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Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Remembering Bill Thornton

Former Mayor and businessman, Bill Thornton
After graduating high school in 1982, I had decided to make my career in radio. Without question, I was determined to start in my hometown; and thanks to Bill Thornton my dream career came true following a lead that the Butler radio station was looking for an announcer.

I remember being pretty nervous about approaching Bill about the possibility of working at KMAM/KMOE-FM. Not knowing him, I wasn't sure if I was what he was looking for and I didn't want blow this opportunity. I finally mustered up the nerve to go to the radio station to fill out a job application and to my surprise, Sandra Dykman told me to just go in his office and tell him I wanted a job. Really? I'd later find out she had a great sense of humor but in this instance she was very serious. 

I poked my head in his office and apologized for bursting in but the lady at the front desk said to do it...

He laughed and asked me to sit down. My presence didn't seem to interrupt him, he was actually quite amicable as we made chit chat about family and life in general. His friendly, open nature made it very easy to convey my thoughts as I mustered up the nerve to ask him about employment. At the time there was a school in Kansas City called Columbia School of Broadcasting- I told Bill that my intention was to attend that school and them come back to work for him if at all possible.

He smiled, leaned back in his chair with his hands behind his head as he told me "Don't waste your money. We'll teach you everything you need to know in a real world environment. That place will just take your money and leave you high and dry". He went on to tell me that my timing was great- they just happened to be looking for an announcer (DJ) right now. I tinged with excitement as I realized I might be hired on the spot.

And that is exactly what happened. After about 30 minutes of talk about how radio works and what his expectations were, he sent me back to Sandra to fill out an application and I was to start training the following week. I also got a quick tour of the transmitter room, production room, control room and met his brother Jerry who was in charge of sales. I suddenly felt like I was right at home. This was my calling.

A short time later I finished training and officially was given the evening shift and the Sunday morning shift 6 am to noon. The Sunday morning shift proved to be quite interesting as it involved doing a complicated mix of playing reel to reel tapes, cassette tapes, doing a live church broadcast and lots more. Up to this point, I hadn't made any major mistakes- I'd heard horror stories from the other DJ's about screw ups that had cost others a good scolding or worse yet were fired... until now.

The Sunday morning shift starting at sunrise was a little tough for a guy that loved to socialize until the wee hours on a Saturday evening. Logically, I was a bit sleep deprived on some days and mistakes were highly likely. One of our tasks (before HIPAA) was to call the hospital and find out who had been admitted, released and any deaths. Later, we would read those as part of the news. 

I did just that however, I somehow confused those who passed away with those who were sent home. I remember thinking there sure was a lot of deaths this weekend, but...about that time the phone lines lit up with concerned family and friends who weren't aware their loved one had 'passed away'. I quickly realized my mistake and went on the air with a very heartfelt apology. No matter, the phones kept ringing and I kept apologizing.

Now, what's going to happen when Bill gets wind of this? It can't be good. I mistakenly said a whole lot of perfectly healthy people were dead. Days later, much to my surprise, Bill told me (laughingly) that of all the on air mistakes he'd ever heard, this was the best one. And he wasn't mad. 

Beside the Sunday morning massacre, I made other mistakes. Once a curse word when the FM transmitter went off air with a hot mic not realizing the AM transmitter was still on. Another was accidently cueing up the Laughing Song which was flipside of some gospel music and hurrying out of the control room for a bathroom break. 

In every instance, Bill was very understanding. In fact, he continued to encourage me and eventually offered me the morning show, possibly assuming that I'd made all the mistakes a guy would never make again. And I didn't. Thanks to him, things got better and better over the next few years.

I remember him coming into the control room to deliver my paycheck; this would have been around 1984 or so. He would always be smiling, holding the check on each end, twisting it like a steering wheel as he walked up. For some reason I remember it was $286.50 which didn't sound like much, but who cares, I was living the dream.

Some time later I realized it was time to move on, I then worked for KNEM in Nevada, KOMB in Fort Scott and during this time I'd sent a demo tape to Phil Jay at WHB in Kansas City. I'd nearly forgot about sending that tape and a few years later Phil called. I got the job. Strangely, I followed the same route as with KMAM/KMOE, starting out working evenings and eventually scoring the morning show. Following that, I went on to 61 Country, Oldies 95, KUDL, KFKF and Airborne Traffic.

Looking back today, NONE of that would have happened had Bill Thornton not had faith in me. But he did and was persistent about my success. Hat's off to a man who believed in me when I didn't really believe in myself. Thank you, and rest in peace Bill Thornton. - Doug Mager