats from oldies to alternative rock. He's been an influential figure on the Tampa Bay radio landscape ever since, creating 97X's annual Next Big Thing festival, orchestrating dozens of free concerts and shepherding the station through its biggest change since the format switch — last year's launch of a free smartphone app that allowed listeners to choose all the music. It was the first local station, and one of the first nationally, to make such a change.
But on March 28, after more than 13 years, Shark decided it was time to step down as program director at 97X and 102.5 The Bone. He'll spend a few months writing and traveling the world with his wife and children, ages 12 and 10 — a month in Italy, a great American road trip, maybe Thailand in the fall. He may return to radio or consulting, but for the moment, he's just ready to take a break.
"It's closer to a sabbatical than anything else," he said, adding with a laugh: "I'm 41, so if I end up retiring, yay me!"
On his final day at Cox, Shark talked about his experience in Tampa Bay radio and what's coming. Here are excerpts.
Describe the difference between the Tampa Bay radio landscape in 2000 versus 2014.
The digital disruption has really streamlined a lot of the big brands. But as much as things have changed, a lot of it has stayed the same. Bubba's still No. 1. This is such a market that is accepting of talk talent — Cowhead, Mason Dixon, MJ, all these guys. I think that's still there. That's why the Bone is so successful, is this market just has an appetite for that.
Not to get too inside, but Clear Channel, their digital initiatives with iHeartRadio — and this isn't a judgment of their business plan — but Mix 100.7 sounds like the Mix station in Austin, which sounds like the Mix station in wherever. 98 Rock sounds like the rock station in Atlanta or the rock station in wherever. That's their business plan. Whereas 14 years ago, there were more unique brands everywhere. That's just less of a priority for a lot of companies these days.
97X certainly took a big step toward individuality with the app last year. It's been 15 months or so since it went into place. What lessons have you learned?
A couple of lessons, good and bad. At this point, we have received, I think it's maybe 12 million votes — engagement unlike anything I have ever seen anywhere, because it's just never been done. So when you get 12 million votes, you learn a lot about how people listen to radio. People wanted to hear newer music, people wanted to hear a definite shift in the style that was happening at that time in the pop alternative landscape, and I think that's amazing.
With that being said, many people just like to turn their radio on and know they're going to hear their favorite songs and choose not to interact. One of the great lessons I've learned is that 97X, moving forward, will need to balance that. It's great that listeners control the music, but there's a lot of people who just want to hear their favorite song. Radio is a medium where most people are sitting in their car, stuck on the Howard Frankland Bridge, and they want to consume what's coming out of the speakers, as opposed to trying to force their favorite song out.
What was your involvement with the creation of Next Big Thing?
That was mine, and our team here. That was our baby. If you remember, (98 Rock's) Livestock was so huge, and I said in order to compete on the landscape of this particular market, we have got to do a really, really amazing concert experience. We're going to have opportunities to do State Theatre shows and Masquerade shows and things like that, but we've gotta do a festival. Next Big Thing was the name, because when I articulated it to my team, I said, "It will always perpetuate itself. It will always be the Next Big Thing." This signature event had to always be on the forefront of cutting-edge bands. For all the years we've had 30 Seconds to Mars and Stone Temple Pilots and Rise Against, for me, it was Fun. at 11:30 in the morning three years ago. That's what I think Next Big Thing was really all about.
Have you seen, over the last 15 years, a change in the importance of on-air talent?
If you have the right on-air talent, it will make the experience of radio that much better, just the same as if you have the wrong on-air talent, people will tune out right away. Whenever there's breaking news, or weather — as weird as it sounds, hurricanes and natural disasters remind people what local radio's all about. If you've got an automated DJ out of Memphis, they're not going to be able to capture what's happening in that community. That's what I really applaud Cox for, is they've really held on to that.