He's No Doubting Thomas
October 15, 2015
To call 2013 a pivotal, challenging, and life-altering year for iHeartMedia/Springfield, MA SVP/Programming John Thomas is a huge understatement at best, what with his brief stint on the beach, a career change, the move to a new city and, oh-by-the-way, this high degree of difficulty bonus: getting cancer.
You've heard the saying that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step? All good, providing you can actually walk. That proved impossible for nearly five months, following removal of a five-pound tumor in Thomas' right calf, a surgery which required doctors to basically rebuild his lower leg. And, all things considered, he was pretty much okay with getting around on a scooter short-term, since the odds of losing his leg completely were 50-50 going into the procedure.
"Obviously it's been a long two years for me," says a now-healthy Thomas, whose Hell-and-back odyssey began in June of 2013. "I moved to Phoenix; in August I was diagnosed with late-stage cancer." He'd relocated from Denver after joining Boomtown Entertainment, operators of Toby Keith's "I Love This Bar & Grill" restaurant and club venues in February of that year as VP/Marketing & Entertainment.
The transition to Boomtown followed just over two years as PD at then-Lincoln Financial Country KYGO/Denver, one stop on a successful 25-year career in radio. During time off after exiting KYGO, the move away from radio was measured, strategized and motivated by Thomas' desire to pursue a different, new and exciting opportunity.
The same could not be said of his cancer diagnosis, which came out of the blue (#random), which certainly wasn't part of any five-year plan ... and clearly not his desire. The only thing resembling strategy came after the fact - as in, what treatment protocol would be necessary. "I had a very similar cancer to Lindsay Walleman," explains Thomas. Walleman, a promising promo rep with the Warner Music Nashville label group, died in April of 2013 at 28, following a short and courageous battle with Sarcoma. "In my case, it was a large tissue sarcoma in my lower right leg." As previously chronicled, surgery was performed soon after and yielded promising results, his four-month scooter stint notwithstanding...
"I was on the road to recovery and boom: I got hit with a second episode," remembers Thomas. "The cancer metastasized to my sinus cavity, which ended up being very aggressive, although we did catch it early." He then had to withstand another surgery, followed by 35 rounds of radiation to the face, saying, "That's no joke; treatment is brutal and cancer is a big deal." Oh, but wait! Thomas says the fun continued. "Then I had four more rounds of chemo."
All in, his treatment lasted most of a two-year period, and while continuing to work with Boomtown as his health permitted, he started missing radio about eight months into the job. But plotting a return to the radio game wasn't - and couldn't be - on the radar, says Thomas. "When you're in the thick of a fight like that, taking care of yourself is priority #1." Offering one example of his day-to-day reality at the time, Thomas shares this anecdote: "I remember sitting on the couch at night, negotiating with myself about whether to get up and go to the bathroom, but not knowing if I had enough energy to walk 12 steps."
Those of us who followed Thomas on Facebook during that time remember watching all of this unfold on a daily basis. "The treatment is the difficulty of the process," he explains. "If I could be of help to someone, I wanted to do it; I wanted to be an open book."
No doubt he was, and I will say my takeaway at the time was one of cautious optimism, which was fueled by Thomas' outward positive, encouraging demeanor toward his condition. But an after-the-fact, behind-the-curtain perspective now shared by Thomas reveals the dark and lonely truth that I suppose only someone fighting for their life could possibly realize during the moment: "You feel like you're dying, you look like you're dying, people look at you like you're dying, and doctors are telling you you're dying."
Fast forward from that grim prognosis to today. Based on my recent chat with Thomas, thankfully, he's come out the other end alive, and his story has a happy ending. He has recovered, remained clear, and returned to radio just this month, taking on SVP/Programming responsibilities at iHeartMedia/Springfield, MA, which includes Country WRNX. "From a health standpoint, now I feel phenomenal; it's a blessing knowing that is all behind me," Thomas told me this week, adding, "There were several times during the past two years I was close to getting back in, but then another treatment was needed - so you can't join a company unless you're 100%."
Just as he'd been while considering a move away from radio, Thomas was thoughtful about getting back in. "I took six months to find the right situation for me; it didn't matter what the market size or what part of the Country it was. It had to be the right company, market and cluster - a good fit where I felt my strengths could be realized."
After his health ordeal, Thomas has naturally gained a unique perspective on life that goes far beyond work and radio. But since he's back to work now, I wondered how two-plus years away from programming day-to-day might have changed his approach to radio. After all, a lot has happened in this format since 2013.
"When I was with Boomtown, I learned that many times, things happen in the clubs before they happen on the radio," says Thomas. "A year-and-a-half ago, I could put up Dustin Lynch, Frankie Ballard or Tyler Farr and sell a few hundred tickets in two hours. But when an artist does 75 minutes and fans are hanging on every word, you realize there are a lot of different music consumers - some only listen to radio, but not all of them."
Most PDs who step away from the head-down, day-to-day world listen to radio much differently once out of it, and Thomas was no different. "During my time out, I tried to listen to these stations like a listener does, and I really became reinvigorated by it. What was great about that was how excited I was to discover new music via the radio."
During his time away, the Bro-Country phenomenon came and went, while the diversity of the music has branched out deeper and wider. "The format and its consumers have grown," observes Thomas. "Programming ideas are similar, but with the advent of so much digital and all the socials - the challenge is: How do you take all that and create an engagement with the listeners and get them engulfed in your brand? I just told my staff today - we're all in the sales, marketing and digital business. My job is to make sure ratings grow and company initiatives are executed."
Having known Thomas since before his illness, it was so great to talk with him again and even better hearing - then writing about - his recent return to radio. His journey through two bouts of cancer is a sobering and compelling story that has ended well, thank God. Just as the course of events in mid-2013 proved pivotal and life changing, I hope late 2015 and moving into 2016 are too, but in a much, much more positive way. On every level, Thomas sounds healthy and invigorated.
"Hey - two weeks ago I was at the pool in Phoenix, and it was 105 degrees. Today, it won't break 70! I'm ecstatic to be with this company, in this market; when you have the opportunities we have here, it's just very exciting." said Thomas.
All things considered, that is a huge understatement too.