We heard Chicago Cut is your favorite.
It is the greatest steakhouse in Chicago, has been since the day it opened. There’s just nothing else like it.
Are you always a beer guy?
I don’t drink anything but beer. Because I travel so much anytime I go to a restaurant I’ll ask the waiter or waitress what their favorite beer is. But I had one thing for you guys, when I was looking at the site my first thought and only problem with it was that “A Drink With” is singular. Does this beer have to last the entire interview?
No, order as many Blue Moons as you’d like!
Oh, I got it. So it’s okay for us to have multiple drinks. Fantastic! Now I figured out we have an open tab situation.
Your twitter bio reads, “Livin’ the dream”. Is your dream today the same as it was 10 years ago?
The dream I had 10 years ago is radically different than I the dream I have today. Ten years ago I was 32 running a Tampa radio station. I had never worked in television and the thought of running Oprah’s network with Sheri Salata would have been crazy. I say I’m living the dream all of the time. I think it’s a wonderful way of starting a dialogue with somebody. It’s really fun to tell the story of what I do because I approach every day as a privilege. It’s an honor to do what we do, it’s not a job.
What did you hope to be when you were growing up?
I grew up in Oklahoma and loved baseball so I thought I was going to play baseball. Then I realized I had zero athletic abilities so that didn’t work. I thought about being a doctor or an attorney but that flamed out quickly. My first job was as a radio station mascot where I was “Chuck the Duck”. I continued to work in radio and that led me to move around a lot. I went from Oklahoma to Milwaukee to Seattle to San Francisco to Chicago to New York to D.C.
Is there anything in your career you look back on and think, “What if?”
Yes and no. Because I moved around a lot people always ask, “When you’re given an opportunity, how do you know if you should take it?” I had a really big decision to make when I was the president of Citadel Broadcasting in New York City. At the time there was this brand new startup called XM Satellite Radio. It was the antithesis of what terrestrial radio was. I remember I listened to it and thought, “They don’t know what they’re doing.” One day the CEO called me and said, “We want you to come down, fix it and help build this industry.” When I went down and saw it I thought it was impressive. It was a billion-dollar infrastructure with satellite technology. I loved it. What I did was mentally put myself forward about 10 months. I thought about seeing XM Satellite Radio succeeding while still at my job at Citadel. How would that make me feel? Did I feel envious or did I feel like I made a mistake? I wrote down how I felt on a piece of paper and then I thought about it the other way around. I thought about being at XM and looking at Citadel doing something great. How would that make me feel? And they were the opposite. When I was at XM looking back I was happy for Citadel and glad for them and then the word I wrote down for XM was regret; regret that I had missed out. So that is how I decided to take the job at XM.
Did you really turn down Oprah the first time she offered you a job?
To be fair to Oprah, she had offered me the wrong job. It’s a little bit of an urban lore. I had met Oprah through XM. We had done a deal to put her channel on the air and we were up and operating. She wanted the channel to be better so she had called and said she wanted to talk about an opportunity. You obviously take that call! So I came to Chicago and she said, “I want you to come run this one channel.” The reality was that I was already running 200 channels for XM and we were in the process of merging with Sirius so I said to her, “I can’t do that. That’s not right for me.” I turned the opportunity down because it was the wrong job. So I left her office and I walk across the street and Harpo’s CFO Doug Pattison comes by and says, “Hey, do you have a minute? Oprah wants to see you again.”
That will get your attention.
I broke out in this awful cold sweat. Your first reaction is you did something wrong, right? That was a long walk across the street. I get back into her office and it’s just the two of us and she had a different vibe about her. She basically said she wanted me to be the executive vice president of Harpo Studios. My first reaction was being a complete idiot and asking, “Well, what is that?” She looked at me as if I was crazy, like, “What do you mean what is that? It’s this, it’s me.” I went, “Oh, well that’s different!”
If we asked your team at OWN, what kind of boss would they say you are?
Well, it depends on who you ask and on what day. [Laughs] I try to manage through a lot of fun because I believe that what we do is fun. We try to have fun along the way and have a healthy amount of respect. Even in our really, really dark period for the network—which I’m happy to talk about too—[my co-president] Sheri Salata and I made sure to have fun doing it. If you were to grab our staff what I hope they would say is that I am very fair, approachable, that I listen and am very decisive.
What is the biggest difference between the Erik at work and the Erik at home?
I would tell you that five years ago there was a wider difference, I think there is less of a difference today. I have an 8-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old daughter. It’s so funny because they know Sheri and they know Oprah and to them it’s like knowing the next-door neighbor or the dry cleaner but for my wife it’s different. She gets it, my mother-in-law gets it but the kids are like, “Who cares?” I’ll be on the phone and my 5-year-old Hudson is like, “Get off the phone. We have to watch ‘My Little Pony’,” and I’m like, “It’s Oprah,” and she’s like, “I don’t care!”
Have you gotten accustomed to being outnumbered by women?
Here’s the advantage of working with a lot of women, when it comes to Christmas and birthdays I’m the best gift-giver ever. I just sort of walk around the office and go, “I need some ideas for my wife,” and they start pouring in. There are a handful of men at Harpo, one of my really good buds is [vice president of development and creative services] Jon Sinclair. When we get together we cram like six months of boy talk into an hour.
Do you have to ever pinch yourself that Oprah Winfrey picked you to run her company?
Yeah. It’s crazy. Sheri and I talk about it all the time. Oprah has said it a couple of times in some interviews recently and to hear her say, “I trust Sheri and Erik with my company,” is a little bit of a head trip. I’m thinking, “You do know that I was ‘Chuck the Duck’ from Oklahoma, right?” You just look at it and you’re very grateful. It sounds a little hokey-pokey but I really look at what we do as a privilege. It’s an honor to do what we do. Is it work and is it a job and is it a grind? Yeah, it’s all of that but I think that the day that it doesn’t feel like I have that level of respect for her and for the mission, I’ve got to change what I do. She’s given Sheri and me a great gift to do this and really it is an honor to be in her presence and to run her company. So to hear her say that she trusts us with that is precious. I protect that with an amazing amount of vigor.
Is Oprah the type of boss who makes it easy to juggle work and family?
Here’s a great truthism; when I was in Chicago and even when I was at XM I was pretty religious about being the first guy in and leaving at 5 o’clock. I wanted to have dinner with my girls, give them baths and put them to bed. When I got to Harpo I would have my daily briefings with Oprah at 3 or 4 o’clock and I would leave at 5. I remember one time Oprah’s like, “Do you have somewhere to be?” because I was getting kind of antsy. It was one of my very first meetings with her and I go, “I’m sorry, I get here early so I can go home and scrub-the-Hud,” because my daughter’s name is Hudson. Oprah goes, “I think that’s great. Go. I’ll see you tomorrow,” and she was so supportive of it. As the years have gone on, at 4 or 5 o’clock she will be like, “Alright, Erik’s got to go scrub-the-Hud!” Then she’ll call at like 7 [when something comes up] and first ask, “Is Hudson asleep?”
Would you say you live without regrets?
When I look back at things I regret I frame it from a point of, “What was the lesson there?” Oprah is the best at this. She taught us very well that you have to get the lesson in what it was and in business it happens all of the time. Sheri and I will have conversations about a deal that goes sideways or something that goes wrong and we’ll look back and go, “There is the lesson in that,” and then we turn the page. We don’t talk about it after that.
Do you have a personal mantra?
I don’t care if you’re serving Blue Moon or running a network, if you lose the ability to believe in what you’re doing then that is when it’s over. The thing about every one of the stops in my career is that I believed. I refused to accept that something better wasn’t going to happen or that there wasn’t going to be another opportunity coming my way.
Last thing you did for yourself?
Truthfully, I’m going to do it in about a week and a half. I’m going on vacation to Fiji. Sheri has been such a great influence in my life. She’s like, “Go do something great!” So I’m going to go to Fiji and surf a bunch of great waves.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
As a kid I grew up really looking up to Mickey Mantle. He wasn’t the greatest example, he was a little bit of a womanizer and a little bit of a drinker but his baseball story was so great. He went through such a reconciliation of his life in such a short amount of time. When he found out he was going to die he really tried to fix it, it was so heartbreaking at the time … George Strait is a good one too. I’ve had a few beers with George.
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