Tony Basilio has been on the air in Knoxville and in the ears of Vol fans across the country for 25 years. Originally from Kennett Square, PA, Basilio graduated from UT with a degree in Broadcasting and has been a Knoxville resident since 1987. Just before Vol football practice started up in early August, Tony took a little time to talk with Cityview editor Keith Norris about his history on the radio, the Vols’ new coach, and prospects for the upcoming season.
K: How long have you been in the business.
T: I started doing the talk show in 1993 with WRJZ. Then I was just married and had a job making $800 a month gross. So I delivered pizzas, and the only time I could get a show that worked with my schedule was 11 o’clock at night. I did a sports talk show at 11 o’clock at night for about ¾ of a year. Then I went to work for Jim Staley who owned a radio station called WQBV in summer of ’94. So in 2019 I’ll be celebrating my 25th year of full time, but technically I’m in my 25th year right now. But who wants to be technical. This is such a great field.
T: I wake up in the morning and say “what do common fans want to talk about?” Because when I go to games I don’t sit in the press box—I sit with the fans. I just went back to Pennsylvania, where I am from, and what we do when we go to Pennsylvania is I take my kids and sit out in the outfield because you meet people from the community, from the neighborhoods. That’s the sports I grew up on.
There’s too much class division in sports. When I used to go to games it was affordable and the rich and the poor sat together, blacks and whites sat together, everyone sat together.
K: What’s different? What’s changed?
T: Now it’s all money. The rich people sit down low. Now what they do is even if it’s raining, they guard those seats behind home plate like it’s Fort Knox instead of letting people move down there for the experience. That’s one of the things I decided about 5 years ago: I said how can I take my platform and open sports up to as many people as possible? One of things we do in November is a tailgate for the kids. I partner with Amachi of Knoxville and they mentor for kids of incarcerated families.
I had people in my audience pay $1,000 for a tailgate spot at UT 2 years in a row, and we are doing it again this year. Last year we collected over 500 tickets and we got somewhere around 200 kids into a football game who had never been. Most of them have parents that are in jail.
K: And Amachi buys the tickets?
T: No, my audience, I tell people what day the game is going to be and people from all over the United States of America send us cash to buy tickets for the kids.
K: So you have listeners from all over the country?
T: All over the world.
K: Tell me a little about the business model that you’ve got going. Why would you stop working for a radio station and start…
T: Being in business for myself? Because I was fired. I would have been afraid to do this on my own if I wasn’t terminated. I was at a radio station and I got crossways with the general manager. He called me in one day, and we were doing really well; we had really good numbers, and I was doing an afternoon drive show at the time. It was 850 AM and they had a 50,000-watt station at the time. I was doing really well there. I had a double-digit share, and we were flying revenue-wise. But I’m just not political. At least I never had been. I’m not a corporate game player, so I belong on my own. Cause now I can call my own shots, help my community, do my own thing.
K: You’re on the air in Knoxville on what station?
T: I’m on WJBE: 99.7 FM and 1040 AM.
K: Your show actually runs online as well, right?
T: Yes. What’s changed about our model is that I have an app. I’m also on TuneIn radio, and I’ve got a live stream. What’s changed about our model is that it used to be appointment radio and now I’m an on-demand guy. What I do during the day is just lay my show down.
But I also Periscope my show and what has become a regular post-game show. It’s funny being in this business because you think you have all the answers when you’ve done something for as long as I have. But some things surprise you. We came down here [to the studio] one night just for the hell of it and did a basketball post-game show. And I thought, well this is stupid; this will never work. And the phone rang for two hours. So now we do post-game shows. I’ll have 10,000-13,000 people on Periscope alone. Those are utterly insane numbers. Then thousands more on my app at any one time. What we do is fan-centered, and what I do is as soon as the game is over we start taking phone calls on what is now called Fifth-Quarter Fan Reaction.
It’s kinda weird. After doing this for so long, I don’t have to kill myself like I did when I was a kid.
K: Where did your love of sports begin?
T: I grew up in Philadelphia, and sports has always been a communal thing to me. When we were kids, we would have 15 people jammed into a room as small as this studio, watching sports. I grew up in a family of 6. I had five brothers and sisters. Everybody was in one room and we would sit there and watch all of the Philadelphia sports. We were the one house in the neighborhood that had cable. Remember those days? Our uncles came over and watched the hockey games when the Fliers were on.
Sports are community to me. I do watch parties in the Fall—I’m the only guy in town who does what I do who will hang out with people the way that I will. To me, sports are as much about our celebrating what happens off the field as what happens on the field. I enjoy watching the band march as much as I do the game the older I get. I love the whole experience. I think that’s also my artistic side, and that’s why I love people so much.
K: What’s the appeal of sports talk radio?
T: It’s community. Our show is a water cooler. People sit around, and we’re a global water cooler. I understood that early on, which is a real part of my success. I think a lot of people that do what I do, think that it’s about pontificating. And yes, to some extent, when you host a show you have to be entertaining enough to carry it. But Knoxville just has tons of characters, and you want to let your characters shine rather than having it just be about yourself.
I let my callers call in and we have fun and go back and forth. I’ll count people down and tell them they’re out of here, and they’ll call back the next day. People tell me that sometimes when they listen to my show, they forget that they’re listening to a radio show. Or they feel like they are hanging out in a sports bar with friends. And I say that’s the greatest compliment you can give me.
I was telling you about those watch parties. We go to Bearden Hill Fieldhouse, which is where we’re going to do them this year. We’ll get 400-500 people in there for a football game. They say they’ve never seen anything like it. My sponsor Cherokee told me the other day they’ve never seen anything like it. We just have community because I’m not a big company. I have to try harder. I’m like Avis here. Nobody else does that.
A game day for me (this is no joke now) is going to a watch party. I’ll get up, get to that venue 45 minutes before kickoff, sit there for a game that usually takes 3.5-4 hours, come back here and do a talk show for 6 more hours with no breaks. I’ll go to sleep sometimes 3 o’clock, 4 o’clock in the morning. That’s my football game day.
K: And you find that enjoyable. Why?
T: I find it enjoyable because this is what I’m created to do. It’s the energy that people give me.
K: Tell me about your callers and your audience. Who are they?
T: They’re interesting because some of them want attention, but a lot of them are just regular people. I’ve made great friends through my show. Now, I’ve also had people that I’ve had to ban from the show. You’re going to have people cross lines. But for the most part they’re good people. I’ve been really blessed. Generally, the mistake people make with my show is that they think my callers are my listeners, and my caller is not my listener. In our business, it’s a researched fact that less than one-half of one percent of people that listen to you will ever pick the phone up. It’s just the way it is. I’ve got a highly professional listener for the most part—that’s why I have great brands sponsoring my show and have for years. But the callers, some of them sound like they’re insane. Ya know why? Because they kind of are.
K: How would you describe a Vol fan to someone who had never met one before?
T: A Vol fan is passionate. Vol fans are knowledgeable. Vol fans are a little nutty. A Vol fan loves people who work hard. A Vol fan respects and appreciates an athlete who works hard and gets the most out of what they do, more so than they do somebody who has tremendous, god-given ability and just kind of coasts. Vol fans love blue collar people.
K: Three head coaches in nine years, more if we count interims. Why do we keep doing this? Why do we keep hiring them and buying them out?
T: House of Haslam. Until now. Jimmy Haslam, who’s had the keys of Tennessee until now, has simply been the worst manager in sports. They’re calling him the worst owner in the history of the NFL for what the Cleveland franchise is doing under him. Listen, Ben Roethlisberger has more wins than any quarterback this century in Cleveland stadium, and he plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Jimmy Haslam is a train wreck in Cleveland. He was a train wreck here behind the scenes, and they finally had to have a coup before they hired Jeremy Pruitt because Jimmy Haslam wasn’t going to hire Jeremy Pruitt. Jimmy Haslam’s hire was going to be Greg Schiano. If they had hired Greg Schiano, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now because I wouldn’t have done this anymore. I wasn’t going to be a part of that. I grew up in a Penn State family, and I saw the pain of what [the Sandusky child sex abuse scandal] did to their fan base, and I just couldn’t believe they would invite someone with any connection to it. Now I don’t know what Schiano knew or didn’t know, but why? You have a whole population of people to hire. Why would you hire him?
K: Fans might be a little jaded after years of this coaching madness. What is Jeremy Pruitt bringing to UT? How is he different?
T: He’s bringing hope. And he’s a real football coach. I’ve got a caller that had a great line the other day that said Butch Jones was an actor playing a football coach. Jeremy Pruitt is a football coach. I’ll tell you how much Jeremy Pruitt is a football coach: the other day I was talking to a caller who knows, and he was saying that Pruitt and his staff are just good ole boys who want to coach football. They don’t want to drive fancy cars, they don’t wear fancy clothes, they don’t want to hang out where the fancy people hang out. Butch Jones changed when he had the job here. He had a car with winged doors; he fell in love with the trappings of the job. I knew he was in trouble three years into the job when they were recruiting a kid from Oak Ridge, and Butch showed up at the field with somebody holding his umbrella for him. That was a sign.
Jeremy Pruitt is just a common guy. He’s just here to be a coach. To be honest, he’s not what we would call a grammarian and I kind of like that. He doesn’t speak perfect English; he’s just a football coach.
K: Practice starts today. How is he going to change the system we have in place and get the players on board with it in time for the start of the season?
T: They had a spring to get everybody acclimated, but what those kids have now is what the fans have, which is hope. I’ve talked to various people around the program who have told me we actually feel like we have somebody that knows what they’re doing. Hope is a powerful thing.
K: What are some of his liabilities?
T: He’s coming from the Saban family tree, which means those guys can be micromanagers. His deal is going to be is that he’s got to trust people around him and let them do their jobs. He’s got to trust people in UT’s athletic department and let them do their jobs. He’s a really hard charging guy, so if he’s not careful, what could be a real plus for him could swallow him in a job like this. This is his first head coaching job, so I kind of liken it to that Kenny Rogers song: “you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.” For him, he’s got to know when to fight the battle, when to let the battle go. It’ll be interesting to see what he does.
K: He’s not giving many media interviews right now but seems to be concentrating on the actual games themselves. Is he going to have to open himself up to the media eventually, or is his holding back a good thing?
T: This is who he is. I kind of like it. It’s almost as if he doesn’t feel comfortable with the press. I think that was the deal early on. I think he’s shown the ability to learn. When he had his inaugural press conference, he looked like he was a little out of his depth in front of people. But at SEC Media Days he was kind of a different guy, much more polished—which showed me that he has that capacity to learn, to adapt and pick it up. There’s some smarts there.
K: How long of a honeymoon are Vol fans gonna give him?
T: Because this thing has been so poorly managed, he almost comes in here with no honeymoon. It’s not fair to him because the truth is that he’s been left a real mess. That said, he’s telling people they’ve got to win at least six games this year because they’ve got to have some credibility for recruiting purposes. It’s nearly impossible to recruit against a losing record in this league.
K: A friend of mine says that a bowl invitation is going to come down to the final game against Kentucky. Do you agree?
T: I think there’s a decent chance that this team could be fighting to be 6-6 at the end of the year. Although I will say this: the West Virginia game is winnable. The Florida game is winnable. I guess it’s one of these things where three weeks from the start of the season, I kind of look at their schedule and say they could win eight. Then talk to me when they get to the middle of the schedule when they’re getting into October and everybody’s crushing them, when they play all those hard teams, and I’ll say to you we’ll be lucky to win six. But right now, there’s a bunch of winnable games there and they have some talent.
K: The money question: what are we gonna end up?
T: The SEC East is the SEC Least. People are picking Kentucky to finish third in the division, and if that isn’t a sign that this thing is the SEC Least then what else could be? Some people are saying South Carolina could finish second. My gosh—South Carolina finish second in your division?! Tennessee and Florida are both kind of rebuilding, both are in the same spot. The Florida game is in Neyland Stadium this year, so I think Tennessee could win that. I think the Vols have a good season.
I’m going to say this team is either going to end up at 7-5 or 6-6 and make a bowl game. This team has enough talent to do that.