He's All Talk

But that’s creating a lot of action for radio’s Mark Packer, who’s syndicating his sports gabfest across the Carolinas.
by Arthur O. Murray

It’s 2:55 p.m. Mark Packer rises from a cluttered desk in a tiny office crammed with T-shirts, Cornbread Maxwell bobble-head dolls and sports-team coffee mugs, then hustles down a hallway to the studios of WFNZ-AM, a 5,000-watt radio station in Charlotte’s South End. He nods to fellow talk-show hosts Chris McClain and Sandy Penner as they leave, settles into a chair around a five-sided table, slips on a pair of earphones and waits for his cue. “It is Primetime,” he yells into the microphone. “I’m The Packman.”

From the start, he’s loud, assaulting his audience with a rapid-fire delivery that belies his beloved Southern heritage. But people listen. At least, a lot of men ages 25 to 54 do. Among that demographic, his show is usually first or second in its time slot in the Charlotte market and is expanding its reach across the Carolinas. He’s heard on 10 stations from the wetlands of Little Washington to the foothills of Greenville, S.C., and he has two more deals in the works. Packer, 43, will spend the next four hours making lots of money for doing what many guys do for nothing — talking about sports. Well, men’s sports.

Most days he comes armed with a folder of notes he has prepared on five or 10 topics. Not today. He introduces his co-hosts, sportswriters Stan Olson of The Charlotte Observer and John Delong of the Winston-Salem Journal. They banter briefly about UNC Charlotte’s most-recent basketball loss, then about Wake Forest’s win over N.C. State. He congratulates Davidson and Winthrop for winning their conference tournament championships.

Ten minutes into the show, he mentions what he knows will become today’s hot topic — Carolina beating Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium the previous Saturday night. It’s standard sports-talk radio: All three praise Carolina’s freshmen for ruining Duke’s Senior Night and compliment the officials. Packer believes Duke star J.J. Redick is tired; Delong doesn’t. Packer waves his hand to get control back, then leans into the mike: “The last thing I need to do is preach to Mike Krzyzewski. He’s the absolute best. But he’s done a lousy job developing his bench.”

With those words, he goes into the first commercial break. The rest of the show will be filled taking telephone calls, mostly from gloating Carolina fans, many of them regulars. There is Robert from Kings Mountain, who has adopted professional wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin’s habit of ending every sentence by saying “What?” And Mike from Gastonia, a recruiting geek who usually wants to drone on and on about next year’s team and how it will dominate. Even many Tar Heel fans have asked Packer to ban Mike from the air. Then there is the Get-Some Guy, who also calls after hours — sometimes as he’s watching the games and, presumably, drinking heavily — and screams recorded messages at Carolina’s opponents: “Get some.”

But you don’t get to be The Packman just by knowing a lot about sports, yapping up a storm and soliciting goofy callers. You get there by being in the right place at the right time and somehow catching the attention of a harried radio executive. You stay there by acting like one of the guys, griping about your boss, complaining about the sports television network ESPN (Packer calls it H-Y-P-E), spinning yarns about outwitting your wife and taking shots at some of the biggest targets in town, including Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson and his son Mark, the team president, whom Packer believes cost Charlotte the Atlantic Coast Conference football title game by charging too much rent for Bank of America Stadium.

It helps to come in at a time, the late 1990s, when sports-talk radio was exploding across the country. Most large radio markets in the country have local shows. ESPN, The Sporting News and Fox Sports have created national networks to fill holes in the schedules. But Packer is one of the few to see the value of a regional show that would play well across the two Carolinas.

You also need to be able to sell things. Packer isn’t so much the host of a sports talk show as he is a salesman. That’s how he started his career, and that’s what he does best on air. He pitches diamonds, barbecue, car repairs — whatever people will pay him to push — with that just-one-of-the-guys attitude. Mostly he sells himself.

Life is good.” Packer says it on the air nearly every day, and it’s easy to believe he means it. He laughs easily and has a standard response to criticism: “Screw it.” That goes for callers, reviewers, bosses — anyone who wants to change him.

He has been around critics all his life. His father, Billy, played basketball at Wake Forest University but is better known for his caustic comments as an analyst on college-basketball games. While Mark, the oldest of his three children, was growing up in Winston-Salem, Billy Packer was gaining fame, first teaming with Jim Thacker for regional telecasts of Atlantic Coast Conference games and then with Dick Enberg and Al McGuire on NBC. These days, he works for CBS. “I never realized he was famous,” Packer says. “I thought it was kind of goofy.”

Packer grew up an N.C. State fan and took issue when his dad criticized the team. “I always thought he was out to get N.C. State. The next morning at breakfast, I’d be all over him. ‘What are you talking about with Hawkeye Whitney or Kenny Carr? That was a terrible call. What were you watching?’” He quickly found out that other fans also hated his father’s opinions. “You go to Chapel Hill, everybody thought he was out to get Carolina. I kept sitting back thinking, ‘They don’t even realize: He hates N.C. State.’ It was really kind of funny.”

In high school, Packer played golf. He wasn’t a model student, but he wasn’t a slacker. He was torn between attending the University of Georgia and Clemson University. Sports — watching them, not playing them — wound up being the deciding factor. He went to Clemson for a football game and was hooked by its traditions and the passion of its fans. He made the golf team without an athletic scholarship and earned a bachelor’s in economics in 1985. But he didn’t know what he wanted to do. First, he went to New York, where he worked for a year on the production end of broadcasting at TEN Sports, which syndicated television rights to Notre Dame, Boston College, West Virginia and Syracuse football and Notre Dame basketball.

Photo courtesy of Mark Packer

Then it was back to his alma mater as general manager of the Clemson Broadcast Group. In addition to getting sponsors and signing affiliates, he hired announcers and oversaw production, but selling was his strong suit. By the time he left four years later, he had expanded the school’s radio network from 35 stations for football to 94, increasing its presence in North Carolina by offering stations Clemson for free.

It helped that the Tigers were far better than the Tar Heels in the late ’80s. The larger network meant Clemson could increase ad rates, more than making up for lost syndication fees. On the side, he was consulting for the Louisiana State University and University of Maryland radio networks.

In late 1990, he moved to Charlotte to work for Jefferson-Pilot Communications, the broadcasting arm of the Greensboro-based insurer. Hired to work in sports-radio production, he was put to work setting up TV broadcasts for Olympic events such as track and field. He hated the sports and the job, and he feuded with his bosses for about a year before departing.

He tried two more jobs over the next few months, then started a marketing company, Time Out Sports, in 1992. Among its clients was Glen Allen, Va.-based S&K Menswear, for which it created an ad campaign with former baseball star Johnny Bench. In 1995, he got married, and he and his wife, Amie, had their first child two years later. But he was frustrated by the ups and downs of the business. “Then I got a phone call from a guy named Terry Hanson.” Things were about to change.

Mike Kellogg is the former general manager of WFNZ and WSOC-FM. Both were part of Boston-based American Radio Systems when it was acquired in 1997 by what is now CBS Radio. The stations lived in different universes: WSOC was a country-music power, dominating the market, while WFNZ struggled with a sports-talk format and a weak signal.

One of Kellogg’s first moves to rejuvenate WFNZ was to hire Hanson, a Charlotte broadcasting consultant who had been an executive with Atlanta-based Turner Broadcasting. “He needed an influx of personalities and talent throughout the station,” Hanson says. “I thought of Mark as a marketing executive. I knew of his knowledge of sports and his connections and his upbeat personality.”

Packer agreed to meet Kellogg at the station, thinking the discussion would be about a marketing job and figuring he might pick up a client if nothing else. “It lasted about two minutes,” Packer says of the meeting. “He was late and a typical fast-paced Bostonian. He didn’t have time for anybody. He walked in and said, ‘So, who are you?’” Then Kellogg had another question: “Do you know Matt Pinto?” About all Packer knew of Pinto was that he had an afternoon show on the station. “Mark, I want to hear you do one hour on the radio. I’ve got to go.”

His only on-air experience had come about 10 years before. As a lark, he had done commentary on Clemson’s network for a handful of National Collegiate Athletic Association baseball playoff games. This was different. “I walked in — nobody said hello to me — sat down, put headphones on and did an hour with Matt Pinto. It felt like it lasted about a minute. And Matt looked at me and said, ‘The hour’s up.’ I took the headset off — I thought I did a pretty good job — and walked out, and not a soul said a word. And I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. This is garbage.’”

When Hanson called that night, Packer cursed him and told him he wanted nothing to do with WFNZ. But it turns out Kellogg had heard enough to find him “entertaining,” a trait he says he can’t define but is critical. “True entertainers are entertaining first. I thought Mark fit that bill perfectly. Being entertaining doesn’t mean you have to have experience.” Then he pauses. “Plus at that time, WFNZ had nothing to lose.”

Oddly enough, given the way the show would dismiss women’s opinions, it was Amie Packer who changed her husband’s mind three or four days later. “You went on the radio for one hour and said it lasted one minute. It sounds like you found something you like to do.” When Hanson called again, Packer was more receptive. “I looked at my wife, and she said, ‘Do it.’”

The next month, August 1997, he started doing a show with Penner from noon to 3 p.m. weekdays, working for $25,000 a year while keeping Time Out active. A few weeks later, Pinto left to become the play-by-play announcer for the Dallas Mavericks basketball team. After a brief search, Kellogg put Packer in the late-afternoon drive-time slot and doubled his salary. Packer dissolved his company, and the station launched Primetime with The Packman.

The format has changed little. Packer is host, with co-hosts — who sit in for an entire four-hour show — that include Charlotte-area sportswriters, broadcasters and retired athletes such as basketball player Cornbread Maxwell and professional wrestler Ric Flair. Co-hosts change each day, which helps the show stay fresh. Guests appear mostly by phone for one 15-minute segment. Packer also started a daily feature called the Whiner Line. Listeners call and record complaints, harangues, offbeat songs or jokes. The best are played on the air. That’s where the Get-Some Guy started. Other regulars include Bradley from Pickens, S.C., whose diatribes mostly get bleeped out with the exception of telling everyone to “Go to hell,” and Cold Pizza — named after the ESPN2 morning show that Packer calls the worst television program ever. He got the moniker after his incoherent ramblings led Packer to declare him the worst Whiner ever.

Even with Kellogg and other station employees seeding the Whiner Line at first, it took about nine months for the show to find its way. Since then, it has gained strength — both in listeners and, importantly for the station, with advertisers. “He was the first thing on the station that started making money,” says D.J. Stout, operations manager and program director for CBS Radio in Charlotte. He’s still the station’s biggest moneymaker, though Stout declines to reveal either revenue or the percentage of it that comes from Packer’s show.

Packer has cashed in, too. By late 2002, he was making “six figures,” he says, when his contract came up for negotiation. He wanted more money, but he also wanted to syndicate the show to stations in other Carolinas markets and keep the lucrative fees. At the time, the show was heard only in Charlotte and in Greenville, S.C. Packer usually takes most of December off to spend time with his family during the holidays, but when he left this time he said he wasn’t coming back without a new contract.

Mark Packer photo by Kim Hummel

Talks stretched through December and most of January, even after they agreed on money, he says. “They were in essence saying, ‘Listen, if Howard Stern doesn’t have syndication rights, who does Mark Packer think he is?’ It got to the point where I told them point-blank, ‘I will not sign a contract unless I have the syndication rights,’ and they gave in.”

In February 2003, he signed a new contract — five years at $250,000 a year. (Life is good.) He also got syndication rights. Last fall, he signed an extension that gave him a “little more” money and keeps him under contract, with syndication rights, until 2010. He says he is close to cutting deals with stations in Asheville and Columbia, S.C.

He also does two 60-second weekly commentaries on the Charlotte UPN affiliate. And he has been working on a television talk show that could begin this fall and a television and book deal revolving around another favorite project: the Southern Fried Football Tour.

That’s an idea he got in 1998. First, he thought up the name, which he says encompasses what makes college football in the South special — tailgating, bands, big crowds and passion. Soon Packer was persuading Kellogg to buy a recreational vehicle that he could use to promote the station. Packer would fill it with food, beer and fans and take it to college football games across the South.

The catch is that anyone who wants to go with him has to have four tickets for that game — “two for him and a buddy and two for me.” He started a company called Southern Fried Football Inc. to handle the tours. Sundrop soft drink was the title sponsor last year and will be again in 2006. Packer uses the extra tickets to reward sponsors and coworkers. Last year’s tour, he says, generated more than $100,000 in revenue. “I’ve created a way to make money for going to watch college football games.”

Not everyone loves Packer, of course. Women complain about a lack of coverage of women’s sports. Even some guys think he’s crude and find the Whiners homophobic. Women who call into the show are frequently told by other callers to “get back into the kitchen and bake some cookies.” And diehard sports fans sometimes find the humor sophomoric: Packer usually refers to the Charlotte Sting, which plays in the Women’s National Basketball Association, as the Stink.

He doesn’t care — as long as he’s reaching his target audience. “When you look at the demographic of who listens to sports-talk radio, it would shock people. It’s normally a guy incredibly affluent and with a lot of disposable income. That is where we throw the dart.” To the others, he says, “Screw it.” When you can do that, life is good.