It was late in our conversation last week that I pointed out to Chris Vernon, the Memphis sports talk radio host, that he’s soon going to bump into people on the street who think he’s in a studio broadcasting live. Because starting today, he’s going to be on a loop that’d make Talladega green. He doesn’t have much of a choice.
The Chris Vernon Show airs on the 1,000-watt KQPN-AM 730, a station that just saw the vast majority of its programming siphoned away when Entercom, a radio conglomerate that already operates an ESPN affiliate in the market, converted a local country station to Fox Sports Radio all day, every day. Till now, 730 carried Fox in the Memphis market. Now, aside from Mississippi State football games, some Westwood One programming, and a church block on Sundays (“like anybody else reasonable,” Vernon says), all the station has is Vernon’s 3-6 p.m. weekday live show. Now the cupboard’s pretty much bare, so starting Monday, 730 will re-air the Chris Vernon Show in place of the lost Fox programming. It’s all Vernon can think to do at the moment as, in his view, Entercom tries to smoke him out of the market.
“Listen, I’m fully aware it’s ridiculous,” Vernon said. “But that’s why we’re doing it! It’s going to be fun, it’s going to be great. I’m going to make it as easy as possible to listen to me. You gotta work from 3 to 6? No problem! You get off from FedEx at 3 in the morning? We got you covered! You’re scared you’re going to miss an episode? You won’t! Your daughter’s got a recital? No problem! When it lets out, flip it on! Nobody’s ever going to ask me, ‘Hey, what did you say about so and so?’ That’s over. I promise, if you want to know, you can know.”
By the end of that, he’s belly-laughing. When we talk he sounds a little manic, as well you might be if you found out that your place of employ had just become, in effect, a one-man band. The Memphis blog Mediaverse has a thorough write-up on the situation, including an explanation from Entercom Communications that since the sports radio biz has been going gangbusters for them, they were looking to expand (“we recognized we needed more ‘bandwidth,’” the market manager wrote).
If you prefer your reporting a tad biased/unhinged, you might listen to a few minutes of Vernon’s show from Oct. 12th. It wasn’t quite Jerry Maguire’s mission statement, but there were echoes, with Vernon railing against a worm-eaten industry model. He described the whole station switcheroo in detail, and lays out his model staying viable as a small fish: by having listeners loyal enough to patronize the businesses that Vernon himself signs on as sponsors. He not only hosts the show, he makes the sales. For his success on both fronts, he says he earns substantially more than he would if he went to work as a host for a bigger outfit.
“My goal is to get people to spend money at the [businesses] who advertise with me, and they, the businesses, will decide whether people are listening to me or not,” Vernon told me. “It doesn’t matter if I’ve only got 10 people listening to me if all 10 go buy a Lexus.”
Vernon backed himself into this predicament gradually. A couple of years ago Simmons Media Group, which used to own 730, waited until the 11th hour of his contract to offer him a new contract with a $40,000 cut in base pay, Vernon said. “They grabbed me by my nuts the month before my wife is about to have our first child,” he said. “You know? At some point you decide, I gotta look out for myself. It’s a tough, tough business.”
His response was to form his own production company, Verno Productions, and continue producing his show under the condition that he could keep his sponsors. (For more background: A few years ago the Memphis Business Journal wrote about Vernon.) So far he has made a go of things. But now, without the syndicated programming leading into and out of his show, he finds himself exposed. And he admits that he may, at some point, cave and have to go looking for a more secure gig.
Until then, there’s a bit of a standoff in Memphis sports radio. In the one corner, you have the fifth-largest radio broadcaster in the country (albeit one with a stock trading at a tenth of what it was 10 years ago) competing against itself, ostensibly, for every sports listener in a million-person market. In the other, you have a guy who still remembers broadcasting from a trailer in West Memphis, Arkansas, who each week dons a moustache to bet fake babies on college football games and who recently asked Dick Cheney when was the last time he cried. (Response: It’s been a while.)
“I’ve heard from people who run radio stations,” Vernon said. “It’s a rat race. Everyone’s going to smile and act like they love their jobs. But it’s cutthroat, man. It’s mercenary. It’s very, very difficult to control your own destiny, and even if just for a little while, I’m going to attempt it.”
Supporting him are a few Memphis businesses (Jason’s Deli, Lexus of Memphis, Restaurant Iris) and a tight band of listeners; @ChrisVernonShow has some 8,300 followers and for a while last week the #vernoradio hashtag was a top-trender in Memphis. And, Vernon said, small-business owners from around the country reached out to offer encouragement. His backers better like him lots, ’cause it’s about to be Verno piped in for three meals a day, coffee breaks, snack times, night caps and all the rest, so long as he can support himself.