Every sports radio host has their own set of goals. For many, it’s to make a good living, hosting in the city where they were raised, talking about the teams they love.
But climbing the sports radio ladder often requires relocating, and it can take years to reach the final destination. In many cases, it never happens, and hosts learn to adjust to new cities and make themselves a valuable part of a new community.
For Nick Wright, that level was reached at a young age. Shortly after graduating from Syracuse, he was contributing on-air in the city he grew up in. Wright could have stayed in Kansas City with his afternoon show and the benefit of being recognized as a local celebrity in his hometown for as long as he chose to, but he had larger aspirations.
In 2012, Wright put his hometown in the rear view mirror, leaving for an opportunity in a top 10 market, Houston TX. By his third month on Sports Radio 610 KILT-AM, Wright was part of the top rated sports show in the city. But complacency was never an option, and after four years of consistent success, Wright was lured to the national stage by Fox Sports.
Now, as morning host of First Things First on Fox Sports 1 along with Cris Carter and Jenna Wolfe, Wright aspires to prove his greatness in both radio and television, but first and foremost, he aspires to work hard. In the first few minutes of talking to him, I could sense his passion for the sports media industry and his drive to be the best. His genuine love for the business and interest in excelling at it was very inspiring.
BC: First Things First has been on the air now for about 8 months.
NW: 172 shows
BC: So with 172 shows in the books, you must have a lot of thoughts on the way the show has progressed. Do you find yourself often saying, that was a great show? Or is it more common for you to analyze the show and identify areas where it has to get better?
NW: I thought today was a good show. We had a good mix of topics. A good barometer for most days is how often did we have organically funny, or just moments of laughter. I thought we had a good amount of that today. We’re fortunate because the NBA Playoffs are going on and unlike last year, where up until the Finals we knew the Cavs were going to be there, the Warriors were going to be there, but there’s actual intrigue this year. Steph Curry came back, the Cavs struggled in the first round, the Rockets are good, so for all those reasons there’s more interesting meaty topics to work with. We also just got done with the NFL Draft, and Dez Bryant still doesn’t have a job, so there are interesting things going on and that makes the job more stimulating and fun.
Typically if I don’t feel good about something it’s because I don’t feel good about how I did, but there are times, if I’m being totally honest, where it was just like something was off with the vibe between me, Cris and Jenna either early in the show, or at some point later on and we just never got it back on track. Those days you feel like you didn’t take full advantage of the show, but that’s the gift and curse of doing this for three hours every single day. You always have tomorrow’s show and tomorrow’s show can be a blessing.
I would say the rhythm we’re in right now, two shows a week I feel great about, two shows a week I feel good about and one show a week I’m like ehh…we missed an opportunity. Obviously we’re trying to change that so four shows a week we feel great about and one show a week we all feel good about.
BC: The morning schedule has to provide its fair share of challenges. For example, last night we had a playoff game end at one in the morning. You have to be up at three. That has to be difficult when you check the schedule and you see a 10:30 start time for a playoff game that might be the primary focus for the next day’s show. How do you judge whether or not something is vital for you to stay up for?
NW: In the NBA playoffs you have to watch every game. The same with football. Three of my five nights there’s a football game on, Sunday, Monday, Thursday. If I get to bed before 11:30, that’s a good day, but most days it’s midnight. I’m used to it though. I’ll usually go to sleep by midnight, get my three and a half hours and then add another two hours after the show. That gives me five and a half hours a day and I’ll try to catch up on the weekend. These 1:00 am finishes are hurting, but it’s only for a short period of time that it goes on.
During the regular season, we’re going to talk about every single Cavs game, so every time LeBron plays, I’m watching start to finish. It’s one of the reasons why selfishly, LeBron potentially going to the Lakers would really change my schedule. That means 60 west coast games a year. 60! As opposed to right now where it’s about eight west coast weeknight games that I need to worry about. So no, I’m not going to act like the Blazers are hosting the Mavs and I’ve got to stay up to watch that game during the regular season. For us to talk about that game, something remarkable would have to happen and I can catch up on that in the morning, but I don’t think you can do this job and not watch games. I love watching games. I love football and basketball, that’s why I’m doing this.
As far as physical exertion, there’s no job easier than mine. I sit when I’m on television, I sit to watch games, I sit to read Twitter, so the only hard part is you have a weird schedule.
BC: Who comes up with the show topics? Is it a collaboration that you’re included on?
NW: This is where my radio background has helped me a lot and changed to where I’m a little different from a lot of people that do what I do now because I’m used to doing everything. I did solo radio where the best producer for it was me…the best guest booker for it was me…the best topic developer was me. It took me awhile when I was out in L.A. working on other shows to learn to take advantage of the great people around us. We have a stats department so I don’t need to spend 30 minutes looking up a stat. I can fortunately send an email and say “can someone get this to me”, and that’s their job. We have producers whose job it is to monitor Twitter and make sure news stories don’t get past us, but I still can’t turn it off completely.
Every night around 5 o’clock, we’re sent topics. They’ll include news stories that have already happened, or games for the night that we think will be part of tomorrow’s show. We then watch the games and things adjust based on each night’s series of events. At 3:30 they’ll send me a picture of the board with show topics for each segment. Jenna gets in first at 3:30, I get in at 4:00. Most days they get it dead right, some days I’ll make a few changes if there’s a topic I’m really hot on. I’ll also talk to Cris to see what he’s into. A good example was Monday following the draft. I knew Cris had some real interesting things to say about Shaquem Griffin (the kid with one hand drafted by the Seahawks) that no one else was saying. Griffin was going to be a very small part of the show, but I said we need to make this a full topic because Cris will be great on it.
Where I have the most influence is not necessarily on the topics, but what questions are we asking to get into the topic? I have a heavier hand in producing than a lot of people in sports television and they’re nice enough to let me do it because it gives me the best chance to succeed.
BC: For radio guys, you need to be opinionated, but you also need to be creative. If you didn’t have a say in building the show each day, would suppressing that creativity be frustrating?
NW: Correct, but the biggest transition I had to make the year I spent in LA working on other shows and for Colin is…for a radio guy, a great compliment is…’man Nick is talking about something that no one else is talking about.’ That is NOT a good compliment for national sports television. National sports television, you need to be talking about the subjects EVERYONE is talking about. You just gotta have either more information, be funnier, be more interesting and find a way to cut through in that regard, but you’re not going to have any success in national sports television, if this morning everyone’s talking about LeBron and you’re talking about Matt Harvey and the Mets.
BC: With your radio background, do you miss not having that freedom?
NW: On radio there is a lot more wiggle room to leave sports for a bit. You can talk about what Kanye’s doing and have fun and personalize your show by talking about what’s going on with your wife and kids. Do I miss that? Sure…to a degree. Radio was the only thing I worked at for 13 years. From the time I was 18 to the time I was 31 it was my sole focus and I would not be arrogant enough to say I mastered anything…but I got very…very…good. I truly believe there was a moment in time where there was just one person as a solo standalone host who could carry three hours by himself and was better than me and that was Colin…which is why it was the greatest honor in my career at that point to be able to not only be on Colin’s show, but be able to fill in for Colin. No disrespect to Jim Rome, Chris Russo or Mike Francesa, but Colin in my opinion is the gold-standard for the history of the sports radio industry. He’s the guy I always measured myself against before I ever knew him.
The exciting thing about TV is that I am nowhere close to that level on television. I am learning a new skill set, and activating a new part of my brain. Forget mastering something, just get really good at something. I have my moments on TV, but I’m not yet great at it. I will be, because I will work as hard as anyone can at their craft.
Do I think one day I’ll do radio again? I think typically the most successful people without an athletic background usually have multiple jobs. At some point do I see a scenario where I’d host a television show from 6:30-9:30 and do a radio show from noon to 2:00? Sure, I would never close the door on that.
BC: How much do you enjoy television as compared to radio? Or is this just about your drive to be great at something new?
NW: I apologize but this is going to sound so corny…it’s like asking which kid do you love more? They’re different. I can’t imagine a world where I’m not doing television every day, just like I can’t imagine a world where I never again do radio.
I’m 33 years old, with three kids in a very high pressured, high profile job. Your 30’s are to work. I work very very hard, but I could work harder, because everyone can work harder, but I had this conversation with my daughter who just turned 13 and I told her, you’re not a little girl anymore, you have dreams and aspirations to be an actress. I can’t teach or help you with everything and I am a flawed person, but the one thing I can teach you is there are no shortcuts and the only way to make it is through pure grit and determination.
I’m not on TV because I look like I should be. I’m not on radio because I sound like I should be. I didn’t play any sports at any high level, this is about what it’s always been about, I know where the destination is, I’ve known where it is since I was 12 years old and every single day, you’re either working towards that destination or you’re working away from it.
BC: As someone who’s not been afraid to offer his views on subjects beyond the sports world, what do you think about sports television sticking to sports? ESPN has gone thru its share of challenges with this issue. Should sports hosts be given more opportunity to tackle real life issues or should sports TV focus more on news and game highlights?
NW: On the ESPN front, I think a lot of the people who have been attacked has been very unfair. The things Jemele Hill dealt with…now she did eventually go heavy into politics, I understand that…but before she did that, people were already accusing her of it in my opinion because she’s a black woman on TV talking about sports. I think a lot of that criticism was unfair. I know they’re a competitor, but I’m going to be honest with you, a lot of that was unfair.
There are obviously shows on that network that will straddle the line, or go further into a non-sports topic than our show does. I have very strong political opinions, and I think they bleed through at times when I talk sports. You can figure out some of my politics, but I was also hired to do a job. Go back to the day after the Oscars, some people were like “we need to talk about it,” but listen…the day after the Oscars, no one is saying I want to hear about what happened at the Oscars, let me turn on First Things First. The day after the Oscars, if you’re tuning into us it’s because you want to hear about sports. So I have an obligation to the audience that shows up, to give them what they came here for.
Now I do have an obligation to myself, that when Colin Kaepernick is the sports story, I am not going to shade my opinions on it. I understand the NFL is a big partner, but I also understand that when Bob McNair makes himself the story by saying the ‘inmates are running the prison,’ that it is a clearly racist statement by someone who has a long line of questionable statements and I’m not going to be intimidated by folks on Twitter that don’t have their pictures as their avatar. When the real world touches on sports, I will address that head on. What I won’t do…is look for reasons to bring up the real world when I know it’s not what people are coming here for.
People will say when you talk politics, you alienate half your audience. I actually think it’s worse than that because there’s a radio show I love and I agree with the host’s politics, so I’m in the 50% he wouldn’t be alienating, but when he leaves sports to get into the political stuff it bums me out. I’m like man, this was my escape. So even the folks that agree with you are like, ‘it’s not why I’m here, I don’t want to think about that,’ especially with how tough the political situation is right now.
I’ll say one more thing on this…talking about race is not talking about politics and that discussion has been hijacked. If you acknowledge race, racism, or the racial climate in this country, people say you’re talking about politics. Talking about equal rights is not political. It should be offensive to people on both sides of the aisle to act like advocating for equal rights is a liberal or conservative position.
Race comes into sports all the time. I have read more books on U.S. history from reconstruction until the Civil Rights Act than I have any other book of any other category combined. I think I have a particular level of expertise historically and from my own personal story about those things, I think I am very good at those discussions, better than a lot of people on sports television, so when those discussions come up I embrace them. I think they are interesting and important. I do not think they’re political and I get bothered when people say those are political, because that is not political. It would be untenable for people to say advocating for equal rights is a liberal or conservative position because that means the opposite side is against equal rights and I would hope nobody is.
BC: You raised an interesting point about not wanting to alienate half of your audience. On television if someone doesn’t agree with your non-sports opinions they’re quicker to change the channel, whereas with local radio you have caller input, so the listener is more likely to hear both sides of the conversation.
NW: It depends where you’re at. I did radio in Houston for four years…they weren’t so interested in any of that.
BC: I guess from where I sit, if you’re a more liberal personality in Houston, but you’re taking conservative calls, the conservative listener at least feels like they’re being represented, which is less likely to be the case on television.
NW: I guess if I was trying to talk actual politics I would agree with you, but when I strayed from sports on the radio it was very often where I did not think there was a good counterpoint. I’m not interested in entertaining it. I would never stray from sports on the radio to talk about the tax plan where you can listen to both opinions. I’m very strident in my sports opinions. I am obnoxiously strident in my non-sports opinions, and not looking to have a point counterpoint on an equal rights discussion.
But listen, there is no job in America where you get to do everything you want every time you want to do it. Anybody that wants to have this platform and be able to say anything they want on any topic…go be Howard Stern…be that good. Be that good to where people do not care, there is no topic, it’s just your opinions on whatever is around. That’s eligible to everyone, go ahead…the field’s available.
It would be wildly arrogant for me to say I’ve earned that right. I do like to think people will watch the Cavs game and say, “I can’t wait to hear what Nick has to say about that,” but I am not at a place where people are going to listen to whatever it is I’m talking about, such as if I have a take about the ordering process at Chipotle and I’m dialed in. I’d be foolish to act like, “you know what this damn North Korea South Korea thing…I’ve got takes and I’m giving them in the morning and if Fox doesn’t like it, I don’t care, I’m giving them.” First of all I don’t have takes on it, and I don’t get that geopolitical situation, but if I did…I don’t think I’ve earned that right.
BC: How about being on Twitter and having a national following vs. a local following?
NW: My Twitter’s my Twitter. I will tweet what I want when I want. I’ve had that discussion with people before I was hired, when I was hired and after I was hired. Never been scolded once. I am very conscious of everything I’ve worked for…I can blow it all up in my pocket at any time.
But also…I love Kansas City, it’s where I’m from. I root for the Chiefs even though they infuriate me. I root for the Royals even though it will be 25 years before they get good again. A lot of people that follow me because I’m the LeBron guy don’t understand and wonder “why is Nick so into this Royals game?” But listen, it’s free content and you’re opting in.
I think the last time I tweeted about anything significant that didn’t have to do with my family or sports was the white nationalist terrorist attack in Charlottesville. I tweeted multiple times that day. People that have a problem with that, I’ll double your money back for what you paid to follow me. This is my Twitter.
I happen to believe that people would get annoyed if all day long I posted pictures of my kids, but I do think people like the personalization. I think they like to feel as if they know me and they kind of know my wife a little bit. I think people like to make anyone they follow in the media a three-dimensional figure.
The only exhausting thing about Twitter is if you’re not tweeting about a game, people think you’re not watching it. Sometimes either I don’t have anything interesting to say or I want to save it for the TV show. I am literally watching on my phone so I can’t tweet, or I want to fully engage in what I’m seeing and not multi-screen stuff, but I feel like for people in sports media Twitter has become as if you need to tweet to prove you’re engaged and that part to me is annoying.
BC: You mentioned how the audience can feel as if they know you. That’s especially true in local radio. Do you feel like you still get that now as a national sports television host?
NW: I will always miss the local connection that I had with Kansas City because I’m from there.
I love a lot of people in Houston too. I don’t know that Houston ever fully embraced me, but that was probably due to my own screw-ups. I can still go back there and people know me. I have some very strong relationships there, but you can look it up, the average radio listener in Houston, the natural parochial…if you’re not from Texas, there’s a degree of what the hell are you doing talking about Houston sports?
But I can build that connection on national television if I’m good enough. I don’t know the last time Skip Bayless did a local radio show, but people know who Skip is and what he’s about, so you have the ability to build that up on national television, you just need to work at it.
BC: You were at 610 in Houston around the same time as Josh Innes. I don’t know him or what type of relationship the two of you have, but in listening to both of you separately, it seems like you have very different outlooks on things.
NW: So Josh has said some wildly offensive things about my family
BC: I was unaware of that.
NW: That’s OK. Josh is a tragic story, and I don’t say this lightly from a radio standpoint. He’s much more talented than I am, from a radio standpoint, much more. All the ability in the world, training from his youth with his dad. A superstar at 24…filling in for Jim Rome at 24…and yet he cannot get out of his own way, up to and including recently where he was written about on DeadSpin. How you treat people matters. Things that are cute at 24 are not always cute when it’s a 31 year old doing it.
When we were at the same place we weren’t super close, but when I mentioned that he said some wildly offensive things about my family, as is very par for the course for him, none of those ever were spoken when we actually saw each other on a regular basis.
BC: Point taken. On a lighter note, how would you describe working with Cris Carter?
NW: He’s been great to me. Cris is one of my three closest friends in the world. I’ve known him for, 18 months. I can be socially awkward. I was living in L.A. by myself, my wife and kids stayed in Houston and I went back and forth every weekend. My son was working on a college basketball scholarship potentially so I didn’t want to pull him out of school senior year. I was just in my apartment in L.A. by myself every night. I’d go to work for a few hours, wasn’t working a ton at that time, and I ate at the same diner for breakfast every single day. The only thing I spent money on were really nice restaurants, but I ate by myself, and listened to podcasts with my headphones on.
Cris made me hangout. He made me go to his house to watch games. He invited me to hangout almost every day.
I didn’t really know how the wardrobe department worked, and we were going to Cleveland for the NBA Finals and he said ‘do you have a coat to wear on TV?” I was like no, but I’m going to go get one. The next day I show up and I had two coats in my dressing room.
He’s been amazing. Forget the fact that he’s Cris Carter, one of the greatest football players and one of the greatest stories pro sports in America has ever produced. I think he’s the only guy to win every man of the year award football gives out, the Walter Payton award and there are two others that are a version of it, he’s won them all. He’s been amazing.
Cris took a huge risk on me. Nobody knew who I was nationally outside of really devout Cowherd fans that knew who his fill in was. Cris is wildly famous and has been for 30 years and he attached his name to mine and made us equal partners in this television show. The only way I can pay that back is to make his bet on me right. That’s the only way I can respect him the way I should.
(Watching Cris and Nick interact during commercial breaks and back at the office after the show, it was obvious they not only get along very well with each other, but with the entire staff and production crew of the show.)
BC: Being that you’re a local radio guy and Cris is a football guy, you’re doing a national show about a variety of topics. Which of those has been the most difficult in terms of gaining credibility with the audience?
NW: Here’s the thing. It’s very odd. Cris’ older brother played and coached in the NBA. Cris had college basketball scholarship offers to over 70 schools. Up until he was 17 he thought he was going to play pro basketball. I obviously played no sports past high school. People are weird. Sports fans will be okay with me talking about every sport…for some reason, Cris’ perceived knowledge about everything other than the NFL is less than my perceived knowledge about everything in the NFL because he played a pro sport which when you think about it is an absurdity. I played no sports professionally, I get to talk about all of them. I understand people saying ‘well he’s a football guy,’ but I’m a zero sports guy and I get to talk about everything? I know it irritates Cris, because he loves basketball, he studies it and he’s like ‘why does Nick get to be a guy that can talk about everything? I would know more about the NBA if I didn’t play 16 years of pro football?
BC: Right. It’s crazy how many people might look at Cris Carter’s NFL career as being the main reason why his opinions on other sports are less credible, but as you know, that’s a common perception that many athletes turned broadcasters are faced with. It happened recently in New York to Bart Scott on WFAN who was immediately labeled as a guy who had nothing to offer on baseball simply because he played professional football.
NW: I don’t know how much Bart knows about baseball, but I do know he has the ability to know as much as Chris Carlin or Maggie Gray. He’s not on the show with another pro-baseball player.
The other thing is, I’m an analytics guy. I’m a nerdy sports analyst guy. I like that stuff, but the analytics crowd has over done it on the lack of importance of experience. There was a time where all that mattered was experience and that was wrong too, but the idea that there is nothing gained from the actual knowledge of what it’s really like in that locker-room is crazy.
When we talk, Cris’ focus is on two things that during my career has been one percent of my analysis. The weather and the violence. When Cris analyzes a game, he is intently focused on the weather because he knows when he was playing that’s the first thing he checked out, the analytics community…unless it’s a huge snowstorm, they’re not really talking about the weather.
For years, I said to anybody that would listen, that every team in the league should pay a dude from MIT $10,000 a Sunday to stand behind the head coach and his only job is timeouts, challenges and 4th downs and you’re stupid if you don’t do that. I said that to Cris and he said to me ‘I’m just curious…you’re an MIT guy…how is he reacting when in the 4th quarter a 340 pound defensive lineman walks up to him, an inch from his face and yells what the f*** are you doing here mother******, is he able to do his job? Can he handle that? Because that’s what would happen.
Well I hadn’t thought about that.
He said ‘you think these guys in the locker-room that are out there putting their life on the line are okay with some dude who helicopters in on Sunday to tell them when to go for it on 4th down?’
No analytics guy will ever think of that, but former players will. I think sometimes it can go too far, and there needs to be a balance. That’s one of the things I love about our show because I think we have a great balance. I think I’m really good at the numbers stuff and Cris is obviously really good at what it’s actually like and I think that helps us in providing a good balance.
BC: You’ve already mentioned how much you love Colin Cowherd, and that you’d list yourself right below him in terms of sheer radio ability. Aside from Colin though, who else do you feel excels as a host in the sports radio business?
NW: Colin is the best to have ever done it and still is. As far as an ensemble show, I think what Dan Le Batard does is brilliant. That show, the only thing I can compare it to is a really good soup. You remove one ingredient and it just isn’t the same. Mike matters, Guillermo and the shipping container matters, Billy and Roy matter, Stugotz really matters and Dan obviously matters. Now they don’t talk a ton of sports, but it is technically a sports show, and I think that show is brilliantly done.
I think Danny Parkins…he is, and this is I guess an arrogant compliment, but I promise it’s a high compliment, he’s the closest thing to hearing me on the radio. I think he’s great. I don’t mean for that to sound seeped in arrogance. Andrew Fillipponi in Pittsburgh is another host who does an extraordinary job. Damon Amendolara on CBS Sports Radio is one of my favorite sports radio personalities to listen to, and then a guy I’m partial to is my former intern who now hosts the afternoon show I used to in Kansas City, Carrington Harrison.