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Nick Cattles Had To Figure Out What Is Best For His Life

“To me, whether you are in Sheboygan or in Chicago, whether you are doing a podcast or a live radio show, just give the people the most entertaining, honest, compelling content and you’re going to do fine.”

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Not every on-air career moves forward in the same way. That’s why I was interested in talking with Nick Cattles. He left the evening show at The Sports Hub in Boston to return to Virginia Beach to host afternoons. More recently Nick become the station PD in January. Sports Radio Guru Mike Thomas (Nick’s boss in Boston, too)  is “a big fan of Nick Cattles!” You’ll see what leaving Mike and the Sports Hub and returning to Virginia Beach at ESPN 94.1 has meant for Cattles’ career. 

Matt: So after a little over a year in Boston you decide to return to ESPN 94.1 in Virginia Beach. What went into the decision to leave and then to come back?

Nick: I felt like when I was down here the first time, for about four and a half years, that we had accomplished a lot. We were, at the time, around the top four or five stations in the ratings and ratings had gone up exponentially and revenue had gone up. I felt the station was in a great place. 

It came to my attention that 98.5 (The Sports Hub/Boston) was hiring and before I came down here the first time I was doing some work on the air and behind the scenes in Boston. It was an opportunity at a full time gig at a top ten market. A chance to go back close to my home–I’m originally from Rhode Island. I had a great relationship with Mike (Thomas). I still do. I said, “might as well take a shot and do a full time gig up in Boston and talk about the teams that I grew up watching.” So I made the jump.

I was up there for about a year and a half and Mike and I had some conversations. It wasn’t one of those bitter things at all. Some people in this business have bitter conversations and burn bridges. It wasn’t like that at all. I had a very upfront conversation with Mike. 98.5 is a beast, right? They had a very young lineup and it was kind of funky that 11 days after I signed my contract CBS sold us to Beasley.  As soon as that information came out I kinda figured that Beasley wasn’t looking to get rid of anything, because 98.5 was so successful. 

The night show wasn’t everything I had anticipated it to be. I had expected it to be more of a split between Adam Jones and me. It wasn’t bitter. It was Jonesy’s show. He has the right to run his show the way he wants. He and I had conversations as well. 

This opportunity popped up again (in Virginia Beach). I own a bar down here in Virginia Beach and a condo I rent out as well. My wife loves Virginia Beach. We have a lot of good friends down here. This opportunity opened up and I came back here last May and my first show was June 4th, 2018 so it has been just over a year. 

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Matt: People when they first get into the business probably don’t think about is that there’s more to life than being in a top ten market?

Nick: It’s one of those things you have to think deeply about. It wasn’t an easy move but the conversation with Mike–he was pretty upfront. He was honest. The writing was on the wall to me that it could be another five to six years before I had a shot at a daytime show. Quite frankly Matt, I wasn’t in love with working at night. I found that out rather quickly. Working until midnight in the summertime, Monday through Friday, really didn’t have any time with my wife and to do stuff. To me it just made sense to come back down (to Virginia Beach) and get back in the afternoon drive slot and get reps doing what I do.

I think I found out that I like being the #1 guy (on a show). I enjoy driving a show. I enjoy creating content and being responsible for what we do–whether it’s good or bad. That was something that wasn’t happening up in Boston. This was an opportunity to get that done again. To be able to be responsible and accountable for what I wanted to do on the air and be able to drive my own ship.

A lot of things go into it–personal, professional. I think a lot of young guys don’t think in the long term and what’s best. They kind of just react. You’ve got to think things through. You have to really look at every opening and try to figure out what’s best for your life and what it might lead to.

Matt: Do you feel like it took very long to get your legs back under you as host and now as the station PD?

Nick: The PD thing came about in January. There’s just a million things that as an on-air host you’re not really thinking about. There are things you do as a host that could be seen as selfish even though you’re not trying to be selfish. When you become the program director you now have the health of the station you have to keep in mind.

As far as the show, it took about a month or two until I found my rhythm again and felt a little confident in what I was trying to accomplish on a day to day basis. I was named PD back in January and it has been kind of a whirlwind because at the same time I was being named PD I was fortunate enough to get a hosting opportunity with the network (ESPN).

I had added on a lot of responsibility and a lot of work. It has been a lot and it has been rewarding. Whatever happens from this point on–making that decision to leave 98.5 I think was in my best interest.  Mike (Thomas) and Beasley being super professional allowing me to leave that situation in Boston opened the door for not only being back here but also for me to get some programming experience and then it also opened the door to work for the Network. You just take it step by step, Matt.

Matt: A lot of people could have been comfortable and stayed at the Sports Hub…

Nick: If you catch up with Mike (Thomas) and ask him about me, he’d probably tell you that I’m one of the most impatient people in the entire world. I’m just always hungry and I just always want to get better. I’m always driven to be as good as I can be. In Boston, I just felt at times I was the best I could be and at other times I wasn’t. 

For people who are a little bit younger I try to tell them, “If you don’t feel like you are getting better, then you need to change something.” If you feel like you have nothing to learn, then you need to leave the business.  You need to always look at yourself and say “Am I doing the best work that I can do? If the answer is ‘no’ you have to figure out what you need to do to get there.”

Matt: You are filing in for Will Cain on the ESPN Radio Network over the fourth of July, how do you approach a show like that as opposed to your daily local show? 

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Nick: Content wise it’s very similar. Down here in Virginia Beach we are a very transient area, there’s 300,000+ military so we’re pretty much doing a national show every day. If something big locally happens we’ll talk about it, but there’s not much content difference between that and the national show.

The biggest changes (for an ESPN Network show) are behind the scenes and from a technical standpoint. When you’re doing a network show, you have two hard outs. If you don’t hit those hard-outs, it’s not good, no bueno! So you gotta be able to hit those. The conversation between you and the producer is different. Working with different co-hosts in different states is unusual. Working with a producer in a different state is unusual.

When you work with the network they obviously understand all of these things. When you look at programs and what they do, we have a screen sharing program where we can chat with the producers and can share all the live reads and sponsorships. Some producers like writing teases, but I like writing all my own teases. 

What the network does is it really teaches you how to be really fluid and how to react to different situations, how to work with different people and how to power through different scenarios. Personally I don’t try to change my style. When I go on the network I’m going to be me. Stylistically speaking I’m going to be myself. I’d rather be genuine, be real than be a carbon-copy of anyone who is doing this.

Matt: Where does local sports radio fit in the greater audio landscape today?

Nick: Pacing to me is very important. I look at the podcast world differently than the radio world. Most podcasts are directed at a certain audience. Most podcasts are about a certain sport or product. I’m a big UFC guy. If I’m gonna do a big UFC podcast, 40 minutes, the people listening to the podcast will listen to the whole 40 minutes. If I’m talking about the UFC on my show–first of all, it’s gonna be Connor McGregor, or somebody else that big– maybe Brock Lesnar, John Jones or Rhonda Rousey before she got her face kicked off. You’re talking about UFC for maybe three minutes and then you’re moving on. People in their cars are quick. Attention spans are shorter. People will not hang around for ten or fifteen minutes. 

One thing that I changed drastically from when I worked down here the first time, a lot of times I would do one topic per segment. Now we’re focused on trying to hit two or three things per segment. For example, yesterday we talked about Mike Thomas and Julio Jones contract situation for five or six minutes and then we flipped it around and talked about the Cowboys because the Cowboys have the Amari Cooper negotiation going on. You gotta keep it moving and you gotta give people the feeling that there’s no slowing down. You don’t want to give them a hesitation and a chance to put some music on.

As far as local radio, I’m probably going to echo what a lot of people in radio are saying right now. We look at terrestrial radio and we say 90-93% of people still listen when they are in their car. I do believe that. I do believe there’s a feel of a local radio show. Whether it’s a big market, small market, whatever. When you’re doing local radio you’re there. People feel you. They feel a connection that’s a little different. There’s that connection that people can’t get from listening to a podcast or to national radio. I think it’s still as relevant as it ever has been. Now we’re seeing a shift where we are talking about stories rather than in the weeds with X’s and O’s.  Analytical people will be able to get their analytics from Pro Football Focus. Most people listening to the radio want the overarching storylines. What are the stories? We saw that during the NBA Playoffs. 

I think radio is fine. I try to keep it simple. To me, whether you are in Sheboygan or in Chicago, whether you are doing a podcast or a live radio show, just give the people the most entertaining, honest, compelling content and you’re going to do fine. 

I think a lot of people are trying to do this or that. The world tries to make everything black or white and that’s stupid. Somebody feels like they gotta be a “hot take guy” or stand on “morality mountain” when something comes across. Everybody is trying to put their own cape on. In the real world, Matt, we’re all different. We’re all full of gray area. 

If you are just honest and treat individual situations and topics honestly then you’re going to do well. If you try to be hot and steamed about something that you’re not really hot or steamed about, I don’t think it’s gonna work. Now a few people have pulled it off and those people are making millions of dollars per year. We know the names. I think it’s always a danger. They’ve kind of cornered the market on that. If you try to be hot take guy, it’s going to come off as a fabrication. It’s going to come across as you trying to be someone else. If you try to do a show like Dan LeBatard, there’s only one Dan LeBatard, you’re going to sound like a cheap Dan LeBatard. So be true to yourself and bring the best content every day and I think you’ll be fine. 

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Matt: Is there anything you haven’t done yet in your career that you’re looking forward to doing? 

Nick: I think there’s always challenges. To work at the network and do a national show every day would be a challenge. To drive a station in a Top 10 market that would get behind you, that would be a challenge. I’m not necessarily saying I would jump at these situations if they were put in front of me, but If you’re asking me to give you things that I haven’t done that I feel would be a challenge–I’d say do an every day show nationally, a Top 10 show daily.

Another challenge is right here at Virginia Beach. We are not in the spot we were when I left the first time. Right now we need to be better. The challenge right now is day to day to be the best host that I can. To be the best PD that I can. 

Shoot, I would love to do play by play. Those questions are always difficult. A year from now I could be in a completely different spot personally. As you evolve as a human being, I don’t have kids. If I have a kid in the next year or two, how does that change what I’m looking for? So those are the three things: Virginia Beach-getting us to where we once were, a national show, doing a drive time show in a top ten market those would all be great challenges. 

BSM Writers

What Should Radio Be Thinking About On Martin Luther King Day?

“Shouldn’t we be doing more than just waiting for resumes with “black-sounding names” on top of them to come across our desks?”

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Monday, January 17 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. A lot of you will get the day off of work. Some of you will attend prayer services or civic events to honor the civil rights leader and his legacy.

Dr. King, like all humans, had his flaws but is undeniably a man worth celebrating. In a world where the divide between the powerful and the rest of us seems to be growing out of control, it is good to take a day to celebrate and think about a man that made a career out of speaking up for the little guy – whether that means black and brown people during the Civil Rights Era or it means workers in times of labor unrest.

Across the media landscape, we will see stations and networks running promos touting their “commitment to Dr. King’s dream!”. The sentiment is great, but I do wonder what it means to the people making those promos and the stations and networks airing them.

Look at the archives of this site. Think about the BSM Summits you have attended. How often have we been willing to shine a spotlight on the amount sports radio talks about embracing diversity versus actually putting plans into action? Jason has written and talked about it a lot. Every time, the message seems to circle back to him saying “I am giving you the data. You are telling me you recognize that this is a problem. Now do something about it.”

It’s something I found myself starting to think about a lot last year when Juneteenth became recognized as a federal holiday. Suddenly every brand was airing ads telling me how they have known how special this day is all along. And look, I hope that is true. It seems like if it was though, I would have been seeing those ads in plenty of Junes before 2021.

I am going to put my focus on the media because that is what we do here, but this can be said about a lot of companies. So many brands have done a great job of rolling out the yellow, black, red, and green promo package to acknowledge that it is Martin Luther King Jr Day or Black History Month or Juneteenth. I worry though that for so many, especially on the local level, that is where the acknowledgment ends.

That isn’t to say that those stations or brands actively do not want more minority representation inside their company. It just isn’t a subject for which they can say they have taken a lot of action.

Look, I am not here to debate the merits of affirmative action. I am saying in an industry like sports radio, where we thrive on fans being able to relate to the voices coming through their speakers, shouldn’t we be doing a better job of making sure minority personalities know that there is a place for them in this industry? Shouldn’t we be doing more than just waiting for resumes with “black-sounding names” on top of them to come across our desks?

WFAN went out and found Keith McPherson in the podcasting world to fill its opening at night after Steve Somers’s retirement. FOX Sports added RJ Young, who first made a name for himself on YouTube and writing books, to its college football coverage. 95.7 The Game found Daryle “Guru” Johnson in a contest. JR Jackson got on CBS Sports Radio’s radar thanks to his YouTube videos and when it came time for the network to find a late-night host, it plucked him from Atlanta’s V103, one of the best-known urban stations in America.

That’s two guys in major markets, another on national radio, and a third on national television. In all four cases, the companies that hired them didn’t just sit back and wait for a resume to come in.

Some of you will read this and dismiss me. After all, I am a fat, white Southern man. If I were a hacky comedian, I would say “the only four groups you are allowed to make fun of” and then yell “Gitterdone!”.

In reality, I point those things out because I know there is a large chunk of you that will call this whole column “white guilt” or “woke” or whatever your talking point is now.

Whether or not we are about the be a majority minority nation is up for debate, but here is a fact. America is getting darker. I look at the radio industry, one that is constantly worried about how it will be affected by new innovations in digital audio, and wonder how anyone can think doing things like we always have is going to work forever.

I’m not damning anyone or saying anybody should be losing their jobs. I don’t know most of you reading this well enough to make that judgment. What I am saying is that our industry has lived on the idea that this business is always changing and we have to be adaptable. I think it is time we do that, not just with the content we present on air, but in how we go about finding the right people to present it.

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BSM Writers

What’s The Bright Side Of a Losing Team?

“What are you supposed to do if the teams you rely on to buoy your product aren’t holding up their end of the bargain?”

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We’ve always said that winning is the great deodorizer in sports. Winning can take a dysfunctional locker room and make them functional, it can take an average coach and make him look great, and in our world it can make a bad product seem decent and a good product seem spectacular.

But what if the local teams you cover aren’t winning at all? What are you supposed to do if the teams you rely on to buoy your product aren’t holding up their end of the bargain? 

It’s such a weird position for a host or programmer to be in because sometimes the success of your radio station or your show is so dependent on things that you have no control over whatsoever. The difference between a good radio station and the bad ones are the ones that are able to make chicken salad out of chicken scratch and also those that are able to capitalize when teams are good.

Just look at the growth of 95.3 WDAE in Tampa or the strength of the Boston sports talk stations like WEEI or 98.5 The Sports Hub after Boston owned basically every major pro sport for a 5 to 10 year period. 

I’m the “Orlando Magic guy” on 96.9 The Game, the flagship of the Magic. We broadcast the games and I work on many of those broadcasts. I’m also the afternoon show host, so if you find your way to the arena that night and you want Magic talk, I guess I’m your guy. But as you can imagine, it is exceedingly difficult to pull good juicy topics out of a team that barely wins. There are so many markets that deal with this year after year.

Whether you’re in a multi-sports market that’s suffering like Detroit or a single pro sports town like Orlando or Sacremento, it can be incredibly frustrating. It wears on you because you know how different the landscape can be, particularly if you’ve experienced some level of success.

When I got into the sports talk radio scene in Orlando, the Magic were off the heels of an NBA Finals run and casual fans were everywhere in the city. Everywhere you looked someone was wearing a Magic shirt, the lady at the counter at your local grocery store wants to talk to you about point guard play, but when your team has less than 10 wins in January, casual fans have a convenient way of disappearing. 

Local radio thrives off the positive production of the teams in their market. But when your team isn’t any good and fans lose interest, people aren’t gobbling up tickets or hanging on your every word about the team, how are you supposed to survive that drought?

First things first: honesty. As hard as it can be, especially if you are partnered with these teams, you have to be straight up with your audience. You can’t sugarcoat what they’re seeing. That doesn’t mean you stoop down to the level of the most agitated fan, but you can’t act like all is good either. That approach has been covered many times on this site, but honesty and authenticity are important no matter the record of the teams you cover. 

As I look for the silver lining, here’s one that jumps out at me, ticket giveaways. There’s no shortage of available tickets when your teams aren’t winning and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about a radio audience, they love free stuff. I try and use this time as an opportunity to give away as much as I can, create memorable experiences for a dad and his kids that can’t typically afford to go to a game. They won’t care the team is bad, but they’ll remember that you provided that for them for years to come. 

It’s also a great time to extend the positive relationship you have with the team (or teams) that are struggling. Everyone wants to cover a winner, everyone wants to interview the star player who’s a shoo-in for an All-Star Game. If you show love when the team is down, you can create a bond that will help you maintain your good standing when that product heats up again.

Everything is cyclical and I don’t want to find myself in a position where I can be left out from all the cool opportunities and great guests because I stuck my nose up at the team while the chips were down. I’ll take an interview with the backup center, I’ll do the day-long media day dance, all of that is an effort to curry favor when things are trending up again. 

Then there’s draft talk! Lucky for us in the great U.S.A, our sports structure rewards bad teams with great picks. Fans might be down in the dumps during the season, but you can perk them right back up in the off-season when your team can provide something in the draft. It’s that magic four-letter word that keeps people on the edge of their seat: Hope. It’s the one thing winning teams don’t get to experience. 

More than anything, I just try and stay the course. I figure that when things do turn around, eventually, I will have built up the branding and credibility needed so my audience knows where to go when they suddenly find themselves interested again. Simply put, lay the groundwork while the team is bad, reap the rewards when things turnaround. 

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BSM Writers

What Can Programmers Learn From A Social Media Following?

“A large number of followers may be the result of using social media well, but if you think the size of someone’s following is proof they’ll be a good part of your lineup, that’s a set-up for failure.”

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I first began using Twitter in 2009 when I was a reporter at The Seattle Times. Jim Mora was the Seattle Seahawks coach and I had a smart phone made by Palm. The Twitter app was so wonky I posted live updates from Seahawks press conferences via TwitPic, sending a picture of the person speaking with the news item included as a caption. We’ve all come a long way since then.

I like Twitter. Over the past 12-plus years, I’ve found that my sarcasm and sense of humor (if you can call it that) translated better on Twitter than it ever did in print or later as a radio host at 710 ESPN Seattle. I’ve made friends on Twitter, picked fights with other reporters and generally found it a good place to test out ideas and arguments and an increasingly terrible place to discuss anything important. I have more than 40,000 followers, which is not insignificant nor is it at all exceptional given the market I worked in. None of this gives you any idea about how well I’ve done my job in sports media, though.

Yet an individual’s Twitter following has become part of our industry scoreboard. It’s certainly not the final score and it definitely doesn’t decide the outcome, but it is the best way I know to gain a quick assessment of someone’s reach and/or significance. It’s a data point that is readily accessible. It’s the thing I check first when I encounter someone who’s part of the sports-media industry.

But what does it really tell us? More specifically, how much does it tell us about that person’s ability to do their actual job whether it is reporting news, writing stories or being part of a show? Because as important as Twitter has become in sports-media, no one is making money from Twitter and social media specialists are the only people who are really being paid to Tweet.

For most of us, Twitter is not a job, it is a tool. For a radio host, it’s a way to interact with listeners outside the footprint and time slot of the show. It also is a powerful opportunity to deepen audience engagement through two-way, real-time communication. These things may help a host’s job performance, but they should not be mistaken for the actual job itself. A radio host is not valuable because he or she was right on Twitter or because they were first on Twitter or because they had a viral Tweet. A radio host is valuable because of the ability to attract, entertain and retain an audience during a specific slot of time. Twitter may help you prepare to do that, but it does not actually accomplish the task.

Programmers need to understand this, too. A large number of followers may be the result of using social media well, but if you think the size of someone’s following is proof they’ll be a good part of your lineup, that’s a set-up for failure. Just look at what book publishers have found.

An article last month in the New York Times showed how publishers have used social media followings as a weathervane of sorts for books sales. The number of followers an author has is influencing everything from what authors are paid to which books get published. This is especially true when it comes to non-fiction books. The rationale is pretty straightforward when you look under hood of that particular industry.

A publisher is the business that buys a certain book from the author, essentially making a bet that the sales of this book the author is writing or has written will more than cover the money paid to the author as well as the cost of publication and promotion of the book. A publisher wants as much assurance as possible that this book will sell sufficient copies to not just make its money back, but insure a profit. This is where the author’s social media audience comes in. The follower count is being looked to as an indicator of just how many people can be expected to buy this book. After all, someone following the author is certainly a sign they’re interested in what that author has to say. Some percentage of those followers can reasonably be expected to buy a book by this person. Except social media followings turn out to be a fairly terrible tool of forecasting book sales.

Billie Eilish has 99 million Instagram followers. Her book — released last year — sold 64,000 copies. If I was being catty, I would point out that is one book sold for every 1,546 Instagram followers.

billie eilish on Twitter: "“Billie Eilish” - The photo book by Billie The  book and the audiobook companion (narrated by Billie) are available now.  https://t.co/PAYxvTW64A https://t.co/vWFmq3502D" / Twitter

“Even having one of the biggest social media followings in the world is not a guarantee,” wrote Elizabeth A. Harris.

So we should all just stop paying attention to Twitter followings, right? Hardly. First of all, it is a data point, and anyone waiting for social media followings to become LESS important probably thinks the Internet is just a fad. More importantly, having a following is certainly better than not having one as it does indicate the ability to attract an audience.

The issue isn’t whether it’s good to have a large following. Of course it is. The issue is how reliable that is in predicting an individual’s interest or appeal outside of that specific social platform.

What programmers need to do is get smarter about how they evaluate social media followings by answering two questions:

  1. Why are people following this particular talent? Content is the catch-all answer here. Go beyond that. What sort of content is this person providing that none of his or her peers are? Will that type of content be valuable as part of my lineup whether it’s terrestrial radio, a podcast or other format? Someone who’s funny on Twitter may be funny in other formats. They may also just be funny on Twitter. Are there examples of how this kind of content has worked in the past or reasons to think it will work in the future?
  2. How likely is this talent’s social media following to migrate to my medium? This is one of the trickier ones. One of the reasons for acquiring a talent with a large social media following is the hope that some of their followers will become your customers. While this is always possible, the more important question is whether it’s likely.

Remember, that example of Eilish, who had 99 million Instagram followers and sold 64,000 books? Well, that number of books is actually not a bad result. In fact, it’s absolutely solid for book sales. The problem was the publishing house didn’t expect a solid sales performance. It expected incredibly strong sales because it paid a significant amount of money to Eilish in the form of an advance.

It’s clear the publishing house made a bad bet, but the principal mistake was not about Eilish’s ability — or lack thereof — to produce a book. She did produce one that was 336 pages long, loaded with family photos never seen before and while there wasn’t as much text as you might expect, the sales were solid. The mistake the publishing house made was overestimating how many of Eilish’s fans would become customers in an entirely different medium, and I think that’s a lesson worth noting in this industry.

Unless you’re hiring someone to do social media for your company, Twitter is not going to be their job. It’s just a tool. An important tool, a useful one, but just a tool.

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