The town of Brainerd, Minn., is nestled northwest of Minneapolis and is home to about 14,000 folks. The big annual events there include a Fourth of July celebration and a kids’ fishing clinic. And Brainerd is home to WJJY(FM)’s Ken Thomas, recently honored with the NAB Marconi Radio Award as the country’s small-market radio personality of the year.
The Marconis recognize stations and individuals for their excellence and performance in radio. Radio World checked in with Thomas to find out what it’s like doing radio in Brainerd.
“It’s just the two of us running the show,” Thomas said, referring to himself and his on-air partner of 13 years, Tess Taylor. “In small-market radio, there’s no producer. We do it all ourselves.”
WJJY is a 100 kW, Class C1 FM, part of a six-station cluster owned by Hubbard Broadcasting and employing about 27 full- and part-time employees. Thomas, a 33-year veteran of the station’s morning show, enjoys the slower pace of life in small-town America.
“The best part is that you get to know everyone, including the movers and shakers. You build a lot of social capital,” he said. “We want to be involved in the events like the chili cook-off, but there’s a long list. We emcee a lot of benefits and walks and participate in the local parades. Brainerd is unique because it’s in the heart of the lake country in northern Minnesota.
“Our normal population of about 60,000 around Baxter and Brainerd probably doubles over the summer because of the resorts and the cabin owners. We have a national drag racing event here, and the Jaycees run the largest ice fishing contest. We also have a big concert every summer, Lakes Jam.”
“Ken is amazing,” said Taylor. “He’s brilliant, caring, sensitive, quick-witted and hilarious. His sense of humor billows through the building. A pro in every sense of the word.”
Referring to her morning show on-air partner as her “work husband,” Taylor mentioned his generosity.
“He takes time out of his Thanksgiving holiday to volunteer at our local Community Thanksgiving Dinner,” she added. “He also volunteers periodically at our local Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen. To take time out like that is so very admirable. But that’s Ken.”
Sometimes the humor of their morning program comes from the hosts, but sometimes it comes springs from the listeners.
“We had a live, on-air contest,” recalled Taylor. “And this was very new into our working relationship, and we were trying to get into a groove. The trivia contest went like this.
“Ken asked the question: ‘In ancient Greek times, when a man wanted a woman to marry him, he would toss this to her. If she caught it, it meant yes. If she did not, it meant no. What would the man toss?’ After three or four incorrect responses, one caller popped up and said ‘sausage?’ And I said with an innocent giggle, ‘Yep ’cause nothing says ‘I want to marry you’ like tossing your gal your sausage!’
“By the way, the correct answer should have been ‘apple.’”
Facebook is another way Thomas likes to stay in touch with his listeners.
“My partner Tess handles that,” he said. “And it’s become huge. We are reaching individuals who tell us they feel like they are listening to friends.”
Radio World asked Thomas his thoughts on the future of radio.
“As a career choice, it’s more difficult to get into the field than when I chose it,” he said. “There are not as many entry-level jobs. But if one wants to put in the time, make some sacrifices to get a foot in the door and go up the ladder, it’s a very satisfying career in terms of every day being different, an adventure and a challenge. Especially when you’re on the air trying to be fresh and think of something new to connect to the audience. It’s interesting and satisfying when you hear back from clients and listeners and regular people in the community who talk about how invaluable radio has been to them in their endeavors.”
For those who think that small market means small rewards, Thomas asks you to reconsider.
“If there was one last thing to tell you, it’s that over the years I have had the privilege to work for some great owners and operators who were passionate about serving the community,” he said. “That’s one of the most satisfying things that we do as radio stations. We have won three [NAB] Crystal Radio Awards and have been nominated more times than that.”
Thomas continued, “We have come up with some innovative ways of teaming up with law enforcement agencies to get the word out about road closures and emergencies. That is what radio does best, serving the community. It is a joy to work with so many great people.”
Ken Deutsch’s 1970s radio career included a guest spot as a “celebrity judge” in the Sylvania, Ohio, “Bean Queen” beauty contest. He says things went downhill from there.