If there is one station that has had a greater influence on me than any other, it’s WJOX in Birmingham, AL. When I was in college it was known as 690 the Sports Monster and headlined by Herb Wenches and Kevin Scarbinsky in afternoons. One day when I was driving home from class I heard them talking about a third string quarterback at Alabama who had failed a summer class and would be ineligible for the fall. They then took calls from people that were worried that it would throw off the plans for whichever of the four football coaches Bama had while I was in school there.
That is not what WJOX is today. Now it’s Jox 94.5 and staffed by people that get sports as pop culture. Make no mistake, these guys are still the authorities for all things SEC, but the conversation is just more fun and it is everywhere thanks to the station’s digital strategy.
Jon Lunceford deserves some credit for that. The guy is the perfect embodiment of the idea that the best way to get a paying job in radio is to just keep showing up until someone gives you money. Jon hosts Jox Primetime alongside Tim Melton on Jox 94.5. It is one of the few locally produced night shows you’ll find on a sports station outside of a top ten market.
He started with the station as an intern in 2008, when his college football career was cut short by injury. That one semester official internship unofficially extended for two more. Eventually he went to work for Jox’s now defunct competition 97.3 the Zone and then returned to Jox and Cumulus Broadcasting’s digital marketing department.
In the meantime he started a digital advertising company and a charitable foundation that helps run sports and fine arts programs at Birmingham schools, and he got paid to play video games. He may not be radio’s answer to Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World, but the path to where he is now was unconventional, so he approaches the medium in an unconventional way, and I thought his story was worth telling.
DR: Let’s start with Jox Primetime as a brand, because it existed before you and your partner [Tim Melton] took over. It’s rare enough that a station will have a locally produced night show, but then to hand it over to two young guys without a ton of on air experience. That had to be a shock for you. Tell me about your reaction when [Jox PD] Ryan Haney says “let’s do this!”.
JL: Well, obviously I was excited and wanted to say yes when they offered me the show, but the job I was in at the time was really time intensive. So, when they asked “do you want to add another two hours on top of that?” I really had to stop and think if I could. Because I want to do it, but only if I can really dedicate myself to it and do a good job with the show.
I really liked the guys that were here before us, Matt & Scott. I did a lot of work with them and knew what they did well, and I hold Jox 94.5 in such high regard. I didn’t want to pass a show on to the listener that was clearly my third or fourth job.
So I thought about it for a couple of days, but eventually realized that I thought we could build on what those guys had done before us. Plus, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I was going to say yes. I just needed to make a plan first.
DR: That idea of everyone having more than one job leads perfectly into my next question. Literally a full day’s worth of sports news and debate goes by before you even crack a mic, so when do you finally sit down and start prepping that night’s show?
JL: I listen to Jox all day long, and then when I come in, I am sitting with two monitors up. One of them is on Tweetdeck. I have literally hundreds of accounts I am looking at trying to follow everything going on, mostly college football focused, but I am looking at sports from high school up through the pros. This goes on all day. I try to start thinking about things from the moment I wake up.
I get to the office around 10 am. I do my digital work until about 4:30 and then switch into show mode at that point. That gives me an hour to really focus on what I have. Tim is a news anchor on our political talk station. He’ll come in around 2:30 and we chat for about a half hour before he goes on air at 3.
Like you said, we come on after most of the discussion has been had. So if something big happened the night before, it’s already been talked about. We literally have three four hour shows on our station that have talked about it before us, but if it’s a big story, you can’t just leave it alone. For example, Alabama won last night in basketball. People will be talking about it all day, so we can’t ignore that. It’s great leading into sports or being live while major sports are on, but it creates a fine line for sure.
DR: I want to talk more about the schedule in a second, because with Jox’s three frequencies, I am sure that creates some interesting work schedules for you, but you touched on Bama basketball. It seems like we know what Auburn is going to do every night. They’re really good. But with Alabama, they were winning games they weren’t supposed to and losing the games they weren’t supposed to. Have you figured out which result keeps people in Birmingham talking?
JL: Yeah, they lose to bad teams during the week and then come out and beat ranked teams on the weekend, so it’s not like they’re bad, but they certainly aren’t good either. It is a weird area right now. Depending on what bracketologist you consult they’re an 8 seed one week and a 10 seed the next. That’s the part that actually makes for great discussion for us.
You have Bama fans that are just happy to get the wins and then really disappointed when they lose. There’s another set that says the fact that they are in the tournament discussion is a step in the right direction. Then you have Auburn, who is across the state, killing it right now. That drives Alabama fans crazy, because Auburn was part of the FBI investigation. Two players couldn’t start the year. Bama had this great recruiting class and Auburn is in the position Bama fans thought they would be in.
DR: So for people that don’t know, Jox is on 94.5 FM. The brand also encompasses 100.5 FM and 690 AM. So you have not only the Alabama games, but also the Auburn games. How often is Jox Primetime getting pre-empted?
JL: We actually have Alabama, Auburn and UAB, but it’s all spread out. Alabama is exclusive to 94.5. Auburn is actually on our talk station, 99.5. It’s another 100,000 watt signal. That format launched about a year ago and Auburn was a part of it. Then we put UAB on what we call Jox 2, 100.5.
So with Alabama basketball, when they play during the week, we’re knocked off for the game plus an hour of pregame. Then there’s the coach’s show on Thursdays. It’s an hour and a half during football season and just an hour during basketball season. So, Thursday’s during football season, we’re doing a thirty minute show.
It can be frustrating, but I hope by next school year, when the show has built some real momentum, maybe Alabama can move to 690. That’s where the whole Jox thing started.
DR: Right, the Sports Monster!
JL: Yup. If we could just move the coach’s shows there and create more consistency in football season, that would be great!
DR: You’re super tied into pop culture and you personally have such a large digital role. As someone that grew up listening to the Sports Monster, the idea that someone like that would ever have a daily presence on Jox seems crazy to me. Tell me about your strategy there. When it comes to social media is it “we put our focus on where the most people are” or “if even one listener is there, we need to be there?”?
JL: What I want to do with everything is just create quality content. So in the digital realm, that means really understanding the ins and outs of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. It means I may rebuild the website to look a certain way so that it can highlight a particular kind of content.
The idea is let’s keep the listeners with us all day. So, maybe you only like [Jox’s morning show] the Roundtable. Maybe you don’t like Finebaum. Well, we don’t want you to think there’s nothing Jox can do for you in the afternoon. We want you to know that you can come watch videos or listen to highlights of The Roundtable on our digital platforms even when those guys aren’t live.
We’re really focused on our podcasts. Like you said, it’s something Jox never would have done back in the day. We’ve got a wrestling podcast. I’m part of a show called The Jox Entertainment Crew, where we go see movies and we talk about movies. For instance, we’re going to see Black Panther tomorrow.
DR: It’s pretty dope.
JL: Yeah, I’ve heard. This is why we want to be plugged into pop culture like we are. Tim and I went to go see Star Wars Episode VII when it came out in 2015. We were there opening night, four hours early to save our seats. Remember, there were no reserved seats at that time.
So we’re in the theater and for four hours we’re looking around and seeing guys look at the ESPN app or pull up their fantasy lineups. The stereotype is the guy that is sitting in that theater opening night, four hours early are the super nerds that have never touched a football in their life, and that is just not true anymore. I’m a guy that goes to see these things on opening night, but I also played college football.
Ryan tells us all the time that Jox is a lifestyle station. Yes, we’re focused on sports, but that’s because sports is a big part of our lifestyle. So I want to create good content for every part of your lifestyle.
DR: How often does the opportunity to take some of those podcasts or that digital content and put it on air come up?
JL: So something like Jox Preps, which is a high school sports focused show I do, was really big for us last week with National Signing Day. It gets a spotlight when championship season rolls around and the state championship games are happening for football or the basketball state playoffs.
Jox may have always had a loose connection with college sports where maybe one of our hosts would be pulled in to do play-by-play, but we never had that identifiable brand. Now hosts can say “we’re going to bring in Jon Lunceford from Jox Preps to talk about National Signing Day and don’t forget the podcast is on the website”.
We do that all the time now too with the Jox Entertainment Crew where one of the hosts of that show is also a producer on The Roundtable, so they put him on or bring me in to talk about the new movies, and it turns into them making fun of us, but they plug the podcast and it makes for a good segment. When Wrestlemania comes around, I am sure we will do the same thing with the wrestling podcast. It’s not something you’d dedicate a ton of on air time do, but there are enough of our listeners that care.
DR: Is there an offseason when it comes to college football? Is there ever a time of year SEC football’s biggest storyline won’t be in that 1A block for you guys?
JL: Well, we’re done with signing day, so I think we’re kinda in the offseason here now and that will probably stretch to the NFL Draft.
DR: You live there, so you would know better than me, but this is the time of year where we gossip about transfers, so in that way it never really seems like it is out of Birmingham’s purview.
JL: Well, right. It’s never gone, but I will say, this year more than other years, basketball has really jumped up into that top spot. I mean, Alabama and Auburn, it’s not like one team happened. They both happen to be pretty good. [Auburn coach] Bruce Pearl and [Alabama coach] Avery Johnson are both big names and they give great sound bites.
We’re still going to talk about transfers and assistants moving around, but like tonight we have the Olympics on. Black Panther opens tomorrow. Both Bama and Auburn play Kentucky this week. It’s nice to say “maybe college football can move to the second hour tonight.”
DR: What is Birmingham’s appetite for those national stories? You guys always do big numbers for the NBA Finals. There are fans of more than just the SEC there obviously.
JL: No doubt. Look, Birmingham is a sports town. Even without the major franchises, you put a big event on, and there are a lot of people here glued to their TVs for it. The appetite for the NBA keeps growing here. We had a crazy offseason and trade deadline, and moves always interest people, but I have noticed less comments about it being a two team league from our listeners. People take note of LeBron news when we talk about it.
We have a lot of people here invested in the Celtics because Brad Stevens recruited a couple of Birmingham kids for those two Butler teams that made the Final Four. The Nashville Predators being so good and making the Stanley Cup Finals last year got a lot of people interested in the NHL here for a minute.
Then you’ve got Daytona starting up, and there are a lot of racing fans here. Talladega races are major cultural events in Alabama. So we try to be broad in understanding what is going on and understanding what our listeners want to talk about.
DR: When it comes to the SEC, how much does news about teams not named Alabama and Auburn make it on to Jox Primetime?
JL: A lot of people are interested in Georgia now, since they just played for the championship and then killed it on signing day. Plus, a former Bama coach is their coach. People are interested in Tennessee with another Bama assistant coaching there now. People are interested in if Dan Mullen can save Florida.
I think with football, people watch and follow teams because so much can tie back to Tuscaloosa. With basketball, it all started last year with South Carolina. That was a really fun story with them making it to the Final Four. And now all of a sudden Alabama is good, and Auburn is good, and Kentucky, this team everyone has known as unbeatable for so long is behind both of them in the SEC standings. People want to know how that happened.
Any SEC game Birmingham will probably be in the top 3 in the ratings. Well, any major game or event anyway. People love Alabama and Auburn and I think they are taking a bigger interest now in what the competition looks like in football, basketball and even baseball and softball.
DR: Because there are these loyalties that span generations for Alabama and Auburn, and a wider interest in the conference as a whole now, how much can you talk about UAB? Last year they brought their football program back. It was this national darling of a story, but locally, if you’re looking at a generic programming clock, how much do you feel like you can talk about UAB before you’ve lost the average listener’s attention?
JL: This year and next year are going to be different from each other and different from any previous year. There was probably more UAB talk on our station than before with them bringing the program back and becoming pretty good.
My co-host is a UAB grad. I went to Birmingham Southern, which is a small school here where I played football. I’m not saying we try to force small school stuff on to the air. We are just conscious of the fact that these other schools are out there and deserve to be talked about.
I look at it like this. Alabama and Auburn are always going to be tops, but what else is there in Birmingham that listeners can get invested in? UAB football is something the city was invested in. We know that a lot of that is hype that is going to go away next year. When you only have a two hour or some nights one hour show, you have to go in knowing UAB comes third.
We want to know what is going on with UAB and the other FBS teams in Alabama (Troy and South Alabama), but in terms of listener interest, it is Alabama first, Auburn second, and UAB third. And the other schools even further behind that.