Mike North is the classic rags to riches story. After dropping out of high school, he joined the army and worked odd jobs before opening a successful hot dog stand across the street from WXRT-FM. Being in the right place at the right time, he parlayed an opportunity and joined sports radio station WSCR-AM. North has become the most controversial and one of the best-paid sports talk show hosts in town. Admittedly unpolished, his regular guy persona as gained him a loyal audience and his share of critics. In this interview, North reacts to those who call him racist and talks about finding happiness in a Cubs loss.
Interview from the April 2006 edition by Darrell Horwitz, contributing editor.
The Heckler: How did you get your start in radio?
Mike North: I was at the hot dog stand one day and I said ‘You know what? Business is okay, but I’m killing myself and I want to get into radio,’ so I talked to people about getting into radio. They found out that I could lease some time, and I told my buddies I wasn’t going to play softball that year because I was going to go into small-time radio and they thought I was out of my mind. Things worked out and I sold my own advertising and I bought time for 300 bucks an hour one hour a week at a small station, WSBC, and now 14 years later apparently it worked. I just keep waiting for them to tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Get your ass back to the hot dog stand.’
TH: How did you get hooked up at the Score?
MN: WXRT was in the neighborhood and one of the guys over there said they were going to start a cool country station and I said they should start a sports station. So they decided to go in that direction and I told Danny Lee [WXRT owner] that and I guess they felt sort of indebted that I helped give them the idea. They acted on it and said, ‘Let’s give him a tryout and see what happens.’ Originally I was supposed to do weekends and somebody dropped out. The rumor was that it was [recently fired longtime WFLD-TV sportscaster] Bruce Wolf, but I don’t know. I ended up getting the tryout and they said you’ve got a six-month tryout and the next thing you know, I’m still here.
TH: Weren’t you the one who insisted you wanted to be an everyday host rather than just a weekend guy? How did you have the cajones to tell them that?
MN: Because I was 37 at the time. I’m not a 22-year-old kid coming out of school who will take anything, and deservedly so. They should take anything they get their hands on. I was making a pretty good living selling hot dogs. I said, ‘I don’t want weekends. I want an everyday deal.’ They said ‘You’ve out of your mind. You’re not going to get it,’ but then somebody dropped out and I ended up getting the gig.
TH: One of the things that made you popular was that you were a regular guy and people related to you as one of them.
MN: And I still am a regular guy. I think the tough thing for me has been because you made a lot of money and you move from your house and people go, ‘How could you move from your house? Why did you improve your life? You’re not blue collar any more.’ To me, blue-collar has always been an attitude. It has nothing to do with how much money you make. There’s guys that make a ton of dough that are still blue-collar. Pete Rose was a blue-collar guy. I don’t care how much money he made. He lived in mansions, but he was a blue-collar guy.
TH: The White Sox are now on your station. Most of the Score’s hosts are Sox fans. Is it going to be difficult for Cubs fans not to think you’re biased toward them and that you’re not favoring the White Sox?
MN: Let me tell you something, if the Cubs won this year I’d be thrilled. I’m a Sox fan, but I’m a Chicago fan. Up until last year I was saying I wanted any team to win and I’ll say it again this year. If the Sox weren’t going to win this year and the Cubs were to win, I’d be ecstatic. That being said, just like WGN is known for its Cubs leanings, the Score is known now as the Sox flagship. But I’ve hired on Ryan Dempster. I’ve hired Barry Rozner [from the Daily Herald] who used to be a Cubs beat writer, so that’s all nonsense. Jerry Reinsdorf was on the show recently with me and we talked about this White House fiasco with Ozzie Guillen and him and me got in this spirited discussion about it. I’m not beholden to anybody and I don’t care if it’s a Sox station. The Blackhawks are on this station and I give them a beating. They deserve it. If you’re not playing well, if the Sox are 10-20, you’ll know it from my show. If the Sox are 20-10, you’ll know it. The same with the Cubs. I’m all about Chicago. I’m not worried about one or the other. If the Sox don’t perform this year, they’re going to get a beating and they know it.
TH: Sometimes you seem to enjoy it when the Cubs lose.
MN: I’m happy when the Cubs lose when their bone-headed management does something like with the Todd Walker situation. You’ve got a solid second baseman and the other two guys don’t even play second. If he doesn’t start for them this year and there is an error at second base by Neifi Perez, I’m going to say they got what they deserve. But the same holds true for the Sox. I was pissed last year when Brandon McCarthy didn’t make the playoff roster. He deserved it instead of Damaso Marte and if he blew it for them, I would have said, ‘It served them right.’ Does that sound like a Sox fan? [In the past] if the Cubs won and the Sox won, that was fine with me. If the Cubs lost and the Sox won, it was great. When the Cubs won and the Sox lost, I’d hear it from my buddies. There was 18 of us, nine were Sox fans and nine were Cubs fans. It’s a child’s game. I’m 53. I want to see these teams succeed. I’m at the age where whoever wins, wins.
TH: Do you think Chicago can ever become a Sox town?
MN: If the Tribune continues to do stupid things like put a peephole that people were supposed to be able to watch the game and put a tarp in front of it, like they did with the tarp and balloons to block the rooftops, if they continue to charge exorbitant prices for parking, if they continue to screw around fan favorites like Todd Walker, it’s possible it could even up. But right now, I don’t think the Sox will ever run away with this town.
TH: You’ve probably offended every ethnic group in Chicago. People have said you are racist. Is that fair?
MN: I speak my mind. What happens is if you criticize anybody, from any other culture … I’m half-Italian and half-Irish and I’ve had [Italian-American group] UNICO come after me for things. If you criticize [black Olympic speedskater] Shani Davis for being the way he is, you’re a racist. I’m always leery of people who call others racist. I don’t have a racist bone in my body. I went to public high school. I was in the army. A lot of my buddies are and were black. I was partners with [Dan Jiggetts] for eight years, and we never had a problem. He’s one of the great men you would ever want to meet and last I checked he’s black. I’ve never even taken it seriously. They forget when I criticize [Brian] Urlacher. They forget when I criticize Kerry Wood. I’ve criticized my share of blacks also. I get really humored when people say I center on the black athletes. I don’t. If you don’t get the job done, you’re going down.
TH: When you make comments like the Chinaman or the Mexican wearing the sombrero, that’s where people are going to have a different take.
MN: You know, it’s amazing to me that people will go out of their way to say that a guy is Hispanic and then you just say, ‘Why don’t you just accept him and not even bring up his nationality?’Why do people want to bring up nationalities unless it’s for groundbreaking stuff? What Davis did was incredible to win the gold medal, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a tool. I’m not going to hold back and say I’m not going to criticize this guy because he’s a certain race or certain ethnicity or certain gender. I’m going to say what I feel and that’s what I do. The last I checked this is a free country like Ozzie Guillen said recently. But you’ve got to live with your comments just like he has to live with his comments. I can’t hold back. In my world, I’ve got to look in the mirror. I can’t be a phony. That’s the way I am.