Thank You Barry Much
July 17, 2014
Something really weird happened in Terre Haute, IN on Thursday morning (7/17).
For the first time in 32 years, Barry Kent didn't wake up listeners on at Emmis Country WTHI. Even stranger, for the first time in 45 years, Barry Kent wasn't on the air in Terre Haute.
For the first time in a long time, Barry slept late.
All of which means the apocalypse is officially upon us.
Barry announced his retirement in June; his last-ever morning show was Wednesday, July 16th, which, not coincidentally, was "Barry Kent Day" in Terre Haute. We know this because Mayor Duke Bennett said so, live on Barry's final show.
It was Eric Michaels wakin' 'em up on Thursday. He programs WTHI and usually does afternoons. Listeners love him, too, and it's not as if he's some rookie. I mean, the guy has been with 'THI for 13 years.
It's just that Barry Kent was there forever. Did I mention it was 32 years? That's five presidents, eight Winter and Summer Olympic games, before, during and after Country's "Garth-era" and most recently, the current "Bro-Country" phenomenon.
Damn, that's a long time. That's a lot of listeners over the years, some of their kids and even some of their kid's kids. Most of those people became Barry's friends.
I asked Barry, why now? "It just felt like it was time," he explained. "It's been a long run but every good thing has to come to an end."
There seems to be a lot of that going around lately. One day before Kent's final show, Clear Channel Country WAMZ/Louisville PD/afternoon personality Coyote Calhoun announced he would shut it down at the end of the year, ending a 35-year run as the station's first and only PD. Townsquare Country WBKR/Bowling Green, KY PD/morning man Moon Mullins called it a career in June after 52 years in radio.
The common thread with Kent, Calhoun and Mullins? All are members of the Country Radio Hall of Fame. Barry was part of the Class of 2011.
Often, when a morning man shuts it down, he'll tell you getting up in the middle of the night to start work at the ass-crack of dawn has been a grind and something he won't miss. Not Barry.
"I love it; you get up, the birds are singing, you do your job, get done at noon or so and have the rest of the day. I will miss that part." Mostly, Kent will miss the listeners and after 45 years in the market, there are generations of them. "People tell me their mom listened or they grew up listening to me," says Kent. "It's satisfying. It makes you feel old, too," he said, laughing out loud. "But my kids have grown up with me working here as well. They never knew any other place. I remember when my first boy was born; we had people bringing us baby gifts and we had a bumper sticker on his bassinette in the hospital."
Kent is unique in that he spent his entire radio career in one market, which also happened to be his home town. He caught the bug early. "I got interested in radio when I was a kid. I had an uncle who was a DJ; he did a two-hour Country show here, which was the only Country music in the market then. I used to get up early and go in to watch him."
His first job was during high school, at a Gospel station. "They let me DJ a one-hour show here in Terre Haute; eventually, I worked at every station here at some point, it seems."
Staying in Terre Haute was Kent's choice, even though like every young radio personality, he had aspirations of moving up in market size. "I did Top 40 here when I was 18 and assumed I would be in New York or L.A. someday," Kent remembers. "But as you grow up, you get married, put roots down and it's your home town, doing what you love."
There were opportunities to move within the state and go to Indianapolis. "But they weren't going to pay me much better than I was making in Terre Haute," Kent recalls. "So I thought, 'I can do better than this.' I stayed where I was and became MD, then PD, then OM. Then I came to WTHI and eventually became PD here, too."
He programmed WTHI up until 2012, which meant long days at the office. "I look back and I almost missed my kids growing up," recalls Kent. "I was at the station at least 13 hours a day, so backing off was good."
It's worth noting that Kent's long hours and hard work always paid off. WTHI often posted 12+ shares in the mid-to-upper 20 range and at times notched a 30 share.
Now that Kent is backing off for good, I asked about a favorite memory involving an artist and listener that stand out for him.
"Well there are so many, but I do remember once having to go into the hospital for emergency surgery, close to when George Strait was coming to town. I had just gotten out and wasn't really feeling great - but I was not missing that show! We were backstage and George found out I'd been sick. He brought me up on his bus to relax a bit - we hung out for at least an hour and had a drink or two."
"Also, the last several years, we have done weekly 'Home Town Handshake' tours around the community. A mother brought her son to meet me. His name was BJ and he was born with all sorts of defects. But every time I saw him he was a little better. The last time I saw him he was able to ride a bike. I watched him grow up, going through all that but he's going to end up just fine. That's just amazing to me."
And what will he miss most?
"The [radio] business and our listeners. They have made me and the station successful. We were the little radio station that could."
The artists and listeners have made an impact on Kent, for sure, and although Kent wouldn't take much credit, he has had an equally huge -- if not bigger -- impact on WTHI, its staff and the Terre Haute community.
"It's been an honor to work with him for the past 13 years; I owe where I am today to him,' said Eric Michaels. "He gave me my first opportunity 13 years ago and I've learned more from him than anyone else in this business. He's been more than a boss, co-worker and mentor; more importantly he's been a friend and helped me become not only successful in my career, but in life. The contributions he's made to Wabash Valley radio -- from the charitable contributions to the community to just being a friend to the listeners for so many years -- will not be forgotten."
And so, when that final moment came - the last break on the last day of a remarkable career, Kent handled the sign-off with his typical class and astonishing composure.
If there were tears or emotions, he kept both in check, while admitting, "This moment is the hardest thing I've had to do."
He first thanked his wife, saying "It takes a special kind of woman to be a radio wife."
Next he thanked his listeners, "I'm proud to call many - no, ALL of you my friends. Thanks for allowing me into your car and your home all these years."
Rather than goodbye, Kent preferred to say, "I'll see you around," then quoted Timothy, 4:7: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."
After playing George Jones' "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes," Kent played Roy Rogers and Dale Evans' "Happy Trails."
Indeed, Barry. Indeed.