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Justin Acri: Stay humble, won't stumble

Hustle, humility by Dwain Hebda | August 15, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.
Justin Acri

Every morning, Justin Acri flips a switch and feels the pulse of Arkansas. For three hours in the prime mid-morning rotation at 103.7 The Buzz, Acri and sidekick Wess Moore hold court with listeners on The Zone radio talk show.

It's billed as sports talk and while a little bit of everything creeps in, the bulk of what's here is tied to whatever's in season, particularly if the Arkansas Razorbacks are involved and especially on the topic of football. If you want to know the mood of the state, the days after a big Hogs win or crushing loss lay things out loud and clear.

Throughout, Acri's steady Midwestern patter steers the ship. After 15 years on the show, and 24 years in broadcasting overall, he knows the currents and riptides of fandom and how they often spill out and over the populace in erratic, sometimes unreasonable fashion. Still, hanging up on a caller is extremely rare here; the good ones are welcomed as family while those of half-baked opinion, egregious conspiracy theory or empty trash talk are reduced to rubble. It's a high-wire act with little to no net, yet Acri takes all comers.

"I don't say stuff I don't believe," he says. "People are like, 'Are you just trying to create conversation?' No, none of us fake it. Nobody is like, on this topic you take this side, I'm going to take that side. Maybe in some markets they do that, where they're a little more organized. But we just can't do that. And I can't fake an opinion.

"There are times, as a younger broadcaster, where I was probably a little more cantankerous, a little less respectful, maybe, of a caller than I should have been. I still get on them; I'm just better at it now than I was when I was young. Luckily, I had the chance to grow and learn."

Noticing he's physically leaned into the question, dark eyes flashing, Acri sits back in his chair and chuckles.

"To me, in radio you have to have to have a strong presence," he says with a grin. "But I don't treat people like that off the air. People are like, 'Oh, you're a lot nicer in person than I thought you were.'"

SPORTS FANDOM

To borrow from a 1990s athletic shoe pitch: Justin Acri knows football. And basketball. And baseball, golf, boxing, track, mixed martial arts, sports wagering and can convincingly fake it on several other topics as the situation demands. It's a multi-dimensional skill set that most broadcasters gain over many years in the business, but in Acri's case it began much earlier, through personal experience growing up in small-town Iowa on the fringes of Des Moines.

"We probably had about 400 kids at my high school. I had 75 in my graduating class," he says. "One good thing about going to a smaller school, especially a school that wasn't particularly successful at anything, was you could participate in everything. Saydel High School was good at baseball and band and that was it.

"Baseball, I was pretty good. I batted around .400 as a senior, played center field. Basketball, we were so bad; I started on the varsity team when I was a sophomore, that's how bad we were. I liked football probably the most. I played corner and receiver. In fact, I only came off the field for kickoff and kickoff return. That was pretty standard. Half our starting unit played both ways."

Acri jammed several other extracurriculars into his laden schedule, including playing trumpet in the high school's award-winning band and editing the yearbook. He even put in three years playing on the school's golf team and ran track despite the seasons running concurrently.

His compulsion to belong, to be included, to do something stemmed partly from his parents' divorce, occurring when he was 7, as staying busy helped fill the time. More importantly, he learned to appreciate the sacrifice and work ethic it took to compete and succeed. These traits he saw out of his father, Frank, and late mother, Chris, and witnessing that left an indelible mark on his personality.

"We've had our ups and downs over the years, but when I needed my parents to be there for me, they were there for me," he says. "My dad and mom were at every game, my mom took me to every practice. They were both very hard workers, very nurturing, and probably much nicer to me than I deserved. They were very good parents."

Individually, Acri took from his mother a tough, blue-collar mentality to hustle and scrap for what one wanted in life. From his father he got a sense of heritage, being regularly immersed in the extensive paternal side of the family.

"My dad's family is very close-knit, Italian," he said. "We'd go to my grandparents' house on Sundays and watch sports. I can remember in '86, I was there watching Jack Nicklaus win the Masters with my dad, my grandpa and my uncle."

"We would all go play golf together on Sundays when I got older. We played every single Sunday while my grandmother would make a huge pasta dinner. My whole family would come and we'd have 20 people over there. It was great."

These events fortified a growing love of sports in the young Acri, who by middle school had become fascinated by sportscasting.

"Dick Vitale -- he was my inspiration," Acri says. "He was having so much fun and I'm like, they pay people to do this? As a kid, my teachers were always telling me, 'You talk too much in class.' And I was like, well, I might as well put this to use.

"I never wavered from that. I remember in high school we had a guy come in who was an anchor at the CBS affiliate in Des Moines, the No. 1 station. He came in and said, point blank, 'Do not go into broadcasting.' And I was thinking Dude, you've been doing this your whole life, what do you mean don't go into broadcasting? Who is this clown?

"Even then, I knew there were lots of opportunities in journalism. I didn't know exactly what I was going to do, but I knew that's where I wanted to be."

DOPPELGANGER CITIES

Acri attended Iowa State University where his very serious ambitions in broadcasting commingled with a thorough enjoyment of college life. He landed in Arkansas in 1998 from his first television job in Duluth, Minn., a gig that lasted just under a year. What was supposed to be just another step on the ladder quickly turned into home.

"I've always said Des Moines is a doppelganger for Little Rock," he says. "Capitol city, middle of the state, same size, on the river. Des Moines has a AAA ballpark; AA ballpark here. They're not [agriculture] towns, but they're in [agriculture] states. There are so many similarities. Growing up there was really good preparation for living here and understanding where everything fits into the overall scheme of the state."

Landing at KATV as a general reporter, Acri soon began to get additional looks outside of field reporting. His natural talent for sportscasting quickly became as glaringly apparent as his ineptitude as an anchor.

"I wanted to be Tom Brokaw, but I was a terrible news anchor," he says. "They gave me an opportunity at KATV to do some anchoring, me and Kate Sullivan. Kate was great. I sucked."

Instead, management started using Acri for crossover stories that rode shotgun with sports, such as broadcasting from the tailgate zone and getting fans on camera. In 2003, management put weekend sports anchor Scott Inman on as news anchor and gave Acri the shot he'd been waiting for, where he'd learn at the elbows of two Arkansas broadcasting legends.

"I'm the third wheel behind Paul Eells and Steve Sullivan, which is an awesome way to live," Acri says. "I'm doing weekends and I'm hustling around doing sports stories and whatever Sully tells me to do. It was great."

Acri's professional activities in 2003 also included a part-time hosting slot at 103.7 The Buzz. Balancing the two was a throwback to his extracurricular schedule of high school.

"I would be [at The Buzz] at 6 a.m. I would work until 10 and then I'd usually go work out or go home and take a nap," he says. "Then I'd be at the TV station at 1 p.m. and I'd work until 10 p.m. The problem was, they had different days off, so I literally worked seven days a week for three straight years."

As if that wasn't enough, in 2004 the newly-married Acri got a call from then-University of Central Arkansas head football coach Clint Conque about doing his coaches show, which Acri added to the pile. It would later open the door to a UCA basketball coaches show as well.

Acri would shed TV for full-time radio in 2006, shortly after which Brad Teague, UCA Athletic Director, dangled the opportunity to do play-by-play for UCA football. It was one of the few times the over-achieving Acri would say no, offering instead to do color commentary and lobbying his mentor Steve Sullivan to handle play-by-play.

It wouldn't be his last opportunity in the booth, however; in short order he'd become the voice of UCA basketball and, in 2016, replace Sullivan as the play-by-play for Bears football. Teague says Acri's versatility puts him right at home no matter the venue.

"What's great about Justin is he makes everybody feel comfortable," he says. "It doesn't matter who he's around, he's always in a good mood. He's as witty as they get. He can string a conversation out and make it enjoyable for the listener and I've always been impressed by that trait. He's really been a big part of our brand."

MANAGING TOMMY

Acri's star was also rising at The Buzz. He was named program director in 2006, the station's general manager in 2008 and last year, general manager for the company's new sports format station 106.7 The Buz2.

"You won't find anybody that works as hard as Justin. His mind is thinking 24-7," says Terri Mahan, chief executive officer of Signal Media, which owns the stations. "I might get an email from him at 4 o'clock in the morning, I might get an email from him at 11 o'clock at night. He is not just always working, but always thinking. If he sees something that he thinks might be good for the company, he doesn't hesitate to come in and try to spearhead that and think about all the angles and rally the troops around it."

Managing radio personalities with decades more experience -- including stalwarts Tommy Smith, Randy Rainwater and David Bazzel -- proved substantially more challenging than managing irate callers. But just like with callers, Acri wasn't about to back down to star power.

"I was self-aware enough to know I'm not going to tell Tommy Smith something he doesn't already know in radio. Same thing with Randy," he says. "I was also realistic enough to understand they didn't need me that much and they were probably not going to listen to me a lot. That lasted probably six months to a year.

"There have been moments here and there where we would butt heads, but it wasn't about that. They had just never been coached. Tommy had never been told by a program director, 'No, no, no. Now wait a minute.' Same thing with Randy. But I knew how radio was supposed to sound, that there are certain things you just don't do. It's Radio 101, but everybody needs a reminder sometimes, myself included. No matter how good you are, you should be able to take some constructive criticism. They're pros, they can take it."

ON THE AIR

Radio is a medium of the people and any on-air personality knows the demands of the various promotions that come with the territory. But other events, the kind that rally people to the cause of their friends and neighbors, are what make Acri's job truly rewarding. He points with pride to the station's role in raising money for causes or distributing bottled water and rebuilding communities following a natural disaster.

From this example, he has branched into community service work personally, serving nonprofits whose missions speak to him, notably Ronald McDonald House Charities, the former Rice Depot and Arkansas Foodbank.

His most ambitious project, co-founding the Arkansas Italian Food and Wine Festival, benefits Boys and Girls Club of Little Rock while celebrating his ethnic heritage. It was cancelled last year due to the pandemic. This year's event also is cancelled but Acri hopes it can be held in spring 2022.

"The Italian Festival started when [co-founder] Patrick Presley came up to me and said, 'I'm thinking of starting this festival, what do you think?' He knew I was Italian and naturally, I thought it was a great idea," Acri says.

"We built it from the ground up, including how much we needed to raise from sponsorships, what we'll do for entertainment. It was a lot of work, overwhelmingly so. Doing that on top of my regular job and raising a family, I don't know how I got through it."

Acri's personal definition of celebrity mandates authenticity, even if that means being transparent well into his private life. He regularly riffs on fatherhood and the youthful misadventures of his two sons and has even touched on his recent divorce on-air, albeit sparingly out of respect for his ex-wife. Radio is an intimate medium, he says, and he sees little value in trying to be someone he's not.

"I think everything's fair game," he says. "I try to be real. People want to hear about if you're dating, what you're doing, what you did last weekend, where you went, what you saw. We all try to tell personal stuff and there's a line for everyone they don't cross. But I don't mind telling that stuff; if I think it's relatable or interesting or funny, I say it."

As with any job, filling three hours of subject matter while taking on-topic and out-of-left-field callers in stride is harder than it looks. Last year, it was particularly so when so many sports were limited or canceled due to the pandemic. The Zone crew, like all at The Buzz, prevailed through sheer hustle and creativity, taking a cue from their leader.

Looking back, 2020 showcased that for which Acri would like to be remembered most, one who took his audience and his job seriously, not himself.

"We're in sports talk radio; most of what we're arguing about is who's better, the Cowboys or the Eagles, or the Razorbacks or the Longhorns. It doesn't matter most of the time," he says. "It isn't serious, but I take it seriously out of respect for the listener and because we have a great pathway to people's hearts and minds. That's why I never mail it in; I'm never going to feel like I didn't put in the effort.

"All you can do is hustle to the best of your ability. I always felt I may not be the most talented guy in the room, but I'll be the hardest worker. Jack of all trades, master of none -- that's me."

Justin Acri
Justin Acri
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Self-Portrait

Justin Matthew Acri

DATE OF BIRTH: April 7, 1974, Des Moines, Iowa

MY FAVORITE MOVIE: Overall would be “The Godfather.” Favorite sports movie would be “Bull Durham.” “The Princess Bride” is a personal fave, as I served Cary Elwes as a bartender in college, and he was fantastic.

MY PERSONAL MOTTO IS: Work hard, play hard, fight hard, love hard. I really try to do everything to the max and utilize most every moment.

MY FAVORITE BRUSH WITH GREATNESS WAS: Meeting Vince Vaughn at a Jermain Taylor fight when Taylor won the middleweight title. I got a picture, but a woman walked in just as we took it and all you see is my forehead and Vince.

THE ONE THING I KNOW TO BE TRUE ABOUT ALL PEOPLE IS: There’s someone for everyone, or so Kenny Rogers tells me. (RIP Kenny)

THE ATHLETE I IDOLIZED AS A KID WAS: Michael Jordan. A lame and common answer, yes, but true. I saw him play twice in person; he went for 52 against Charlotte in the 1993 regular season and 55 against Phoenix in Game 4 of the 1993 Finals.

THE BEST ADVICE I EVER GOT WAS: From former KATV News Director Bob Steel who told me “Stay humble and you won’t stumble.”

MY IDEA OF THE PERFECT SATURDAY MUST INCLUDE: Friends and family, great food and drinks, lots of laughs and ideally golf/lake/beach or some fun activity for part of the day before winding down with wine and conversation.

MY GUILTY PLEASURE IS: Hallmark Christmas movies.

THE WORD TO DESCRIBE ME: Competitive.

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