Talk to enough on-air radio talent, and you’ll soon find out that they’re largely a cursed lot, wandering the Earth from station to station, doomed to see their jobs evaporate with the latest format change or the slightest downtick in the ratings.
Still, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a tale of radio woe quite as bleak as that of KARN talker Shawn Arnell. Since June 2007, Arnell has headed up the station’s “Sports Rap” afternoon drive-time show. Having signed on Dem-Gaz sports editor Wally Hall and Arkansas Sports 360 editor Jim Harris as co-hosts and with his ratings steadily on the way up, Arnell says life couldn’t be going better these days.
It’s a far cry from where he was in 2005: Homeless, living in the back of a smoothie shop, his six-figure lifestyle suddenly gone in a puff of smoke.
Born in Arkansas, Arnell had been working his way up through small sports radio and television stations in the mid-South for a decade when he landed what looked like a dream job in 2003: Hosting a sports talk radio show from a new station in Memphis. Within months, Arnell was syndicated in 90 markets throughout the South, with a paycheck to match the size of his audience. Though he said he lived below his means (except on the weekends, he added with a laugh), he splurged on a condo in downtown Memphis. The first year, the station sent Arnell and his co-host on a 12-day tour of all the schools in the SEC. Even at the time, he said, he thought something was not quite on the up and up.
“I noticed that there are no sponsors,” he said. “But yet here we are, on a tour bus — a 42-foot motor home with a driver — just you and your co-host going around the South to each SEC school for 12 days, and your weekend layover is in Destin [Fla.] at a freakin’ condo. All I could think of was: I just hope this keeps going.”
Too bad it didn’t. In May 2005, after a year and eight months on the air, Arnell learned that the station had tanked when his paycheck bounced. “I knew life was about to get interesting,” he said, chuckling.
Though he can’t talk much about it on the record due to pending lawsuits, Arnell said he and other employees eventually learned that the owner of the station had slowly bled the company dry, covering payroll with loans from investors secured against a promised multimillion-dollar sale of the company that he claimed was just over the horizon. Eventually, it all fell apart.
“I went on a weeklong drunk after it happened,” Arnell said. “I couldn’t even get out of my whitey-tighties. I’d just lay there in self-pity, thinking: This problem’s never going to go away.”
Within a few months, Arnell had spent his savings and then he lost everything, a time he calls hell. Though he found work selling RVs, the take-home pay was less than a fifth of what he had been making at the radio station, and not nearly enough to cover his bills. When he got kicked out of his condo, a friend let him stay for two months in the back of his smoothie shop. He slept on an air mattress, and showered at the gym next door.
“I found out the hard way that if the concrete under your air mattress is cold, the cold comes through the air mattress,” he said. “So all of a sudden the air in your air mattress is like 25 degrees. You’ve got to put a blanket down. I had this whole system for going to bed at night.”
Though he laughs about it now, the only bright spot back then, he said, was that he didn’t have a wife and kids to worry about. He admits that he thought he’d never work in radio again. But — as they usually do — things turned around. Thanks to a friend’s tip, Arnell found his way to Little Rock and KARN.
While the outcome in Memphis wasn’t so rosy, Arnell said life is all good now. Even knowing how it went south, he said he would do it again if he had another chance; that memories of the good times back then help him look on the bright side.
“If somebody told you you can have a great job, a great condo downtown, rooftop parties, a tour bus, you’re going to visit all these venues, you’re going to make really good money, but in one year, you’re going to lose it all,” he said, “I’d venture to say that a lot of people, given the opportunity, with no kids involved [and] no wife involved, would take it in a heartbeat. …. That’s why I don’t get too bummed out. Who would say no?”
What’s the frequency?