10 Questions with ... Darla Thomas
May 2, 2011
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Wow! Here we go! I started radio in college at the student-run Top 40 Z-89 at Syracuse University. I got my first part-time professional job doing overnights at WYYY in Syracuse. I moved to Austin after graduation in the early 90's and worked at one of Guy Zapoleon's first "Mix" stations before it was bought and flipped, then to CC as nights then middays at Classic Rock Z-102. My first MD job was for Cox at KSMG in San Antonio, then I took my first PD gig in Tucson at Journal's Modern AC KZPT in 1998. After that, I spent five years in Seattle as MD working for AC KLSY (Mix 92.5). I joined Journal again as PD/afternoons at Hot AC Star 104.5 in Omaha in 2005 and left there after 18 months when they sent me to Tucson in 2006 to oversee their 4 radio stations as Operations Manager. In 2009 I also took over TV programming for Journal's two Tucson TV stations. Remained there until December of last year when I joined Clear Channel here in Charlotte to oversee AC Lite 102.9.
1) What are some of the challenges you face as a programmer in today's radio environment?
Time management! It's no longer all about putting on a great product and what is coming out of the speakers. It's about your digital platform as well, the quality of your stream, the content on your web site, and your interaction on your social media sites.
Thankfully I'm working at a company that is at the forefront of new technology, with a vision for the future of our business. They give us the resources to get it done. It's an exciting time to be in radio, especially at a company leading the way like Clear Channel.
2.) Who do you consider your radio mentors?
I've been fortunate to be influenced by some great PDs and managers. Andy Holt (now at Entercom/New Orleans) has always been a big believer of mine. He took me under his wing early on and taught me the basics of programming and how to be a good manager. I was lucky to work with Tony Coles in Seattle, one of the smartest programmer's in the biz. And my #1 believer has always been Journal Broadcast Group's Vice President of Programming, Tom Land. He took a leap of faith in me by first bringing me back to the company in Omaha and then promoting me to OM in Tucson. He's a big proponent of women in our business. He's not only a mentor but a true friend that has gotten me through some tough times.
3) What do you view as the most important issue facing radio today?
As Radio programmers we get stuck in the old way of doing things just because "that's always been the way we do it so why change"? We need to adapt and adapt quickly. The media world is changing every day and if we don't keep up with the demand of the audience, we will be obsolete. This business is not for the lazy.
4) Is Arbitron's Personal People Meter (PPM) currently available in your market, or in a neighboring market? What are your thoughts on this new ratings technology?
Charlotte is a fairly new PPM market (launched last summer). We're still learning the technology. The interesting thing is that it's not that listening patterns have changed. The meter is simply showing us how it's always been. We just found ways to trick the diary system for years to make it work to our advantage. We can't get away with doing that anymore.
I think the biggest challenge is learning which data to focus on. There is just SO MUCH out there at your disposal and you can get caught up in minutiae if you let yourself.
As I just arrived from a diary market I can say that yes, it is a different world and yes you do need to adapt your way of thinking. However, when it comes right down to it you need to be on your game at all times and put on a terrific product that is properly branded every minute of every day. Hasn't that always been our job as radio programmers? Great radio that is properly supported with the correct branding and promotions/marketing will always win regardless of the measurement level.
5.) How do you stay in tune with your audience?
I live it every day! I'm a working mom in my 40's with young children trying to get it all done and balance it all out while still finding time for myself. I want to feel plugged in and know what everyone is talking about in current events, music, TV, and entertainment so I can engage in "water cooler" talk with my co-workers. But my interests are not the same as someone in their 20s and they're not the same as my mother's were at this age. Social media is important to me to keep in touch with the people I care about and to find out the latest on the things I'm interested in.
6.) How do you position the station musically?
Lite 102.9 is an AC station for working women in their 40's who are active and want to have fun. It's not your Mama's AC radio station! We call it the "Bright New Sound" because it's all of your favorite, familiar songs with a Hot AC presentation. We're not a background station.
7.) What other stations and markets do you like to monitor?
We've got a tight AC battle here with CBS AC WKQC, and Greater Media's WLNK also in our format.
8.) What is the biggest misconception about your station?
What I've encountered over the years with AC and in general is that there is a misconception about what the 45 year old woman wants to hear on the radio. They are a different generation that grew up in different times, and they want to be engaged with their radio station. I think a lot of old school PDs think that AC is supposed to be a boring, background format that plays only old music. That isn't the case anymore and we're proving it here in Charlotte.
9.) Why would someone listen to your station instead of listening to music on their iPod?
Information and entertainment. We're your connection to what's happening in your local community, and we engage you with personal experiences like your own. We help you have fun and forget about things for a while. We may not have the custom playlist that your iPod has, but we have a mix of songs spanning 40-years that you can relate to because you grew up with them. And we have countless other musical options for you to choose from on our web site.
10.) What is the best advice you would give to young programmers/promotion people?
Learn as much as you can about everything in our business and be willing to do whatever is asked of you. The competition for jobs is stronger than ever but the hard workers who "get it" will still break in as long as they have the determination and patience to start at the bottom and work their way up.
1.) What do you do in your spare time?
I'm not sure I know that mean? :) I love to hike and spend time outdoors with my husband Rick (who's followed me everywhere since we graduated from Syracuse many moons ago) and my kids Madison (9) and Jackson (7). We're really excited to be in North Carolina, the National Whitewater Training Center is here and we're three hours from both the mountains and the beaches. It's the best of both worlds!
2.) What are your hobbies?
Who has time for hobbies?? I do like to work out, read and shop!
3.) What's one thing that would surprise many people to learn about you?
I came THIS CLOSE to going to West Point (I got in, but decided not to go). I actually spent three years in Army ROTC at SU. In another life I'm an Officer somewhere. I guess I was always destined to move every 4-5 years!
4.) What was the biggest gaffe you've made on air? (dead air ... forget a mic was still on ... etc.)
When I had my first pro radio gig at Y94 in Syracuse, I was working overnights and sitting in front of the board one long night. I was trying to keep awake so I started swinging my legs and I accidentally hit something under the board. The studio shut down and the station went off of the air! Panicking I crawled under the board and found a big red switch. I flipped it back up and the station went back on the air. To this day I have no idea why any engineer thought one big OFF switch right under the board was a good idea.