Mike Thomas had no reason to leave 98.5 The Sports Hub other than the best one. He’s going home.
Thomas, who along with then-CBS Boston market manager Mark Hannon assembled the 98.5 The Sports Hub lineup, launched the station as a challenger to established powerhouse WEEI in August 2009, and remained in charge as it sustained its immediate success for more than 10 years now, is leaving at the end of the year.
The program director at The Sports Hub from its inception, he’s heading to Chicago to work as the market manager for Good Karma Brands, which recently took over operation of the former ESPN Chicago station.
Thomas, a native Midwesterner and a lifelong Chicago sports fan, still has family in the area.
“l had every intent to stay here for quite a while,’’ said Thomas. “I love this radio station. It’s an amazing station with an amazing staff. I had no plans to leave any time soon. But it came up, and I said, ‘I have to seriously consider this.’
“I was born in Illinois but grew up in Wisconsin. I’ve always been a Chicago fan, my dad is diehard a Chicago sports fan and still lives in Illinois. And I have a house in the Milwaukee area that I’ve been traveling back and forth to for the past five years. So at some point I was going to get back there with a plan. But I wasn’t expecting it to happen now.”
Thomas, who also serves as national brand manager for Beasley Media — the company that purchased The Sports Hub in November 2017 after CBS Radio merged with Entercom — said he did not seek out the position. He was approached out of the blue by Good Karma Brands owner Craig Karmazin.
“He’s a good radio guy,’’ said Thomas, who will stay on with Beasley as a consultant and help search for his successor through the end of the year. “He just acquired ESPN Chicago because ESPN kind of wants to get out of the radio business, kind of like CBS wanted to a couple of years ago. So he reached out and said, ‘Hey, how would you like to be the market manager for our station in Chicago?’ It wasn’t something I was expecting, but it turned into something I couldn’t refuse.’’
There is much hope among Sports Hub personnel that Rick Radzik, who has been the assistant program director since the station’s launch, will succeed Thomas. But whomever gets the job is talking over an ideal situation.
The Sports Hub has been nominated for 11 Marconi Awards during Thomas’s tenure, with five wins — three for Sports Station as the Year, including this year, and one each for morning drive program “Toucher and Rich” and afternoon drive program “Felger and Massarotti,” which has finished first in the Nielsen ratings in its key demographic for 29 straight three-month ratings books.
“I’ve said it many times,’’ said Thomas. “This is a once-in-a-career radio station. All of us have been very fortunate. There are so many very talented people that work here, on the air and behind the scenes. It’s because of everybody here.”
When it launched, The Sports Hub had some significant advantages over failed past challengers to WEEI — a strong FM signal, and the rights to Patriots and Bruins game broadcasts. But its near-instant success — it passed WEEI in ratings in the men 25-54 demographic for the first time in November 2010 — was no certainty.
Especially since Thomas and Hannon took an unconventional approach to building its lineup, most notably by moving Fred Toucher and Rich Shertenlieb — co-hosts of the morning show on rock station WBCN — over to fill the same role on The Sports Hub.
“When CBS corporate said, ‘OK, you have the green light to launch this radio station,’ the first conversation was with Fred and Rich, and it was like, ‘Hey, how do you guys feel about doing this?’ If we can have more success with this new format than we had with ’BCN, you guys will rise with it,” said Thomas. “And even though they hated sports radio and were the first to admit it, Rich especially, he’d say, ‘I [expletive] hate sports radio, I hate everything about it.’ We’re not asking you to do a straight sports radio show, we’re asking you to do your show. And it worked.
“Everybody thought moving a rock show to a sports station was going to fail, and we said no, we know how talented these guys are and it’s going to work,’’ added Thomas. “That was a point of differentiation for us.”
Another point of differentiation? The Sports Hub doesn’t delve into political matters. WEEI, whose ratings have mostly been strong during the past decade but has dealt with far more turnover and controversy, frequently does, often to the point of saturation and exasperation.
“There’s never been any mandate that we’re not going to talk politics,’’ said Thomas. “That’s all something that I think is an unspoken thing for us where everybody is just like, ‘You know what? That’s a no-win situation.’ No matter which side you’re on, that’s just going to lead down a path that’s no-win. You’re going to end up making a segment of your audience mad no matter what.
“And that’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to entertain and primarily talk sports.”