Radio Connection mentor Marshall Thomas is a man of many talents; besides being a lifelong radio broadcaster, he’s also ventured into acting, teaching, woodworking and even writing children’s books. Thanks to his passion for radio in general, and country music in particular, he’s spent many years behind the mic, observing the many changes that have taken place in radio over the years. Currently hosting a weekend slot at K-FROG (94.1 FM) in San Bernardino, CA, Marshall is also passionate about helping our broadcasting students find their footing in the landscape of modern radio broadcasting. In the following interview with RRFC, Marshall talks with us about how he got his start in radio, the changes he sees in the industry, and the new world of opportunities now available to up-and-coming broadcasters.
RRFC: Can you tell us a little about your story and background? How did you get to where you are today?
It started when I was a kid. I literally knew when I was a small child that I was going to be in the music business somehow, some way. Right out of high school…I went to JC here in Los Angeles, a junior college. They had a small, little 10-watt transmitter on the campus. You could get the station throughout the campus and out into the parking lot, and that was about it. I majored in theater and radio. Disco was huge at the time. I started spinning records in clubs and working on my chops that way. One thing led to another and I got an internship at a rock-n-roll station here in Los Angeles…Within a year, lo and behold, they saw my potential, believed in me, and I started picking up air shows, mostly fill-ins, and then it went from there, doing weekends and full time.
RRFC: So you kinda worked your way up from the very beginning, didn’t you?
Radio Connection mentor Marshall Thomas
I sure did. Working the clubs, I’ve got to tell you, helped me because back then we were still playing vinyl records. So it helped me with that particular skill, being able to do smooth transitions, and segues and build a set. I got to tell you though, it was free form radio, which is pretty much non-existent to this day. I don’t have to tell the youngsters that everything is so tightly formatted now, that those days are gone. We were told to play ‘x’ amount of A’s and B’s of the new records, and the rest was up to us to fill in the gaps. So it was quite a challenge, and you had to be quite creative with your presentation.
RRFC: It’s interesting that you talked about how radio has changed, and the landscape of radio is still changing quite a bit. From where you’re sitting, working on-air at a terrestrial radio station, what does the state of radio look like? What challenges are there? What opportunities are there that you see that maybe weren’t there when you started?
I think terrestrial radio will always be there. For one thing, there’s a live and local feel with terrestrial radio that you cannot get through syndication or a network, [so] terrestrial radio will always be there in some way, shape or form. Yes, there’s satellite radio. Yes, there’s HD radio, which is one of those still burgeoning fields of radio…but terrestrial radio is still big as it ever was. But podcasting, I have to tell you , is what seems to be the wave of the future, especially for our youth, who are so inclined to use a device for everything—for gaming, for music, for video—so it just makes sense that you would want to do a podcast. You can set up a studio rather easily at home with a nice microphone and a decent computer and the proper software. You can have your own little studio in a quiet place at your house.
RRFC: That’s a really good point. It’s interesting because we’ve had several of our radio mentors mention to us about the need to find a niche, find something to talk about that you are passionate about, and develop a brand of yourself around that.
By all means, branding [and] marketing, and it’s so easy with YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, Snapchat, and Tumblr and the rest of it…They’re all free. You can advertise to your heart’s content. Make yourself a brand, pick out something that you’re passionate about. I don’t care if it’s fashion, music, cars, you name it, pop culture. Yes, you can stand out amongst a crowd and have a very successful podcast, and, yes, make money. You know, if you have enough hits on YouTube, they will pay you to broadcast.
RRFC: Who do you have in your past, coming into the radio profession, that you looked to as a mentor and how did they help shape your career?
Gary Owens should be known nationwide…Here in California, growing up, people like Charlie Tuna, who’s still on the air, God bless him, after 60 some odd years, he’s still on Los Angeles radio. The Real Don Steele and Robert W. Morgan, another wonderful name in radio, he’s gone now, and so is The Real Don Steele. These were all mentors of mine.
RRFC: What does it take to put out a good four-hour slot of broadcasting? How much time do you spend off the air preparing for those hours on the air?
I tell this to my students: I never stop reading. I’m a voracious reader. I read anything and everything…I’m always looking for show prep, in every way, shape and form…I put quite a few hours in during the week to prep for that weekend gig. I always get to the station early and, again, I will spend another hour or so looking at emails and checking news and so forth, so that when I really hit the air, I have a pretty good arsenal of facts, figures, gags, funny bits, or whatever, artist information and entertainment news. I know I’ve done a really good four hour slot when I come away and I say to myself, “Gosh, I didn’t get to that gag, or I didn’t get to that bit.”
RRFC: If someone came to you and just said, “Marshall, I would really like to do what you do for a living,” if they had zero radio experience but they were passionate and they wanted to get in there and be on the air, what’s the first thing you’d recommend that they do?
I would seek out some way of learning at least the basics, and the Radio Connection is perfect for that….You get to work with somebody one-on-one, which I think that’s magnificent, as opposed to maybe going to an unaccredited school, for instance, or even going to college, where it’s going to take you four years to get to where you want to go. You can start listening to your favorite stations, making notes. These days, more and more broadcasters, any celebrity really, is accessible through Twitter and social media. You’d be surprised how easily people are able to be approached, as opposed to calling the station, talking to the receptionist, maybe getting an email address, that sort of thing. That’s all old-school now. You can actually approach these people one-on-one by becoming a follower and letting them know that you’re interested and, who knows? They may invite you down to the station and give you a tour, as it were. I think the Radio Connection mentor program is pretty darn unique because you get to shadow somebody in the business. You’re actually there at the radio station, and really working with them one-on-one. What a great way to learn.