WORDS / JEREMY GLOVER
PHOTO / GABE GENTRY
In the age of the Internet, information overload is nigh unavoidable, especially with a news cycle that is now constant, unrelenting and frequently wrong on all counts. The popularity and effectiveness of satire as a way to cut through the morass of disinformation and deflate the pompous, ignorant and self-righteous should come as no surprise.
Arkansas is a proud Southern state with outsized characters of all stripes, from small town eccentrics to those that have pushed through to the national and international stage, such as the Clintons and Huckabees. It’s a state where reality is a foreign concept when it comes to our college football team and our current crop of congressmen and senators.
Greg Henderson has seized upon the target rich environment of The Natural State with his online publication Rock City Times, a website that bills itself as, “Arkansas 2nd most unreliable news source.”
“Satire is basically an analogy: you are taking a situation and retelling it in a different light to show it some other way than it’s just being told on the surface,“ Henderson says. “I piss off as many people as I make happy I’m sure.”
A lot of what Henderson wants to do through Rock City Times and his other ventures, including the more straightforward Rock City Eats, comes from his experience doing marketing in the manufacturing field.
“I would get into industries that were pretty stale, pretty stagnant,” he says. “So what I would do there is try to break the mold, try to break everything that’s going on and really engage the people and see what they want. Disrupt whatever the norm was – throw the norm out the window and try to rebuild it based on what people are showing me and what they are telling me.”
The most immediate and easy comparison for Rock City Times is The Onion, yet Henderson sees a difference in the more generic content of The Onion and the very localized coverage of his website.
“I try to take a very local media style feel to all the writing so it doesn’t feel out of place as a release on KATV or Channel 4 or in the Dem-Gaz or something like that. I try not to make it feel out of place in one of those and I think that contributes to people believing it,” he says. “I like things to connect back with people.”
In what would be a damning critique if it wasn’t so commonplace these days, a couple of Rock City Times articles been reported by national and even international press as straight news stories. It’s glaringly obvious that gullibility is a trait of our times when Henderson published “Local Weathermen Arrested After Fight Breaks Out Over Rain Chances For This Weekend,” an article that pitted Jeff Baskin of Fox 16 against Keith Monahan of KARK in disagreement that degenerated into schoolyard fight at the flagpole. Baskin thought it was pretty funny, especially the part about “having mascara applied,” but says he didn’t think any more of it until people began calling the newsroom.
“I think what happened was people just started sharing the headline without reading the article. I would think that anyone that read far enough into it that got to the parts about the ‘Anchorman’ style gang fight or the positioning of a camera between two adjacent jail cells to deliver the weather live that night would get it,” Baskin says. “Apparently, Inside Edition called Pulaski County to try to confirm if Keith Monahan and I were actually in jail. Hey, at least they did that. Sirius XM Morning Mash Up and various radio stations across the country just ran the story as if it were true without attempting to verify any of it.”
Another story, “Local Man In Coma After Eating 413 Red Lobster Biscuits,” was picked up by major British tabloids without any verification and sourcing, and from there it spread to Australia, Canada, Europe and back through the U.S.
“At that point it went really absolutely nuts,” Henderson says. “I spent the whole week on the phone with just about every major media outlet you could name that has a serious name behind it – MSNBC, CNN, Huffington Post, which is the one I’m proud of – it was huge.”
Of course, Henderson responded to the highly sensationalized British tabloids pushing his fake story on a man overdosing on cheese biscuits by skewering their famous lack of legitimate sources and credibility with a not so subtle article titled, “British Tabloid Daily Mirror Outsources Writing To Arkansas Satire News Site.”
Henderson has also gained the attention of the state’s media, with feature articles in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette and Arkansas Times as well as tweets and retweets from local members of the media, including KATV news anchor and state personality Craig O’Neill who recently tweeted, “Arkansan of the Day: Greg Henderson @RockCityTimes Who knew satire in Arkansas would work so well.”
Henderson does not shy away from his opinion that most journalism in Arkansas is nothing more than “fluff” and that it’s “dull as hell.” “So you get people where they try not to offend anybody because the state’s so crazy that you are going to offend somebody with anything you do,” he says.
Operating from “who cares” perspective has spurred on many writers over the years with Henderson being no different, except he does seem to care about local businesses.
“I want it to be a little bit edgy, but at the same time, the whole goal all along was to always help small businesses,” he says. “A lot of the times I’m highlighting businesses that are up and coming, maybe somebody doesn’t know about. I’ll sneak them into articles to paint them in some kind of positive light when I can.”
Before Rock City Times became more known as a satire website, Henderson would receive press releases from a variety of businesses. A local pizza chain opening a new restaurant in the northwest part of the state sent him a press release that he then tweaked to make the expansion based on the demand of potheads. He then received a call from the restaurant owner who was impressed, which lead to a deal to do some creative advertising on Rock City Times. Since then he has been doing both funny and straightforward ads while cutting deals for small businesses owners who want to advertise.
While Henderson describes Rock City Times as just a hobby that got bigger than he ever imagined, he did just recently sign an advertiser that put him at even for the monthly expenses of running the website. Yet, in talking to Henderson, it’s easy to get a sense of why he created the website and what remains the driving force behind his satire: it’s fun.
“Just watching people’s comments, watching how the story progresses, it makes for a very interesting day,” he says. “It really is some of the most fun I’ve ever had.”