It is daybreak one rainy morning in early August, and Harold Johnson is already on a roll.
Sitting in the compact studio of Statesville’s WSIC-AM radio station, Johnson is becoming increasingly animated about how violent the sport of pro football has become.
“I think we need to get flags and put them on quarterbacks,” says Johnson, once likely the most recognizable face on Charlotte’s local sports television landscape. “That’s what Cam (Newton) needs! We’ve got to protect him!”
Whether Johnson is serious about this idea is unclear.
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A few minutes later, he switches subjects, telling a story about how generously Frank Sinatra tipped when dining out. Sinatra, Johnson says, was known to tip servers $100 for bills much smaller than that.
“That’s the kind of guy Frank was!” Johnson says, his voice rising. “You’ve got to take care of the people, and he knew how to do it!”
A light signifying an incoming phone call begins to blink. Johnson answers. A listener disagrees with Johnson’s take on quarterback safety.
“Come on now!” Johnson says. “We know I’m right! Let’s protect these guys!”
And on it goes. Johnson, 77, now spends two hours every weekday morning doing a radio show in Statesville, his hometown of more than 60 years.
“The Morning Show With Harold Johnson” — which also features co-host Brian “Skippy” Weiss and news director Chris Hoke — originates from WSIC in Statesville, and is carried additionally on two FM stations (100.7 and 105.9) that increase coverage from the Lake Norman area into parts of Charlotte. The show is also simulcast on Continuum, a local cable television provider, and over the air on Channel 25.2 in Charlotte.
This is where Johnson has been for many of the 12 years since he abruptly resigned at WSOC-TV (Channel 9) in 2006. His unfailingly sunny disposition still in full force, Johnson talks — and has an opinion about — sports, pop culture, politics, history. Anything and everything.
“I’m hanging in, staying busy,” Johnson says over a stack of pancakes at Cracker Barrel. “Life is precious! There are good people out there who are so sad! There’s so much sadness. There are drugs out there that can help get you out of that sadness!
“People say, ‘Harold, I don’t know what you’re on, but I want some of it!’ I tell them, ‘I’m high on life, brother!’ ”
‘On the ground floor’ in Charlotte
Ask Johnson a simple yes-or-no question, and you’re likely to get a 10-minute soliloquy that may or may not provide the answer. But it will be entertaining nonetheless. That’s who Johnson is, and — he quickly interjects, with solid journalistic chops — what made him ratings gold for WSOC from 1979 to 2006. He won four Emmys during his time at WSOC.
Johnson’s base now continues to be Statesville, the city north of Charlotte where his family moved from New Jersey when he was a teenager in 1957. After graduating from Statesville High and attending college in Hickory at Lenoir-Rhyne, Johnson went into the Marine Corps.
His first job in broadcasting was back in Statesville at WSIC. He was soon hired in Charlotte at WBT radio and WBTV, where he was weekend sports anchor on television and co-host with Bob Lacey on a morning radio show.
WSOC hired Johnson as its sports director in 1979, just as Charlotte was beginning to morph from a regional to national sports market.
“We were in on the ground floor,” Johnson says. “You knew great things were going to happen. The movers and shakers in Charlotte were working to get things done.”
In those pre-Internet days, Johnson was the first to report on-air that Charlotte had landed the Hornets’ NBA franchise in 1987. He often broke news on the Carolina Panthers and NASCAR beats.
Johnson never moved to Charlotte, commuting down Interstate 77 from Statesville to the WSOC studios on North Tryon Street — never, he says, missing a show. He says he was late for only one interview (with former Charlotte 49ers basketball coach Bobby Lutz).
“Somebody added it up and said that over the years, I put a million miles on my car driving back and forth,” Johnson says. “Or maybe it was 3 million miles, I don’t know. Somebody do the math!”
As vigilant as Johnson was about being on time and reporting the news, he knew something else was needed if he was to help WSOC overtake longtime local news ratings leader WBTV. Interjecting a self-effacing shtick into the three minutes he was allotted during each newscast, Johnson often zigged where traditional journalism zagged.
“I gave them the facts,” Johnson says. “I didn’t put false stuff on the air. But there was funny stuff, too. I enjoyed a laugh. I’d give people information, scoops and stuff. People might watch to see what Harold would do next. But what drove me as much as anything was to get that (darn) story.”
An example of where Johnson zigged: He once took part in a feud between pro wrestlers Ric Flair and Ivan Koloff. Arriving in a helicopter with Flair for a match at Charlotte’s Memorial Stadium, Johnson whacked Koloff on the head with a rubber chicken. More than 20,000 fans went nuts in the stands.
A few days later, Koloff arrived at the WSOC studios to “get” Johnson.
With cameras rolling, Koloff called for Johnson in the crowded newsroom. A startled security guard chased after Koloff and tried to draw his gun on the wrestler (although Johnson said he had previously warned the guard it was all a ruse).
“It was something!” Johnson says. “He couldn’t pull his gun out! It was a Barney Fife moment!”
The ‘Big Guy’
“Hey, George, lighten up,” Johnson recalls saying. “If you’re going to criticize players, do it privately, not out in public. Come on, big guy, you’re better than that!”
Johnson didn’t think anything of what he said. A few days later, NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip, having seen Johnson’s scolding of Steinbrenner, called Johnson “Big Guy” during an interview.
Thus a legendary nickname and catchphrase was unleashed on the Charlotte region.
“Big Guy” became Johnson’s calling card and, in many ways, his alter ego. He just as frequently used it to refer to other people — those he was reporting on or anyone he might see on the street.
“It just caught on,” Johnson says. “It’s still here. It’s one of those things I can’t explain. I just go with it.”
But Johnson thinks having people feeling comfortable referring to him as “Big Guy” said a lot about how he tried to present himself and was a big part of his appeal.
“As open as I am and with all the joking and the kidding, I never thought I was special,” Johnson says. “I never thought I was better than anybody else. I never talked down to people. I think people saw that trait in me. Whatever I was in person, I was the same way on TV.”
Returning to radio
In November 2006, Johnson announced on the air that he was retiring from WSOC.
Linda Johnson, his wife of 46 years and with whom he had raised three children in Statesville, had an advanced form of cancer, and Johnson wanted to care for her.
“We put her in the hospital the next day, and she died three weeks later,” Johnson says. “She was a teacher, wonderful and smart. She didn’t get caught up in the hype that was me. She knew it was just a job.”
Johnson’s decision to leave WSOC came as a surprise to all involved. He doesn’t think he handled it the right way.
“It’s one of the regrets I have, that I didn’t let the viewers know in advance,” Johnson says. “People said, ‘Harold, we’ve wondered what happened to you.’ I should have announced it earlier. People would have wanted to say goodbye, maybe.”
Johnson says he spent the immediate years after Linda’s death working in his garden and playing golf. Always interested in politics, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2010 (moving temporarily to Concord to do so). In 2012, he decided to return to WSIC, where his career began in 1964.
The morning show is a mix of conversation with Weiss about current events, the weather, sports or whatever might come up. There’s a trivia segment and listeners can call in to wish friends or family a happy birthday.
“It’s truly the highlight of my day,” Weiss says of working with Johnson. “I’ve never worked with somebody so passionate about everything. Especially at his age.”
Johnson doesn’t dodge issues. He says he’s a supporter of President Donald Trump, although he thinks of himself as socially liberal and fiscally conservative.
“I like his politics,” Johnson says of Trump. “He wants to put America first. Why shouldn’t we be first? Who wants to be second or third? Some of his texting, I have an issue with. But this guy does what he says he’s going to do.”
Johnson pours more syrup on his pancakes at Cracker Barrel. When he leaves, he tips the restaurant’s hostess and cashier, pleasantly surprising them both.
It’s not $100, but it’s something. Sinatra would have been proud.