Just eight months ago, a doctor told John Thomas to prepare his family for the possibility he might die. Thomas, a veteran radio programmer who had stepped away from broadcasting to work for the company that runs Toby Keith’s bar and restaurant chain, was by then on his second go-round with late-stage cancer in two years.
But by June, Thomas was well again and given the all-clear by his doctors. That’s when he made good on a promise he’d made to himself during his two-year ordeal, jumping in his truck and going on a six-week road trip that took him all over the country. During that journey, he listened to a lot of radio and realized that despite dire reports in the consumer media, it’s far from a dying medium.
“There are great radio stations all around the country,” he says, “and what’s good isn’t always the same in every market. The stations that really caught me were the ones I heard in the smaller markets, like Omaha [Neb.], where they’re talking about the agricultural report because that’s what that market wants. It was good to hear a lot of radio stations out there really super-serving their marketplaces. … Anybody can play Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood,” he says. But the key to good radio is to “focus on the listener experience.”
That’s exactly what he’s doing in his new role as senior vp programming for iHeart Media’s Springfield, Mass., cluster, which includes day-to-day programming for country WRNX.
That Thomas—the former programmer of country KYGO Denver—opted to get back into radio isn’t a surprise. During his time as vp marketing and entertainment for club operator Boomtown Entertainment, he realized that he missed a lot of things about it, particularly working with air talent and “being in the trenches” with a team of fellow broadcasters. “I missed the excitement of it,” he says. In fact, after initially winning his first bout with soft-tissue sarcoma in his leg, he considered a return to broadcasting more than a year ago until those plans were derailed when he learned the cancer had metastasized.
“Cancer is devastating on a lot of fronts — physically, emotionally, financially,” he says. But as sick as he was, Thomas continued to work to the extent he could. “I could not not work — I had to,” he says. “It was a mental thing for me, because you look like you’re dying, you feel like you’re dying, people look at you like you’re dying, and you have doctors saying to you, ‘You might be dying.’ There’s no way I could lay on a couch all day. It would just drive you nuts.”
In returning to radio, he brings back some insights he gleaned from the Boomtown job, which involved booking bands, marketing shows and working with radio on ad buys and promotions. Those observations include a renewed belief in the importance of radio to the entire music industry food chain, and the impact radio’s support can have on a show.
He dealt with some great and some “mediocre” sales reps during his time at Boomtown, and says, “You could tell the sales reps you were dealing with that didn’t listen to their radio stations.” But he gained some insight even from those account executives that either had an unrealistic vision for their own stations or couldn’t clearly articulate their position in the marketplace. “What I learned from that experience is that I need to do a great job of explaining the brand and the radio station and the functionality to the sales reps,” he says. “That’s part of my job. We’re all in sales. We’re all in digital. We’re all in programming.”
Thomas is also back to radio with an understandable new perspective on life following his serious illness. “When you go through something like that, you learn really quickly what’s important and what’s not, and you learn to live minute-by-minute and appreciate things,” he says. “What it’s taught me more than ever is that life is really precious. I don’t take that lightly. I’ve learned this – I don’t need a reason to tell somebody I love them. I’m never too busy to talk to somebody who needs something. I just can’t be, because there were people there for me."
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.