written by R.L. Bynum
Hard work, good advice earned Graham drive-time gig at a young age
Countless sports writers have covered big beats by their mid-20s, particularly in recent years. There are fewer broadcasters who become radio sports talk show hosts at such a young age. It’s even rarer to be the sole host for a drive-time show on four stations at age 24.
Through hard work and a lot of advice from respected sportscasters, Josh Graham pulled off that rare ascent. On the way there, he worked every media job imaginable while at East Carolina and broadcast for a year in a far-flung Colorado outpost, where he honed his craft and showed his love for radio.
Graham, who turns 27 in September, has been the solo afternoon drive-time host for a collection of four Triad stations (WSJS in Winston-Salem, WCOG in Greensboro, WPCM in Burlington and WMFR in High Point), marketed as The Sports Hub Triad, since July 2018.
Most sports-loving kids watch games to idolize the athletes and to root for their favorite team. Graham, who never had a favorite college team despite growing up in the heart of ACC country in Youngsville, had a different sort of fandom.
“You know how athletes say they’re a student of the game and they look at all the tape and stuff? That was me,” Graham said. “I was a sports radio, sports media nut. I would have NHL Center Ice and I would know all the play-by-play guys across the country and I would look at guys who were sports radio hosts across the state and try to listen.”
“I was a soccer player who wasn’t good enough to be a pro and knew it. I was the most annoying kid in school. I was so loud and boisterous,” he said. “So, this is kind of like the perfect marriage. Oh, I can’t play sports. What will I do? I’ll become a play by play man, which is a good joke to tell at parties. But the reality is that it was always the storytelling of it that I was more interested in than the actual athletes themselves.”
“The Drive with Josh Graham” airs from 3–7 p.m. weekdays, with the 3 o’clock hour repeating at 6 o’clock. Solo drive-time hosts for 4-four hour shows aren’t that common. One in Charlotte is “The Clubhouse with Kyle Bailey” on WFNZ. The state’s most prominent solo host is David Glenn, whose statewide syndicated show airs from noon–3 p.m. weekdays and leads into Graham’s show on The Sports Hub Triad.
Between his sophomore and junior years at ECU, Graham was an intern on Glenn’s show and now they both work for Curtis Media, which owns Graham’s stations and syndicates Glenn’s show.
“I believe that Josh is living, breathing proof in our industry of two important life lessons,” Glenn said. “One, hard work always pays off in the long run. That guy works as hard as any young media member that I have ever seen.
“Two, when in doubt, introduce yourself to people,” Glenn said. “Ask for things. Ask questions. Insert yourself into the equation, even if you have some nervousness or anxiety as a young person or a newcomer to an industry because he is also about a 10 on a 10 scale when it comes to those. He is unusual in both of those ways. And both are directly related to why he has had a successful career.”
Graham says he patterns some of his style as a host after Glenn and also integrates elements of many other hosts he’s heard, such as national hosts Colin Cowherd, Scott Van Pelt and Ryen Russillo, as well as hosts he’s heard over the years in the state such as Adam Gold, Joe Ovies, Mark Packer and Taylor Zarzour.
Graham chats on the air with producer Robert Walsh and frequently brings on “David Glenn Show” producer Daron Vaught for lighthearted segments. His assistant producers are Aaron Gabriel and Sawyer Dylan.
“I’m very cognizant of the monotony of just somebody talking for 10 to 12 minutes,” Graham said, “So, I’m finding ways to use other voices the same way you might use an audio soundbite from the locker room or from a coach.”
Graham says that Walsh is a huge part of the show.
“He adds elements with creativity that make the show more than just a sports show, that bring in people,” Graham said. “We’ve had women bring us stuff to the studio and call into the shows that they like the show. The sports talk demo is so strongly men. So, if you do other things that make it more pop-cultural, or make it more fun, more entertainment than just sports talk, I guess that’s a good thing.”
Sara Civian, the Carolina Hurricanes beat writer for The Athletic, is a frequent guest. Civian is very active on Twitter, so one element of each of her appearances is having some of her tweets read back to her so that she can explain what went into that tweet. There is also, of course, hockey talk.
“I think it goes back to that entertainment aspect,” Graham said. “It broadens things, right? So, you might not be a big hockey fan or care what she’s saying on the Hurricanes front, but you might laugh at something she said on Twitter.”
Graham’s philosophy on listener calls is somewhere between Glenn’s — he takes a good number of calls — and that of Gold and Ovies on “Adam & Joe” on WCMC (99.9 The Fan), who hardly ever take calls.
“I’m fine if nobody calls in,” Graham said. “I think callers have their purpose. I do think there are things that the audience can add. But it’s all on the producer to figure out. Hey, is this something that can add to what’s happening? And Robert does a good job of protecting me from that and figuring out if things are entertaining, even if it’s something that somebody’s mad and disagreeing with you on something.”
Walsh heavily screens calls, though, and only brings on callers who are reacting to what Graham has just said so that it’s an ongoing conversation. Graham doesn’t want the audience to drive the show’s content.
Challenges of being a young host
Graham says that his learning curve was different than it is for young sports writers, such as Civian and Jordan Rodrigue of The Athletic. Their jobs, he says, are to be good journalists and writers and they aren’t always expected to give opinions. Included in that group are Alaina Getzenberg and Alex Andrejev of The Charlotte Observer, Brendan Marks of The Athletic and Raleigh’s Ben Pope of the Chicago Sun-Times.
In addition to the challenges of not being able to debate a topic with a co-host, he had to convince listeners that, despite his age, his opinions were not only worth hearing but that they would want to hear them.
“If you’re giving opinions — and that’s what we dabble in in sports talk — it’s all about your credibility,” Graham said. “I’m trying to talk to people who might be 45, 50, 55, 60, 65, 70 and trying to make sure with what I’m saying, I have enough perspective through going to games. That’s why I go to so many and build relationships talking to people who are first-hand sources. So that way, I have credibility on the air, because there are people that would just dismiss a 26-year old’s opinions, thinking, ‘Oh, he’s 26,’ what the hell does he know?”
A conversation with veteran sports columnist Mike Lupica convinced Graham that age shouldn’t be a factor.
“He became a columnist at 27 years old in New York City. A 27-year-old columnist! Granted, it was a different time,” Graham said. “But still, if people wanted to hear what Mike Lupica had to say at 27 Why not me at 26 in North Carolina?”
More control over career
Graham says that he feels that he has more control over his success as a talk-show host than he would have as a play-by-play announcer, which he also has done quite a bit in the past. He has seen so many terrific play-by-play announcers never get an opportunity to do a big job (or must wait years to do so), that he views luck as too much of an element.
“I realized that ratings and the things that draw people to sports talk radio — getting guests — is a product of building relationships,” Graham said. “The hard work that people put into sports talk radio and creating a good show? It’s not an element of luck that people are successful.
“If you have great ratings on a play-by-play broadcast, the team will always say, ‘Oh, that’s because people care about the team,’ not because Stan Cotten and Jones Angell are very good at their jobs,” Graham said of the respective football and men’s basketball play-by-play voices at Wake Forest and UNC. “If it’s talk radio, it’s dead air unless I fill it. It gives you ammunition to say this is how I know I’m doing well. This is how I know I’m doing good. And this is why I should work at job X. This is why I’m qualified to be here. That’s what was appealing to me about talk radio.”
Cowherd has said that preparing for a show as a solo host is like writing multiple newspaper columns every day. There’s a good bit of truth in that, and it demands a lot of preparation. Even though Graham’s show doesn’t start until 3 p.m., he’s generally in the Kernersville studio by 9:30 a.m. to begin to write ideas out on a legal pad.
“You have topic ideas that are takes themselves, but I need at least three things to support it to feel good about it going on the air,” he said. “And then I take that to another flowchart type sheet that I have that allows for me to kind of condense it and organize things in such a way where I know where I’m headed. And each show I’m probably armed with six or seven, possibly eight, topics, takes that I could go into that probably last between four to eight minutes.”
It’s evident with the names Graham mentions on the air or in conversations that he’s cultivated quite an impressive array of contacts. Many have given him advice that has helped shape his career path.
“I always view it as relationship-building. When it comes to getting to know people who might be a big name, whether that be a coach like Lincoln Riley when he was in Greenville, or getting to know folks with the Tar Heels and Blue Devils, it’s doing things to let them know that you’re just looking to build a relationship rather than ask them for something,” Graham said.
After every season, he sends handwritten notes to SIDs and coaches thanking them for letting him cover their teams. He usually doesn’t get a response. Duke’s Jon Jackson told him he didn’t have to do that for Duke. But, at the next ACC Tournament, the school’s sports information department told him his station was a priority station.
“I wasn’t trying to get anything for doing that. But it just felt like it was the right thing to do something as simple as that,” Graham said. “One person might know someone else who can help you and might know somebody else that you can help. And then your contacts list grows. I think it only grows if your intentions are good. People can tell who’s good and who isn’t. And I just thought I’d be a good person.”
Graham often goes to multiple football games on a weekend, including every Carolina Panthers home game, and sometimes is at two college basketball games on the same day. It’s about building contacts and gathering information as much as it’s about being at the game.
“Josh works hard,” Glenn said. “He works smart. And if you’ve seen him at events, man. He’s just the most likely to go up to a complete stranger and introduce himself — as likely as anybody else you’ll ever see in that age bracket. “
Getting plenty of good advice, help
After getting play-by-play experience doing internet streaming broadcasts of Franklin Academy’s games during his junior and senior years there, Graham says that Mike Maniscalco “steered him in the right direction.”
Then a radio host, the current host and sideline reporter for Carolina Hurricanes television broadcasts helped him cut a tape to send to East Carolina that allowed him to get on the student radio station immediately as a freshman.
Interaction with people in sports media has helped him in different ways. While Graham was in high school, Jeff Gravley took him inside WRAL’s studio and showed him how sportscasts work. Graham immediately knew he didn’t want to do television.
“Just the idea of spending all day crafting something and then the payoff is that five-minute sportscast? It just didn’t appeal to me and I knew that very early on,” Graham said.
Former Carolina Hurricanes radio play-by-play announcer Chuck Kaiton gave him light-hearted confirmation that this was a good call for him. Maniscalco took Graham into the Canes locker room to see how reporters work in that environment and he met Kaiton.
“The first time I ever heard the ‘you’ve got a face for radio’ joke was from Chuck. And I thought it was a compliment. And Mike had to explain it to me,” Graham said.
Before he arrived at ECU, he got advice from Canes play-by-play broadcaster John Forslund.
“He’s the one that gave me the advice my senior year saying that, ‘hey, if you’re going to learn, I don’t care if you’re pursuing radio, television or whatnot, learn to write, get involved with the student newspaper.’ So, I probably wouldn’t have gotten involved with the student newspaper at all if it wasn’t for that advice from John. It’s one of the best pieces of advice I ever got,” Graham said.
Graham said he learned his work ethic from his parents, who he calls the hardest working people he knows. His dad, who once had sportscaster aspirations while at Towson State, instead pursued a law enforcement career and is now a police officer for the Town of Wake Forest.
That work ethic was evident during his busy four years in Greenville. The school now doesn’t allow a student to be the sports editor of The East Carolinian as well as news and sports director for WZMB (the student radio station) at the same time. Graham did both jobs from February 2012 to April 2015. Oh, and he was on the staff of ECU’s school yearbook, The Buccaneer, his freshman year, creating a sports section.
He called women’s basketball and softball games for more than three years as a student and was a spotter for the Pirate IMG Sports Network football broadcasts. He was web editor and publisher for Scout.com’s ECU site for three years and a reporter for WRHD (94.3 The Game) during his senior year.
Starting out in the smallest of markets
Few start their post-college careers like Graham.
He took a radio job at KRDZ in Wray, Colo., a town of 2,400 people three hours away from an airport and 90 minutes away from a Walmart. There was a Subway but no McDonald’s and, as far as he could tell, there were only two single women in town. He paid for his airfare to fly there for the interview.
“I remember on the interview, I was looking at like a cow pasture beyond the station, and I called Jones Angell,” Graham said. “I told him the situation. I told him what I was looking at, and this quote sticks with me. He said, ‘If you ever wanted to prove to somebody how much you love radio, this is the opportunity.’ And he was right. Because I’ve been on some big interviews since then. And I’ve talked even to Cowherd or somebody like that, and when they saw Colorado, it showed them that this guy is devoted because this guy’s serious that he’s willing to do that.”
He broadcasted every Wray High School sport in addition to working a 6 a.m.–noon shift and trying to sell advertising on the side.
“I enjoyed it,” Graham said. “I love all the reps that I would get and the community really admired the effort I put in. I put together charts for every single one of these games, gave the printer a workout. It was a crazy deal, but I can’t take a lot of credit for just being brave and going out there.”
After 13 months in Wray, he was back at 94.3 The Game as sports director and was host for a weekday 5–7 p.m. show “Game Time with Josh Graham” for two years. From there, he became the afternoon drive-time host for the Triad’s Sports Hub, which flipped to an all-sports format in August 2017.
He followed Kyle Schassburger as the afternoon drive time host in a market that previously hadn’t had much sports talk on the radio even though it’s a big sports region.
This is the most successful sports-radio venture in the Triad. Previous attempts failed despite it being the third-largest market in the state since they leaned too heavily on syndicated national programming. The Triad Sports Hub, conversely, has North Carolina sports talk weekdays from noon to 7 p.m.
“I got to see him grow a little bit when we would take him to events as my intern,” Glenn said of Graham. “And then I got to see him grow again, when he had his own show in Greenville. And I’ve seen them grow again now that he has his own show in the Triad.”
While Graham has drawn interest from a top-15 market since he arrived in the Triad, he’s focused on continuing the success of his show. And, no doubt, building his large list of contacts and introducing himself to strangers.
Area sports journalist garner NCPA awards
Many sports journalists at area newspapers earned North Carolina Press Association awards during a ceremony in Raleigh last month.
Listed are selected sports winners from the largest state newspapers and area publications.
In Division F (daily newspapers with circulations over 35,000):
At News & Observer: Dan Kane, first place, sports news reporting, “NCAA rejected recommendations to halt academic fraud, newly released documents show”; Jonathan Alexander, second place, sports enterprise reporting, “ACC after hours: For power programs, playing at 9 p.m. is the price of prominence”; Luke DeCock, second place, sports columns; Robert Willett, second place, photo page or essay, “High school football holds hurricane-devastated community together”; Willett, second place, sports photography, “Zion Williamson blows out his Nikes”
At the News & Record of Greensboro: Ed Hardin, first place, sports columns; Brant Wilkerson-New, sports enterprise reporting, “Function vs. fashion”; staff, second place, sports coverage; Woody Marshall, third place, sports photography, Smith vs. Northwest football.
At the Winston-Salem Journal: Andrew Dye, first place, sports photography (also won Hugh Morton Photographer of the Year); Staff, first place, sports coverage, Nov. 6-7; Ethan Joyce, second place, email newsletter, “The most overstated and understated game for App State this year”; Patrick Ferlise, second place, sports feature writing; Allison Lee Isley, second place, sports feature photograph (also won AP photo of the year for image from a Confederate statue rally); Joyce, third place, sports feature reporting, “Coaching limbo/Right people at the right time”; John Dell, third place, sports news reporting, “Boulware’s handling of fight led to his firing.”
At The Charlotte Observer: Scott Fowler, Jeff Siner, David Coburn, first place, multimedia project, “Carruth”; Theoden Janes: sports feature writing, “Dale Jr. thought he’d have fun writing a memoir. Then he relived his darkest days”; Fowler, second place, religion and faith reporting, ”The inside story of (former UNC basketball player) David Chadwick’s sudden split from Forest Hill Church”; Langston Wertz Jr, second place, sports news reporting, “West Charlotte loses home-court advantage. Is it about race or too few seats?”; David T. Foster III, third place, photography sports feature, “Eric Reid endures emotions, injury in win over Texans”; Fowler, third place, profile feature, “My dad taught me a wonderful lesson. An angry ostrich was involved”; Fowler, third place, sports columns; Staff, third place, special section, “25 Years of Panthers Football”; Janes, third place, sports feature writing, “She could be the next Danica. But for now, she’s stuck driving an old Mazda mini SUV.”
In Division E (daily newspapers with circulations between 12,500 and 35,000):
At The Herald-Sun: Alex Zietlow, first place, sports feature writing, “ ‘This story could save someone’s life’: UNC football’s Jake Lawler on his depression”; Steve Wiseman, sports news reporting, “After Duke clears Zion Williamson, Michael Avenatti insists Nike paid the basketball star.”
In Division D (daily newspapers with circulations under 12,500):
At the Times-News of Burlington: Bob Sutton, Adam Smith and David Kehrli, first place, sports coverage, March madness; Robert Thomason, first place, photography sports feature, “An average Joe”; Smith, second place, sports news reporting, “Tar Heels storm into Sweet 16.”
In Division B (community newspapers with circulation between 3,500 and 10,000):
At Up and Coming Weekly: Earl Vaughan Jr., first place, sports columns, “After more than 50 years, my fling with football remains vivid.”
At Bladen Journal: Alan Wooten, third place, sports columns, “On Tobacco Road”
At Chatham News + Record: Bill Horner III, first place, sports feature writing, “The legend who forgot he was great”; Casey Mann, third place, sports feature writing, “Disc golf: more than a sport, it’s a culture.”
In Division A (community newspapers with circulations under 3,500):
At the North State Journal: Brett Friedlander, first place, sports news reporting, “Baseball back in Fayetteville with new stadium”; Shawn Krest, first place, lede; Krest, first place, sports columns, “Gano’s miss costs Panthers”; Krest, first place, sports enterprise reporting, “The mystery mat on college football sidelines; Staff, first place, sports coverage; Friedlander, first place, best feature reporting, “The baddest band in the land”; Cory Lavalette, second place, sports enterprise reporting; “Not a date to remember for Bruins”; Krest, second place, profile feature, “William Peace coach a member of softball royalty”; Krest, second place, sports feature writing, “Chazz Surratt”; Staff, second place, headline writing; Friedlander, third place, sports news reporting, “Smith aims to raise High Point’s basketball profile; Krest, third place, sports enterprise reporting; “Anatomy of a game-winning play.”
Bomani Jones’ ESPN show canceled
ESPN last month canceled “High Noon,” an ESPN show that Bomani Jones, a former Durham resident who got his radio start in the Triangle, and Pablo Torre co-host. The show, which airs at 4 p.m. weekdays on ESPN, will be replaced by the end of this month with “Jalen and Jacoby,” a show with Jalen Rose, a former Michigan and NBA star, and producer David Jacoby.
According to Sports Business Journal, “High Noon” has averaged 330,000 viewers in 2020, down 3% from last year. It debuted as an hourlong noon show in June 2018 but moved to 4 p.m. and was cut to 30 minutes in September 2018.
Jones and Torre are expected to take on other duties at ESPN. Both of their ESPN contracts expire this spring.
Gammons to enter N.C. Media & Journalism Hall
Peter Gammons, a UNC graduate and legendary baseball writer, will be one of five inducted in the N.C. Media and Journalism Hall of Fame on April 3 in Chapel Hill.
Gammons, an analyst for MLB Network, spent two decades at ESPN and, before that, wrote for The Boston Globe and Sports Illustrated. He was named the National Sports Media Association’s national sports writer of the year in 1989, 1990 and 1993. In 2004, he received the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, which is a sports writer’s path to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Former North Carolina FC star to be an analyst on broadcasts
Austin da Luz, who retired after a 10-year professional soccer career, is an analyst on North Carolina FC television broadcasts this season, working with play-by-play announcer Dean Linke.
Da Luz, a Winston-Salem native, Wake Forest star and longtime Triangle resident, was the captain for NCFC in 2013, 2018 and 2019 and also played for D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
In The N&O and H-S, Andrew Carter wrote about the struggles that the N.C. State basketball program has endured since that 1983 NCAA title and the controversy ignited by the error-riddled book Personal Fouls.
In The Athletic, Civian talked to many of the moms of Carolina Hurricanes players during a moms’ road trip and got plenty of insights about what it’s like to be a hockey mom.
In The N&O and H-S, Chip Alexander documented how the Carolina Hurricanes have turned situations such as Don Cherry’s “bunch of jerks” comment and the huge David Ayres story, as well as other situations, into marketing gold.
With Brandon Childress’ Wake Forest career about to close, Conor O’Neill wrote in the Winston-Salem Journal about the evolution of his relationship with his dad Randolph, the former Deacs star and current assistant coach, and how Brandon’s career has progressed.
In the Athletic, Roderick Boone wrote about how Mockville twins Cody and Caleb Martin, former N.C. State players, have found their stride playing on the court at the same time for the Charlotte Hornets.
Who is that man who walks beside opposing head coaches at UNC home men’s basketball games? In the Asheboro Courier-Tribune, Larry Penkava explains that it’s John Dubis, who has been providing opposing coaches with security and logistical help for 28 years. And he has some stories to tell.