SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — One hundred years ago on November 2, the era of electronic mass communication began with the first recognized commercial radio broadcast in the U.S. Through KDKA, a …
SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — One hundred years ago on November 2, the era of electronic mass communication began with the first recognized commercial radio broadcast in the U.S. Through KDKA, a Westinghouse Electric-owned station in Pittsburgh, PA, the results of the 1920 presidential election were announced.
The broadcast industry is celebrating this historic anniversary in a number of ways. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has been using the hashtag #Radio100 to recognize key moments in broadcast radio history.
It is said that, in broadcasting, “timing is everything,” so it comes as no surprise that, in conjunction with the centennial celebration of the medium, Thunder 102’s Mike Sakell has reached a milestone of his own. This November 4, Sakell marked 40 years in broadcasting—a remarkable feat on its own, but even more so considering he never left the county. I took the opportunity to call Mike, offer my congratulations, and ask a few questions about his radio career in Sullivan County, NY.
Jonathan Charles Fox: Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it highly unusual for folks in broadcasting to remain in the same area for so many years? Don’t you folks normally move around the country a lot?
Mike Sakell: Yes, I know it’s very unusual.
JCF: Was that by design?
MS: Not really, more by chance. When I started out in this business 40 years ago, coming to WVOS in Liberty, NY, I figured that I’d give it a shot for a year or two and then probably move on. Back in 1980, that was the path for most people in radio. I came here from Astoria, Queens, where I was born and raised.
JCF: Oh, I always thought you were born in Greece.
MS: My parents are Greek American, and when I was 13 [in 1972] my dad retired, and we all packed up and moved to Athens, Greece. Once there, I attended the American Community School. At the time, there was a large Air Force base in Athens, and a lot of my fellow students were from military families.
JCF: Did they have an audio-visual club there like high schools did here in the states?
MS: There was an ongoing high school news program that was actually being aired on American Forces Radio, and in my sophomore year, I got an interview with the person in charge. We sat down and it was decided that I could start a news program broadcast right from the base. It was a five-minute program, but I was a teenager and it was a big deal. Within a year, I pitched a music program that I called “School’s Out” based on the old Chuck Berry song. The format was very free-form back then [in 1975] and I got to do a 45 minute music show for over a year. We moved back to New York in 1976.
JCF: And you pursued a career in radio on your return?
MS: Not really. I finished a two year marketing/advertising program in school first, and when I was preparing to graduate, I came across an advertisement for a company that provided radio experience for people like me, which they then used to create content that they sold to stations across the country. I did it for a couple of months specifically to put together a demo tape in a professional studio in order to pursue a job in radio.
JCF: Did it work?
MS: [laughs] Well, I’m still here! I had sent out about 25 demo tapes and got three interviews in response. There was one on Long Island, another in Pittsfield, MA, and the last was here, at WVOS in Liberty, NY, where they offered me a job. I got on a bus on Election Day in 1980, and as the world transitioned to Ronald Reagan in the White House, I made the transition to being on my own and starting a career in radio.
JCF: For years, I’ve heard you referred to as “the Voice of Sullivan County.” When was that title conferred upon you?
MS: Actually, that was the original handle for WVOS, which dates back to 1947. Somehow, that title was transferred to me when I started with [now sister-station] Thunder 102, when people like [radio personality] Paul Ciliberto and [Bold Gold Media CEO] Vince Benedetto began referring to me that way. It’s a label that has been passed down to me, and I’m very humbled by that, but it started out as the nomenclature for WVOS when it first went on the air.
JCF: I’m still curious: What made you stay in Sullivan County?
MS: Circumstances around me kept changing. The radio station was sold within the first two years I was there. A new company came in and my opportunities increased. I started mornings in 1984 and was program director by 1988. After that, I became operations manager for most of the ‘90s.
JCF: It can’t all be circumstance. You must have liked living in Sullivan County, right?
MS: Yes, of course. And it was close to the city and my family. But you’re right to bring up that point. I don’t know that I ever aspired to work in a bigger market like New York City.
JCF: You may not have had “stars in your eyes,” and yet, you became a local celebrity. Not only that, you are beloved. I’ve never heard a bad word said about Mike Sakell.
MS: I don’t want to say that I’ve taken that for granted, but I suppose that it has opened doors for me. I probably became a personality by default. I always liked doing the morning show time slot, and I guess my “down-home, laid-back” style appealed to the audience here in the country. I was never flashy and always just wanted to be Mike Sakell. When I was offered the opportunity to work with Paul Ciliberto on Thunder 102, he ran the show and I was sort of the sidekick. I really enjoyed that. Eventually, I transitioned to afternoons and more news duties. At this point in my life, I’m very happy doing that.
JCF: In closing, I need to ask the obligatory question: After 40 years, what’s next for Mike Sakell?
MS: I’ve had some serious health issues over the last few years. Even pre-COVID, began working from home. I have to thank [General Manager] Dawn Ciorciari, the entire Bold Gold Media team and,
especially, [CEO] Vince Benedetto, who has been incredibly supportive. I have great respect for Vince and his commitment to community radio, which has always been what I cared about.
What’s in the future? I don’t know that I’ll ever want to retire. I still like doing the Ag reports along with the news. If there’s one thing I can say, it’s that moving here from Queens, I’ve come to appreciate and really admire the work ethic and the farm community here. They’re some of the most hard working people I know.
JCF: Well, I’d say that your decision to move to Sullivan County was one of those “key moments in broadcast history.” Maybe you’ll get your own hashtag for your 50th anniversary. Congrats, Mike Sakell. On behalf of listeners everywhere, we’re happy that you became “the Voice of Sullivan County.”