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.”