By Mike Kinosian
Now in his mid-50s, the Lafayette, Indiana native and roughly quarter-of-a-century Madison, Wisconsin broadcaster is an ardent Frank Sinatra devotee.
Profound, palpable influence the “Chairman of the Board” has had on Henck’s present professional path is probably best summarized through a two-word 1969 Paul Anka-penned Sinatra anthem.
Swimming by necessity
Home to rocker WMAD and later a hot AC (“Mix”), Madison’s FM frequency at 92.1 had been in the spoken-word genre – either sports or progressive talk – since 2004. That, however, came to an abrupt conclusion the day after the 2016 election, when iHeartMedia jettisoned WXXM “The Mic” in favor of all-Christmas music.
Several weeks later, “Best FM” – as the temporary, wall-to-wall seasonal music outlet was dubbed – became classic hits-oldies “Rewind 92.1 Madison’s Greatest Hits.”
Included in the WXXM on-air purge was Henck, who – while no longer on terrestrial radio – didn’t miss a beat as he continued his weekday three-hour (8:00 am – 11:00 am) show on MadisonTalks.com. “That never stopped,” he remarks. “We have been adding podcasts since then with other podcasters. That is the business model that came out of necessity when we were dropped. People listened to Stephanie Miller, Thom Hartmann, and Mitch Henck [on WXXM] – but suddenly [on November 9, 2016] – they got all-Christmas music. There are times that corporate radio forces you into the water and you have to swim.”
Self-described “contrarian” and “voice of common sense” Henck grew up in a liberal home but explains that he evolved toward the center. “My logic professor in college always impressed me to argue for truth – not victory. Most people don’t make arguments. They just believe what they have believed since they were 10 years old. A lawyer friend of mine came up with the idea of the ‘voice of uncommon sense’ when we were on the golf course, so I give him credit for that and I like it.”
(At) Butler did it
Former Chicago Cubs players Ernie Banks (“Let’s Play Two”), Ron Santo, and Don Kessinger were Henck’s heroes as he grew up rooting for his favorite baseball team as he watched them on Chicago’s WGN-TV. “In addition, I idolized [Cubs announcer] Jack Brickhouse and I got to meet him in the broadcast booth when I was a kid,” Henck recalls. “I felt like the ‘big man on campus’ and wanted to be an announcer just like Jack.”
Once the most powerful student-run radio station in the United States, Butler University’s 48,000-watt WAJC, Indianapolis was where Butler alum Henck was able to live out his career goal of doing play-by-play. “The director made sure that only students worked on the station,” he points out. “I did Notre Dame basketball for one year on WSBT, South Bend (Indiana).”
From there, he worked as a television reporter/news anchor at NBC-TV’s Green Bay affiliate.
Over a 12-year stretch, ex-Gary Hart delegate Henck oversaw a daily talkfest on Madison’s then Clear Channel-owned, now iHeartMedia’s WIBA-AM but, in June 2014, he was “cut along with dozens of [other Clear Channel employees] around the country,” he confirms. “The general manager [Jeff Tyler] got back from corporate meetings and told me he needed to talk after my show – that was it. We started on [WXXM] in March 2015. Five months after that, I got investors to put money into my company so we could do podcasts. We bought equipment and we ‘trade’ for the space.”
Playing the hits
Even though quantifying listenership to Henck’s MadisonTalks.com program is difficult, he maintains, “We are building and growing as we go. We are developing a digital software that can track ‘hits’ during the day and week. Prior to that, we could see who was listening at the moment. We take calls and, like any other [talk] show except Rush [Limbaugh], I have guests.”
Utilizing “outside the box” as a way to describe his program’s philosophy, Henck invokes the name of a long-ago Sunday night television staple as somewhat of a role model. “My attitude is to be like what Ed Sullivan did,” he states. “I go with the scoop and play the hits: Whatever is hot is what I do. I am bored by carrying water for anybody. I am center-right on economics and more libertarian on social issues. I like splitting hairs and challenging callers to make their argument.”
Social media “is everything” in terms of marketing and expanding Henck’s audience. “Some of my podcasters have [the maximum] 5,000 Facebook friends,” he details. “They know they have to get the word out in social media. We’re not going to buy ads on radio, television, or in print. It is all social media now. I have a core following because I was on the air here for so many years.”
Left-wing ground zero
Key to any podcast or webcast is that consumers can engage whenever they want. “People don’t watch television in ‘real time’ anymore, which is why ratings for the Olympics [for example] were down,” Henck opines. “We no longer gather around the television to watch David Janssen in [ABC-TV’s mid-1960s drama] ‘The Fugitive.’ People watch and listen to things on their phone when it’s convenient for them. Anyone who is under 30 doesn’t watch or listen to anything in real time. It is a matter of growing the chronological population post-30 and making inroads. In that regard, the timing for us is right.”
With a studio just four blocks from Wisconsin’s state capitol building, Henck describes his Madison location as, “‘Berkeley East.’ There are quite a few heavy progressives here. The rest of the state is more conservative but Madison is ‘lefty ground zero.’ It’s like having a seat on the 50-yard line because you’re in the front-row of national politics. With every extreme thrown in, Wisconsin is the country’s center for political action.”
Twice each month, Henck writes an op-ed column for The Wisconsin State Journal and one week before the 2016 presidential election, he speculated in his newspaper column there was an “under-vote” in the state. Whereas a Marquette University Law School poll indicated Hillary Clinton was winning Wisconsin by seven points, Henck wrote her margin was closer to two. “I didn’t know it would go from [plus] seven to minus one,” he admits. “In Wisconsin, [Donald] Trump got 1600 more votes [than GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney received in 2012], but [President Barack Obama] got 250,000 more votes in 2012 than Hillary [did in 2016]. The lefty core see Trump as a fascist, sexist, misogynist, and a racist. Those in ‘Trump Nation,’ however, see him as a breath of fresh air and have Trump stickers on the backs of their trucks. The enthusiasm and minority vote was way down for the Democrats in 2016, compared to what Obama drew in 2012. It’s like imitating Sinatra – nobody can do it – Obama was Obama. Hillary was trying to replace a guy who has huge charisma and a great connection with minorities and young people. It just was not going to happen.”
Free of franchise fees
Among the advantages Henck enjoys in doing his show online rather than on-air is saving a considerable amount of money in weekly franchise fees. “My show on 92.1 was an independent franchise so we had to pay [iHeartMedia] the same way [franchisees pay] McDonald’s,” elaborates the onetime director of communications for ex-Wisconsin attorney general Jim Doyle. “[WXXM] gave me seven minutes of my hour to sell and they got eight minutes for themselves. I couldn’t sell to certain advertisers on their ‘protected’ list, which is a tough road. Right now though, it is like filling up a tennis court at a resort. Someone has it from 6:00 to 7:00 and someone else reserves it from 7:00 to 8:00. If someone goes over their time, vacationers [get upset]. We have an engineer and a producer and we charge a flat fee for the hour. Unlike my old deal at 92.1, our podcasters keep their own hour. [It’s up to them if they want] to sell sponsorships; sell ads; or get donations and they get to keep their revenue.”
So for Henck, who does a daily video “Two Minutes with Mitch” podcast at Madison.com, it is a matter of stuffing all available slots with podcasters. “If you can get people on every week, you are ‘filling up that tennis court.’ The goal is to have 20 podcasts a week and if you do that, you will be okay. We’re currently on the 20-yardline, but we are building toward that number. The good news is that people have things to say and they have stories to tell. They are authors, religious and civil rights leaders, activists, musicians, and even a former governor. We have all of them doing podcasts.”
Time spent listening for megastars such as Thom Hartmann and Rush Limbaugh is so inflated, Henck contends, because talk radio gives the audience a forum “to hear themselves think.” The genre, he emphasizes is all about the listener. “If he or she thinks a talk show host isn’t biased, it means [that particular air talent] agrees with the listener. An air personality is popular because listeners agree with [him or her] – not because that talent is dynamic, witty, or funny. That is how they define who is good. I try to bring in everybody and it is safe for everyone to call.”
Open to syndication
Weekends for Henck are typically spent doing a “Big Show” of humor and an old blue eyes tribute, complete with piano, drums, and tenor sax. “I’m a Sinatra fan and I wondered where you could find a ‘Rat Pack’-like show in a nightclub anymore,” he muses. “The answer is that you can’t see it, so I decided to do one myself. In comedy, you do a lot of ‘life’ stuff, such as getting fat, stress, and dealing with your kids. You do that on radio as well, but there’s more politics. You don’t do political ‘jokes’ on radio because you would lose half your audience. I believe in some sort of pain, suffering, or awkwardness at the root of all jokes to find it funny. Some comedians such as [Jerry] Seinfeld can do ‘observational humor,’ but I don’t find that to be as funny as [problems in a] relationship or going through a divorce.”
Treatments including acupuncture and extensive therapy over the past four (plus) years have significantly aided Henck in recovering from a stroke that landed the then-50-year old in the hospital for one month. “I couldn’t speak for a long time, but I worked very hard to get [my speech] back,” reveals Henck, who suffered the devastating malady in October 2012 – three days after having oral surgery. “I am right-handed and my left side is still bad. Anyone who heard me three months after the stroke would think I had a few too many scotches. I’m now a ‘funny golfer,’ who went from a nine handicap to a 45. I got a half-tuition golf scholarship to Butler University but [that ability] is now gone. On the other hand though, so is the competitive stress [from wanting to be better at the sport]. That part is somewhat of a nice gift.”
Building what he refers to as a “thinking radio show” on MadisonTalks.com and no longer tied to a franchise fee arrangement he had for roughly 20 months at WXXM, Henck – who arrived in Madison in 1992 – comments, “It’s probably true what has often been said that if you move to Madison, you will never leave. I would like to fill up my ‘tennis court’ with 25 podcasts each and every week. In addition, I’d like to see my show, or at least parts of it, picked up by [terrestrial radio] affiliates; that would be a bonus. There’s no reason why we couldn’t be picked up if we find the correct company that doesn’t just want some boilerplate right-wing or militant left-wing host. What I do probably isn’t consultant-tested or consultant-approved – but – you are who you are.
Contact TALKERS managing editor Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@TALKERS.com.