Tony Thomas '80 - The Lure of the Radio
Growing up in San Francisco, Tony Thomas recalls bringing home notes from his teachers that said, "Tony seems to be a bright boy, but he talks too much in class." It was that gift of gab that led him to a successful career in radio. "I do talk a lot," Thomas confessed in a recent phone conversation, "and what I love most is talking about music." For over two decades, Thomas has worked as a radio host, program director, and music director. Since 1989 he has been music director and a popular "drive time" personality for Seattle's country radio station KMPS AM-FM. Thomas's knack for selecting tunes that click with his Seattle audience has been duly noted in his industry. He received the Billboard magazine Large Market Country Program Director of the Year award in 1994 and the Billboard Large Market Country Music Director of the Year award in 1993. He has been nominated five additional times for similar awards by the Gavin Report and Radio and Records magazine.
In elementary school, Thomas started playing trumpet; and played in bands throughout high school. He has fond memories of being lured to the radio as a kid by the sounds of sixties rock and r&b. He entered Berklee in 1977, but after three years, he realized that his musical talents were in the nonperforming area.
"As a Berklee student, I was around people like [saxophonist] Eric Marienthal ['79] and [guitarist] Steve Vai ['79]," he said. "It was a real blessing to realize that I would never be able to play like they do. I really mean that. After I took an internship at Boston's WBCN-FM station, it became clear that I had to go into radio. I knew I was better at that than most people and I had a real drive for it."
After the WBCN internship, Thomas got his first break at a small country station in Fort Morgan, Colorado. "A friend had told me about the job," he said. "I'd had no real experience on-air, or in country music. It was an incredibly fortunate break. I did a little bit of everything there for about three years, and then I went to an FM station in Reno, Nevada, for about five years."
In Reno, Thomas met his future bride, Linda, who also works in radio as a newscaster. She left Reno for Seattle in 1988, and Thomas moved there the following year. "I did not want to come here initially," he said. "I flew up to visit Linda, and it just seemed like the right place for me to be." Later, a chance meeting in Los Angeles with the program director of KMPS resulted in Thomas receiving a job offer. He has worked at KMPS ever since.
"I started out doing exactly what I am doing now--being afternoon disc jockey and music director," Thomas said. "I was program director for a few years, but that took me too far away from the music. I went back to being music director and being on the air."
Thomas sees this as a very interesting time to be in radio. He finds irony in the fact that he is still called a disc jockey but he doesn't spin discs. These days, most mainstream radio stations are preprogrammed, and the music is stored on computer hard drives. As the KMPS music director, Thomas preprograms the music for the station and serves as the contact for record labels. At most stations, the job is to play the newer songs frequently and mix in recurrent songs that are from a few months to a year old. "That keeps things interesting," he said. "We don't want someone who drives home at the same time every night to hear the same songs at the same time. Our listeners get what they expect and a few surprises. It is sort of like managing the inventory."
Thomas predicts that satellite radio, the advent of broadband-compatible cellular devices for cars, and Internet music-on-demand services will affect the future of radio. But he feels radio will hold its own. "We are 'broadcasting' to a wide audience," he said. "With technology, people are getting used to a one-on-one experience where they can hear what they want right then and there. Radio offers companionship and a shared experience. Large groups of people hear the same thing at the same time. It is like TV. People ask each other, 'Did you see Letterman last night?' When everyone starts hearing a new hit song during the same week, it drives the record. The downside of everything going to a one-to-one model is that it would be very hard to make a hit. Technologies like MP3 may alter people's relationship with radio, but the idea of a large group of people loving the same thing at the same time is a pretty powerful dynamic."
Thomas is the liaison between the station and the record promotions people at the labels who want their artists added to the KMPS playlist. "It is a tough game," he said. "We have to say no to most projects. On average, there are only two or three slots for new songs each week. We deal with over 20 major labels or major label affiliates in Nashville. Each has a roster of artists. When you do the math, clearly a lot of music is not going to be added. That can be heartbreaking for the artists. Our biggest concern is to make the right decision for our listeners. If we make the wrong decisions, the listeners will go away and find something better."
Thomas has found that Seattle listeners take a long time to warm up to a song and then they stay passionate about it longer. "That complicates things for stations and labels. The current life of a country single can be up to 30 weeks. That means that, even for the biggest artists, only two singles a year can be added. In the past, an act might have gotten four singles out in a year. Older, established artists like Alabama can go onstage and do a two-hour show of their hits. For a new artist to build that kind of catalog these days seems daunting."
I asked Thomas if he had ever felt that he was taking a chance by adding a new tune by an unknown artist. He replied, "If I hear a song by a new artist that just does it for me and I feel it will work for our audience, it doesn't seem like a risk. I am convinced that our audience is ready to love a new song. I must say that over the past 20 years, I haven't found a nonmajor label artist whose song did that for me. That's not because it wasn't on a major label; it's just the capitalist system at work.
"Record companies exist to sell music. An executive wants to find music that will excite people enough that they will buy it. If, as an artist, you have a sound that will do this, you've got the power. The record executive is ready to be excited about you if you have the right stuff. People who really deserve a major label deal usually end up there.
"The music business is odd because it can't be quantified. At Boeing, a plane either flies or it doesn't; there is nothing subjective about it. In the music business, bottom-line numbers are mixed with subjective artistic efforts. The combination is a bit odd sometimes. The good news is that in music, if someone has a message, something to share, and there are listeners who want it, there will have to be a transaction. That will never change."