Chattanoogan: Talk Radio's "Cowboy Joe"

Thursday, December 11, 2003 - by Nicole S. Gwyn
Cowboy Joe
Cowboy Joe
- photo by Nicole S. Gwyn

A bachelor in Chattanooga could likely find lots of good music, food, and friends to keep him company any given Friday night. Take Radio producer Joe Varner for example. Mr. Varner, known also as “Cowboy Joe” of SportTalk 102.3-FM, likes hanging out at the late night hot spots of downtown Chattanooga.

“The club scene, I like that,” he said. “Downtown has really improved. It’s good to see a mix of people downtown.”

Yet, Mr. Varner sets aside his social life to co-host the Coca-Cola Red Zone, a show that looks at the scores and highlights of area high school sports every Friday night on 102.3 during the fall sports season.

His efforts paid off when the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association last month named the Coca-Cola Red Zone as “Outside Contributor of the Year” at a ceremony in Knoxville.

The A.F. Bridges Sportsmanship Award honored the show for its coverage of high school sports over the past 10 years, said Scott McMahen, Red Zone and SportTalk co-host, who accepted the award on behalf of the Red Zone team.

“Anytime you’re recognized for something like this, especially statewide, it makes you feel proud,” Mr. McMahen said. “It meant a lot to me.”

He commended Mr. Varner for his work on the show, saying that 27-year-old Varner has made personal sacrifices for the sake of the show.

“Doing the show 13 straight Fridays and having to give up a lot … it shows how much (Mr. Varner) is a fan of high school football and wants to give back,” he said.

Mr. Varner said this award was his first in radio. “That was a pretty big deal, being recognized for that.”

He didn’t plan for a career in radio when he enrolled at UTC. “I wanted to be a teacher coming out of high school. I had a friend who was a teacher and that kinda spoiled me,” he said.

He was majoring in secondary education when a friend at WGOW introduced him to radio production. For over a year, he worked on producing weekend and live shows. He eventually began filling in as a producer on SportTalk, which led to a permanent position.

“They accepted me as one of their own,” he said of his SportTalk colleagues.

Mr. Varner said he has a “vested interest in sports” since he played on football teams from third grade through high school. He said he no longer has time to play team sports, but works out with weights. He once entered a weight lifting competition, he said.

Mr. Varner used a couple of different radio monikers, like “Jolting Joe” and “Smoking Joe” before using “Cowboy Joe.” During some on-air banter, Mr. McMahen called him a “cowboy,” so he became known by that name.

He said one of the best parts of his job as a radio host and producer is talking to listeners. “They’ll call in to talk about something that happened the day before,” he said. “There are really good people out there.”

Mr. Varner has never married. He has a younger sister who, he said, is “very outspoken” and tries to keep him in line. Though his parents are divorced, he said they are big influences in his life.

“My mom sends me a lot of fan mail,” he said. “She’s my biggest fan.”

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