Journalism History conducted a national student podcast competition during the fall of 2020.
In this honorable mention episode, Louisiana State University student Murry Goldberg spoke to four local radio hosts and personalities about the development of sports talk radio in Memphis and the way that it has become intertwined into the culture of the city.
I know how important it is in the city to have a black voice and to have people that look like them represent the city that they live in.
Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
I’m Teri Finneman and I research media coverage of women in politics.
And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports media.
And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. This episode is sponsored by ship historian Tim Yoder. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast.
This week, the Journalism History podcast is featuring the winners of our national student podcast competition. Throughout the week, you’ll be hearing form students across the nation as they share their stories of journalism history.
I’m Murry Goldberg with Louisiana State University. Today, we’ll be having a discussion about Memphis sports radio: its past, present, and future. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with four amazing individuals about their experiences in Memphis sports radio. I’ll go ahead and introduce them now.
Geoff Calkins is an award-winning sports columnist of the Daily Memphian and formerly of the Commercial Appeal. He is currently the host of the Geoff Calkins show on 92.9 FM ESPN from 9 to 11. He was born in Buffalo, New York, and is one of the only non-native Memphian sports radio hosts currently on air. He attended Harvard and Harvard Law School. Geoff has a long-time radio presence in Memphis spanning over 20 years. Anthony Sain, a native Memphian, is currently the co-host of Mornings with Peter and Anthony on Sports-56 WHBQ. He has a background in journalism and also serves as a contributor to sportsillustrated.com.
He is one of only five people of color in the radio/podcast host/co-host positions in the city. He is known for his self-admitted, no nonsense, cut the bullshit, takes on sports. Devin Walker, at age 26, is one of the youngest members of the group. He is the co-host of the Chris Vernon Show on Grind City Media. He also serves as a social media coordinator for the Memphis Grizzlies. He is a native Memphian and attended the University of Memphis for his undergraduate degree. He originally got his start interning for the Chris Vernon Show while it was still on the radio on 92.9 FM.
Last, and certainly not least, is Jon Roser. Jon Roser is the long-time producer of the Chris Vernon show on Grind City Media, and formerly on 92.9 FM ESPN. He also serves as the play by play commentator for the Memphis Grizzlies’ G-League affiliate team, the Memphis Hustle.
We’ll start out our story covering the major organizations in play in Memphis sports radio.
WHBQ 560 AM, currently branded as Sports 56 WHBQ, had their first broadcast on March 25, 1925.
They were one of the earliest stations in Memphis. In 1954, WHBQ was acquired by RKO general, which turned it into a leading top 40 station. They used WHBQ as a farm team for RKO’s larger stations. Young and aspiring DJs with hopes of moving up to larger markets would work there. By the early 80s, the top-40 station could no longer compete with the increasing popularity of other FM-branded contemporary music stations in town. They tried playing oldies in the early 80s, but then switched to full-service talk radio format. In 1988, RKO sold WHBQ to Flynn Broadcasting, a local Memphis media company. Flynn then tried the oldies again then country music and even heavy metal late at night. In 1992, WHBQ switched all sports. They were affiliated for a time with CBS Sports radio and then NBC Sports radio.
In 2018, they switched to a Fox Sports radio affiliation. They began simulcasting to FM 98.5 in October 2020. They are the area home for Ole Miss football and men’s basketball as well as the AAA Minor League team, the Memphis Redbirds. They feature four daily scheduled talk shows Mornings with Peter and Anthony, Middays with Greg and Eli, Happy Hour with Johnny Radio, and Sports Time on Sports 56 with Wolo and Stats.
92.9 FM ESPN, formally known as WMFS FM, was originally launched in 1995 by Bells Broadcasting as Solid Rock 92.9 MFS. In 2001, they were acquired by Infinity Broadcasting and were branded as 93-X, an alternative music station. In 2006, they were purchased by Intercom Communications, where it switched to 92.9 ESPN. They’re the flagship station for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. Recently they began simulcasting to radio.com as well as using that as a space to host their previously recorded shows.
They also feature four daily schedule talk shows. The Geoff Calkins Show, The Jason and John Show, Giannotto and Jeffrey, and The Gary Parrish Show. By the ratings and the numbers, 92.9 is the premier sports radio station in Memphis.
The newcomer to the group, Grind City Media, is the in-house media and news company of the Memphis Grizzlies. They feature sports talk shows such as The Chris Vernon Show, Rise and Grind, Just Grizzlies, The Odds Couple, and Grind City Wrestling. They have two shows, Rise and Grind and the Chris Vernon Show, which are presented in both live-production, live-stream audio and video format. The catalyst for the creation of Grind City Media was when Chris Vernon and Entercomm Media had contractual differences over Chris’s show, which had existed on 92.9 FM ESPN for close to 10 years. Chris decided to switch his show to a podcast format. And that’s when he was picked up by Grind City Media and the Memphis Grizzlies. And as they say, the rest is history.
Any story that’s about Memphis sports radio must at some point mentioned one name, George Lapides. George is considered by many to be the father of Memphis sports radio. He got his start on WHER in the early 1970s, George also held careers in journalism, higher education as the athletic director of Rhodes College, and as the GM of the Memphis Chicks, a Kansas City Royals affiliated minor league team. At his retirement from radio on May 31, 2016, just a month before he passed away from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. He capped off a 45-year long career in radio and the distinction of being the longest running daily radio show in the country. Here’s an excerpt from my conversation with Geoff Calkins about George.
You know, George, and like a lot of radio people, they start out in newspapers, particularly once upon a time. And so George was a newspaper guy at the Press-Scimitar until it folded and, and along the way, he started doing sports talk radio sort of just as a way of driving readership to the, to the newspaper because they were in a battle, the Press-Scimitar and the Commercial Appeal. But when I got here, yeah, it was the, in the same way that you would pick up the newspaper to read what the columnist had to say, you would turn on Sports 56 to hear what George had to say. And George, I will say this. He had a newspaperman’s personality. So he — like on the TV. I was stunned when I moved here because at the Commercial Appeal, we would assign people to watch the news, the TV news station that broadcast every evening that George was on.
Why? Because there was a good chance, there was some chance he might break news. I came from Florida, the idea of assigning someone to watch local TV cause they might break news, they didn’t break news. News was all broken by the newspapers. We had a newspaper war down there, so, but I credit George, like he brought that he always wanted to break news and that was true on TV, and that was true on radio. He had an ego. There’s no question. It was almost, he was almost, it was easy to sort of parody. There are a lot of George Lapides parodies, but that’s in many ways a compliment, he was sort of a, he was a little bit of a, the Howard Cosell of Memphis in the sense that he was the sort of smaller Jewish guy who talked a lot. And, and, but everyone listened to him and everyone, you know, he was sort of, I guess by that, I mean, he was an unlikely sports talk show host
Of all the radio personalities I interviewed, almost all of them attributed some of their success on the foundations that George Lapidus created for Memphis sports radio. Most sports radio hosts in Memphis get their jobs from traditional routes, such as becoming a journalist first. Here’s Geoff on how he got started in radio with George, his transition to 92.9 FM, and some insight into sports radio culture and Memphis.
It’s obvious like in a place like Memphis, you move here and you have opinions and immediately you get put on the radio like as a guest, right? I mean, I’m like Danielle Lerner’s hired at the Daily Memphian to cover the Memphis Tigers, and all of a sudden she pops up on the radio. Drew Hill was covered and obviously he’s on the radio. So that’s an easy, you get a, you get to be a guest very quickly. Um, but not a paid guest necessarily, like most local radio stations don’t pay anything to their guests. So then George asked me to be his sidekick and at one point, and that was probably in the early 2000s. And I don’t know how long I did that. A couple of years. And you’re not paid very well. I was paid $26,000 a year or something like to be his sidekick.
And, and it was very clearly George’s show. So in that way, it was easy. I just had to show up and sort of make fun of George every once in a while and, you know, be the dry counterpart. And, but then what happened was is that then I was offered a show, Gary Parrish, and I were offered a show on 730, which was this outfit that decided that they wanted to from Utah, they wanted to make a big splash and say they offered me and Gary Parrish a lot of money to do a show. And they had lots of big promises. And so I kind of had a split with George at the time cause he was mad at me that I left. And, in the end, we reconciled and we’re good friends when he died. But, but so Gary and I went over there and within three months they realized they didn’t have enough money or advertising to be able to pay us, but we had good contracts.
So we just — we just were then paid not to work for the year cause they basically, you know, and so then what happened was somewhere in there, 92.9, the current station, Dan Barron, who was the head of the station, was going to turn it from being a rock station. And he came to me and Gary at the time, it was the Geoff and Gary Show. And, and he wanted to do, he wanted to move us over to his station. And we — but he wanted a drive time show and I couldn’t do drive time ‘cause I was a divorced dad with three boys. And in the afternoon, you’re schlepping your kids everywhere if you’re a divorced dad. And so we came up with the idea of calling it The Gary Parrish Show with Geoff Calkins, and I would just phone in at 5 o’clock every day.
That way my name would still be on it to help draw people in. But Gary would be the main, Gary wasn’t as big then as he is now, you know. Back then, I was better known than Gary, locally. You know, now Gary’s a big deal. So, but anyway, so that’s what we did. I would just put on the phone, which is sort of a weird arrangement at 5 o’clock every day, and Gary made a great success of it. Like he’s really good at sports talk radio. He’s smart. He’s funny. He has ideas, but he’s sort of, you know, Mississippi kid. So he’s easy to relate to, and then what happened is that station just built from there. You know, they added Chris Vernon, they added Eric Hasseltine and then they, you know, somewhere in there they added me and, and then Vernon left and you know the rest like John and Jason & John came on and whatever else.
But at the time, Dan was a little skeptical that sports talk in Memphis would work as a 24-hour enterprise because he’s an Alabama fan. And he’s like in Alabama, in Birmingham, you can talk about Alabama 365 days a year. In Green Bay or Milwaukee, you can talk about the Pack. Like he was like, what is in Memphis? We’re so splintered. Is there — will be able to — will it be sustainable? And what’s happened is that station has tremendous ratings, really. And, and with all due respect, like dwarfs 560. 560 doesn’t appear on the ratings basically. And, but most of us do the same thing, which is that, which is what Gary did once and what I do and whatever else, which is, yeah, we talk about sports, but we talk probably 60% sports and 40% other stuff. And like, I’m an intent listener in Buffalo ‘cause I’m still listening to the Bills and Sabers.
So I listened to WGR and they’re much more heavily sports. And if they ever stray from sports, I’m like, I want to be listening to the Bills. Why are you talking about ranking, you know, doughnut flavors or something, but here, that mix has seemed to work. I mean, for the last, you know, since COVID, about half, my talk has been sort of COVID talk really. So it’s an interesting sports talk town, but I think it’s been fun, what we’ve sort of created over there.
Although most of the personalities on air today have come from the quote unquote “traditional” system of becoming a locally known contributor to sports journalism first, before making the jump to radio, there is one name that my guests continued to bring up who forged his own path into radio.
Anthony Sain, the current host of Mornings with Peter and Anthony on Sports 56 WHBQ. I spoke with Anthony about his journey into sports radio and becoming a household name in the Memphis sports radio sphere. Here’s a little from him
As far as sports are concerned when I was in school, you know, you would — I was the guy that would kind of always kind of have something to say about the school sports. Like I was kind of a commentator even back then. I always had an opinion of everything that was going on in sports and people would — I found that people will listen to me. I don’t know really why they listened to me, but, you know, that was just something I was always kinda in tune with. And as far as, as an adult’s concerned, good friend of mine, Brooks Hansen, who’s over at Memphis 24/7, which is — used to be Memphis Roar back at the time, the University of Memphis had just hired Josh Pastner. He had got this, this great team together, that Joe Jackson class, and they were getting ready to start.
And the Bluff City Classic, it came back to Memphis, and I was a big fan of Memphis Roar. I was on there every day, every day for something. So I reached out to Brooks on Facebook and was like, Hey, I plan on going to the game, if you need me for anything, you know, let me know. Now what that meant, I don’t know. I was just, I don’t know what that meant. He was like, well, are you on Twitter? I was like, yeah, I’m on Twitter. He said, well, you said, well here, here’s the login to the Twitter account for Memphis Roar, go to the, go to the event and kind of tweet what you see. So I’m like, hell man, like, what are you, what do you mean? This is, you’re talking about 10 years ago.
You know what I mean? It’s so live-tweeting was, is something you see all the time now, but I didn’t know what he meant. And he gave me the, you know, the sticks to the, to the video game controller, so to speak. So, I was there and I was doing that and I was like, man, I write a little bit. I said, you know, I’ve been a creative writer. My goal, when I came out of college, I wanted to be a comic book writer. I wanted to write stories for comic books and draw comic books and that’s what I wanted to do. And I thought that was going to happen. But, so I told Brooks, I’m a pretty creative dude, so I’ve never done sports writing, but I’m sure I could do it. You know, he was like, yeah, man, knock, knock it out, whatever.
So, I would do things for Brooks every now and again. And that turns into be kind of writing for Memphis Roar every now and again, whatever. And, and then that turned into me wanting to do things with the Grizzlies and that turned into me kind of starting my own blog at one time they never really jumped off. And then I started writing for Three Shades of Blue, the OGs in the blogsphere, so to speak. And then that turned into me starting my own blog and then no, that turned into me writing for the Tri-State Defender. I think something like that, man, I don’t know it’s too much going on. So I started writing for the Tri-State Defender, and then that turned into me starting my own blog, as well as writing for the Tri-State Defender.
BlueWorldOrder was the website I had, and then that turned into, that turned into The Memphis Flyer, which was my first paid gig that I had as far as writing is concerned. I felt like I had made it at that point, you know? So, um, that turned into the Sports Illustrated Maven thing. Uh, and then, going back a little bit, me and my good friend Cam Rose, we started a — we did paid radio where we were paying for airtime on AM 730, which is basically [located in] a train department [depot] in Nutbush [a neighborhood in Memphis] where they do AM radio, paying for time, you know, doing that, just to get my chops up. We were doing a show that came on, it was at 4 in the morning, 5 in the morning, 5 to 7, something like that.
We were doing super early radio me and Cam, but it was super early AM radio, just getting our chops up, man, you know, and then, and it really, the only reason why we were doing it was because we want a quality podcast. We were getting up doing this early. So like, man, we’ll get up before y’all get here and give us some airtime and let us get a quality podcast because this is before you could literally just stick freaking ibuds, some like AirPods in your phone and do a podcast. No, it was way before that time. So he was like, man, we just want to do it. That seems like so long ago, technology-wise, there’s only like five or six years ago. So, we were doing radio just to get a quality podcast. And we started finding out that people actually were tuning in early in the morning to listen to us.
I had a guy friend of mine. He told me, he said, Hey man, I used to get up at 5 and listen to y’all and it just, it just kind of hit me, man. Like I was, I was tearful almost to think about it, you know what I mean? And so that led into, I said, Hey, let’s screw this whole radio thing. Let’s figure out how to just make a good podcast. And when we started the outside of this podcast, a very successful podcast in the city of Memphis, you know, huge cult following and we had Owl Hours was our thing. We would, we would put out a late-night podcast, you know, 10, 11 o’clock at night on a Sunday. That was when we always drop the podcasts. And we always just come out of nowhere and we would put, we would put an owl emoji up and people knew it was coming.
Just a great run that me and Cam had, and then that turned into guest hosting for The Jason and John Show. I’m sorry, being a guest on The Jason and John Show, which was a great opportunity for me, put me in front of a lot of people. Just having fun with those guys. Jason Smith is a huge mentor of mine. Looking at me like a big brother. Some I look at for spiritual advice, look at him, I look at him as a role model as a father. He’s a brother, a friend to me like seriously, like Jason Smith’s my guy, and then that turned into guest hosting for 92.9, this past summer. And it was a tremendous opportunity, I guess, hosted for every show on that station except for Giannotto and Geoffrey. I guest hosted for Calkins, guest hosted for Gary Parrish.
Jason and John Show, just had a great time, man, learning from the guys over there. Brad Carson is just a genius in the radio business, honestly. I mean, he comes off as a guy that’s kind of a “golly gee” goofy guy on the radio, but behind the scenes, he’s got a weapon, a wealth of information and he really, you know, gave me a lot of wisdom and just kind of tells it how it is. After that, that opportunity came up, good friend of mine, CJ Hurt at Sports 56, he left Sports 56 mornings and took a job working for the Memphis Grizzlies with Grind City Media and an opportunity came up for me and I prayed about it and people at Sports 56 reached out to me and it gave me an opportunity to have my own show and, and I became only the fifth black radio host in the city of Memphis.
Anthony brings up a good point here. With the population in Memphis that is over 60% African-American, there has been a distinct lack of minority representation in Memphis sports radio. I spoke with Devin Walker of Grind City Media, who has the distinction of becoming the first African-American on-air voice on 92.9 ESPN when he began working for The Chris Vernon Show, about the importance of being a black voice in Memphis sports radio.
It means almost like everything, man. ‘Cause I think when you look back, that’s something when I got into it, when I didn’t really know much about it, there’s one thing I kind of, I kind of noticed is, as like a 19, 20, 21 year old, 22 year old, as you notice in sports radio, that a lot of people don’t look like you. And it blows my mind in a, in a city like Memphis, where it’s predominantly black, where you didn’t… Dude, before me at 92.9, there had been, there hadn’t been a black person that worked there. I was the first black person to ever to work at 92.9. I’m like the Jackie Robinson of 92.9. So like before me, they had never had it, they didn’t have a black person that worked there. So I think for me it was huge because I know how important it is in the city to have a black voice and to have people that look like them represent the city that they live in.
You know, cause like I said, my dad, my dad didn’t really get into sports radio until I got into it. I started working in it and for my dad to be able to go to like my church, which is in a predominantly black community, or my barbershop where it’s predominantly black in North Memphis and to tell them that my son works in sports radio — that, that kind of like that, that was super dope for me. ‘Cause it’s like, I don’t think, I don’t think people of my culture understand like in the city, how the less number of us that are in sports radio, I guess is a way to put it. But I think personally for me it means so much because it’s like, man, I’m doing something that I love. I’m representing my culture. I’m representing my people and I’m being able to do it on a platform where not many people that look like me get to do it
As time has gone on, more and more African-American voices have joined Memphis sports radio, but there is still progress to be made in producing a radio product that accurately reflects the cultural diversity in Memphis.
Thanks for tuning in, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @jhistoryjournal. If you like our podcast, leave us a rating and a review wherever you listen to podcasts. Until next time, I’m your host Teri Finneman signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. “Good night and good luck.