When last we spoke with Chris Vernon, in October, the Memphis sports talk radio host had just been dropped on his ass. The 1,000-watt station where he broadcasts The Chris Vernon Show for three hours each weekday lost its Fox Sports affiliation when a conglomerate that already owned an ESPN affiliate in the market converted a country station to Fox. It was, he thought, a move by said radio titan Entercom to isolate him and scuttle him from the Memphis airwaves.
Instead, Vernon has recovered nicely. For a few weeks, he hunkered down and re-ran his show during all the open gaps in the lineup. Word got out about his situation, and as he drew support from across the country, all his sponsors stuck with him. Late last year he reached an agreement with Yahoo! Sports Radio to carry its programming. He has also branded his station as 730 Yahoo! Sports, making his the first station in the country to do so with the Yahoo! Sports name.
Other connections came through for him, as well. After years of quietly keeping himself on Sirius’ radar, the satellite radio provider signed him last week to a deal that will air him regularly on the Mad Dog Radio and College Sports Nation channels. Part of the week, he’ll be yammering into a veritable tin can and string in a mid-South river town, part of the week he’ll be beamed down from orbit to 21 million subscribers.
“It’s a dream come true,” Vernon said. “For years, everybody told me I had to go to a bigger market. Maybe I’m going to get this shot now and I would have gotten it earlier, but I probably wouldn’t have been ready for it, earlier in my life. You live in a city like Memphis, it’s, ‘You’re going to be off to bigger and better things before you know it.’ People I’ve known over the years involved with sports asked, ‘What are you going to do from a thousand-watt station in Memphis?’ I thought that I didn’t need to go somewhere else to get what I wanted.”
The Sirius gig is a plum for several reasons. For the first time, Vernon won’t have to spend extra time chasing dollars or convincing sponsors to trust his listeners. As a subscription-based service, and one with multiple employees not named Chris Vernon, Sirius will allow him to ignore the revenue side of the business. Not only will Sirius let him remain in Memphis, it also hired his longtime producer, Jon Roser, whom Vernon insists is parcel to any gig he takes.
“This is a chance at a big break and I say I want to keep my producer, and immediately they said, ‘We are very aware of the work that producers do, and we want whatever is going to make you at your best.’ I almost dropped the phone, man. I couldn’t believe it!
“I’ve dealt with goofballs in suits who are mercenary bean-counter radio people, and they don’t get it. I didn’t think it was a prima donna request. I think he’s the best. He started with me as an intern, and he dropped out of college because he believed in this thing, and if I’m catching a break, he’s catching a break, too. So I guess this is our chance.”
The key to that success has been working like a dervish and focusing on making money for his sponsors. Without a budget for ratings books, or even a sales team (to this point, anyway), Vernon has been “the radio version of a mom-and-pop” through much of the 12 years he has been on the air, since the age of 21. But he and Roser seemingly have no sense of place, because they have reached out to, and subsequently booked, a roster of guests that includes Joe Montana, Bill Russell, Jamie Foxx and Dick Cheney.
“There ain’t some kind of secret to this, man,” Vernon said. “Work. Work! Take your shots. You get in there and you try to develop your relationships. There’s going to be people that say no to you. But why not try? We can’t worry about what doesn’t happen. But every once in a while you’re going to send out that email and they’re going to say yes. So just keep doing it! We’re nobodies, but do right by people, treat all of these publicists right, be very professional in every email we send, and who knows.”
In many ways, Vernon is a radio creature of the digital age. He’s plugged into iTunes, Twitter and YouTube, allowing him to stay geography-agnostic. If you’re in media, there’s a lesson here, and it’s to keep your head down and grind and make a thing your very own. That, and keep your contacts fresh. The Yahoo! connection came in a roundabout fashion through Vernon’s appearances on Sean Pendergrast’s show on Houston’s 1560 The Game, and meeting that station’s affiliate relations manager. Vernon had been emailing the programmer for College Sports Nation for a couple of years, and occasionally visiting Sirius offices when the chance arose. When his name came up in conversation there, he was a known quantity.
“My greatest challenge was we don’t have the best signal, so how do I beat that,” Vernon said. “Nowadays you can. For anybody that’s in the business, I try to tell people, the big thing is not, ‘Oh, I can’t get hired by so and so.’ If you keep on working hard, somebody’s going to find you.”