Mark Packer did not intend to anchor one of the nation's largest regional sportstalk networks. He was on the production side of radio before the Charlotte-based 'Prime Time with The Packman' took off. Packer, a 47-year-old Clemson graduate (economics degree, 1985), now presides over a popular afternoon show with 15 affiliates throughout North Carolina and South Carolina, including Charleston's WQNT 1450-AM. A former Tigers golfer and the son of longtime basketball analyst Billy Packer, the busy and well-connected host talked college football and other sports with The Post and Courier's Gene Sapakoff:
How long have you been doing the "Prime Time" show?
"I started with WFNZ in August of 1997. I started by doing a mid-day show and I did that for about six weeks, and then the guy who was hosting the Prime Time show, Matt Pinto, ended up leaving to become the play-by-play voice of the Dallas Mavericks. So then WFNZ and CBS decided to do a national search to find a guy to replace Matt. I got a phone call in the middle of the night and the general manager said, 'Hey, I just wanted to let you know we hired our guy for the Prime Time show.' And I said, 'Why are you calling me?' He said, 'I just thought you'd like to know it's you.' I had no interest in doing that stupid show, but the rest is history and I've been doing the show ever since."
What has made your show catch on so well and so fast?
"I had a background with the whole thing, being 'Billy's Boy.' The one thing I knew about radio is I had great contacts. I thought, 'We can kind of make this a unique show.' Everything we talked about from NASCAR to the ACC to the SEC made sense. This is water-cooler stuff all over the Carolinas. I kept thinking, 'If it's working in Charlotte, it will work in Charleston or Raleigh or the Upstate of South Carolina.' I went to CBS and said, 'Hey, I'd like to acquire the syndication rights to the program.' and they let me do it and it just took off."
What's more popular in Charlotte: college football or the Panthers?
"If you're asking me, it's college football. The NFL is still king, but in the South it's all about college football. Growing up in Winston-Salem and going to games at Groves Stadium with 13,000 people and then going to Clemson when Danny Ford had it going on, it was amazing the difference between the states of North and South Carolina. That was the polar opposite, and that's the fun thing for me sitting in the chair I sit in Monday through Friday. For me, it's still college football. When the Panthers are hot, that's great but I can always bring up a dialog about the Gamecocks or the Tigers or what Butch Davis has going on at North Carolina. For what we do, college sports is always a hot button."
You go to a different stadium every Saturday on your Southern Fried Football Tour. What games are you most looking forward this season?
"We announce our tour schedule Aug. 19, so you'll have to wait. But I can tell you the 13th year will be the best. Our tour website had 16 million hits on it last year and is now its own company that has just turned into a gold mine. I have as much fun putting together the Southern Fried Football Tour as I do putting our show together. We will hit almost every spot in North and South Carolina."
The ACC championship game comes to Charlotte. Good idea?
"A great idea. It's too bad the ACC got too political and tried to keep the folks in Florida happy because the game belongs in Charlotte. And I would say that whether I lived in Charlotte or not. The game will be supported much better than it was in Tampa or Jacksonville. It will be a home run in Charlotte."
Which two teams get to Charlotte this year?
"I'm going to go with Florida State in the Atlantic Division. I think (Clemson head coach) Dabo (Swinney) has lost too much to get there again, though I hope I'm wrong. And in the Coastal, which may be as good a division as there is in college football, I think Virginia Tech probably gets there."
The future of the Charlotte Bobcats: Are you buying or selling?
"I am selling. I am still not sold on the NBA in this market right now. They had such a good year but then getting swept in the postseason and then the craziness with Larry Brown and Michael Jordan not talking to each other. I'm going to sell the Bobcats. I hate to say that, but I'm just not convinced that Charlotte has completely embraced them. Unless they're playing really great basketball, nobody seems to care."
How about the current state of NASCAR? Yes, it's a tough economy but there are an awful lot of empty seats out there.
"It's the combination of a lot of things. You can't dismiss the economy. It's terribly tough on the fan that goes to NASCAR events and the lack of disposable income. But the thing that intrigues me is that if a guy can't afford to go to a race, I assume he's staying home and watching it. But then you look at the TV ratings and they are just abysmal. It goes back to the product and if the racing isn't great, people are going to find something else to do. You have a sport that got fat, happy and greedy, and when you start losing tracks at North Wilkesboro and Rockingham and an event at Darlington -- that was the core of what the sport was all about. The race in Kansas City looks just like the race in Chicago, which looks no different than the race in Los Angeles."
What's your favorite memory of Clemson that you can actually talk about publicly?
"The thing I love about Clemson and still do is the people. It might sound sappy but I grew up in Winston-Salem as an N.C. State fan and went down to Clemson for a football game and fell in love with the place. There's something about a Saturday in Death Valley."
How do you think South Carolina will do this season?
"I think they're going to be good. I know we have been getting a lot of phone calls from people thinking they're going to win the (SEC) East. But when you still can't prove you can run the football, I think that's tough to say. They're good enough to beat Georgia and good enough to be in front of the Kentuckys and the Vanderbilts and that crowd but I still don't think they're in front of Florida. But I think this will be the best Steve Spurrier team we've seen at South Carolina."
What is the best part about being Billy Packer's son?
"Probably the amount of incredibly cool, great people I've had a chance to meet. And that's true whether they're coaches, players, broadcasters or whatever the case may be. There are a lot of upsides, and there are some downsides to being the son of a quote-unquote 'famous broadcaster.' "
What are the downsides?
"A lot of times people just dismiss your success. But you have to work your tail off to survive and make it in this business. People assume a lot is just given to you, which was not necessarily the case. Billy made all of us kids earn the things we were going to do. But you get a pretty thick skin pretty quickly doing this stuff."