Mike Blake’s voice — almost Barry White deep — commands attention. The smooth, clear voice sounds like it should give directions on a GPS. It’s upbeat and friendly but somber when necessary. His voice has all the qualities to report news — straight news — and what defines his voice most is what’s missing from it: a level of cynicism and a judgmental tone. Those two qualities are among the chief complaints of critics of today’s news industry who point out their frequent frustrations with anchors who blur the line between opinion and news in the era of the stuff-yourself-full, 24-hour cable and Internet news.
His poise matches his voice. The 5-foot-11-inch news anchor walks with his shoulders back, spine straight. He dresses like a character from Mad Men — with a touch more color. His suits are dark; his ties have a perfect Pratt knot. He isn’t afraid of business shirts with banker’s collars. For Blake, the pocket square isn’t an accessory; it’s the finishing touch of his look.
Blake celebrates his 40th year on 14WFIE in 2010 — four decades spent in local living rooms via broadcast news — and he still thinks he can do better.
Blake honed his voice in his childhood bedroom in Munster, Ind. Blake, the youngest of five children, sat hours on end pretending to give play-by-play commentary for imaginary sports games.
Blake loved sports. He was a natural athlete, and he played basketball and baseball in grade school. He lettered in the two sports in high school. In 1962, he left for Dubuque, Iowa, to major in political science at a small liberal arts school, Loras College. He minored in speech, became a vocal talent for campus radio, and won oratory contests as a freshman. “This had a profound effect on my life,” Blake says. His oratory skills led him to theater. Admittedly a jock in high school, Blake credits theater as a teaching tool for his broadcast career. From staging to lighting, he developed his on-air presence; he perfected his voice. A campus priest also recognized the talent of Blake’s voice. Blake says, “He told me, ‘You will make a living with your voice. If you’re smart, don’t smoke. Take care of yourself.’”
Blake’s been at WFIE for 40 years, but the first viewers to see Blake on the news were the armed forces overseas. He joined the U.S. Army in 1968 after earning a master’s degree in radio, TV, and film from the University of Iowa. The army sent him to the Far East where Blake was on air for the Armed Forces Vietnam Network during the Vietnam War. When Neil Armstrong was walking on the moon, Blake was anchoring a newscast on the South China Sea, 300 miles from Saigon. In the morning, he switched to radio. “I didn’t have to worry about the ratings,” Blake says. “I was just on, and my whole audience were guys from all over the country.” By May 1970, he returned to Munster — 30 miles south of Chicago where he was born — with a wealth of experience.
During his post-war job search, he landed an interview with WFIE where executives were scrambling to fill a void left by Marcia Yockey, a veteran local weatherwoman known for her wacky persona.
Blake, the mild-mannered young gun, was her polar opposite. For the next year, Blake was the weekly weatherman and weekend sports anchor — six days on, one day off. That’s a lot of facetime with the Evansville audience. Then, Yockey returned with her signature thick black marker and photos of her pet cat, “Bird.” Blake was named sports director, and ever so slowly, he covered more sports and less weather.
The peculiar thing about Blake’s longevity in Evansville is he never had any intention to stay. He wanted to be a play-by-play announcer. “I was told by my wise, old teachers, ‘Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do before you can do what you want to do most,’” Blake says. Plus, the River City was just a great training ground. “I was allowed to make mistakes,” he says. “I loved what I was doing.”
Then, he met the “love of his life,” Jenny. When they married in February 1973, he told her Evansville would be their home for only one more year. Blake had bigger cities on his mind. “In broadcasting,” Blake says, “you usually have to move out of a market to move up.”
Four years later, Blake — still in Evansville — received a job offer from a station in Miami, Fla. With two kids in tow, Blake packed his bags, and “my wife and I thought, ‘This is it,’” he says. But this was 1977, and the University of Evansville men’s basketball team, whose games were a favorite weekend activity, had entered its first year of Division I sports. WFIE executives decided to broadcast the games with Blake as the play-by-play man. “That was the hook,” he says; Blake stayed.
Four games into the season, a plane reached the Evansville airport three hours late on a foggy, dreary night, and the UE basketball team boarded for a game in Tennessee. Less than two minutes later, the plane crashed, and 29 people — including every team member — were dead. Blake’s stint as a UE sports commentator was over, which he adamantly confesses is ancillary compared to the tragedy that shook this city.
But it did change his career. Like many local news reporters, Blake was at the station for hours upon hours after the crash. Decades before the Internet and smartphones, Evansvillians relied on local news stations for updates on incoming reports from the crash site. Viewers sat in front of their boxy televisions, waiting for good news that never came.
Off camera, Blake exudes optimism. He calls men “Pal” with the same amount of enthusiasm as if Blake were out bowling strikes with his buds at Franklin Lanes. He uses phrases like “go jump in a lake” as a form of good-natured chiding. But on the night of the UE plane crash, Blake was stoic and straightforward. He connected to the emotional pains of the city. After arriving in Evansville seven years before, the northern Indiana transplant firmly was entrenched with the Southwest Indiana community. “Even 34 years later,” Blake says, “it’s something I’ve never gotten over.”
After the tragedy, Blake continued as a sports anchor on WFIE, and through the 1980s, Blake became a staple on local television broadcasts. He ventured into news reporting. He anchored WFIE’s first 5 p.m. news show in 1986 with Susan Hiland, later replaced by Ann Komis. That “certainly helped me extend my career,” Blake says, “but I haven’t shaken the sports tag.” In the 1990s, he became the host of Friday and Saturday night shows dedicated to high school football and basketball. Then, his own show, Midday with Mike, became a half-hour newscast, which grew into an hour-long show.
As Blake tells the story of his career, he acts as though he were just a character in his life’s story. From his wife to WFIE executives, others were responsible for the opportunities presented to him. He simply was there. “I was just grateful I could fit the bill,” he says.
The four decades Blake has spent with Evansvillians in their living rooms via his news broadcast is only one reason he is so connected to the community. Blake also offers his voice for charities — between 45 to 60 public appearances every year. He emcees auctions and fashion shows. “Everywhere we go,” says Bo McFall, a WFIE weekend sports anchor, “people come up to him like they’ve known him for 40 years. He’s a very approachable person.”
Blake makes passionate speeches for nonprofit organizations, including the Muscular Dystrophy Association. “That’s one aspect of the job that I truly do enjoy,” Blake says. Locally, no one can picture an MDA telethon without Blake because he’s been the fundraiser’s only host.
And he isn’t just hosting. Blake makes 300 phone calls from the beginning of the year until Labor Day. Over the years, Blake’s developed friendships with people used to his annual requests for funds. Once, a doctor and regular MDA supporter joked: “Go to hell, but send me an invoice anyway.”
So good is Blake’s voice that people love to imitate it — especially in front of him. WFIE meteorologist Jeff Lyons and former Evansville radio personality Sam Yates give Blake impersonations. But, the best just may be his son Michael Blake Jr., a WFIE account executive. “People will say to me, ‘Have you seen your son do you?’” Blake says. A peek at Blake’s outdated resume shows he’s a family man. He lists his children (Christine, Michael Jr., Billy, and Patrick) above his work experience. Patrick, his youngest, is 24 years old. So when Michael Jr., who sounds nothing like his father, does an impression of his father, it’s out of love. “I would never in a million years do it as a cut down,” Michael Jr. says.
The workday for a news anchor is long, yet Michael Jr. remembers Blake returning home after the 6 p.m. show for family dinners. He then would return to the studio for the 10 p.m. newscast. In the morning, there was Blake, waking his kids for school. Michael Jr. was in the second grade before he realized his dad’s popularity when classmates would ask, “Does your dad make a million dollars?”
Blake knows how much has changed since he began his broadcast career. When he started, he spliced film to edit news packages; computers still were the size of rooms. But he’s adapted to technology changes, and he passes his knowledge on to his younger news anchors. When the 25-year-old McFall was named WFIE’s weekend sports anchor in 2008, Blake watched McFall’s newscasts religiously. “It didn’t matter if it was crap or not,” McFall says. “He would call and compliment me every time. That would give me more confidence. He still does it.”
New technology also has brought new competition. “If someone would have said to me, ‘In 2000, we’ll have news from 4:30 to 7 a.m. before the Today show,’” Blake says. “I would have said, ‘You’re crazy.’” The anytime access of cable and Internet news is a driving influence for local programmers to reach new audiences, Blake says: “All of a sudden, (viewers) have too many choices.” But, despite a near half-century on television, Blake hasn’t shifted his on-air demeanor. On McFall’s first day at WFIE, Blake asked the upstart for advice on his most recent broadcast. He wanted feedback from a new viewpoint. “It shows even after all these years,” McFall says, “he’s still an absolute perfectionist.”
“My goal is to get to Chicago,” Blake jokes on a rainy March Monday afternoon after Midday with Mike finished. “I think I have to keep striving for that.” No, Blake isn’t leaving; the award-winning anchorman still is polishing his broadcast, striving to produce the level of professionalism in big-market cities for an Evansville audience. “I’ve always tried to say I want to be as good as my competitors locally,” Blake says, “but I want to be as good as anybody in the business.”