An Interview with Nelson Millman

by mike in boston [hatemailaccount a/t/gmail/com]


If you read my interview with Chris Zelkovich then you might have noticed that a commenter by the name of “Old PD” chimed in with an insider perspective. It doesn’t take much guessing to figure that this was none other than Nelson Millman, the long time Program Director of the FAN. I followed up with Mr. Millman on the issue of women in sports radio and he very graciously agreed to be interviewed on a wide range of topics.

Nelson is exactly how you remember him from his memorable appearances on PTS: funny, friendly, and very sarcastic. I left the interview with the impression that he is someone who just loves the business of radio. I imagine this made him a very successful PD, and probably a great boss as well. He can be found on the Twitter @nmillman

For more Millman, TSM did a great podcast with him back in 2010.




Q: What were you doing before becoming Program Director (PD) of the FAN?


NM: My first radio job was in 1972. I spent 20 years in music radio – Brampton, Vancouver, Toronto, London (ON) … I was hired in 1992 to run what was then the Telemedia radio network. They ran a lot of syndicated programming across the country – Blue Jays, Prime Time sports – as well as Leafs hockey in Ontario.


Q: What are the qualifications for being a PD?


NM: Probably the same as in any industry: knowing the business, knowing the positions in the business, understanding the process from sales to schedules to programming to production. Most PDs have been in the business a while and have done most of these jobs, and that was certainly true in my case.


Q: Was there a specific mandate for how to run the radio station when you took over?


NM: The mandate was to build the sports radio brand. The first year was great. We launched September 1992 as the Jays were on their way to a World Series title. The Leafs had just been in the semi-finals. So we had good momentum year one and into year two. When we launched there were no more than 4 all-sports radio stations. There weren’t that many models to pattern yourself after. It was mostly a play-by-play driven model. But when the strike and the lockout happened in ’94 we had to become a really good talk radio station. I said that we were like any talk station, but our topic was sports. We had a couple of tough years there but it forced us to really work on our brand.


Q: The timing of that could not have worse for you. Was there a concern that the format might be discontinued?


NM: Every day. I have to give credit to Telemedia though. They hung in with it. And we hung in as well. We ran a really lean operation while still making sure the product didn’t suffer.


On being a PD


Q: Can you walk me through the average day or week of a PD? How much of your time would you actually spend listening to radio?


NM: Every PD would say that they don’t have nearly enough time to listen to radio. I would listen in the car on the way in every morning, and the same on the way home during drive time. So I was like a typical listener in that sense. And that’s a good thing because that would allow me to gauge things like how easy it was for people to understand what was going on, what the issue of the day were, and so on. The average listener tunes in for 20 minutes. If they can get a sense of the radio station in those 20 minutes then we’re doing our job. Of course I always had access to the tapes, so I would also go back and review that way.


Q: What’s the worst aspect of the job as PD?


NM: There weren’t a lot of bad aspects to it. Like any job where you have to manage people, there are going to be frustrations. In a business as ego driven as the media business is, it would make for some interesting times. But probably the paperwork more than anything else was the worst. We wanted to be creating, but running the business required a lot of paperwork.


Q: What about having to fire people?


NM: It’s never easy to change someone’s life. I tried to operate a pretty tight-knit place as best I could. So it was never easy, but you have to keep the big picture in mind and so you emotionally detach as best you can and move on. It really is the nature of the beast in that business. And to be fair, I didn’t fire that many people.


Q: When you say that ran a tight-knight place, did you have a particular culture you were trying to establish at the FAN?


NM: We were in radio to have fun. It’s the entertainment business. If we are not having fun then how can we entertain the audience? We always took our work seriously, but we never tried to take ourselves too seriously.


Q: You often appeared on the radio to take calls from listeners. Why was it important to you to make yourself available to listeners in this way?


NM: Sports radio is a clubhouse. It’s an escape for guys. But I always said that it’s not my radio station – the station belongs to the listeners. I was just the guy in the chair taking the heat or getting the credit. That’s the position, but I tried not to bring too much of my ego to it. But even back in the days before email, I tried to return every call I got from a listener. They needed access, they wanted access, and they were part of the club. So, to me it was important that people have a voice. You’ve been listening long enough to know that if you mention a name, 50% of the people will hate him and 50% of people will like him. It’s never more evident than in sports radio. So, for example, if people hated that we were running ESPN, then I felt that they had a right to express that opinion. It’s a matter of building brand loyalty. You’ll go back to a restaurant where you were treated well.


On Ratings


Q: There’s a perception that a change to PPMs was an improvement in the reliability of the ratings. Is that your impression?


NM: It’s a bit of a two-edged sword. I do think that it gives a more accurate indication of what the people who have meters are listening to. In the diary system, we never really knew who was actually filling out these surveys. Do men actually tend to fill those sorts of things out? We’d often see several diaries from the same household turned in with the same handwriting. So we always had questions about the accuracy of the diary system. The PPMs always report accurately. So that’s an improvement. There are complaints that the sample sizes are not big enough, but the stations who are seeing benefits aren’t going to complain. The whole lake rose, and most of the boats rose with it. Has it changed the rankings in the marketplace? No. Those stayed relatively similar when the transition happened. But there is no question that the numbers are bigger now.


Q: Do you think there is a better system out there? Does it matter?


NM: From a cost standpoint, I don’t see it happening. Remember BBM is funded by the broadcasters. Until there is a way for every radio to beam directly to BBM, I don’t see it changing much.


Q: Can we evaluate how well a show is doing from one book to the next, or do you need to look only at long term trends?


NM: I never tried to react to one book. Radio is a medium of habit and so you need to look at trends. If I saw a trend over 3 books then I would make an adjustment. And frankly, more often than not you go on gut feeling and instinct rather than numbers. I made changes that worked and changes that didn’t affect the ratings at all. But one book in isolation is a bit of a danger. With PPM we got more reporting, so we could see numbers on a month to month basis. Under the old system, we had to wait several months before the data came in. It’s better now though.


Q: How often would you sit down with hosts to go over things like numbers or just general job performance?


NM: I tried to talk to everybody everyday but obviously that was not possible given my meetings schedule. I met with morning show almost every day. Usually met with Bob McCown every day. The other guys it would be more on an as-needed basis. Radio’s prime time is 6am to 7pm, so those shows take priority.


Q: What is the nature of these meetings? Are you actively making suggestions?


NM: It depended on what was going on. With the morning show we would talk about the segments and what was coming up, as well as the news of the day. Sometimes we would go over tape, but not too much. It was pretty much what you’d expect with a boss talking to his people: sometimes it would be “what about this?” or “try that” and sometimes “don’t do this” … just like any other business relationship.


Q: How much creative input did you have?


NM: No one works in isolation. We would discuss everything. The producer has to work with the host and put the content of the show together. The technical guy adds the entertainment component of the show with sounds and whatnot. It’s a show, and it takes people to run a show.


Q: Are people given advance warning when a show is struggling?


NM: I don’t think you say “if you have one more bad book I’m firing you.” That wasn’t the objective because fear is not a good motivator when you’re asking people to go on the air and perform. So we would have discussion about what was wrong and how to fix it. More often than not we were able to move the needle. But to be honest, the ratings are the ratings and they didn’t change all that much: we didn’t gain or lose much of our audience from one book to the next. So it was never really about ratings. Most of the decisions were based on a combination of instinct and direction.


Q: How do you go about making the decision to fire someone? Is that your decision alone or do you have to run it by someone?


NM: I was lucky in mostly being left alone to run the radio station. I abided by the rule “never surprise your boss” but if I really thought something needed to be done then I did it. Everyone has a shelf life. We had to make some tough calls on people like Pat Marsden and Jim Hunt.


On sports media criticism


Q: You mentioned [in response to the Zelkovich interview] that you would speak with him on a regular basis. Was that part of the job or something you did of your own initiative?


NM: My job was to build the brand of the radio station. My job was to generate interest; my job was to make sure we were getting our fair due, and to protect the radio station when it was needed. That’s as much part of the advertising as anything else. The FAN became ubiquitous in the city; it became the radio station of record for sports in the city. That was, in part, because I spent as much time as I could promoting the radio station. That includes using the leverage of the press.


Q: Do you think the fact that the newspapers have abandoned the media criticism business makes the job of the PDs at the FAN and TSN Radio different?


NM: My philosophy for building the brand took me down that road. If I still was PD and there were no media critics I would find other ways. I spent a lot of years on the air, so I enjoyed talking to people. But the way I enjoyed running the station is not necessarily the way the current PDs want to run their stations in terms of how they get messages out. This is no disrespect to any one. I know Don Kollins well and I know Rob Gray very very well. Their mandates are different than mine was.


Q: Can you say a bit more about what you mean?


NM: There is a different corporate environment now. We were sort of cowboys with the format. Even after Rogers bought us we were able to maintain some of that, but I think the business has changed with the way consolidation has gone. The FAN used to be a brand on its own. Now it is tied in with Sportsnet, which is terrific for both … there’s no downside to that. And the same with TSN and their radio station. But when I was working there the FAN was out there on its own. We didn’t have the same kind of cluster mentality because we didn’t have the same consolidation. So it was different for me.


Q: It’s precisely for those reasons that the death of sports media criticism by the papers is so sad. There’s no one left to stand-alone and speak on behalf of the listener.


NM: Right. But that’s part of the state of things in the newspaper industry. You’re not going to keep a media guy over some other guy. That’s just not where the money is.


Q: Does an uptick in ratings equal more money in advertising? Is the equation as simple as that?


NM: No. Nobody builds their business model based purely on numbers. You base it on the brand and on relationships. On a national scale, maybe you do it based on numbers but not for a local station. You wouldn’t do it on a book by book basis.


On Women in Sports Radio


Q: You put the Fabulous Sport Babe on the air in Toronto. What kind of feedback did you receive?


NM: She took more heat than she deserves. She’s still on the air in Florida. It was at a time when we just came out of the strike and the lockout. We were trying to do something different and to make some statements. I would do it again. We got some talk about the radio station. Her guests were good. The feedback was right in that 50/50 ballpark. The show was well produced. And given the economics of putting that show on the air at that time, I would definitely do it again.


Q: How much of the negative feedback was that she was a woman?


NM: The complaint was that she didn’t know what she was talking about. But that’s not true – she did know what she was talking about. So what was it really about? It was that it was a woman on the air talking sports. And based on the clubhouse nature of the radio station I get that. At that time, it was a guy’s club. 20% of the audience tuning in to sports radio is women. It was 20% in 1992 and I would venture to say it is 20% now. And in my time at the FAN, there were very few women who wanted to be hosts. Mary Ormsby was on a little bit and did a terrific job. Barb DiGiulio did some hosting on and off. So it’s not as if it’s never been done. And when people say “get rid of this guy” where is the next guy coming from? In music radio there is a farm system. You work your way up from Medicine Hat to Calgary to Toronto. We don’t have that for sports radio, so it’s hard to find people, especially women.


Q: Is that why we see so many people crossing over from print to sports radio?


Yes. Or, you try to develop them from within. Eric Smith was an intern from Humber College. Then he became a producer and then an on-air host. So, it’s a process. There’s lots of people who can talk sports, but how many can be entertaining? It’s not as simple as tapping someone on the shoulder and saying you’re up.


Q: That’s interesting, since recent stats on NFL viewership among women is on the rise.


NM: That’s viewership though. You can’t compare sports TV to sports radio. The difference is that on TV the destination is the game while on sports radio is the familiarity that comes along with having some company in my car. Lots of people watch the games but don’t listen to sports radio. These are two different paradigms entirely.


Q: So what is it that attracts people to sports radio?


NM: Being entertained by the personalities on the radio. I always believe that sports radio is entirely about the personality. You can put a great guest on with a lousy interviewer and that’s just not going to work. I turn on the radio every day so I can listen to Greg Brady and Andrew Walker. I don’t care about the stats. I care about the personality and I care about being entertained. I’m giving you some of my time. Doesn’t necessarily mean funny, but it does mean entertained. I want compelling and interesting talk. And you see that reflected in the comments. No one complains about the guests or the production of a radio show. It’s all about the personalities.


On the state of sports radio


Q: The Team failed in spectacular fashion against the FAN. Obviously you didn’t know that when they arrived on the scene. How did their arrival change how you ran things?


NM: Under the heading of “competition makes everybody better” we took a new look at everything. Where we felt there was a need to button down our position, we did. I don’t think we dramatically increased our marketing budget. But by the time they launched, I think everyone in Toronto who cared to know about sports radio knew the FAN. So our job was simply to hang on and make sure they didn’t erode our share. And they probably brought new people to the medium as well. But it’s tough to take on the leader – you see this in the U.S. as well. The first to market is more often than not still leading even when you have 2 or 3 other sports stations in the market. So we just did what we needed to defend the hill


Q: And that obviously worked out well. TSN seems to be building an audience for itself. Do you think there is room for two all-sports radio stations in Toronto?


NM: It depends what you mean by room. There are two frequencies, so sure there’s room. But it will come down to what these two companies want to do, and what constitutes success. They know how much money they have to spend on the property. So is there room? Sure, there is an alternative.


Q: When TSN counterprogrammed PTS with Cybulski I was pretty disappointed since what I wanted was a genuine alternative. What did you think of that decision?


NM: Well you can make the argument that if you try to challenge by doing what the other guy is already doing then you can’t win.


Q: Then why switch away from the goofy Cybulski show to what Naylor is doing, which looks much more like the PTS model?


NM: Obviously I have no idea about the details of their numbers, but you would need to compare how TSN is doing now with what the organic growth of the Cybulski show would have been had it been left on the air. Who knows if that show would have produced the same share of audience that Naylor now has. Those are the kinds of things a PD thinks about. If we make this change, how are we different? If you look at the guest line-ups on a day to day basis, there is not a lot difference there.


Quick hits


Q: What is your personal opinion on call-in shows? I personally think they make for terrible radio, outside of some post-game shows.


NM: Over the years I have gone back and forth. The name of the station was The FAN. So to be the voice of the fan you have to listen to the fan. You have to give them the opportunity to have their voices heard. On the other hand, without a well-crafted topic, I often thought it was the weakest part of the format. It’s like any other part of the business. Some guys can, some guys can’t, and there’s a pile in the middle. When Bob took calls, it’s still pretty good. At the end of the day, I don’t know anyone who tuned in to hear a caller. With no disrespect intended to the fine people who call in, it’s just a springboard for the host.


Q: What are you up to these days?


NM: I teach one day a week at the College of Sports Media. I do some woodworking in my basement. I played a lot of golf this year. I have some TV projects I’m working on. I’m enjoying sort of not working after 40 years in the business.


Q: What do you enjoy about teaching?


NM: The funny thing is that I was a horse-shit student. But I’ve always loved mentoring. I enjoy meeting the students. I like to know there is a process that trains people to become quality broadcasters. It’s also part of giving back.


Q: If you weren’t in sports what would you be doing?


NM: I’m a radio guy but I was never a huge sports fan. If I was not in sports I would still be in music. I’m a classic rock guy but My iPod has everything from Beyoncé to Pink Floyd. Great music is great music.


once again, thanks very much to Nelson Millman for being so accommodating,


thanks for reading and commenting

until next time …

mike (in boston)

About the Author