If something is happening on the political scene of Sarasota, you can be sure Susan Nilon is talking about it. The voice behind “The Nilon Report” on WSRQ Talk Radio for the past five years, Nilon, 50, dishes on local politics during the afternoon drive time.
Nilon’s flair for asking pointed questions, and getting people from both sides of an issue talking has drawn the attention of political movers and shakers. In addition to local politics, her show also taps local business leaders, community activists and organizations to discuss the happenings around town. Nilon is not just the voice of the show; she is also the station owner and general manger, a title reserved for only 6% of women in media today.
A graduate of Temple University’s Communications Program, Nilon started her radio career at the Pennsylvania Radio Network in Philadelphia. She is also a successful entrepreneur, owning a marketing firm and construction remodeling/restoration company in Sarasota before deciding to return to her radio roots by aligning with investors to become the owner of WSRQ radio.
A resident of Sarasota for 40 years, Nilon says she is proud of the insight and awareness she has helped raise in the community. She says there’s no better place to raise her teenage son, Quinn, with her husband, David. Here, in her own words, Nilon shares her perspective on being a minority owner in male dominated industry, how the media industry views women, and what she hopes listeners take away from her show.
What is the landscape today in the radio industry and why you chose to go into management? I felt that was really the only place I had power. It’s the only time I get taken seriously and that’s as an owner. You cross over that veil of being a moniker or serving a purpose. When you say you’re an owner the conversation changes and that’s pretty significant. You’re not compared anymore on how you look and how you behave; you get compared on the merit of your work. I’ve always found that – not just in media but also in business – for whatever reason I choose industries where women are a minority. AM is a really easy stepping stone in radio. The cost is not as great as owning an FM station. AM is generally small, local, independent, and more of an opportunity.
What was your first job in media? I started out in the newsroom making weather clips. I was the shorecaster and reported on the weather and happenings at the Jersey Shore. I was given a choice – stay and advanced in media as a reporter or go into management. I felt there was more longevity in management.
“If I don’t challenge myself, then I become bored and I become stale.”
What was the moment that you said I want to work in radio? I started off in radio. I feel in love with media in college. I was in it for a couple of years and life changes happen and I got out of it. I was out of the industry for a period of time, but remained in sales and marketing. When I closed my company in 2008, and had to say “Ok, now what? Do I want to invest all my time and energy into another product or venture that I am not happy with and be miserable or find something I actually enjoy?” I have a degree in English and was writing a column and through that I remembered what it was like to write. I remember what it was like to report things. I said I’m going to give this a try. I also found that there was a void. Radio didn’t have real identity, especially in Sarasota when you’re listening to news and information that you don’t get as a bedroom community of Tampa. Radio is immediate. There’s no hierarchy or bureaucracy so if I make a decision to break into a story, I have nobody to answer to. I can program the way I think it will serve the community. I don’t have to ask permission. My failures are exactly that. It was my decision – it was either going to fail or succeed.
You’ve used your show to elevate or start a conversation and make people aware. How do you feel the show has changed things? I think what my show does is it gives people an opportunity to have a pulpit— to have a voice. It’s important for the community to hear all sides and I think we do that very well. I’m very open myself.
“Twenty years ago there were 50 different media companies; today, there are six and they are the old guard. Their mentality is based on the bottom line.”
How do you feel the media industry overall treats women? It depends on variables – the older generation of media – there is no changing their opinion. Whatever you say is fine, if you look good. Twenty years ago there were 50 different media companies; today, there are six and they are the old guard. Their mentality is based on the bottom line. That is the problem with the industry. The independents are struggling to hold on and nobody understands the value. The ageism is a problem as well. I am very vocal on who I am. I wrote a column last year about government assistance that was titled, “I Am The Face of a Medicaid Recipient.” I am on government assistance, whether it was unemployment, the WIC program, or Medicaid. I am not the loser still living on the government, two degrees and two successful businesses later. The response I got from women was fabulous! I heard from a ton of women who thought it was courageous or shared the same story and kept quiet for so long because of the judgment. Immediately I get a few letters from men who were strictly judging and pigeon holing me into something that wasn’t true. They also thought I was encouraging other women to take the same path. My attitude? I would never do that. It was a miserable experience. I didn’t enjoy it and there was no real benefit, except that it got me through a really rough patch. I am grateful for it and fight for that right. It’s amazing – women are trained not to tell and not to say anything, not to reveal so much.
Where did your perspective on staying independent come from? I think it comes from my parents who have always been very independent. My dad was an entrepreneur and very free-spirited in his thinking. That’s who I get it from. My mom was a single mom most of my life and I watched how things impacted her life —they were pretty significant. I’m a vain individual but not for the right reasons. I was judged on my looks and was told I always sold out my youth by growing up as a younger woman in the industry. No matter what I did or what I achieved, there was some fool in the crowd who assumed I had relations with management to get the job. Other women would say that the only reason they liked me was because you had a big rack or sleeping with the boss. I was pure as pollyanna and said, “That’s not me! Look at the work I am doing.”
Do you think women get in our own way of success? Absolutely! We sabotage ourselves and each other. We’re not very good at support; some of us are. I don’t want to throw a big blanket over that. We are raised to be a good girl, to be compliant, to care, and to not make problems because it’s all about the team. That’s what I was told as a young girl. You are taught to make excuses even though we know it was wrong. It was liberating for me in my life, recognizing as I was making my own path, as I gained weight and no one questioned me. As a radio station owner I’m in a position of authority. They don’t go there anymore.
What does it take to be a successful business owner? Running a successful business is the same no matter what the industry. That’s why I can do it in several different forms. It’s personnel, management, paying the bills, paying your taxes, conducting yourself in an appropriate manner, living up to your promises, and not making promises you can’t keep. Not feeling entitled – that’s key to a strong business.
Any advice to your younger self? Stop apologizing for being there. Stop taking second position and feeling good about it because you are a good team player. You can be a good team player and still not sacrifice yourself. Understanding my value is what I bring to the table and what I know is valuable, not what someone else tells me is valuable.
LEFT TO RIGHT: Favorite Artist: Gustav Klimt, Beloved. Favorite Vacation: Asheville, NC. Two of Susan’s rescue cats. Her Inspiration: Son Quinn is an amazing Jazz musician.
How do you define success? I don’t think there’s a clear definition of success. What I find successful is that I have good relationships. I have a great relationship with my son – an honest relationship – I think that grounds him better. He is pure joy in my life, but it is a lot of work. Before I had a child, my decisions were my own. Now it’s challenge and a lot of hard work balancing everything. I work in media where everyone gives me their opinion. I don’t know necessarily what success is unless you can look back and see results in what you worked so hard to do. It’s more hindsight success. If my son graduates from high school and finds a place in life that he really likes, then he can find happiness and be passionate about something. That’s success to me.
Any ambition to run for political office? I took a hard look at it twice in my life (in 2010 and last year). God bless anyone who does it, but how limiting it is once you become an elected official. You are truly at the beck and call for everything I have fought not to be. I think my message resonates with more people because I am not limited by my office. Being able to speak freely and honestly is more important than saying “I need your vote so I will tell you what you want to hear.” I’m so comfortable at being a truth teller and saying it like it is. I don’t think I’m ever going to stop that.
What does your future look like? I am exploring other possibilities. I’m always wondering “Is this enough? Am I finished?” My personality is never to settle at something. When I reach a goal, I’m looking forward to the next goal. Somewhere in there is the giving of myself, but there’s always the taking of myself. If I don’t continue to challenge myself, then I become bored and I become stale. Life is not over yet.
GRAVITAS Publisher Jules Lewis Gibson and Editorial Director Katherine Ferrara Johnson join Susan Nilon on her show,
“The Nilon Report” on WSRQ Radio.
Listen to the entire show clip below: