Let me tell you about how I was introduced to Brad Carson. I hope it helps you understand why I wanted to speak with him and get inside his head a bit.
Last summer, Brad posted an opening for an executive producer position for one of his shows at ESPN 92.9 in Memphis. I put together a package for him and sent it off. In the cover letter, I mentioned a specific date that I would be following up. On that date, I sent him a silly video about my love of BBQ.
My phone rang right away. It was Brad. He started by telling me that I was not in his plans for the job, but he wanted me to know how impressed he was with my presentation and he gave me a few pointers on how to better position what I do. He told me I was talented and wished me well in my job search. We said our goodbyes and then he hung up.
I mean, who does that? We have all been in the position of sending out resumes and demos and never hearing back. I told Brad when we sat down for this interview that during what was a very lonely time, it felt like someone saying “I see you. You’re a human being.”
Brad and I share a background that includes long stints in music radio and he still has a passion for those formats. While he has turned Entercom’s ESPN 92.9 into one of the highest rated sports stations in the country, he has also looked for shifts he could voice for Entercom music stations around the country.
Just how high are ESPN 92.9’s ratings? Well, here are some numbers for you. In the fourth quarter of 2017, four of the station’s five weekday shows were in the top 3 with Men 25-54. Gary Parrish pulled a 12 share in afternoons. The other two sports stations in Memphis (one of which is also owned by Entercom and programmed by Brad) didn’t pull a 1 share with the same audience.
Our conversation touched on Gary Parrish’s assent to superstardom, how radio shows are similar to sandwiches, and the rivalry between Memphis and Nashville. Enjoy!
DR: What were you able to bring to a sports station because of your experience working in different formats?
BC: We tend to compartmentalize radio a lot. Like you have said “I came from rock radio.” I literally started part-time reading farm reports and obituaries. And you can laugh about that, but people listened like crazy. They were sponsored by local funeral homes. I would do county fairs or go out to the sticks to call a Macoupin County basketball tournament. I think that really helps, but in today’s world so much of these guys’ development is linear. Our new talk hosts and producers were either journalists here or they started here and worked their way up and now they get to stay in Memphis. That used to be really rare.
I’m not saying one or the other is better, but guys like you and I are in a good position. We can do a lot of things. It’s like being left-or-right-brained. Music radio is so much about researching the music, getting the imaging on, doing your best with the talent and if you find someone revolutionary, you can take good to great. Great talk or sports stations have to have people that are good right-brain and left-brain all the time.
When they hired me, I was excited because I didn’t need to hire an imaging director. I could produce opens. I could coach talent. I knew the sound I wanted the station to have. I guess I could have hosted a show if I needed to, but didn’t really want to. All of that prior experience was very helpful.
DR: Correct me if I am wrong, wasn’t Gary Parrish part of CBS’s tournament selection show last year?
BC: Yeah. He was on with Barkley last year.
DR: So he was the first talent you hired and now he’s one of the faces of your station. Have you thought about the contingency plan for when he takes over the world?
BC: I mean it is not something I like to think about, but you always have to have a contingency plan as a program director for all situations or you aren’t thinking the situation through enough. Having said that, Gary has been my consultant since he came on board. There isn’t a thing I do, across the board, that I don’t run by Gary. I think he is remarkable.
I have a lot of respect for him and I think that runs both ways. I have learned a lot from him and Geoff Calkins too. We moved Geoff to a 9-11 show and that helped things a lot with Gary’s travel. It added a new dimension to the radio station and paved the way for us to expand where we have 4 local shows now and we’re the flagship for the Memphis Grizzlies. So, we have that contingency plan but we’re in a good place.
DR: Like the athletic director that keeps the list of five names in his desk in case he unexpectedly loses his football coach.
BC: That’s very true. I’m a Mississippi State fan. They just hired Joe Moorehead, the offensive coordinator at Penn State. I thought it was awesome, because it wasn’t reflexive or “Holy crap, what are we gonna do?” Mullen was leaving. They vetted everyone, hired Moorehead, Moorehead did the press conference and then hit the ground running hiring staff. That is awesome to me. That is impressive management.
DR: You have a lot of Memphis lifers. Is that the number one thing you look for in making a hire? Someone that not only understands the Memphis sports scene, but the town in general?
BC: I think it is really important. I don’t need a lifer per se, but just last year we hired John Martin. He was 24 when we hired him. He had only been doing radio for 2 years, but he was a journalism major at the University of Memphis. He understood Memphis sports. I think that is very important. Now, that’s not everyone. Eric Hasseltine is from California. He does a two hour show for us. He’s the play-by-play guy for the Grizzlies. He adds a different perspective.
The local connection though is so important, and I really got that when we started with just Geoff and Gary. It was the end of Calipari, going into the Pastner era. The Grizzlies hadn’t gone on that 7 year playoff run yet. Those guys would do two straight hours on Tigers basketball and I just would think “this is really good.” It wasn’t what they were talking about. It was how they were talking about it. They had all these stories about the hobos, heroes and street corner clowns, you know? Crazy recruiting stories about runners and agents. Gary would interview Cal while Cal was in the shower.
I would find myself drawn in. People would ask “you’re still a Cardinals fan, right?” and I would have to explain “yeah, but basketball is everything here” and those guys really encapsulated that. Basketball comes first here and football is second and everyone on the air here understands that.
The other thing I like is we have journalists. We have great thinkers on the staff and they are entertaining. That has helped us.
DR: So do the Grizzlies smother everything about sports talk in Memphis?
BC: I think Grizzlies and NBA you can certainly talk about year round because the league has made itself into a year round enterprise. But we’re fortunate that college basketball is also important in Memphis. Right now the Tigers have just gone through another coaching change hiring Tubby Smith. We have so many storylines to work with. They are 1a and 1b frankly.
DR: What is the breakdown between the Memphis Tigers, the Tennessee Volunteers and the Ole Miss Rebels? Not just the way they are covered, but the way they are supported in town?
BC: Memphis is the big cat. When Justin Fuente came in and turned around Tiger football, it changed everything. What we used to have were people that were Tennessee football fans or Ole Miss fans that then LOVED the Tiger basketball program and their attitude was “Oh yeah, I guess they have a football program too,” but then it became “Oh wow! Did you see what Memphis football did?”
DR: The timing of that turn around was weird too, because it wasn’t so long before that Tommy West got fired and was ranting that Memphis as a town would never support football and the administration at the school didn’t understand how to win. It reminds me of Duke when David Cutcliff was hired in the middle of the school going to court to prove they are the worst college football program in the country.
BC: That is a great analogy, but it is so weird here, Demetri, because those fans were so passive. As a city we kind of had a chip on our shoulder, which makes sports talk here fun because it kinda gives things a little more zip. There are passive markets when it comes to sports, right? Like Las Vegas. Very passive sports market. I mean they have the Golden Knights now, and yay. Whatever.
They aren’t breaking down trades or talking about the intricacies of the expansion draft. The conversation here was “How bad was Larry Porter?” and “Tommy West is right” then all of the sudden it was “Wow, we’re in the top 25!” It was a literal 360. But of course, we have a chip on our shoulder, so the topic was also “Oh crap! Fuente is going to leave us,” but then we got another awesome coach and another awesome quarterback. All of that stuff is as fun to talk about as the SEC stuff is.
DR: But not as fun for listeners as talking about basketball.
BC: Well, we have competition here and I tell our guys we have to own every story we cover. To be a success in sports radio, you have to be a whore basically, so Tennessee coaching search, Tubby Smith recruiting, the Grizzlies tanking, we have to own it. So it may be a light day with only two big stories and I will tell my guys “hit those two big things a lot!”.
DR: I’m glad you include the Tennessee coaching search in there. As someone that was in school at Bama when we couldn’t buy a win against Tennessee, that story brought me so much joy.
BC: Oh, it was tremendous radio, and let me be clear. I said Tigers and Grizzlies were 1a and 1b. When you have a coaching search that goes like that, it rockets right to the top of the A list, because it is the state’s team and we’re just the forgotten little city in the corner of the state, but right now we’re the forgotten little city with the great football team. It was like a gift from Heaven. That was a lot of fun. We can do a lot of great radio when we have months like that.
DR: Same with the Ole Miss story and Hugh Freeze I would imagine, given your proximity to the school.
BC: Again, gifts from Heaven. That is a good example of why it helps to have so many local guys. There are all these side stories they know. Hugh Freeze was a coach at a private Christian School here. He was the coach in The Blind Side story, so there was chatter about “What was going on at Briarcrest?” and then the fun of Ole Miss beating Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl.
All of this is compelling stuff. You can hear it in our conversation and this is what I talk about with other folks at Entercom. In Boston you can talk about the Red Sox or what is going on with the Patriots. Those are big conversations about big franchises, but here, if you know Memphis, you’re really digging into the subculture here. It’s the SEC guts and glory.
DR: So given how focused you are on being a Memphis station, how much air time is devoted to the Titans making the playoffs or the Predators making a run to the Stanley Cup? Are those teams perceived as strictly Nashville teams or is there enough bleed over?
BC: I think there’s some bleed over, but it is like C-level. It is the lettuce in the sandwich.
DR: I guess too, there is a major difference between the NFL and the Titans and the NHL and the Predators.
BC: Certainly. On top of that, there is a major difference between Nashville and Memphis. There’s a rivalry there. Maybe a little more on the Memphis side than the Nashville side.
Memphis is the chip on your shoulder, Memphis vs. everybody mentality. Whereas Nashville is the Los Angeles of the South. It’s “We have the NFL and we have the Predators. Look at all these cranes in the air! We’re building another condo!”. Let me be clear. I think Nashville is a great city, but I think many of our listeners perceive it differently than I do.
Gary Parish and I talk about this a lot. Gary is much more of an open thinker because he has to travel all over the place. People here, they support the basketball teams because they live on the streets of Memphis and they play hoops. Our listeners are invested in this story about Penny Hardaway coaching a high school team in East Memphis. That is a big, local, guts of the city story.
When the Predators are in the Stanley Cup Finals, yeah that’s our state. We do want to bring attention to that. The Titans make the playoffs? Of course we will talk about that. We carry their games. The Titans and the Vols, we carry them. They are worthy play-by-play, but Nashville teams will always be the lettuce in the sandwich.
DR: Can Memphis grow as a sports city? Is there room for a second major, professional league to move in?
BC: As a fan, I’d love for my answer to be yes. I’m just going to be honest as a business person. No, there isn’t room. There isn’t an economic base here to support doing so. Having one professional team here and the Tigers is perfect.
We’re lucky, actually Louisville is lucky Rick Pitino didn’t want the Grizzlies, because they still got the pro arena. Geoff Calkins was such a big part of trying to bring the Grizzlies here using the paper and writing columns about what it would mean. It rallied support for FedEx Arena. People really wanted to get that arena built and they did it and I think it is wonderful.
I think sports-wise the city is exactly where it needs to be. We’re fortunate to have been such a big part of the Grizzlies franchise. Now, let me be clear. We do have other sports things in town. We have a great Triple-A baseball team. We may not talk about them because they don’t have the mass appeal, but they’re there and doing just fine. You asked a good question, but my business opinion though is we don’t need too much more.
DR: Speaking of business answers, tell me as a programmer your thoughts on the change from Mike and Mike to Golic and Wingo.
BC: We’re really excited about it. This has nothing to do with Mike Greenberg, because I think he is great and has an amazing new opportunity, but for us I think things are going to be even better. Trey (Wingo) is very likable and really plugged into football, whether it’s his ties to the NFL or his understanding of college football in the South since he went to Baylor. That can only benefit us, so you combine Trey with Golic’s familiarity and I think it’s a tremendous opportunity that can only go up.
DR: Did you find your listeners were interested in the “palace intrigue” towards the end of Mike and Mike?
BC: Not really. I try as a programmer to look at it from a listener’s perspective and I think in our business, we tend to look a little too much at the guts of this. The truth is, you have to look at it from the perspective of my friend Taylor, who lives in Germantown just outside of Memphis. He’s not in the business. Does it even occur to Taylor that there is a feud between the two morning guys at ESPN? Probably not. All he cares about is that Tim Tebow is on at 7:15 to talk about Alabama and Georgia.
I see this with coaching talent. We get too caught up in details of when we recycle things and controlling narratives. Just put the radio show on and run it.