As a Father’s Day present to my readers, I offer this feature story on Elissa Walker Campbell, a rising star in sports talk radio. It’s the story of her career and her future, but it’s also a story of the inspiration her father gave her at a young age. It’s the bond we should celebrate on a holiday dedicated to dads everywhere.
By KEN DAVIS
The show was called Prime Time Country and The Nashville Network, well known as the “first country music cable television network,” beamed the program into living rooms across the country. This truly was the big time for country musicians. And back in March 1996, Grand Ole Opry star Charlie Walker called his daughter with the news he would be performing on the show to honor the late Minnie Pearl, who had just passed away.
“He left a message to let me know,” Elissa Walker Campbell said recently. “He wanted me to be sure to set my VCR and tape it.”
The country gentleman, accessorizing his coat and tie with a cowboy hat and guitar, sang and entertained until the crowd couldn’t help but clap along with the beat. And when it came time for the interview segment, host Tom Wopat asked Charlie Walker about being the father of 10 children.
“He always loved bragging on all of his kids,” Elissa said. “But on that particular night, he mentioned that one of daughters was following in his footsteps and pursuing a career in radio/television. He provided the producers a recent photo from one of my broadcasts and shared just how proud he was of me and his belief that I would go on to do some great things in this business.”
Walker Campbell calls it an unforgettable moment. In her words, the “power of his praise and approval” holds a special place in her heart. What better time to honor this warm illustration of a father-daughter relationship than Father’s Day.
Elissa is delivering.
Walker Campbell, who now calls Houston home, has become a star in her own right, hosting her own radio talk show known as The Big E Sports Show. From its humble beginnings in 1999 in the drive time afternoon slot at KCQL 1340 AM in Farmington, N.M., the show has skyrocketed to a key spot in the Yahoo! Sports Radio national lineup (Friday, 8-10 p.m. ET, with encore presentations Saturday, 12-2 a.m. and Sunday, 4-6 a.m.). Select broadcasts now air on the SIRIUS Radio Network.
If you prefer your sports talk radio with a heavy dose of screaming, yelling and arguing, turn the dial or switch Internet sites. Walker Campbell has gained her popularity with listeners and guests through an easy-going, well researched and intellectual interviewing style. It’s an approach that has earned her respect with guests such as Walt “Clyde” Frazier (NBA), Rick Carlisle (Dallas Mavericks coach), Dick Vermeil (former NFL coach and broadcaster), Cliff Harris (Dallas Cowboys), Jerry Colangelo (USA Basketball), Red McCombs (former NBA and NFL team owner) Nancy Lieberman (women’s basketball), Gary Patterson (TCU football) and Tubby Smith (Texas Tech basketball) – just to name a few.
More often than not, the guests come back and the questions delve deeper into their professions and their sports. The audience members are the real winners. A programming director at Yahoo! Sports Radio took notice in 2013. When the show was added to the network’s lineup, the press release cited her “dynamic personality”, her “great perspective on sports” and her ability to conduct “the best interviews.”
“When [all three are] churning together they make for a wonderful presentation,” said Craig Larson, Jr., COO and Program Director for Yahoo! Sports Radio. “She has an amazing work ethic. She has a great aptitude towards her work, and puts in the effort every day.
“Like most businesses, sports talk radio is ‘relationship driven’ and Elissa has carved out her piece in the landscape by cultivating some special relationships with various coaches, players and team executives within their respected leagues. Like any relationship, she’s been able to nurture and develop over time with elements of trust, respect, and professionalism.”
Again, those qualities can be traced back to her father’s early influence. Charlie Walker was a Country Music Hall of Famer and had a huge hit, “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down” in 1958. But before that he was a disc jockey on KMAC radio in San Antonio. He hosted a five-hour daily show and visited with stars such as Elvis Presley, Gene Autry, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Ray Price and Johnny Cash. He was inducted into the Country Radio DJ Hall of Fame in 1981.
“I pride myself on preparation and believe it is key and one of the hallmarks of being successful in this business,” Walker Campbell said. “My dad stressed the importance of being a really good listener and a person of integrity.
“He had an illustrious career in radio and country music. Although, he is recognized for his accomplishments in country music, he also worked as a sports broadcaster. Dad provided live radio updates on CBS golf coverage with the Texas Open and had the opportunity to work with legendary sports broadcaster, Chris Schenkel.”
McCombs, a two-time guest on the Big E Sports Show since it debuted on Yahoo! In 2013, was a friend of Charlie Walker and observed the pride he had when his 6-foot daughter played basketball for the University of Oklahoma Sooners.
“Physically, she’s going to attract attention,” McCombs said. “She’s 15-feet tall and just has a beautiful soul. You can tell just talking to her. She’s just a great person. People want her to do well and I think that shows. She frets herself to death, about how she’s going to do this interview and how she’s going to do that interview. But she makes it work. I think she’s a big-time artist.
“God gave [Charlie Walker] a great voice. He parlayed that. He was just a great guy to be around – fun and easy to be with. But he couldn’t interview anyone half as well as she can.”
Walker Campbell has an amazing knack for putting her guests at ease. She wants her interviews to be informational, yet conversational. Before an interview starts, she encourages guests to relax and take their time while talking. The topics aren’t always sports related. In the case of Vermeil, former head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Rams and Kansas City Chiefs, one discussion turned to his Napa Valley roots and his passion for wine – now a business venture for Vermeil in his retirement years.
“Her interest is in you and your response – not her question,” said Vermeil, who spent several years as a network analyst on NFL and college football. “You can do other talk shows and the question asked of you takes longer than the response you can give. She’s just the opposite. Her questions are concise and she gives you all the time to answer them thoroughly.
“I think she’s extremely professional, very bright and articulate, and expresses herself extremely well. She makes you feel relaxed and you have fun when you are on the radio with her.”
McCombs, the billionaire co-founder of Clear Channel Communications, is the former owner of the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Vikings. A member of the Forbes 100 list of richest Americans, he also knows a thing or two about business. The business school at the University of Texas in Austin is named for McCombs.
He says Walker Campbell’s success results from a balance of access, work ethic and credibility.
“Elissa is better than what she realizes,” McCombs said. “She has that unique ability to get information out of people that ordinarily they wouldn’t share at all. She always comes prepared. That’s a talent that you can’t teach. There are no classes in it.
“It starts with being a good listener. But a good listener is like a chicken. Every time that beak goes down, they’re trying to pick out the best morsels. They pick a thousand morsels and maybe 80 of them are really good. Elissa won’t mess with a thousand morsels. She will get to the meat of the coconut and people don’t mind sharing information with her.”
Sports radio is a competitive field of work. But Walker Campbell has been persistent and dedicated to her dream. Her love affair with radio began with an internship at 1400 AM KNOR in Norman, Oklahoma. After working in telemarketing and selling industrial pressure washers immediately after graduating from Oklahoma, her dream was kept alive when she worked part time as a radio color announcer with the Oklahoma women’s basketball program. She was so determined that she paid her dues by working for free in her first season.
The journey that started in Farmington has taken her to Oklahoma City and then on to the Dallas/Fort Worth market. An introduction to a radio contact during a Dallas Mavericks draft party in June 2013 eventually opened the door to Yahoo! And now, in the unusual position of working a show by herself, she is the only woman with the Yahoo! Sports Radio network who hosts a national show.
This wife and mother of two boys keeps extremely busy away from the studio but has been able to balance all the responsibilities in her life – and still succeed in a male-dominated field. Intimidation isn’t in her vocabulary, or her DNA, she said. She recently played basketball in a pickup game with Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon.
There’s no backing down.
“I think, at times, I felt I had to work twice as hard to prove that I belong in this industry,” Walker Campbell said. “I’ve been fortunate to work with some progressive thinkers and men that believe women belong in the game, as we provide a different perspective and make a difference.”
Larson, Jr., her boss at Yahoo! Sports Radio, has been involved in programming and producing shows since the early 1990’s. Nineteen years after Charlie Walker predicted big things for his daughter, the forecast is even brighter from Larson, Jr.
“I think the sky is the limit based upon how far she’s come in her association with Yahoo! Sports Radio,” Larson, Jr. said. “So much is driven in an interview style format. With that, she’s been able to break stories, and ‘get stuff’ from guests that most performers don’t. She’s amazing at putting the guest at ease, and asking thoughtful relevant questions.
“The Big E program has picked up some major affiliations in recent months, Houston, Detroit and Pittsburgh, and Columbus, Ohio, to name a few. I have every reason to believe that the content and distribution footprint will continue to evolve in benefiting our various platforms.”
For more information on The Big E Sports Show, click here.