Sports radio wasn’t on Will West’s mind during his mid-20’s. That time period tends to be critical for most in the business, West was more concerned about surviving the day, instead of what the local programming in his hometown of Knoxville had in store. Sure, sports radio had been his dream job while growing up, and he even chased that passion into college. But instead of starting at the bottom of a sports radio station, West was at a different bottom in his life – rock bottom.
For five years, a drug addiction sent West’s life to the streets, where the pondering of ‘how to stop the bleeding in life,’ was frequent. What he would eat and where he would sleep, was the daily dilemma he found himself in throughout the course of each day. Sports radio wasn’t exactly a high priority for the future star in Knoxville, but survival surely was.
Through the grace of God, West got saved and then got clean. For the first time in a long time, there was a positive outlook on how things were going to play out in his life. Drug addiction may have taken a lot from him during that dark and difficult time, however, one thing it didn’t touch, was his beautiful voice.
By the time he was 28, he was back in school chasing his dream. This time, he would double major in communications and communications management. His thought process was simple: If he brought something to the table on the sales side, it would serve him a better opportunity to get his foot in the door at a local station. He was right. Almost two years after giving his dream a second try, West was hired at a local station that quickly took notice of his skills with sound production. From there, he was asked to voice a commercial that was a hit piece for a local election. West’s voice was heard on every news station in Knoxville. Soon after, he was asked to voice more commercials and even did the traffic reports at his station.
After all he had been through, West’s life and career were heading in the right direction. While producing a show on Saturday’s, his career would take a complete turn for the best, when he was asked the simple question of: “Hey, have you ever wanted to do sports radio?”
Sports radio WNML in Knoxville gave West his first opportunity at his childhood dream as a morning show producer. Mostly, they wanted his voice to be featured during the updates of the show on morning drive. Six months into his new gig, he was given a Saturday show that showed off his talents as a host. For the next 18 more months, he would produce the morning show during the week and host his show on Saturday, until finally receiving the news that every young person in the business dreams of, being awarded his own weekday show with Josh Ward.
In span of a few years, West had rebounded and gone from being homeless to the host seat. You can hear now him every week day on WMNL with his show Sports 180.
TM: So is it fair to say your dream of doing sports radio was long forgotten during your drug addiction?
WW: Oh yeah. At the time, I just thought about how I was going to eat for the day. Like, how do I get off the streets? It’s hard to stop the bleeding, that’s something you learn when you’re homeless. It wasn’t about getting back on track or into sports radio, it was just, this was my dream when I was 16 years old. It was cool to see how I got back into God’s game and how everything turned around when I got an opportunity to do this later in life.
TM: Do you think going through all of that in your younger years makes you more appreciative of your role now?
WW: I’m playing with house money, Tyler. Every day I just look at this as a blessing, it’s awesome. What we do for a living, and it’s so funny when I talk to other people in the business that complain about this or that, I’m thinking, I’ve worked day labor pouring concrete. This is a lot easier. I also try to look at it this way: There’s somebody out there who’s going through something that’s listening to this radio show and just wants to get through their day. How can I help them just get through their day the best that I can? So, we always try to have a good time. We don’t dodge tough topics but we never take ourselves too seriously. No matter how bad of a day that I’ve had, I’m never going to mail it in because there may be a person out there that might need just three hours of a reprieve from their lives. If I can give that to them, then I’ve had a good day.
TM: Was the Tennessee coaching search the craziest story you’ve ever covered? And was it a dream or a nightmare for a sports radio host?
WW: I wouldn’t really say it was a dream or a nightmare, it was just chaos. What you’re trying to do day in and day out of the coaching search, was try to make sense of the chaos. A lot of people don’t know this, but the coaching search at Tennessee that landed on Derek Dooley was almost as insane as this one. The only difference, is this one played out publicly. They hired Derek Dooley and then went and did an interview with Kevin Sumlin after they had already hired Dooley, just because they planned on doing it. When it comes to football, coaching searches at Tennessee have always been kind of a train wreck. Some of them were because of the big boosters and how many they have, this one was because of how publicly it all played out. The tough part for us, was that so many people were leaking information to us. The key, was deciding which information was good enough to go on the air with, versus, a particular booster or administrator with the university trying to get their way and plant the athletic director into a corner to make a decision. But it was kind of fun, because each day you’re going on the air and waiting for how nuts it’s was going to get that particular day. Each day, you’re thinking it can’t get any worse than it did yesterday. And then sure enough, it would.
TM: Tennessee football is always going to be the lead topic in Knoxville, so how do you give the Titans their due credit, especially when they’re in the playoffs like last season?
WW: NFL gets great ratings in Knoxville. In the viewership figures that ESPN releases, it seems like they’re always in the Top 15 or 20 of major sporting events. People watch all sports in Knoxville. So, the one thing we did differently than any other show, was that we realized you can walk into any bar on Sunday afternoon and see people eating wings and watching Sunday Ticket. People like the NFL here. So, instead of doing 70-80 percent of Tennessee football and 20 percent of everything else, all packed into one day, what we would do is 50-60 percent Tennessee stuff and 40-50 percent national sports, to give people that live in this market an outlet and venue to talk about what’s going on with Lebron James or what’s going on with the Titans. Even the Predators, when they made the run to the Stanley Cup last year, we had 6,000 people in Knoxville packed in a bar and watching on a big screen television here in downtown. We looked and realized the strong television ratings for the NFL, which means people are watching it. So we’ve given people an outlet to talk about those things locally, where they might not want to call into ESPN or CBS Radio. We’ve given them an outlet to discuss it. Tennessee football still drives the bus, but we don’t need to completely ignore the fact that people locally care about the national sports stories.
TM: The Vols are big, but how much do you make a point to cover Florida, Alabama, Georgia and other SEC schools that Tennessee fans hate?
WW: The SEC always moves the needle in east Tennessee. It’s a large university town, but it’s also very transient with thousands of workers that have allegiances to a number of schools. Locally, in terms of the Tennessee fan base, you can always talk Vols, but especially the teams they hate. People hate Alabama here, they hate Georgia, they hate Florida, and you can always talk about those things. But also, you’ll get alums from those schools that call in and want to talk about their school. It makes it tough from a show prep perspective, because not only do I have to have a working knowledge of Tennessee, I have to have one of Alabama, Tennessee, Florida and every other working in the conference. I also need to pick about seven schools nationally that I have a working knowledge of and what they’re doing during football season. OU is one of those schools, Texas, Notre Dame, USC, Ohio State, Michigan, Florida State and Clemson, I at least need to know how they run, because people do care about those schools, too. Especially if they dislike them, they seem to really care about them.
TM: What would you classify Knoxville as? Mid-market?
WW: Yeah, mid-market. Knoxville proper doesn’t have a massive population base, but if you look at who we hit with our listener base, we’re both AM and FM, and there’s over 700,000 people. So, we need to make sure we’re servicing not just the areas around Knoxville proper, even though the majority of our advertisers are from that area. So, if we talk high school football, we need to talk about all the surrounding counties.
TM: Why do you think doing sports radio in a mid-market could be more enjoyable than a large market?
WW: Relationships. That’s the one thing I still like. There’s still a relationship game that’s harder in a large market, but one part that’s fun, is that I can just roll into any high school game, because I have the time. I would love to cover a major sports team, but it’s cool to be able to roll in on a Friday night and talk to coaches, players and fans about a small town team that’s doing well and give a little bit of coverage to them. That’s the fun part, is that relationship, because at the end of the day, what we do on air is about relationships you have with the listener. That’s what keeps them coming back.
TM: There seemed to a mob mentality last year with Tennessee fans on why it took Butch Jones so long to get fired. In that situation, was it hard not to just join on that thought and pile on like everyone else?
WW: You never want to get caught up in the emotion of things. For me, I thought after the Georgia game last year Butch Jones should have been fired. When you know someone is not going to be the guy, to me in business, you always pull the trigger, because it’s only going to create a toxic environment. Everyone around him knew he wasn’t going to make it after that point, why you keep him around I don’t know. It got worse and worse and kept getting that way. By the time Tennessee played South Carolina and lost, it was almost comical when we came back on Monday because people would call in and ask why Butch was still there. I would just have to say, I got to be honest with you, I don’t know. I’m shocked they keep rolling this guy out here, too. You don’t want to be what Jay Mariotti used to be in Chicago, just chucking grenades at everybody and calling for jobs multiple times in a five-day period. What you want to do is to be able to have reason. For me, the key was to never be disrespectful, always empathetic, but I’m also not going to lie for anyone or sugarcoat it. That’s how I decided to handle it.
TM: Ratings wise, was it better when Tennessee was showing improvement with 8-9 wins a year, or when the Vols were tanking and everyone wanted the head coach fired?
WW: It’s very similar. The key is to avoid mediocrity. If it’s going to be bad, let it be really bad. Just go ahead and let this thing tank. With ratings, It doesn’t matter whether people are mad or people are happy, but the one thing you don’t want them to be is apathetic. The moment that happens, you will begin to lose some portion of your audience. If Tennessee is consistently cycling through 6,7,8 wins, that’s when I get concerned that the ratings might take a hit.