Nick Cellini exclusive interview: life after a bit gone bad

Nick Cellini
Rodney Ho/

Nick Cellini, two months removed from a tasteless morning bit that got him fired from 790/The Zone, was back in a studio Thursday, headset on, mic open, expressing dismay about Jason Heyward's jaw injury and bad odor memories from the old Yankee Stadium.

The difference: he's doing a podcast in the back of an office near the Punchline Comedy Club. The likely audience for his podcast is in the hundreds rather than the tens of thousands of listeners who caught him every morning on Mayhem in the AM on his old radio station, where he worked for more than 16 years.

His paycheck is gone, too, along with his two former colleagues Chris Dimino and Steak Shapiro.

But all is not lost. By doing the podcast, Cellini's keeping his mind busy, trying to create a sense of normality after one of the toughest moments in his professional career. And he found out who his friends really were, including a few who have placed ads on his podcast. (Two buddies Ray Voght and Patrick Wiebeld help him with the broadcast.)

"You find out who your friends are," he said. "I have a lot of great friends for me through this whole thing."

In an exclusive interview I did on his podcast yesterday, he wanted to make several things clear:

1) The Gleason knock-knock joke bit in which he pretended to be Steve Gleason, a football player with the degenerative nerve disease ALS (known as Lou Gehrig's Disease) was spontaneous, not a planned bit. "It was the dumbest thing I've ever done in my life," he said. If they had given it even a second or two more thought, they would never have done it. And based on the brevity of the bit, colleague Chris Dimino's comments plus Cellini's "kill me now" reference, they all knew it was a bad situation.

(You can hear it again below)

2) After he was fired, he travelled to New Orleans and apologized to the Gleason family. They accepted his apology and embraced him to be part of Team Gleason. Helping ALS victims "will be my cause," he said. He will, for instance, participate in the Sept. 21 Atlanta Walk To Defeat ALS. Cellini was blown away that Gleason reached out to him in forgiveness while he himself is fighting for his life. "If that doesn't change your life," he said, "nothing will."

3) His comments to me right after the Zone fired him, he said, were spur of the moment and based on emotion. "I take all the blame," he said. "I probably shouldn't have made the call." He said at the time he was relieved to get let go and the station used the bit as an excuse to dump salary. In retrospect, he regrets saying such things because he still has many friends at the station and didn't want to add fuel to the fire, especially since ratings have fallen since Mayhem had left.

4) He hopes to one day reunite with Dimino and Steak Shapiro, but he is trapped in an eight-month noncompete for radio even though the Zone fired him. That means he can't go back on air in Atlanta until March, 2014 at the earliest. "I think this has made us closer to each other," he said. "We're dealing with it as a family. We were a family. I think we still consider ourselves family."

Listen to the podcast Cellini dubbed "Offensive Interference" below:

Offensive Interference header image 1

Here are excerpts from the interview, which you can also hear in full via this link:

Q: What was your background before coming to the Zone?

Cellini: I did radio and TV in Cleveland for five or six years. I came here when CNN established their sports network CNNSI. At that point, I was just working behind the scenes as an assignment editor. I got a call from Steak Shapiro. They were launching 790. This was April, 1997... He was a guy who started a company that rolled the dice and bet on himself. Back then, sports talk in Atlanta was a vast wasteland. He and Andrew Saltman put this together on the fly and did things their own way and made a lot of money... It was the best job I ever had... At first, me and Chris Dimino were on from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Q: So you and Chris met at that time... and what was the introduction?

Cellini: He still is one of those guys who's everyhwere. There are ten of them. We had never worked together but once we did, it was strange. We had chemistry from the get go.

Q: So he made a good straight man?

Cellini: He was brilliant, a brilliant set up man. He would set thing sup, I'd tell the joke and we would move on. It was a lot of fun. It was different. I don't think anything in Atlanta was like that. It was casual. We didn't play by radio rules. We were irreverent. When we needed to get serious, we could have serious guests and break some stories. We broke Payne Stewart and the crash...

Q: So what got you on Mayhem?

Cellini: In 2003, they brought me into Mayhem. Much like with Chris, it all worked out. It was a great team. Mike Bell and Steak and me at the time. They wanted to spread the talent around and place strong personalities throughout the day... We were doing our own thing in the mornings. We'd go to various venues. We were doing good. We were at events, Hawks, Braves, Georgia Tech... The people in Atlanta, they accepted us. We became part of the fabric.

Q: Steak and Andrew invested in St. Louis sports stations and lost millions. They eventually had to give up control of the Zone. How much did you know?

Cellini: Nobody knew what was going on. We were just doing business as usual, Steak, Chris and me. Everything was fantastic is all we knew. I never heard they were in trouble. One day, they were selling to Lincoln Financial. Okay, we'll be purchased by a big company.

Q: So you had no idea that this wasn't necessarily a good development?

Cellini: I was just so focused on what we were doing every day. I still am. I'm now doing this podcast focusing on everything positive. I never really worried about anything going on.

Q: So you aren't big on the gossip?

Cellini: My theory is, the less I know the better. I wish everybody at 790, I wish them nothing but the best... It doesn't pay to burn bridges.

Q: Let's move on to that day in June. How did you come up with the idea of the Steve Gleason bit? What was the thought process?

Cellini: There was no thought process. We were sitting there during the break. [Former Saints player] Steve Gleason had written a piece, filling in for Peter King on Monday Morning Quarterback [on the Sports Illustrated blog]. We thought we'd do this knock-knock jokes. We did knock knock Thursdays in the old days. I didn't think at all. It was literally thirty seconds before we came on. I went back on and it was the dumbest thing I've ever done. It was my biggest regret.

Q: I'm sure you've said dopey things over the years. You've been on for thousands of hours. Why was this one different?

Cellini: I think it's because Steve Gleason is a very popular guy. On social media, somebody jumped on it and what happened happened. The important thing is I reached out to the Gleason family. I went to New Orleans. We [Nick and his friend Ray] had dinner with his brother in Gleason's brother in law. I met his father in law. I toured the ALS facility in New Orleans... Steve through his courage got this financed through Chase. It's amazing. Independent ALS patients will live in this facility. A couple weeks later, I got an email from Steve himself. He wrote, 'I know you met with my inlaws. My family, we appreciate the fact you did that.'

[Cellini then told me a lengthy story about how Gleason pranked Cellini by telling him to talk to a friend of his. The guy called Cellini and asked him to do some things for the Gleason Foundation such as wrestle a lion or jump out of a plane without a chute and have two tandem guys catch him in mid-air. Then a friend of Steve's called 30 minutes later and told Cellini that since this started with a prank, they'd end it with one. "It's all water under the bridge," he told Cellini.]

Cellini: It was more or less about the power of forgiveness. Someone is battling for his own life who reached out to me to make me feel more comfortable. If that doesn't change your life, nothing will.

Q: How quickly while doing the bit did you realize it was going bad?

Cellini: I realized it right away. We all did. It wasn't very long... Hindsight is 20/20. Everything would have changed and we would not have done it... I can't beat myself up anymore. AllI can do is move foward with the podcast. We run commercials for the Gleason Foundation during the breaks.

Q: When did you know something was really amiss?

Cellini: Probably an hour after the show. We got an email from our program director saying this is probably turning sideways, just warning you.

Q: They suspended you soon after.

Cellini: I knew we made a huge mistake. I knew we really stepped in it. They had to do what they had to do.

Q: So what did you do that afternoon while all this was breaking?

Cellini: I had a four year old I had to pick up from school. I had to take care of him. I had responsibilities around the house. I did all that stuff. I kind of knew something was going to happen.

Q: You didn't think it would just be a one-week suspension?

Cellini: Absolutely.

Q: What time did they give you the call.

Cellini: [General Manager] Rick Mack called me at about 5, 5:30 pm. He said, 'We're doing what we're doing.' I said, 'Okay. I wish you nothing but the best and gotta move on.'

Q: It was a very brief conversation.

Cellini. Yes, brief.

Q: Then you called me. What made you decide to do that?

Cellini: Much like the bit, I wish I hadn't been that emotional. I had been in that place 16 years. You say things you don't mean. It was one of my biggest regrets. I'm oblivious of things that go on around me. I just thought hey, look, this was going to be fine. I'll keep working. I have nobody but to blame but me. I take all of the blame. I take all the accountability. It's nobody else's fault. I probably shouldn't have made that call when I did or at all... I still have a lot of friends over there.. I still wish them nothing but the best.

Q: The messy thing here is although you were let go with cause and they don't pay you a penny, you have an eight month non compete.

Cellini: Yes, I can't go back on radio until March... I signed the contract. It's just one of those things in business. It's about leverage. As I move forward, I look at this as a great opportunity. This podcast allows me to do what I did before. I still go to Falcons games. I get to go into the locker room every week. I drive to Athens every Tuesday and talk to Mark Richt. I'll be there for the Braves.

Q: How long were you really upset by this?

Cellini: I beat myself up for about a week. Then I reached out to the Gleason Foundation and the family and drove to New Orleans. I looked them in the eye and said, 'I hope you forgive me. It was a horrible thing I did.' The fact they forgave me... My buddy Ray Voght encouraged me. He drove to New Orleans with me. He was there through the whole thing. It was like a weight lifted.

Q: Did you end up getting therapy?

Cellini: No. I didn't get any actual therapy to talk things out... I've got a 14-year-old stepdaughter, a four-year-old son. I have a wife [Cari] who works for Monster Energy. She's traveling on weekends... I have to be a dad. I have to assume responsibilities around the house. I have to show my children how to overcome adversity.

Q: What would you like to do down the road once the dust settles?

Cellini: Coming back to radio, coming back to TV. I would love ot get this picked up somewhere and move forward. All I can do now is focus on the show and try to make it better each and every podcast. I do them every Wednesday and Friday. I do audibles during the week, a minute, 90 seconds, getting everything off my chest as far as current events. It's been great... Life could always be worse. I look around and see people dealing with it every day... I still get to do what I love. I am still young. We're eight [podcasts] in. It's getting better and better.

Q: How are you with Steak and Chris?

Cellini: We're still friends. We worked together for 16 years. I still consider them friends. I wouldn't mind somewhere down the road for us to get back together, get the band back together.

Q: How are they dealing with things? [Neither wants to talk about it right now.]

Cellini: We are all dealing with it in our own way. Everybody is different. Surprisingly, I think this has made us closer to each other. We're dealing with it as a family. We were a family. I think we still consider ourselves family... Steak is doing his Atlanta Eats. It's going really well. Chris is so talented He has so many connetions. His Q rating is through the roof. Chris will be just fine.

Q: What do you say to folks who were happy you were fired. I presume they weren't fans of yours to begin with.

Cellini: Some people aren't going to be willing to forgive. That's fine. That's their thing and their option. All I can say is, look, the Gleason family forgave me. Hopefully, others in time will be gracious and do the same. I'm going to do everything I can to make it right... If I feel good about the future, the future will feel good about me."

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