Heller: “I can be provocative, but it has to come organically.”
It’s good to be Mike Heller these days.
Heller hosts The Mike Heller Show, a four-hour local sports talk show weekdays on iHeartRadio’s The Big 1070. In a sports media landscape dominated by outsized personalities jockeying for position and often jumping to different media companies, Heller has quietly and steadily grown his audience statewide. His show is now syndicated in four Wisconsin markets (Madison, Milwaukee, Appleton and Wausau), with more reportedly on the way.
In a world where the controversial hot takes of screaming heads like ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith and Fox1’s Skip Bayless seem like the fast track to media stardom, Heller has become the go-to substitute host of the nationally syndicated Dan Patrick Radio Show, a gig he’s rocking again this week. He’s an outlier, he’s a survivor — and he’s a huge success.
“I can be provocative, but it has to come organically,” says Heller, speaking from his studio at iHeartRadio’s broadcast offices on South Fish Hatchery Road. It’s a modest space that features plenty of Packers and Badgers memorabilia and even a set of Minnesota Vikings Helga horns (his show’s producer, Jon Arias, hails from Minnesota).
“In our business, so many people believe that’s the model, to every day throw a hot take out there, get people to react,” Heller says. “Sometimes you have to be down the middle. If I weren’t, I’d be faking it.”
For example, last fall, when Packers fans were (again) calling for Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson’s heads during Green Bay’s midseason swoon, Heller was among those who quietly and confidently predicted they’d recover and make the playoffs. These days, he’s even somewhat bullish about the Brewers’ chances to mine success out of this season’s full-on rebuild.
Born in Appleton, Heller got his sports media start in TV after graduating from UW-Oshkosh. After stops in Rhinelander and Memphis, he came back to Wisconsin, landing in Madison in 1995. He spent a few years as a local golf pro before hosting a radio show with UW athletic director Barry Alvarez, a gig that eventually ballooned into his current job. He’s the only local broadcaster who’s done play-by-play for each of the four major sports.
Over the course of his 15-year sports radio talk career, Heller has had plenty of highlights, but two stand out. One was a show in which he did back-to-back interviews with Packers legend Bart Starr and his wife, Cherry, followed by an interview with Heller’s own father, who’d been in the stands for the Packers legendary Ice Bowl game. The second was the time he flew to New York to guest-host the Dan Patrick show live.
Paul Pabst, the producer of Patrick’s radio show, first heard Heller’s name three years ago while talking to a colleague about the Milwaukee sports scene. Now Heller’s the one Pabst usually turns to when Patrick’s vacationing or on assignment. Heller also occasionally fills in on the national show hosted by the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen.
“Mike has a little bit of everything — he can be funny, he can be serious,” says Pabst, who also appreciates Heller’s ability to grasp the national show’s focus, topics and vibe. “He showed the ability to be a natural host, and not everybody can do that. Plus, he has really nice hair. It’s an easy transition from Dan’s hair to Mike’s hair.”
Heller also engages easily with his listeners, both local and national, without belittling them. But he’s not afraid to speak out when necessary.
“I don’t [hedge] my real opinions if I think that someone is a bad caller,” says Heller. He’s happier when callers express well-thought-out opinions (even if he may not agree) — though he recognizes that “nothing builds a show faster than a bad or poorly-thought-out opinion call.”
Another key is his dedication to prep. His weekday routine includes a morning jammed with surfing TweetDeck, SportsCenter, national sports blogs and, when he’s in his car, listening to the local radio competition. He watches every Packers and Badgers game twice, live and on DVR.
“[One of] the two worst things I can do is to say, ‘I didn’t see it,” Heller says. “The other worst thing is to fake it. You never get that respect back.”
Over the past few years, navigating the thorny question of whether his show should “stick to sports” or also venture into politics has added a new challenge. While some sports media personalities have stumbled into and/or risked the minefield (think ESPN’s Dan Le Batard and Sage Steele), Heller has staked a thoughtful middle ground that allows him to wield his opinions without damaging his show’s reach.
“My goal is to get the most listeners,” he explains. “If I come out on a side of a political issue, I immediately turn off half my listeners.”
Heller supports the athletes’ right to promote political agendas, whether it’s the Badgers’ Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig or the NFLs Colin Kaepernick. But he’ll keep his own views on these topics close to his vest.
“If you’re measured and you do your homework, you’re okay,” says Heller. “But you have to be careful, because we’re a live medium. We have a 12-second delay for swearing, but there’s no delay for a bad opinion.” n
Stream episodes of The Mike Heller Show at thebig1070.iheart.com/media/podcast-the-mike-heller-show-mikehellershow
Editor's note: The text has been changed to reflect the station's broadcast offices as located on South Fish Hatchery Road.