Now that someone, in this case the Jaguars, has provided some positive press for our otherwise often-maligned little big town, it might be a good time to highlight another positive that Jacksonville has going for it. Though we are the 47th largest media market in the country, we have one of the best sports talk radio shows in the Lower 48.
I know this because in a former life, I was an over-the-road trucker. I wasn’t one of those fancy-pants drivers who washed the tractor at every other stop, or had my cab clad in stainless steel, or was equipped with satellite radio. This meant that when I was driving through flyover states like Indiana, Iowa and Missouri, I was held hostage to country music and religious programming. (Sometimes I couldn’t tell the difference.) I called it the “tyranny of the cornfield.”
When I finally did reach metropolitan areas like Cincinnati, Minneapolis or Detroit, I’d always sample the local sports talk radio and, as far as I can tell, “The Drill” with Dan Hicken and Jeff Prosser is as good a sports talk radio production as there is. How did this unlikely thing happen? Greg Larson is how it happened.
You’ve probably never heard of him, because Larson is one of those guys lost to history. Part of it is his fault—he was uncompromising; the other part is due to revisionism still being practiced to this day by those who inherited what he created. Larson was, for a time, the sports columnist for The Florida Times-Union, then for a time for Folio Weekly. In the late ’80s, he started a local call-in sports talk radio show. At the time, that type of programming was in its infancy. It was unformed, undefined and not nearly as popular as it would become. The first AM station where he had a show was littered with other types of programming. This was because, back then, stations were often owned by individuals, not corporations. So Larson would make a deal with an owner to buy time, then turn around and sell ads to other local business owners. Eventually, Larson would have a falling out with an owner, as he could be intemperate, then move on to another station. Additionally, due to both federal laws and the laws of physics, the stations would power down at night and the signal was often difficult to find on the dial.
(By the way, for those of you wondering what a dial is, it’s a tuner. Tuning in to a radio station was something you used to have to do manually. It’s a good example of the many things we no longer have to do, like knowing how to spell or maintaining a notion of our geographical locations.)
By the time the Jaguars arrived in 1995, there were two AM stations dedicated entirely to ’round-the-clock sports talk radio. But Larson, refusing to bend to corporate will and constraints being placed on the genre, remained an outlier. He continued to do business as he had before on other, smaller stations. Though his “competitors” were loath to admit it, even though Larson seemed to be putting far less energy into it, he maintained the best show in the market. This was mostly because Larson was authentic. There was nothing put on about him—he showed up, turned on the mike and let it rip. This can be best be summed up by one of the many things he used to say, “Talk radio is about opinions and personalities,” both of which he had in spades.
As you can imagine, listening to a call-in show could get a little confusing for the audience. So Larson developed each person who participated regularly in the show. He would assign them nicknames; if they called in and wanted to talk about something they knew little about, he would steer the conversation in a different direction. If this didn’t work, he would start prying into the callers’ personal lives and try to get them to reveal titillating facts about themselves. If all this failed to be interesting, his patience would wear thin and he’d ultimately start to yell at the caller before finally screaming at the producer to “get him out of here,” like an umpire throwing a batter out on strikes. Larson also developed some rules of thumb to make it easier for listeners to get to know the callers. For instance, he’d insist that where you were from was where you went to high school. He would say that you couldn’t call yourself someone’s friend unless you’d eaten dinner at their house, and so on. He broke every rule of broadcasting. He would sometimes eat during a show, and talk with his mouth full. He sometimes lost his temper and would erupt on the air. Sometimes he’d say, “You can get your feelings hurt on this show.”
Unlike all his brethren in the business, Larson knew how to write and was thus more than capable of turning a phrase. A baseball enthusiast (he played in high school, then in the Army and beyond), he was fond of saying that “getting a base hit was better than sex.” He would often describe bourbon as “brown water.” During conversations about sports, and other things—there were no rules about content on his show—whenever he added some tidbit of knowledge about something a caller brought up, he’d say that he threw that in “at no extra charge.” He coined the term “Gougan,” to describe the average white, middle-aged, suburban-dwelling sports fan. All these bits found their ways into other shows, all his phrases found their ways into the mouths of every one of his competitors, because they all listened to his show. Larson wasn’t as well-known to Northeast Florida sports fans, but everybody in the business listened to his show and mimicked his style.
What did Larson get for teaching others how sports talk radio is done? According to Frank Frangie, voice of the Jaguars, current afternoon drive-time host on the only remaining sports talk station in town, and in nearly every way Larson’s opposite, it was a guy named Jay Solomon who deserves all the credit for blazing the sports talk radio path in Northeast Florida. Solomon was a nice guy and one of the first, and was the radio voice of the Jacksonville University Dolphins back in the day, but he was neither oozing with personality nor a source of novel and controversial opinions. I used to listen to Solomon, too, and I can honestly say I can’t remember a single thing he said.
It was Greg Larson who encouraged Jeff Prosser, the weekend sports guy behind Dan Hicken at Channel 12, to start a talk radio show. Luckily, Prosser took his advice and joined Larson on the air at a station that was dedicated, at least in part, to Latino programming. Prosser was later joined by Hicken, and their show, now called “The Drill” (6-10 a.m. on 92.5FM), eventually grew into as good a live daily radio production as any I’ve heard in all my travels. This fact was due in part to the influence Larson had on the “dynamic duo” of the morning commute. I don’t drive over the road anymore, but it’s nice to know I don’t have to travel to get good local sports talk programming; I would like to formally thank Greg Larson for that.
Mongar and his father, Thomas—a founding member of University of North Florida’s faculty—represent 50 years of public cultural criticism of the city of Jacksonville.
Correction: A previously version of this article incorrectly stated that Dan Hicken and Jeff Prosser worked at Channel 4.