Gary Scott Thomas (in As jersey) with the KRTY crew.
By David Ferrell Jackson
From the February 1993 Edition
of The Bay Area Radio Digest
As a means for defining Gary Scott Thomas, the fast-rising morning man at San Jose's Country Y-95.3 (KRTY), it is probably best to allow the man to use his own words.
The setting was the Country Music Fest which the station sponsored at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View during this past Summer.
"I was talking to some people at the Country Fest, and I said, 'My boots hurt,' and a lady said, 'Well, you're not really country now, are you?'"
"There were five people standing there, and I said, 'You know, I'll bet you out of all five of us, I'm the only one who knows how to hook up a milking machine. I'll bet you out of all five of us, I'm the only one who knows how to drive a tractor and plow a field. I'll bet I'm the only one who could actually get on a horse and stand a chance of roping a cow or a bull."
"We didn't wear cowboy boots on the farm. Cowboy boots are what you wore out to show. I wore brogans (which he pronounces "bro-GANS"). I know who Hank Snow is. I can sing the words to 'Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man.' Just because you're country, people expect your name to be Earl."
Thomas' country lineage is unquestionably natural: he grew up in Paxton, Fla., near the Florida-Alabama line ("Until you get to Tallahassee, basically all of northern Florida is just southern Alabama," he points out), and majored in English Literature at Troy State University in Alabama, which he refers to, with a smile, as "Good old T-Roy Tech."
Only thirty years old, married (without children), possessed of an easy and innate sense of humor, Gary Scott Thomas is, if nothing else, well on his way along the road to radio success.
His path into radio, however, was not the shortest and most direct ever taken. In fact, he refers to his first job in radio at a thousand-watt Country station in a house trailer ("There's a lot of those down in that area," Thomas notes) the way other people refer to their first jobs at the local hamburger stand or variety store: it was little more than a way to make a few extra bucks.
And a few extra bucks it was. Very few.
The local station, WKWL ("AM 12-30 On Your Hot-Spot Dial!" he exclaims) in Florala, Alabama ("The Gateway to the Gulf Coast!") was looking for someone to do a pre-recorded, Saturday night nine-to-midnight show, paying, exponentially, "$1 an hour, $3 a night, $12 a month take-home."
It was small-town and small-time radio in its essence, with only about 2,500 people in town, and maybe only twenty people listening at a time. But even that primal experience contributed to Thomas' evolution as a broadcaster.
"I really value the fact that I started off in such small markets, because you really learn how to talk one-on-one. That's all I ever talk to," he said, pointing to the microphone: "This is a person to me, and that's all I talk to."
He took the job, but kept his eyes on his ultimate goal of college, and then dental school.
"I'd actually intended to be a dentist, and then I ran into chemistry," he laughs. "So I said, let's do English!"
There was one small problem. "I was not thrilled about English Lit, and I was not thrilled about teaching," Thomas admitted.
And while he continued to work at the local station, the thought of making broadcasting a life-long pursuit was never given serious consideration. "I always enjoyed doing radio, I just never intended it as a career," he said.
But other forces were already in motion against him.
"The program director from the station up where the college was at happened to be in our town hosting a beauty pageant one night this is how things work and he'd heard me on the air," Thomas explained. "He called me up and asked me what my plans were. I told him I was going to Troy State, and he asked me how'd I like a part-time job."
"And then the station in Troy heard me when I was on part-time at the other station, and they asked whether I'd like to work at their station," he continued. "People just kept offering me jobs."
And, suddenly, the career Thomas hadn't really considered was bearing down on him like a runaway freight train. By the time yet another opportunity arose, the direction he was headed in had become abundantly clear.
"My senior year in college, a friend of mine who I'd worked with told me there was an opening at the station he was at in Louisiana," he said, "and that was really the first time I'd considered it as a career."
So, from a station in a house trailer in rural Alabama, to English Lit major and afternoon personality at WTBF, Troy, and then onto the swing-shift at WKMX in Enterprise, Gary Scott Thomas ventured off to Lake Charles, La., in March 1984 to join KBIU-FM, known thereabouts as "Bayou."
"That was my first experience with true, professional radio," Thomas said about his experience in Lake Charles, "where they cared about how you sounded, and cared about mistakes."
"I don't know how to do a lot of things, but somehow, something in me told me I knew how to do this," he continued. "I was in Louisiana working every shift known to man. I started off working ten-to-two at night, and then the morning news person quit. I told them, instead of hiring somebody else, let me do it. I'll do both shifts. Just let me get on that morning show. Little did I know, being an idiot, that they would say, 'Why, of course! Sure! You can do that, Big Daddy!'"
Ignorance being the better part of advancement, Thomas found himself with a working day slightly larger than common in radio, getting in the door at five in the morning, and back out at eight-thirty or nine at night.
"I've known ever since I got into this business that my goal was to do mornings," Thomas stressed. "That's what I wanted to do. Mornings to me were the fun shift. That's the shift where you got to do everything. Every other shift, it's 'What can you do in ten seconds?' Mornings, it's think of something! do something funny, do something imaginative."
Thomas' next career move, to Colorado Springs, Colo., in January 1985, had a more practical intent. By that time, his family had relocated to Mile High Country, and Gary followed, signing on with KKMG as evening personality.
But, once again, the sunrise shift beckoned.
"They hired this morning guy who was really a primadonna," he said. "He would call in two or three times a week and say he couldn't make it, so I got them to let me fill in when he wouldn't come in. That kind of reinforced the morning thing for me."
After fifteen months in Colorado Springs, the next challenge awaited in Albuquerque, where Thomas became morning-show anchor, Promotions Director, Public Affairs Director, and Assistant Program Director at contemporary hits station KIVA.
"I guess I never thought I had what it took to be in radio until I got to Albuquerque," Thomas noted. "I worked with some really top-notch jocks; they had a great staff. And once you got over being awed by them, you realize, Hey, I'm doing all right here. I'm doing what I can do."
But the opportunity to (a) return to Colorado, (b) try his hand at programming a station, and (c) get out of the contemporary hits grind arose, and Thomas packed up for Fort Collins, where he became Operations Manager and Program Director at KTRR, the city's top-rated adult contemporary music station.
"When you're a jock, you always want to see if you can program a station," he said. At KTRR, Thomas anchored the morning show in addition to his management responsibilities (ranging from creating and implementing the station's budget to hiring and firing personnel); for his efforts, he was named Employee of the Month four times, earning the accolade for the final time under bizarre circumstances.
"We were already #1, and we got our (ratings) book back and we'd actually increased the numbers," Thomas recalled. "The morning show was beating all the others. They named me Employee of the Month. They gave me a nice, big bonus check. I got a call from the company president, congratulating me. They gave me a plaque, saying all we had done, and that I was their most successful Program Director, and they were really glad to have me in the company."
"And then they fired me two hours later. A station across the street had LMA'ed us. The new guys pulled me in, and they said and this is a direct quote 'Gary, you're too talented and have too much ability for what we want to do here. We're going to have to let you go.' I just sat there with ... 'Well, I could suck if you need me to,'" he laughed, shaking his head, "I could probably be worse than anybody you could bring in!"
And so, for the first time in his career, Gary Scott Thomas found himself out of work, deprived of his livelihood, jettisoned into the depths of despair; a despair that was still in its embryonic stage the very next morning when the first job offers started rolling in.
The first call came from a contemporary hits station in Fort Collins, where he bided his time, weighing his prospects.
Among the offers was one from Greg Herpin, the former General Manager at KTRR and the man who had hired Thomas there. The two had first worked together at "Bayou" in Louisiana, and now Herpin was running KRTY in upscale Los Gatos on the southern fringe of San Jose. The station was still in its Country-music infancy after years of formatic experimentation, which included many years as Portuguese-language KRVE and brief forays into adult contemporary as KYAY and contemporary hits as KATD ("The Cat").
"I wanted to get into a station with a Country format, because even at the station I was working at I'd get off of work, and go over (to another station) to listen to Country songs to see what they were doing," Thomas remarked. "I could see Country becoming hot, and I wanted to be a part of that."
Thomas accepted Herpin's invitation and migrated to the South Bay, installed in the afternoon post with an eye toward moving him into the morning job. At the time of his arrival, KRTY's then-Program Director, Bill Macky, was pulling double-duty by covering the morning watch as well; Thomas' patience would not be severely tested: after a week and a half under this arrangement, Macky decided to make the switch.
In the year and a half since Thomas came on board as the anchor of the station's talented air staff, and with the wildfire growth of Country music's popularity, KRTY has become a force to be reckoned with in the South Bay all this in spite of going into court-ordered receivership when its previous owner could not keep up payments on the station. (The station was recently acquired by a group that includes Herpin and Bob Kieve, owner of cross-town KLIV and KARA.)
"What this station has done is nothing short of miraculous," Thomas said. "It's one of the most talked-about stations in the country, because it's unheard of for a station to be in receivership, to be so low-powered, and so low-funded, and still succeed still do very well in the ratings and still make money. We out-revenue a number of big stations around here. It's a tribute to what the staff has done."
KRTY hit its high-water mark with a 3.5 in the Spring 1992 Arbitron Ratings, then settled in at 3.1 and 3.0 in the Summer and Fall charts, maintaining its Top Ten standing against increasing competition.
"I don't think people view us as an underdog any more," Thomas noted. "They're starting to view us as one of the major players, and it's going to be interesting to see how we respond to that. Nobody's ever expected anything of us, which has truly made our job easier. Now it's going to be interesting to see what happens."
At least part of the station's success and that of Country radio nationwide is the sudden spurt of popularity Country music has enjoyed over the past several years with a fresh batch of artists to lead the way.
About the music, Thomas says, "First of all, you can relate to it. Look at these titles Lord Have Mercy On The Working Man ... Common Man ... Nowhere Bound ... Lonesome Standard Time ... people can relate to that. People can enjoy it. The stars are real."
"I think the key to it is that it's music you can sing along with, and it's not something to be embarrassed about listening to. It's real music for real people," Thomas continued. "My audience is very smart. They're very knowledgeable. I think they appreciate the fact that I'm saying this is a show for adults, and that you don't have to feel embarrassed because you listen to Country music."
As Thomas' star continues to rise, he looks to the future and the opportunities ahead, not only in radio, but in his personal life as well.
"I love Colorado. That's where I want to call it a day," he said. "I want to make enough money one of these days, and just have it all put away so that I can sit back at some point and say, 'Well, you know, it's been fun, y'all.' I'm going to be up in the mountains, watching goats. That's all I'm going to do."
"My wife has had to make sacrifices for me, to follow me all around the country. I'd really like to be put in a situation where we can make enough money where we can put it away and then, let me follow her around for a while."
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE FEBRUARY 1993 EDITION OF THE BAY AREA RADIO DIGEST. PHOTOGRAPH AND ARTICLE COPYRIGHT © 1993 BY DAVID FERRELL JACKSON. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED WITHOUT THE WRITTEN PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR.
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