Monday, August 14, 2017

Experimenting with Nick Wilson

Story by Corey Crisan
Photo credit CBS Cleveland

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- It's an "appropriately-sized" piece on a successful radio legacy.

Nick Wilson delivers his "appropriately-sized" monologue nightly in the city that he loves. This monologue parallels to the successful career that he is currently living out. Now in his early-30s, Wilson went from child understudy who, according to former professors, grew to be "too smart to be screwing around like this," to living a legacy as one of the faces of sports radio in his home town.

Wilson's father, "Big" Jim, was heavily involved in radio in Northern Ohio, particularly in Akron as a show host and production director at Rubber City Radio. Wilson grew up around the radio scene as a child and says he quickly took an interest in the business. So much so, that his old man gave him incentive to stay around the studio setting.

"Every time I got a report card, if I got B’s or above in all of the subjects, he’d allow me to go in and actually be a character - be a part of his show for two days," Wilson said. "And wouldn’t you know that the entire time he was there, I never dropped below a B in any subject."

Wilson is a 2007 graduate of Bowling Green State University. After graduation and then earning a diploma at the Ohio Center for Broadcasting, He launched his career at Rubber City Radio: the same place where his father made the grade as a successful broadcaster.

In 2011, Wilson came a step closer to his ultimate goal of talking about the Cleveland Indians, Browns, and Cavaliers: the teams he grew up revering. He began work at Sports Radio 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland as an anchor, producer, and reporter. His big break came in 2015 when former nighttime host Ken Carman moved to occupy the station's morning slot. Wilson took over the evening slot, and his goal, at last, was reached.

"To be in Cleveland sports in general, it was always one of my biggest goals," he said. "And to get there before I turned 30, was, honestly, quite a surprise."

Wilson continues to live out his passion as his program, "The Nick Wilson Experiment," airs on weekday nights from 7-12 p.m. on 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland.

Wilson was gracious enough to speak to Newhouse Sports over the phone about his career path, the state of and his experiences from working around Cleveland sports, and his passion for working in the Cleveland media. The full interview with Wilson can be found in the transcription below. You can also listen to it by clicking here.


Corey Crisan: Your dad started off and he was in radio in Warren (Ohio), which isn’t that far from where I grew up. Obviously, growing up in the radio scene, that had to get you involved in it, right?

Nick Wilson: Oh, yeah! I mean, my dad, as you had mentioned, Warren, Ohio… 1440 The Talk of the Valley, which was a station that ended up putting multiple people into top five markets and multiple other people into top 30 markets. My dad was on a morning show with Dan McDowell, now in Dallas, and Joe Gabriele of Cleveland Cavaliers beat writing fame, and there was a morning show… he was a production director, morning show host… I think he had like 17 titles, but I used to listen as much as I possibly could.

Of course, this was before the days of the internet. But one of the cool things that he would do is every quarter… more specifically, every time I got a report card, if I got B’s or above in all of the subjects, he’d allow me to go in and actually be a character (and) be a part of his show for two days. And wouldn’t you know that the entire time he was there, I never dropped below a B in any subject. So at the age of 9, 10, 11, and 12, here I was battling wits with all of these seasoned callers and being able to be a part of it. So, it was a huge, huge part of my eventual decision to get into it, was what that meant to me.

CC: That’s another interesting point, because your teachers used to say you were 'too smart to be screwing around like this.' So that system your dad set up had to be a little incentive for you. It makes sense, now.

NW: Oh yeah. See, the ‘too smart to screw around,’ (his dad) came and ended up and his career finished up in Akron as a production director, and that was my college days when professors would see me write like a 1,500-word essay in like 15 minutes and it was really good to be like, ‘You know what? You really shouldn’t be screwing around like this.’ But he worked here, I think, for two and a half years, three years, and it’s so weird to think of it. Until I came to (Cleveland’s 92.3) The Fan, it was kind of the highlight of my own radio career. Honestly, that station is the station (where) I always wanted to re-create my head, you know?

It’s the incredibly talented people all with the purpose of playing radio and having fun and making good radio and realizing that, quite honestly, they’ve got a ways to develop. So, yeah, I mean, that whole scene there and my dad incentivizing me, this 9, 10, 11, 12-year-old kid… A huge, huge impact on me, and something that maybe one day, I’ll be able to do for my kids if they have any interest in sports.

CC: So then growing up in the radio scene, and in Ohio, where sports are everywhere, especially football. And now you’re living the dream up there in Cleveland, covering Cleveland sports which are pretty much at a premium right now.

NW: Oh, my God, man. To be in Cleveland sports in general, it was always one of my biggest goals. And to get there before I turned 30, was, honestly, quite a surprise. But then to think of all the things… I mean, when the Cavs won the championship, I was on air directly after that, and I was on air from 2 A.M. to 6 A.M., then I went home, I slept, I think it was an hour, hour and a half, and I came right back and I hosted my night show.

In the first 24 hours that Cleveland won a championship, I was on air for nine of them, and I’ll tell you, by the end of that show on Monday, I was a little bit tuckered out, okay? I was ready to go home and not talk for like a year or so. But, you know, looking back on it, to have that experience and to say that my voice was there when we won a championship, and again, nine of the first 24 hours, that, to me, I don’t mean this in a trite way… I don’t even mean it because I’m from Cleveland, but to be a part of that memory is a really fulfilling thing, and it honestly was. I don’t mean to come off as biased. It was an incredible honor.

CC: Where were you when the Cavs won it all? When the clock struck zero, where were you?

NW: I was preparing for the show. We had a show that was going on during that was going to go on until an hour after the Cavs won or lost. And so, I was in the back preparing. Alex Hooper, who’s now our 92.3 The Fan beat reporter, who at the time was, I think, still working on my show. He was there. Stephen Olszewski, who now also still works at our station as a board op was there, and, you know, it was so interesting, those final two leading up for it (the show) saying… ‘Are they gonna blow it?’ ‘Are they gonna do it?’ And that tension and the reality… And I had this thought in the middle of it… It’s never gonna be this good. This is the moment that’s such a beautiful, but finite moment in sports where everything’s on the line, and your team’s engaged… The team you’re covering, the team you’ve come to know. You know, guys I loved on that team… Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye, Kevin Love… Good guys. Not just great basketball players, but people that make me laugh, and that’s like, the biggest thing I look for in life.

And then to see it happen and to see LeBron (James) with the block, and love’s defense, you know, ‘Kevin Love’s Stand,’ whatever the hell we call it these days. Kyrie (Irving’s) shot… To be cognisant of what an impactful moment it was as it was happening, was a whole hell of a lot of fun. And then, of course, they win and we start jumping up and down, and my first thought was, because we’re right outside of East 9th (Street), ‘I have to get outside.’ There’s no other way. I don’t care if my show is fully prepped yet. I will do my show on the fly. I don’t care. I need to be with my people.

And, sure enough, man, I ran outside… Well, listen dude, I’m like 325 pounds, I’m pushing it a little bit with that. But I go outside, I run down to East 9th, and there’s just people everywhere. You smell all these party smells, there are girls just going around kissing random people, and there’s people who don’t know each other just hugging each other, high-fiving, dads and sons crying on the street corners. For 52 years, we wondered what would that moment be like, and it was really a beautiful thing.

CC: And then the Indians, with the World Series last year… So, I know the Cavs won and the Indians didn’t, but what was more fun to cover?

NW: Oh, that’s tough. You know, I think it was the Indians, because the pressure was off. You know, the thing that came with every championship round… Everything like that was almost impossible to enjoy because it was the weight of 52 years. I think that once the Summer of Cleveland kicked off, and you had (UFC fighter Stipe Miocic) win and the hockey team, the (Lake Erie) Monsters had won, and then, of course, the Cavaliers actually blow the lid off the championship drought. That whole summer, leading into the World Series, you started looking around and saying, ‘The Indians are going to the World Series, aren’t they?’ and that build… That excitement, that, ‘Oh my God, can this really happen again?’

I’m a baseball fan, first. I’ve always been a baseball fan. The mid-90s Indians were, and the early-90s Indians were really when we started seeing Manny (Ramirez) and (Jim) Thome and Albert (Belle) and (Carlos) Baerga and (Kenny) Lofton… Was when I was becoming a sports fan. And so, it’s always been my favorite sport. So to watch Progressive Field, which had seen better days. We’ve had the God-awful attendance conversations for however long. To see that place boomin’ like it did whether it was in 2007 or like as I remember growing up in the mid-90s, with the (455 consecutive home game) sellout streak. It was such a fulfilling thing, and having all that pressure off the title thing, just knowing (that) I just want to see a great series, and I just want to see the Indians go out there and play the way that we’ve seen them play all year, they did that. So it was disappointing that they lost and the way that they lost… Cubs coming back from 3-1, but I think the lack of pressure and just realizing it was the end of the Summer of Cleveland, I think the Indians stuff was a little bit easier to enjoy.

CC: And what I think it did, even more-so for the city, was it brought a better light, nationally, to the city. Of course, the economy went up, businesses went up, and I really think that what the Cavs and the Indians did over the last year really brought this great light to the city that I feel like the national perception on… us… if you will, has changed quite a bit, and that’s kind of what sports does.

NW: Well, and what I think is important to remember is that for 52 years, the narrative was ‘Woe is Cleveland’ and ‘Cleveland is laughable,’ and winning a championship changed that. The national media tried to cling to that narrative during the Summer of Cleveland, and they found out you can’t! people didn’t want to hear it anymore! Cleveland is anew, and what was so interesting and what seems so interesting to me now is that new narrative on Cleveland. We’d like to think of it as the first sign-off or the first instance, ‘Hey, you won a title, so you’re a championship city,’ but that’s going to be building over the next few years if LeBron can add another trophy and if the Indians… they still have an almost 70-year drought going since they last won a championship.

If those things can fall and you can add a few championships, and who the hell knows, man, maybe the Browns can win seven games in a year consistently, maybe eight, I don’t want to get ahead of myself… but realize that the next three, four, five, six, seven years, that’s going to be the shaping of the new narrative that goes around Cleveland, and I think you saw that with the (Boston) Red Sox. How long were the Red Sox the ho-hum organization of baseball, and then they won the championship in 2004, and then people realized (that) this is a championship city with a championship fan base, and the ho-hum losers, well, we can’t cling to that any more.

And so, it was so interesting that that was on one team in a city that had won a lot of championships. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out. Specifically, as long as the Cavs don’t implode and the Indians can get back to the World Series and again, just hoping here, the Browns maybe step out of the top ten (in the NFL Draft order) one of these times.

CC: Is that a far reach for the Browns to say that right now?

NW: You know, I don’t know that it is. I’ve come to realize that with the way that the NFL works now, you just gotta get a quarterback. You know, Seattle had a great collection of talent, and it didn’t matter until Russell Wilson was ready to step up and be a quarterback, who, by the way, he was just a consistent quarterback. When he came up, he was just a functional quarterback. But you saw they gave him a chance to win, a few championships there or to take a run at a few championships.

I really think that if you start to see some results from your draft picks, meaning Myles Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah and that defensive line comes about and maybe you get a few play-makers on offense, and you luck into a quarterback… because quite honestly, that’s all this is. Finding a good quarterback is luck. And, so, if you luck into a good quarterback, I don’t think it’s farfetched, and I will say this thing… whatever they’re doing in Barea (Ohio, where the Browns training camp is located) now will go as long as (Browns owner) Jimmy Haslam allows it to. I think that the organizational are in place, I think people are starting to understand each other better. It’s not flawless. Nothing ever is, though. But if jimmy can give them space and time, I do think that this regime, given the fact that they seem to work together pretty well can be something that leads the Browns out of what we’ve seen the last 17-18 years.

CC: I want to go back into your personal and radio career for a minute. Some of the influences, like your dad growing up in radio, but aside from your dad, who were some of your influences growing up in the business?

NW: It’s so weird, because, I’ll be honest, I work with a guy like (Newhouse alum) Anthony Lima, who’s listened to every Cleveland radio show since he was, like, five years old. I was never really that keen on Cleveland radio. I mean, I think (Kendall Lewis, a.k.a.) BSK… how knowledgeable he was, he was certainly somebody. Dave Denholm, who’s a guy who worked at WKNR way back before the current folks (ESPN) owned it. And now, he’s out in Los Angeles. He was a big guy, but you know, anybody who approached this with humor are the people I’ve always gravitated to. There was a show when my dad worked at Rubber City Radio that did not exist very long due to one of the members falling off the face of the planet, but it was called Bob and Josh, and they were kind of a rock morning show with comedy. That’s something that always stuck with me.

And, you know, my dad was somebody who was big on humor when he was into sports. Dan McDowell… After Warren, we moved to Dayton for two years, and Dan had a show down there while my dad was production director, and Dan is incredibly, incredibly funny. And so, I’ve had those people like BSK and Dave Denholm who have been beacons in terms of knowing what you’re talking about, preparing, making sure you’re watching all the games, and knowing, really detailed, what you’re talking about and knowing how you’re going to talk about it. But you could point to anybody who uses humor in sports and enjoys that side of it. On a national level, you can talk about Dan Patrick, when I was a younger guy, on a national level.

To me, I’ve always thought the best sports talk is humor and knowledge, and if you can intersect those and you can throw hi-jinks in with really knowledgeable sports talk, I think you have something that means something and is actually entertaining, so, honestly, just think of anybody in the last 20 years who’s funny on sports radio, and even some in the rock-talk genre, and those are the people who I’ve really felt a kinship to and gravitated towards, because I think that’s always what I’ve felt makes good radio.

CC: So how do you bring that into your show, ‘The Nick Wilson Experiment’? How do you bring that side and maybe some of that Dan Patrick influence into your show?

NW: I think my big thing is… I don’t want to get too inside radio here, but always the battle of somebody who can be a show lead and somebody who can be the off-the-wall guy. The two, if you will. I’ve always felt the confidence to do either thing. But when you’re hosting solo for five hours a night, I think my big thing is, I just prep like hell. And I watch everything I can watch, and I read everything I can read, and then I just kind of forget it all. I prep for probably four hours for the show, and the final hour is just talking to people, trying to loosen up, and then once the show starts, I look down my rundown of, like, here’s a question I want to explore or here’s a statement I want to explore. It just becomes improv. You know what I mean? I’ve always tried to teeter on that line.

I think I am best when I can just riff, and I think my pinnacle is when I can riff while also understanding where I’m going. And so, it’s a fine line that I try and go to. It’s a fine line between prep and then just forgetting everything and just going out and just, all right, this funny thought popped in my head while in the midst of a very serious monologue. Toss it out. Let’s see where we can go. And I think just being open to whatever happens on the show, and sometimes that can be something I wasn’t planning on talking about. Somebody said something incredibly stupid, or like, ‘Hey! I don’t like eggs!’ ‘WHAT!?,’ and you know, just being open to whatever your show’s going to become, even though maybe as more of a show leader, you have to run things and push them in a certain direction

CC: What’s the best interview you’ve ever done?

NW: Personally, for me, I hate most interviews. If you listen to my show, I only do one or two on my show, and some of that is my time slot. It’s hard to get top-shelf guests to be on my show. It’s tough to get anybody to come talk on my show at eleven at night. But I really think, to me, the best interviews, are ones where you’re not just spouting knowledge. I can do that. Anybody can come on and give their point of view on something. I think the best stuff is when somebody is giving you something real, and so that make it really tricky because nowadays, athletes, and even media to some extent, nobody wants to look wrong, nobody wants to have egg on their face or have a bad take because there’s the Take Monster out there and he’s like, ‘hey! That’s a bad take! Sorry! You’re fired now because you had this take!’ Everybody’s so self-conscious of being on Old takes Exposed or Deadspin or something ridiculous like that, that nobody actually says anything anymore. It really vexes me.

So, I think my favorite interview I’ve ever done was with Danny Shelton. Browns defensive tackle. Going into last year, I had him at training camp, sat down, and I could tell he didn’t really want to explore some things. He’s very nice. Incredibly, incredibly thoughtful. And Danny’s a big Samoan guy. His middle name in Samoan means ‘search for truth.’ So, I asked him in the middle of the interview, because I was kind of getting bored with the run-of-the-mill answers, I said, ‘What truth are you searching for?’ And he gave me this beautiful, two-minute explanation of where he is in life. And then the final seven minutes of that conversation was on that talk. And so to me, I think that, and anything like it where even if it’s not in the beginning, even if it takes a while to get into… interviews where we found something that people want to talk about, where they’re not just going to give you random clichés, or tell me, ‘You know what? It could happen,’ you know. Some garbage, throw away statement because nobody wants to just have a thought or say something that’s gonna piss off their team.

To me, those are the best, and I point back to that Danny one because it’s one of the few times where I’ve, in the midst of an interview, just been very cognisant of the fact. (To) stop thinking where it was going, just thinking, ‘Good God, that’s a beautiful answer,” and I actually said, ‘Danny, I had something and I wanted to steer this off in another direction, man.’ Like, I really appreciated that kind of honesty.

CC: I think that’s one thing that gets lost a lot now, is that these athletes get put in this limelight… They’re people, too. They have real stories, too, and I think it’s our job as radio people and as interviewers and as practitioners, to get these stories out there.

NW: And I think what’s really key is, and it’s in a lot of the mystique of radio, you know, we want to be reviled and you know, ‘Hey, man. I’m a big personality and I got an ego and you gotta take me seriously.’ Dude, I talk about sports on the radio. Okay? And like, I’m going to talk about my sex life on the radio… Okay? Like, I don’t really care. I care about what I do, but what I care about most is not, ‘Oh, hey man, you’re not in the lineup. You must be pissed.’ I care about getting some sort of honesty. Because I think if you get honesty, even if you’re not the funniest person, even if you’re not the smartest person… Whatever we can think of is the ultimate sports talk or radio show host ever, I think if you find truth, people are going to stick with you because I think that’s all what we’re all looking for. That’s the big thing that I think sports is going to have to ask itself.

Yes... We’re all brains and we’re all products and we’re all yada, yada, yada… but what truth can we serve the audience to keep them coming back? Baseball has a huge problem with truth. You know, the steroids thing, it’s the greatest farce ever. Yes, steroids happen, but because owners and GMs and managers and the Commissioner look the other way because it was good for business. Baseball has never dealt with that truth. You know, they never dealt with the fact and they just want to put it all on the players.

And so, to me, baseball acknowledging, ‘Yeah, maybe we are a bit stuck up. Maybe we do have an accountability problem.’ I think, to me, something that is where a sport can just tap into the fact on how full of bleep they’ve been, and just give some truth, I think that’s the next frontier in sports. It’s just something real. Because I think, at the end of the day, and I’m preaching now, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sermonize. But, I think it’s all we care about.

CC: I think it’s hard to get that sometimes. I heard from a little birdie (Newhouse Sports classmate Brooke Meenachan, who worked with Nick at The Fan) that you’re a huge video gamer, you’re a pizza guy, and a beer guy. So, what are you playing right now, what are you drinking, and what are you eating?

NW: Well, I’m on (NBA) 2K17 right now. I didn’t buy the game when it first came out, but I am a huge, huge lover of building teams and how teams fit together. I’m the guy who’s played text-based sim games for far longer than I’d like to admit. I really like the idea of making trades. In another life, I would’ve loved to been a General Manager in one of the sports, so I found out 2K17 has brought expansion back, so I brought my Seattle Supersonics back, and I’ve been crushing that lately.

And you asked what I’ve been drinking, I’ve been drinking everything. I just went out to the east coast. I was in New York, Boston, and Maine for about six days, so quite frankly, I’ve drank everything. But from the pizza standpoint, I am more of a Chicago-style guy than a New York-style guy. But I want to let everybody know, I am open-minded. I tried several, several different New York-style pizzas while I was in New York and Boston, so, yeah, it’s been: I drink everything, I eat everything, but I’ve been crushing some New York-style. One of them was The Familia, it’s a little bit more like a chain in New York, but it was good. It was a lot of fun.

CC: You know what? You must be pretty good at fantasy football if you do the team building thing.

NW: You know what’s funny? I don’t pay enough attention to that to be good at it. I will say I won the station’s fantasy football championship two years ago, but I am hit-or-miss. I either do a great job because I actually prep for it, or I’m the guy who’s like, ‘Ah, you know what? I haven’t had time to look at this. Ah, hell. I’ll just draft somebody. I’ll wing it,’ and then it doesn’t go well, so I’m either great or I’m horrible, depending on my preparedness.

CC: Are you one of those people that, if you do prepare, do you start in July like some of these guys do?

NW: No, see, I’m in a league with my buddies who do that. I need one week of preparedness. And all I do is I just remind myself of what happened last year, I’m cognisent of player injuries, I’m cognisent of player movement, you know, how I think that’s going to affect the players themselves. I need one week of time. Otherwise, I think it out too much. I don’t build a big board on the things, but I build one in my head, and I usually do it in about three tiers: must-haves, middle-round guys, and then late-round guys. I usually take the last two-to-three guys in any draft as just a, ‘Ah, this could work out well,’ and I usually hit on one a year, so I must not be too terrible.

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