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.