Chris Vernon (AKA Verno) is Sports Talk in Memphis. His quick wit, strong opinions, parody songs, and vast sports knowledge carry his show. Interestingly enough, his show isn’t even on the radio but still dominates the Memphis sports scene. We talked this week about his start in the business and why he left radio to be a star in podcasts and on the internet.
Matt Fishman: So how did you get your start in sports radio?
Chris Vernon: In college I was trying to pick a major and took a class called “Introduction to Broadcasting” and since it was a small school I was able to call the basketball games and do a weekly TV show. I did internships at a couple of different places. I interned at KFNS in St. Louis and loved it. The next summer I interned in media relations at the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx (Minor League baseball team) and I hated it. I decided that I wanted to be in radio so I moved to Memphis, because it was the closest big city.
I tried to get a job anyway I could to get my foot in the door. I called the local sports station—Sports 56 WHBQ and told them what I’d like to do and was willing to start on the ground level. They needed a board op who could do updates on the :20s and eventually we’ll get you on the air on Saturdays and then I had to board op Sunday night football and I begged him to let me go on after Sunday Night Football. The PD said, “I don’t give a crap what you do. Nobody’s listening anyway and you’re not going to have a producer!” So I did the show all by myself, I played the music, took the calls and hosted the show.
MF: How did you develop your style and get your legs under you as a host?
Verno: It easily took years. A big moment for me was when the XFL was in Memphis and at the game I met “JT The Brick.” He was asking me questions about me and my show. JT says “What’s the name of the show?” It was something like Sports Weekend. JT said “That name is terrible. Change the name to The Chris Vernon Show. If you want to be a name, you want to be a personality; you want to be a star? Name it The Chris Vernon Show.
JT said, “What do you talk about on the show?” I told him it was a recap of the week and weekend in sports. JT said “Nobody cares. Anybody can look that up. Recaps, stats, figures are boring. Do you take callers?” I told him that nobody called in, nobody’s listening. JT said “I promise you that people are listening. They just have no reason to call.
He then gave me a great example, he said–“We’re in Memphis right? (This was early 2000’s) John Calipari is only using Memphis as a stepping stone. Does that bother anybody that he’s using this job as a stepping stone? He’s not going to be here long term.” So I’m listening to him and I go on the air that Saturday and ask “Does it bother anybody that John Calipari is just using Memphis as a stepping stone?” My phones rang off the hook for three straight hours. JT’s premise was “Your opinion matters. They want to hear what you think about something.” At that point I found my bearings and what I wanted the show to be.
MF: So you’ve been in Memphis for 18 years and I’m sure you’ve had offers to go to larger markets, what has kept you in Memphis?
Verno: By the time I got my bearings and figured out what I was doing, I was already making enough money that I wasn’t enthused about taking a pay cut to go to a bigger market. And I was happy where I was. When I was coming up the internet started to explode. I can see that it is making the world a smaller place. It used to be that you only knew the guys who worked in the big cities. Mike and the Mad Dog were in New York and Mike North was in Chicago. You had to be in the big cities to make the big money and to get known. Then sports stories and audio started spreading on the internet. So I understand that if I do what I do that people will find me. The internet started to make the world a small place and people became aware of what I was doing. It wasn’t necessary for me to go to a bigger market. I was able to do SiriusXM right out of Memphis and my Ringer show right out of Memphis.
MF: In 2016 you and ESPN 92.9 couldn’t come to terms and you chose to leave radio and work for Grind City Media. What happened?
Verno: Here’s the truth—I went to Entercom. I was #1 for four years and when it came time for my contract to come up they only talked to me until a few days before it would expire. I asked for a certain amount of money and they came back and said this is the most we can offer. My thing was “Why am I the one we are having this discussion over? What is going on with radio right now? The only thing I could control was the show and the ratings. I had done that over and over again. We’re getting to the point that they are haggling with me? This must be going the wrong way.
At the time I had a six year old and a three year old. The reason it went down the way it went down is they thought they had me over a barrel. This is the bad side of corporate radio. It’s why they didn’t offer until the last minute and had a take-it or leave-it attitude. They know I’ve got two kids in schools that I’m paying for and parents who I’ve recently moved here to help take care of them. They know I didn’t want to move. Plus, if I stayed here, I’d have to sit out a six month non-compete.
That obviously angered me so much that I just walked away. I had been talking to Bill Simmons and The Ringer and I knew I couldn’t do the show as it was constructed and do The Ringer. So when the Grizzlies were putting together the idea of Grind City Media, not only was I going to be better off, but I believed in what they were doing and were going to support what I was doing with The Ringer. Then they brought in Mike Wallace from ESPN, Alexis Morgan, and Lang Whitaker.
MF: Are people listening live or to podcasts nowadays?
Verno: As the years have passed, people would respond to me hours or a day later on social media about something I said on the show. I realized that the world had gone “On Demand”. They weren’t on my time anymore. Plus, I have a young son who doesn’t know what time anything is on because it’s all on demand. What happens to the next generation? The idea of being on at a certain time has become devalued. The other thing that I noticed was the effect the internet had on Newspapers, Shopping, and Television with cord cutting. So I thought, is radio the only thing that’s going to be immune to this?
MF: So are you suggesting the internet has been a crucial part of your career?
Vernon: I think especially in media it’s important to think ahead. Bill Simmons was so far ahead of anyone in the podcast game. Look at what he’s pulling off in the podcast industry. I’m so proud to work there. People are choosing to listen to these shows. Since I do NBA podcasts I get tweets from all over the world. I get tweets from Russia, Brazil, and Japan—everywhere!! You’ve also started to see it with sponsors where internet and internet reach is something that’s become really important. The internet presence is now essential. You could always explain this to a younger business owner but now you’re even getting it from the older business owners. Now there’s a lot of businesses who don’t send a red cent outside of social media advertising.
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.