Why Nick Cannon Did Radio with His Hands Tied Behind His Back
July 15, 2014
Just as a doctor can misdiagnose an illness that may look like another illness; in radio, programmers and consultants can miss the necessary ingredients for a jock or morning teams' success, simply by following familiar templates that have worked in their past.
In the case of Nick Cannon, it was like growing one of those sponge type toys that you put in water to see it grow, and once it hits its maximum size, attempting to put it back in its original packaging.
What I first loved about Nick Cannon's potential as a radio talent was his ability to share real stories from the heart, with humor and transparency, but one story in particular grabbed me; a story of personal heartache that Nick had shared of a choice he had made in his acting career, following the success of his hit movie, Drumline.
As offers came in for his next acting opportunity, Nick passed on one offer because it was a lower paying independent project, and instead went for the higher paying role in a project called, Underclassman.
Quacking Down On The Ugly Duckling
Here's how this story ends: The independent project became the movie of the year in 2005, and Nick discussed learning a valuable lesson about chasing the money, instead of chasing substance and quality.
It is a story many of us have learned, whether in business or in relationships, a familiar story of that ugly duckling who we dismiss, to later find out she's now that beautiful swan.
As long as Nick had stories like this in his arsenal, I was confident that he could erase his celebrity in the minds of the listener, and instead be revered as a "real person," which is often the greatest obstacle when hiring a celebrity to do a radio shift. In spite of being married to one of the greatest pop stars of all time, Mariah Carey; day by day, a real person showed up for work at 345 Hudson in SoHo, and it turned out he had a treasure trove of these anecdotes.
We got more than we could have asked for with Nick, as he was constantly ready with ideas, bits, phone topics and daily content. In spite of a loaded schedule, with a sitcom on NBC, hosting America's Got Talent, being a record label exec, DJ gigs, product endorsements, stand-up, husband duties and creator of content for television, Nick was always available for an evening conference call about tomorrow's show.
An Idea Machine
So, when the consultant asked for ideas from all the members of the morning show to create potential daily and weekly benchmark bits, more than twenty total ideas were presented. This is where I started realizing that external old school thought processes were holding Nick back.
Of the more than twenty ideas presented, not one of the ideas was green lighted; but instead, over the next couple of weeks, the consultant began introducing benchmarks that were executed on other shows around the Country, for the purpose of embracing in NYC, instead of growing ONE of the ones created internally.
When Nick Cannon was offered the morning show at 92.3 NOW, we owed it to him to trust his instincts, instead of thinking he knew TV, movies and comedy, but somehow this radio thing was going to trip him up.
It didn't, but we management types got in his way, not allowing Nick to fully do what Nick does. That is, succeed.
Obstacles On The Road To Success Can Be Leaped Over
In spite of us, Nick was successful, quickly getting the 92.3 NOW Morning Show into the Top 5 out of the gate, then inching to fourth, then to third, consistently outperforming the rest of the station.
The consultant was attempting to search for that thing that Nick would be known for. But here's what was missing: Nick was already known for many things.
The signature benchmark bit could have easily been something created from the idea of Nick's days on Wild N' Out, which had yet to have its second run, becoming the highest rated program on MTV2. Instead, we tried to hand him bits like "War of the Roses," and rehashed radio that was so insincere that in order to complete the bits, you would need to get a "fake" caller.
Nick and Kevin Hart on the set of Wild Nâ€™ Out
We were taking Nick Cannon and trying desperately to fit him into radio packaging, and like the sponge toys that grow exponentially beyond their original size, the packaging couldn't contain his creativity, outlook, vision and expectation.
It Wasn't Opposite Day, But It Should Have Been
We had it backwards. Had we allowed Nick's ideas to be executed to success, we would have THEN had the ability to introduce our own ideas, or things that we know work elsewhere, but instead the message to Nick was that his ideas didn't have merit in our radio world, that only these rehashed ideas will work.
There was a question, "What do we look for in a potential co-host?" And we all knew the answer. We agreed that the most important quality was that they were from New York, or Jersey, representing the lifestyle of the listener.
With that, we began parading potential candidates to sit in a studio with Nick, producing half hour segments as if they were actually working together. The demos were stellar, each having a different sound depending on the co-host, but Nick zeroed in on Michelle Buteau, a comedian, born and raised in New Jersey.
Nick and Michelle not only had rapport, but both of them knew how to be sincere, yet also hilarious, and they were amazing together. This was the first time that I saw one of Nick's ideas passed over for reasons that were unclear, in this case, because Michelle lacked radio experience. WHAT!!!??? But she's local, like you said.
All We Needed Was An Intro Voiced By Rod Serling
Add to this those twenty ideas Nick and his team had first presented that were dismissed, because they didn't quite fit the template of being used in other markets, and you can get the feel of how 92.3 NOW was from Nick Cannon's perspective. I am guessing, severely frustrating, but Nick never once complained. Instead, he just took the lemons and made Arnold Palmers, not even sure where he got the iced tea to do so, but he always outperformed the limitations of the tools given to him.
After the first co-host and the first producer of the show would prove not to be the "right" fit, the Nick Cannon era with Sarah Lee would become the most successful, in spite of the fact that Nick had to fight hard to get her in that co-host role, and in spite of the fact that Sarah Lee was a Southerner and not a New Yorker.
Comedian Pete Davidson, NCredible's Dorian Graham, Nick and Sarah Lee get ready for a ride
Their most successful bit would end up being "Break Up To Make Up," where listeners would make an unsuspecting call to their mate or spouse, attempting to win big ticket items like Bieber, GaGa, or Jay-Z tickets. The key to the game was that the listener had to truly make their mate believe that they were breaking up. If successful, they'd win. The mate would often go ballistic, some would cry and just as it would dangle in the land of uncomfortable, Nick would jump in, reveal that it was a hoax, no different than a hidden camera TV show, and then he'd award the prize.
In a world where you can't record people without their knowledge and in a world where too many radio stations are using fake callers to pull off bits just like this, Nick Cannon found a way to avoid the fake "improv caller" based benchmarks, using a hard-to-get prize to raise the stakes of the authentic participants.
The End Is Only The Beginning
We could see in Media Monitors that the TUNE IN was the height of the show, bigger than the other two benchmarks that we kept attempting ad nauseam.
And Nick would continue to reveal himself through stories, like in his childhood days where he spent time in a car playing on a Gameboy while his mother would be in a night club, and if she would meet a man, young Nick was always wondering, "Is this my new father?"
Nick Cannon is a celebrity, but not on one day did he act like it, in the hallways with his co-workers, in public with listeners and fans, (he never left an event early, signed every autograph, heard every story, shook every hand).
And in the end, we misdiagnosed the right treatment to give Nick the greatest opportunity for success. Instead of giving him the full landscape of promise, we cooped him up in the back of a car with a Gameboy in his hand to pacify him while we sought plans to make our world better.
When the doctor's diagnosed Nick with certain health issues, he had to relinquish some of his duties, one of them being radio, even though he had just signed on for another four years.
And in the end, Nick really just proved that he can do this anytime he decides he's ready to give it another go, and next time around, when the company that takes Nick out of his packaging to immerse his future in water to grow him beyond their wildest dreams, may they be wise enough to discard the original packaging.