Detractors try — with no luck — to silence controversial WVOL talk radio host

Sunday, February 20, 2011 at 10:05pm
Rev. T.J. Graham (Jude Ferrara/SouthComm) 

It’s a recent Tuesday morning, and the Rev. T.J. Graham is in his element. 

Sporting a fire-engine-red T-shirt, loose-fitting trousers and old-school headphone cans, the loquacious WVOL-AM talk radio host effortlessly fields call after call, many from coarse-speaking folks who clearly don’t care for — and, in some cases, might like to do bodily harm to — the man considered Nashville’s most controversial radio personality. 

With a communication style that’s part college professor, part carnival barker, the ordained Baptist minister dispenses opinions, criticism and sociopolitical commentary peppered with slang — a playing-the-dozens “yo mama” isn’t uncommon — on a variety of issues, from race relations to the world’s major religions and President Barack Obama’s economic policies. 

“I’m trying to be nice and not bring civil action for defamation of character,” the reverend tells a caller who is threatening to start a Facebook page to embarrass, if not silence, Graham. Soon thereafter, the N-word flies about — from both Graham and a caller — followed by unsettling references to bodily parts, Islam and Charlie Brown. 

So it goes Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Graham’s “Open Forum,” which might rank as Nashville’s most unusual — and most inflammatory — daytime talk radio program. 

Graham is known colloquially as the “Black Rush Limbaugh.” He’s earned the nickname not because he’s a hardcore conservative, but rather because he’s quick to antagonize his callers. The burly broadcaster — his enemies often mock his weight and, yes, the reverend is a very large man — will verbally hammer anybody, regardless of race, creed or political bent. 

It’s not as if he does so from an uninformed place. Graham typically starts his workday at 3 a.m., partly the result of insomnia. He is a voracious reader, devoting hours of study to all manner of topics that could find their way into his program. He relies on his producer/manager Jae Nash and Gary Hill, a local conservative who handles voice impersonations and parody skits, to help fill the rare time he doesn’t. But it’s clear who’s in charge. 

Station owner and president John Heidelberg, known for giving Oprah Winfrey her start at WVOL, offers effusive praise of the reverend. Heidelberg has opted not to screen callers for Graham’s program, and at least for now, there is no five-second-delay, meant to offer time to wipe something offensive before it’s live. The freewheeling approach reveals a local talk radio show at its most genuine and disturbing: a man-of-the-cloth who shows no mercy to his flock. 

“Some ministers say that I’m too controversial and that I scare them,” Graham said. 

When Mt. Zion Baptist Church Bishop Joseph W. Walker III, who is black, urged the public to keep a positive view of Steve McNair after his death, Graham reminded that the late Titans quarterback was an adulterer. Similarly, Graham took Cornerstone Church pastor Maury Davis, who is white, to task for allowing right-wing activist Ralph Bristol to speak at the church while dressed in military fatigues. 

“Mr. Davis called Mr. Heidelberg and was upset,” Graham said. “I wish he had called me. I would have made him more upset.” 

Graham, who describes himself as a “realist” who rejects party affiliation,is viewed by some as a strict moralist and others as a fair-weather pedagogue. He respects a woman’s right to choose but says he would support a law that outlaws abortion. He ends each show with a Biblical reference. His WVOL website bio lists his causes as “God, Jesus and the Truth.” 

With his flame-throwing style — Graham uses the N-word to, he says, remove its sting — and cleric tone that sometimes comes across as condescending, Graham invites the frequent insults and ad hominem attacks. Foes have questioned his sexuality and background: He once worked as a chef, and his father is a Jehovah’s Witness. 

“I get about 20 to 30 death threats per week,” he said. “They call after the show and say, ‘I’m coming to kill you.’ And I do get some blacks who call and threaten me as well.” 

A vandal recently cut lines to WVOL’s six transmission towers, an act Graham and Heidelberg said likely came in response to “Open Forum.” 

“We knew it wasn’t for the copper,” Heidelberg said. 

Heidelberg said an investigation is ongoing, as is the station. WVOL streams live via its website, and one of the six towers remains operational. Heidelberg said Graham, who has been with WVOL for more than five years, will not be silenced. 

“We just try to put aside the threats,” Heidelberg said.

Whether Graham’ star is rising or shooting is a matter of personal opinion. Advertisers on the show remain modest in number. And many listeners simply detest the man. But that’s what makes for good radio in the age of Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and others: rhetorical combat. Bombastic opinions. Outsized egos. And no boundaries. 

The key to Graham’s popularity is that listeners either love him or loathe him, and he’s found ways to provoke them to say so. He’ll say whatever he needs to say to further his agenda, which is to gain listeners. In that respect, he is certainly the “Black Rush Limbaugh.” 

“I rock the boat,” Graham said. “I want to create a tsunami.” 

5 Comments on this post:

By: richgoose on 2/21/11 at 7:17

I have loved WVOL for so many many years. The man is only exposing the difference in the culture of two different walks of life. It has been unspoken but simmering beneath the public eyes and ears for as long as I can remember.

Let him rave on! If he breaks the law let the government handle it. Shouting ugly name at this man is not a good investment.

By: chriscrankshaw on 2/21/11 at 9:19

I am an on the record T.J. Graham critic but am thankful to catch the show daily. As a talk radio junkie, Graham is a welcome breath of fresh air. Angry white conservative radio has become the most boring thing ever invented. If you're sick and tired of the same old crap then this is the show for you. But come prepared. this is not a show for the faint of heart.

By: Trumpet on 2/21/11 at 10:35

Joe/The Collection: Comment(s)/Question(s): I have been listening to WVOL for the duration. Since it was WSOK! Before, and during Oprah!! I might have more first-hand knowledge about the station than both Heidelberg and T.J. and I should be listed or described as a NON-DETRACTOR. I listen to the Talk-Shows, including TJ, frequently. I remember when John came to the station. He interviewed me on radio because I was a Sideman/Trumpet-player in the James Brown (Dashiki) Band. He lost or misplaced the tape of that interview. I will never forget that, but I do forgive him. Theres no-telling what I might have said. John really wanted to hear me talk about any encounters I might have had with "Groupies." I had to remind him that I was a married man. Conservative!

QUESTION(S): Why is it that when Oprah wants to be on the radio about something, she seems to call Tom Joyner 92Q and has never called the Flagship Radio Station in her history, WVOL ( not even an occasional courtesy call ). She does not call TJ or John to weigh-in on the status of the progress of the station, the community, or the North Nashville constituiency that gave her a start in the Media? Is that Contempt?

By: Henry.Blair on 2/21/11 at 10:19

How can this be news? If anything its a gossip article like 'Mayberry after mid-night' if anyone reading this is a Andy Griffith show fan. Did this paper seek this out or did WVOL need some public relation work. You know since John Heidelberg was found guilty recently with that little stunt he pulled down at his station. Or maybe because golden boy T.J.Graham was found out to not be a marine like he stated he was several times on air. I can point out many flaws in T.J.Grahams mythology.
The City Paper want a really great article? One better then this dribble? Get TJ Graham to ask how he went from being in an article called FACERIGHT about the raise of right-wing pastors to being this liberal democrat...Ask him how does a pastor say he is anti-racist but has the racist Nation Of Islam on his show and give them their own show. Which TJ Graham will say is not put on by the Nation Of Islam but they give out the address to...[drum roll] The Nation Of Islam. Ask him why was he so hardcore on immigration a few years ago to now be pro-amnesty. Ask him why he is so hardcore on gays not raising children but doesnt want people to know about his parenting skills or lack of.

“We just try to put aside the threats,” Heidelberg said.
Trust me those two down at WVOL know what threats are!
We found his little criminal record!

“I’m trying to be nice and not bring civil action for defamation of character,” the reverend tells a caller.......

Go ahead TJ Graham because we posted nothing that isnt true and you know it. You may not like the fact that people know who you really are but that doesnt make them false statements!

By: heykissmytuchus on 5/23/11 at 1:56

I have called in multiple times, trying to have SERIOUS discussions with Tj Graham. As soon as he figures out that I disagree with him, he mutes me, begins to scream, and eventually starts calling me "white girl." He has even gone as far as to play some crazy clip in which a slew of misogynist epithets are spoken, along with the sound of a women being whipped with a whip.
This guy is a racist, intolerant, homophobic bigot, and unless youre kissing his ass he does not allow you to speak. I understand that it must be annoying to get all kinds of prank calls, etc, etc..but this, under NO circumstances justifies his intolerant racism, hate, and anger directed at serious callers looking for serious discussion who happen to disagree with him.
He calls his show an "open forum" but it is anything BUT! He does not allow anyone who disagrees with him to voice their opinion...even if they are being respectful people seeking serious discussion, they are met with an angry, derogatory intolerant man screaming into their ear, calling them stupid white boy, dummy, and lrd knows what else. This has to stop.
As a freethinking, somewhat intelligent Nashvillian...I say that we CANNOT allow this man to continue being on the air uninterrupted. We have to do what his employers and his sponsors will not.
I am not asking you to call in and call this man racial slurs...that is stupidity and it makes you bigger or better than Graham himself is.
I AM asking you to call in and disrupt his show with INTELLIGENCE and LOGIC as often as you can. Even if he mutes and hangs up on you..that is a few seconds you have taken away from his angry, racist, intolerant, bigoted rantings.
We have to make it as difficult as possible for this man to conduct his show.
So if you have nothing to do at any point between the time of 11am and 3pm, then I beg you to call into Grahams "show" and take time away from him. The number is 615-737-9865.