The talk has shifted from politicians to minority-contractor participation in the FedEx Forum project to the impending war with Iraq to retirement pay for city sanitation workers -- and back to politics. The ebb and flow between callers and host is constant. The city's political leaders are called "punk politicians," "token Negroes," and "puppet representatives." And that's only in the first half-hour. Welcome to Express Yourself: You're on the air with Thaddeus Matthews.
Housed in a closet-size booth at Flinn Broadcasting, the show airs on WTCK-AM 1210 from noon to 2 weekdays. Matthews -- dressed entirely in black, with a bald head and glasses -- uses his distinctive baritone voice to urge listeners to think for themselves.
"For two hours I've got to stimulate your mind and entertain you," he says. "If I'm feeling down or really tired, I'm like Superman stepping into the telephone booth. When I open up that mike, it's my cape, and I'm there. For the next two hours you can't beat me in my game. I'm not politically correct," he adds, "and I can be obnoxious. But it's the most exciting two hours of the day."
Express Yourself went on the air in October 2002, and during the show's first five months, Matthews has emerged as Memphis' most controversial host, making a name for himself by "challenging the powers that be." It's a traditional talk-radio format and most of the show's callers are black, but Matthews contends the show is "not a black thing, not a white thing, but the right thing."
He makes no apologies for his rough style. In fact, he believes the tough talk lends authenticity to the program. When callers describe needed changes in run-down city neighborhoods, Matthews, a product of the "New Chicago" area of North Memphis, can identify. "I think people have been waiting for the truth. Even if they don't like the messenger, they like the message," he says. "[The show] is real blunt. It's not some guy who's trying to be a super-intellectual, just a regular guy who's been there. I've lived in those streets and still ride those streets."
As a teenager, Matthews lived near the old Firestone plant, where most young men in his neighborhood eventually ended up working. When Memphis City Schools began busing students for integration in 1973, the Manassas High student was sent to predominately white Frayser High School.
For the first time in his life Matthews felt the sting of racism. Refusing to sit idly by, he led a boycott and walkout in 1974. "I've always had a big mouth. If it comes up, it comes out. So, I led the walkout and we had our riots," he says. "All of the black boys were locked in the library, so we broke the glass, had an incident. I was the spokesman on television. Luckily, it was my senior year, and instead of kicking me out of school [the superintendent] transferred me to Northside High School and I became a peaceful person. The rest is history."
Born to a teenage mother, Matthews was reared by a great-aunt and raised in the church. He began preaching while in high school and traveled the city church circuit with other young preachers. But Matthews struggled trying to satisfy the ideals of a preacher's life, so he turned to the only other thing he knew how to do: talk.
Several sales jobs followed, with Matthews pushing everything from chemicals to funeral homes. In 1985, he began selling radio ads for WXSS-AM 1030 and was bitten by the radio bug. "They had a [deejay] on in the mornings doing a gospel show and he didn't sound that good to me," says Matthews. "This ego of mine led me to tell the station manager what I wanted to be: a radio personality. I became the Sunday morning guy and advertised my show as a 'hand-clapping, toe-tapping good time.' And because I had a church background, I was good. Real good."
Matthews went on to do shows on several other stations, including versions of Express Yourself, but more often gospel or blues formats. (He has no resume and relies on memory to keep a record of dates and call letters.) "I was a young fellow then and had no idea what I was doing," he says. "If I had known then the things I know now, I could be Rush Limbaugh. I'd be what Rush wants to be when he grows up."
Matthews' mouth often led to his termination or resignation, and as misfortunes accumulated in his professional life, they did in his personal life as well. Admitting to a onetime sexual addiction, Matthews says he was married "between five and 10 times," resulting in four children by four different women. "If a woman doesn't like who I am, [she can] leave. As long as God can keep making women, he'll make another one," he says. "Yes, I'm spoiled. I was spoiled by my great-aunt, and I've been looking for a woman to spoil me ever since."
Matthews has also accumulated an extensive criminal rap sheet, with charges ranging from contempt of court, illegal possession of a firearm, criminal impersonation, and assault. He denies nothing, openly talking about his past on the air and saying, "I never portrayed myself as a choirboy. I'm not one of those preachers who will turn the other cheek if you slap him."
After starting a newspaper called The Shopping Spree in 1991, Matthews returned to radio in 1993. He paid $5,000 down and $3,000 a month to operate WNWZ-AM 1430. Financial difficulties ensued. Matthews filed bankruptcy, and the station's owner terminated WNWZ's signal.
Matthews then hired an engineer to replace the transmitter and rebroadcast the station's signal. To draw attention and advertisers, Express Yourself was reincarnated as an outrageous, sexually themed show. The most shocking segment featured a female guest having intercourse with a dog. "I was labeled the first shock jock in Memphis," Matthews says. "I was Jerry Springer before Jerry Springer was Jerry Springer. I started using all the lines I had ever used, and playing love songs. I would get women calling me on the phone, masturbating." WNWZ failed after a one-year run.
Matthews now criticizes other stations, especially WDIA-AM 1070, for copying his former shock style. WDIA program director and morning host Bobby O'Jay says only that his station is "flattered at the attention given to us by other media," adding that WDIA has been doing relationship shows since 1987.
"I've only had one conversation with Mr. Matthews concerning a possible connection with WDIA," O'Jay says. "We've never used his services in the past. However, who knows what the future holds? There's more to it than opening a microphone and taking phone calls. There is a certain amount of talk-show etiquette that comes with that responsibility. We look for talent that has that quality."
According to the latest Arbitron ratings, WDIA is the number-one AM station in Memphis among 25- to 64-year-olds. Arbitron ratings for Matthews' current show will not be available before June, since the station recently changed call letters and formats.
After WNWZ's failure, Matthews landed at WAVN-AM 1240 in Southaven, where he did a blues program and another version of Express Yourself. Matthews, who was also working for N.J. Ford Funeral Home at the time, says Harold Ford Sr. demanded his dismissal from the station after Matthews put the parents of a young man involved in a shooting on the air and revealed information he had learned at the funeral home. Ultimately, the show was canceled.
Matthews says he then became a bounty hunter. After discovering that repossessing cars was easier and less dangerous, he started GOTCHA! Auto Recovery, a business he still owns. But he never lost his love for the spotlight. "I would be okay with being out of radio," he says, "until I would be out in the community picking up a car or at a church preaching and someone would tell me that they remembered one of my old shows. I missed that attention, and the radio bug bit me again."
He turned to the only person who seemed willing to work with him: George Flinn. He began calling Flinn during Flinn's 2002 county mayoral race but never received a return call. "I don't think they thought I would have supported his candidacy, with him running against a black man and me being black," says Matthews. "But as soon as he lost, I gave him a call and we set it up. I went on the air October 7, 2002."
Airtime for Express Yourself is paid for by Matthews. He says his yearly cost is between $20,000 and $40,000. He and Flinn deny rumors that the station owner is bankrolling the program to further his political ambitions. Matthews says he pays for the time-slot with advertising and funds from his repossession business.
"Thaddeus' program is his program," says Flinn. "We don't give him topics and people to discuss. He pays the same that everyone else pays. The price is standard. I wish I had had him on the air during my campaign. I think he would have gotten me a few more votes. He's really got his finger on the pulse of the community."
Other hosts on the station now include Matthews' buddy Jennings Bernard, who began a "Democratic Crack Head" phone line that lampooned Memphis' chronic reelection of criminal offenders.
Matthews says being in touch with the community means being "in touch with truth." His most intensive political criticism has been aimed at Memphis City Council member Rickey Peete. On the air, Matthews has questioned Peete's dual membership on the council and Beale Street Merchants Association, calling it a conflict of interest. Off the air, Matthews held a press conference demanding Peete's resignation from the city council.
"I don't even dignify someone like that with a comment," says Peete. "You only encourage these types of actions from people like that when you say something in response."
In addition to his continued attacks on Peete, Matthews has begun a campaign to vote the Shelby County Democratic Party steering committee out of office. "With politicians, especially in the black community, there was no one to whip them into shape, no one to hold them accountable," he says. Matthews has become something of a community activist off the air as well. He regularly attends city and county meetings and asks politicians to be guests on his show. While most have declined, they know he's out there, talking.
"I've known Thaddeus for years and he's matured a lot," says Flinn. "Frankly, I'd like to have some more like him on the air. He's talking about good things. People call his show controversial, but it shows how angry people really are about these issues."
Since Matthews' current show hasn't been around long enough to be rated by Arbitron, it's difficult to judge how many people he is actually reaching. Matthews hopes the numbers will justify another year's contract with the station. In the meantime, he serves as associate pastor of Christ United Baptist Church in Whitehaven and continues his repo business. He steadfastly denies any political aspirations, opting to remain "that voice outside the ring that keeps those in the ring on their toes."
Although his show appears to be gaining momentum, Matthews says he wasn't certain he'd arrived until a listener named John called. Known around the city for his repeated calls to other talk shows, John is a conservative, pro-Bush black man with a speech impediment who boasts of not having worked in 22 years. "People ask me why I waste my time with John, why I take his calls," says Matthews. "I take his calls because John reminds me of what I could have been. Except for the grace of God and the help of some people, that could have been me. I knew my show hadn't made it until John called."
It's 12:35 p.m. and the lines are open. "Hello, Thaddeus," says the caller on the other end. "It's John."
Rickey Peete: "Bought and paid for, on a self-serving mission. His new slogan should be: Don't Repeat! Get Rid of Peete!"
Sara Lewis: "I like Sara. She's aggressive and she's accessible. She has provided me information about the circus atmosphere that's going on in the school board."
Harold Ford Jr.: "Ambitious but not responsive. I think Junior has his eyes on the big prize -- the presidency -- but first, the U.S. Senate. I'm not that crazy about his father, but he's not as responsive as his father. His position of siding with President Bush for war will make him vulnerable at election time."
Mayor A C Wharton: "I think as mayor he's very efficient. I think he's got his hands full. Because he is a people person and both black and white communities admire him, he'll walk through this. I think we'll be very surprised at some of the changes that he's going to make."
Barbara Swearingen-Holt: "A nice lady, but not as responsive as she used to be. I think she needs to disassociate herself from some of the other council people. She's well-respected, but there would be another level of respect if she didn't associate herself with Rickey Peete."
E.C. Jones: "I've found him to be responsive. I've been able to call him and he has responded. I have nothing but the highest regard for him."
Mayor Willie Herenton: "I think he is a servant to the power brokers in this city -- Turley, Belz, and Hyde. I think they have an agenda that they need him to fulfill. Unless you find a very strong candidate with a lot of money, he will win again. No average Joe is going to beat him because he's too well-connected."