By Dave Ongie, News Editor
There aren’t many things in life that look as natural as the sight of Bill Meade settling into a chair behind a radio microphone. After 48 years in the business, his sense of comfort inside a radio studio is unmistakable.
Meade’s voice has become a constant in the lives of sports enthusiasts across our region, and last Thursday afternoon, his trailblazing sports call-in show – SportsLine – reached its 30th anniversary.
“I can honestly say I’ve been very blessed to be able to do something that is my passion, and I’ve enjoyed doing it for the past 30 years,” Meade told the News & Neighbor last Wednesday on the eve of the milestone.
Back in 1990, Meade made the fateful decision to accept an offer to join WJCW and do play-by-play of high school sports and launch a 40-minute sports talk show. WJCW had recently switched over to an all-talk format, and the program director at the time wanted to add some sports content in the mix by launching SportsLine, the first show of its kind in our region.
After about two months of working in the 6:20-7 p.m. slot, Meade said his program director asked him to expand the show to an hour and move it to 3 p.m., which put him between emerging talk giant Rush Limbaugh and a medical show hosted by Dr. Dean Edell. At the time, Meade wondered if anyone would want to talk sports in the middle of the afternoon, and his first day in the new slot didn’t do much to ease his fears.
But Meade’s program gained traction in the 3 o’clock hour, and then it started picking up steam as the years rolled on. Callers couldn’t wait to weigh in with their opinions each day, many of them goaded to call in by something Meade said during one of his monologues.
Meade is humble by nature and bristles at the antics of some of the more bombastic hosts in his field, but he said his willingness to be opinionated has been crucial to the longevity of his show.
“I don’t care what kind of talk show you talk about, if the host does not have an opinion, you’re not going to have a show,” he said. “That’s something I don’t think a lot of people understand.”
Meade’s show eventually expanded to two hours and now has grown to fill the 3-6 p.m. timeslot on WXSM, an all-sports station Meade worked hard to bring to fruition. Meade is the program director for all three AM stations under the Cumulus Media Tri-Cities umbrella, and he fought for years to transform the 640 AM station into a 24-hour sports talk format.
In 2006, Meade recalls his general manager Don Raines giving him his blessing to go to Knoxville to research a 24-hour sports station in that market, and he returned to the Tri-Cities even more convinced the idea would work here. So in February of 2007, WXSM 640, the Sports Monster, made its debut.
SportsLine moved over from WJCW to help anchor a lineup that includes local and national broadcasts.
As he paused to reflect on 30 years of SportsLine, Meade remembered some of the frequent callers who wove themselves into the tapestry of the show over the years. The first regular was Pop Gordon, a Jeff Gordon fan at a time when there weren’t a lot of people around these parts who would admit to cheering for the colorful No. 24 Chevrolet. Break Man, Brad from Bristol, Instigator, Ernie and Claude all became familiar voices to regular listeners over the years.
Much has changed in the world since SportsLine started. For example, the show used to have several different phone numbers in the early days because a call to the station from Bristol or Kingsport was long-distance. Without the Internet at his fingertips, Meade used to do all of his show prep by reading local and national newspapers. He recalls the birth of his daughter in 2001, and marvels at the fact that she recently graduated from University School.
While much has changed, a lot has stayed the same. A loss by Tennessee’s football team on Saturday still lights up the phone lines the following Monday afternoon. And while the popularity of social media has exploded, Meade refuses to wade into that arena, opting to give his opinions on the air like he always has.
Last Thursday offered a chance to look back at many red-letter days in the show’s history. Meade recalls the surreal nature of his show on June 17, 1994, when news broke that O.J. Simpson had not turned himself in as planned in Los Angeles, which led to the White Bronco pursuit later that night.
Meade also clearly remembers the show he did on the Monday following the death of Dale Earnhardt, the outpouring of joy from the callers the day after the 1998 Tennessee football team won the national championship and, of course, his first show back following the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
“That Thursday (Sept. 13), I came back on the air,” Meade said. “I didn’t know if I should or not, but I had this deal that it’s time to try to get back to some kind of normalcy. So I came back on. I remember starting the show by basically saying, ‘I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing or not. If you don’t think I am, just let me know and we’ll try not to do this today.’ But everyone seemed to be real receptive.”
In the same way, Meade longs for the return of sports, and the sense of normalcy that accompanies them, in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic. He knows athletic events are not a matter of life and death, but in his experience, sports have the power to heal.
“What this country has gone through the last several months, sports needs to take a backseat, but they also need to be back just to relieve some of this pain and stress we’re going through as a country and as a society right now,” he said. “It alleviates the stress, and we need it bad.”