John “John Boy” Isley says he doesn’t roll out of bed until about 11 o’clock every morning, and he and longtime partner Billy James sometimes only show up at their studio at 99.7 “The Fox” three times a week.
Yet “The Big Show” – which the pair has co-hosted for decades – still hits the airwaves every Monday through Saturday at 6 a.m. on the nose.
How can that be? The show is no longer broadcast live (and hasn’t been for years); they come in three or four afternoons a week and work into the evening to pre-record six shows for playback in the morning.
Mostly, though, their time-shifting work schedule is possible because they’ve put in the time. In terms of morning-radio longevity in Charlotte, no one can beat Isley and James, who have been at it for 37 years (minus a few months in 1986 when they sat out a non-compete clause before joining WRFX). In terms of national reach, the Premiere Networks-syndicated duo broadcasts on more stations than any of their local peers.
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That kind of longevity and that kind of reach has its privileges.
“It has really extended the life of the show,” James says, hinting that they might not still be around otherwise. “Doing 6 to 10 (a.m.), dragging your butt out of bed early every morning ... once that goes away, it takes a lot of the drudgery out of it.”
Isley can still vividly remember the day he met James – Aug. 9, 1980 – because Isley had come in to interview at the station just hours after he got married. Isley, a native of Graham, N.C., and James, who grew up in Gastonia, basically started by doing off-the-air dry runs at first – chemistry reads, if you will – but their uniquely Southern spin had spark, and they were doing it live in short order.
Their mix of deadpan and redneck-y humor and penchant for skits and off-beat characters quickly made them a popular local fixture, then earned them a bigger contract at “The Fox” in 1986.
Not long after that move, somewhat out of nowhere, a big NASCAR following fell into their laps.
Isley, who had become a racing fan as an adult, got wind that the crews at racing shops were listening to “The Big Show.” By chance, he was introduced to driver Rusty Wallace; they hit it off well enough, and Wallace started calling in.
“He was winning a lot and he would call up (after he won),” Isley recalls, “and one time during that year, (Dale) Earnhardt had won the race on Sunday, so Monday morning he called and said, ‘I don’t guess you’re gonna be talking to your boyfriend this morning, are you? You wanna talk to the winner?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah!’
“So from then on, whoever would win the race, they would call us on Monday morning... So that’s where we got our toehold in NASCAR, and we’ve been going at it since.”
They started syndicating the show in 1993, and a couple of decades before “going viral” was a thing, “John Boy & Billy” went viral.
Today, 62 stations – many in America’s heartland, all either classic-rock or country – pick up “The Big Show,” exposing listeners to fake commercials, song parodies and other goofy stuff, like their legendarily popular “$25,000 Pyramid”-inspired “Wordy Word” game.
They have their own satellite building on the iHeart lot (all the other stations share space in the company’s main building), complete with a private outdoor space that is perfect for Isley and James’s smoke breaks and Isley’s beloved dog Pearl’s potty breaks, along with a staff of about 18.
And they may sleep in, but they don’t otherwise monkey with their tried-and-true process.
“When we start a segment, we do everything we can short of a major technical malfunction to go from start to finish without doing any re-takes or pickups,” James says, “which is one of the things that I think keeps it feeling live. It’s still basically live as it happens.”
Or, as Isley puts it: “It’s a morning show without getting up in the morning.”
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John Boy & Billy
Also known as: “The Big Show.”
Co-hosts: John “John Boy” Isley, 61, and Billy James, 58.
Station: 99.7 WRFX-FM, aka “The Fox.” (Classic rock; owned by iHeart Media.)
On the air in Charlotte since: 1980. On the air at WRFX since: November 1986.
Supporting cast: Terry Hanson, Jeff Pillars, Marci “Tater” Moran, Andy Abdow (archivist), Jackie Curry (associate producer) and Randy Brazell (general manager).