It is easy to find colleagues of Barry Thomas eager to share their thoughts on what a dynamic man and radio professional he was. It’s just hard for them to speak about him in the past tense.
Thomas passed away in early December; he was 56. A past president of the Society of Broadcast Engineers and the 2011 recipient of Radio World’s Excellence in Engineering Award, he spent more than 35 years working in radio technical operations, building radio facilities and serving his industry with work for a variety of national technical organizations.
Throughout those years he made friends — by all accounts a lot of friends — within radio’s technical circles. Thomas held the esteemed rank of fellow in the SBE. He was former chairman of the NAB Radio Technology Committee, past chairman of the National Radio Systems Committee RBDS Subcommittee and a participant in a number of other NRSC activities, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Thomas, who hailed from Columbia, S.C., most recently was director of engineering at KSE Radio in Denver. His technical leadership roles over the years included DOE at Wilks Broadcasting, vice president of engineering at Lincoln Financial and VP of engineering for Westwood One. For years he ran a contract engineering firm, Thomas Media Systems & Design.
Accolades from contemporaries stretch out across the country. It was his battle with cancer and how he handled it that seem to touch colleagues the most.
Thomas was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2008 and underwent surgery on his spine to remove a tumor. He told Radio World in 2011 he was proud of the fact that he could “continue to work full-time and be a father” in the face of illness.
Friends said Thomas didn’t want a big deal to be made about his health as he went through chemotherapy and stem cell harvesting and the subsequent infusions he received.
“Barry stayed ahead of the cancer for a long time. He maintained a forward-looking outlook at all times,” said Chriss Scherer, member communications director at SBE. “When I visited him in Denver in early November , he was working through the latest complication of the disease. Despite that, he gave me a full rundown on the status of several work projects, including his optimism on seeing them to completion.”
Scherer met Thomas at an SBE meeting in Cleveland in 1992; he described Thomas as a “radio evangelist” quick to come to the defense of the industry he loved.
“I was with him many times when someone not involved in broadcasting would question radio’s relevancy today. Barry would jump right in with statistics on radio listening, commercial value and many other factors. In most cases, the radio skeptic would at least have his eyes opened if there wasn’t a complete radio conversion,” Scherer said.
Tony Gervasi, sales manager for Intraplex Broadcast, said Barry Thomas was best man at his wedding. They met in South Carolina in 1985 while working for competing radio stations.
“Punctuality perhaps wasn’t Barry’s strong suit,” Gervasi said. “When I got married I told him to be at the church an hour early just in case. When he showed up on time he wanted to know why the doors were still locked.”
Gervasi said Thomas was the “engineer’s engineer,” with a rare passion and dedication. “BT would think a project through to the smallest of detail, and then think it through again. He cared about the product, and he understood that as engineers, we have more responsibility than just fix equipment. Engineers have to look at the total cost of ownership, how does it impact operations and what is the benefit.”
Thomas, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Media Arts from the University of South Carolina in 1985, lived and breathed radio, according to colleagues.
“Barry consumed everything he could about radio,” said Conrad Trautmann, Cumulus’ SVP of technology and operations. “I know his participation with the SBE board, and ultimately as president, helped him to build strong relationships with peers and vendors that helped expand his knowledge of the industry.”
Trautmann, familiar with the pressures of running a technical operation for a major broadcast group, worked with Thomas at Westwood One for several years. He said he’d miss Thomas’ frequent emails and phone calls. “He always had a good story to share about something going on in his life with his family or one of his stations. He was true pro.”
A VOICE FOR ENGINEERS
SBE President Jim Leifer, CPBE, said that Thomas had served the SBE in many capacities and had been a voice for many engineers in the industry for decades.
“After hearing this news, I remembered so many occasions where Barry spent time developing younger engineers and being that mentor so many of us talk about. He was a devoted father, son, brother and fellow engineer who will be sorely missed by all.”
The society noted that Thomas had co-authored five U.S. technology patents and held SBE certifications as a Professional Broadcast Engineer (CPBE), a Digital Radio Broadcast specialist (DRB) and a Broadcast Networking Engineer (CBNE).
David Layer, VP for advanced engineering at NAB, said, “Barry was a man of exceptional engineering talent and very generous and giving of his time to help both individuals and organizations, like NAB and the NRSC. I was especially impressed with the way Barry tackled the challenges that faced him, in particular his tragic health problems. He had exceptional courage and was truly an inspiration to me and I am sure to others as well.”
Thomas had a curious nature when it came to figuring out how new technology worked; this impressed Frank Foti, executive chairman of the Telos Alliance.
“Barry possessed really good tenacity, as well as being inquisitive about technology. He was willing to try, and figure stuff out, which taught him well,” Foti said.
They met in the late 1980s when Thomas was working in sales for Broadcasters General Store, Foti said. “I will miss Barry just being Barry.”
Thomas was well traveled, living on both U.S. coasts and points in between; when healthy, he enjoying sailing and skiing.
He arrived in Cleveland as chief engineer for WPHR(FM), which later became alternative WENZ(FM). Thomas would eventually become DOE at OmniAmerica Group in Cleveland and stations WMJI(FM), WMMS(FM) and WHK(AM). He landed at Chancellor Media in the late 1990s, which after the easing of ownership caps merged with Evergreen to become AMFM Broadcasting and eventually part of Clear Channel. Thomas went on to direct engineering at Comedy World Radio Network and eventually led engineering efforts of Westwood One Radio Networks in New York.
He also cofounded StratusAudio, an interactive radio technology company, and worked there as chief technology officer.
A memorial fund has been set up to help support his four children — two sets of twins — Alexis, Jacob, Dylan and Luke at www.gofundme.com/6jman3c. “Due to his pre-existing condition, Barry was unable to obtain life insurance as a way to aid in the provision of his children after his passing,” the page states. “As a result, their mother is now faced with raising two sets of twins solely with her own finances.”
Mike Cooney, chief technology officer and VP of engineering for Beasley Media Group, said he flew to Denver last fall to visit Thomas after hearing of his worsening health.
“There are many great engineers in our industry, but not many of them also have the personality, communication skills and sense of humor that Barry had. He wanted to make our industry better, and he gave countless hours to the SBE, NAB and other organizations. Barry also mentored more young engineers than anyone else I have known,” Cooney said.
“Barry very rarely spoke about his cancer, and only when asked. I never heard him once complain, and for a long time was not even aware he was receiving chemotherapy twice a month for the last 10 years. Barry had a great attitude and was always looking to the future. He was an exceptional individual.”
Longtime friend Fred Baumgartner, director of NextGen TV implementation for OneMedia, eulogized Thomas fittingly: “Broadcast engineers have a common bond. The SBE folks even more so. Still our stories and our paths, while similar, have their interesting diversions. Barry lived the ultimate radio dream. He had a great ride. In the end, all we have is our experiences, and Barry had a lot. Broadcast gypsies who enjoy others become a part of a lot of people’s life. Barry knew a lot of people because he went out of his way to be of service.
“Ordinarily, a progressive disease is not considered a good death. I honestly don’t think Barry cared. He’d do this like he did most things, on his terms.”
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