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Ann Thomas Charts a New Course for WJR

WJR Program Director Ann Thomas has brought a hardworking attitude to the company for almost 40 years. Her dedication to learning about the industry started when she was a news intern and continued as a producer.

A team of elite journalists at WJR helped her understand the importance of enterprise reporting and investigative journalism during her early years. While working as an Executive Producer for Paul W. Smith, she developed the ability to anticipate a host’s needs and gather compelling content. 

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Thomas insists that it never occurred to her that she would eventually be named the station’s program director. Nevertheless, thanks to the guidance and encouragement of WJR General Manager Steve Finateri, she was presented with the opportunity to take on the role. Finateri provided Thomas with the necessary support to guide WJR into the future.

On her initial day as the PD, while walking through the Fisher Building where the station is located, she experienced a nervous sensation that only arises when you have accepted a task that carries a significant amount of responsibility. 

WJR is a crucial radio station located in a resilient American city. This powerful 50,000-watt AM station is heard in multiple states and has been a fundamental part of Detroit’s community for a long time. WJR is renowned in the industry for its charitable work, as many hosts are associated with organizations they deeply care for.

Ann Thomas values news, information, and the audience greatly. She recognizes her immense responsibility towards the listener and is not deterred by the ongoing struggle to maintain AM car radios. WJR is a heritage station that has been broadcasting on the AM frequency for a long time. 

In an interview with Barrett News Media, Thomas shares her thoughts on the long-term stability of radio, WJR’s unique approach to serving its listeners, the similarities between producers and programmers, any potential changes she plans to make at WJR, and her perspective on the current state of women leaders in the industry. 

Ryan Hedrick: Can you tell me about what makes Detroit unique compared to other cities? And how much support does WJR receive in Detroit? 

Ann Thomas: This is a great news and sports town. The listeners and the community want to hear what’s happening. They want to know what’s going on locally. The radio station is committed to providing news, information, and sports to all parts of Detroit [including] Metro Detroit, Southeast Michigan, and the State of Michigan.  

We just changed our slogan to “Where Michigan comes to Talk,” and I think that says it all about WJR.  

RH: Why did you decide to alter the station’s slogan?  

AT: For a while, we were just, “Where Detroit Comes to Talk.” Then we got to thinking, we have a giant 50,000-watt signal, and we have listeners all over Southeast Michigan, and then as the day goes on with a big signal, we have listeners in several other states. It just made sense [to change our slogan].  

Also, we do a lot of Pure Michigan remotes highlighting travel and industry throughout the state, so it made perfect sense to start saying, “Where Michigan Comes to Talk,” because that’s exactly what’s happening.  

RH: What kept you at WJR for so long, and how did you stay motivated during your tenure there? 

AT: You have to love the business. You have to be completely committed to the news business [to stay in it for so long]. I’ve always felt that I had a role in informing people about what was happening throughout the state. Whether it was regarding the auto industry, traffic, weather, or any breaking news. I felt like I had a mission to inform people that it was something that I wanted to do, and I enjoyed doing it.  

You do have to like this business because you have to ride through the ups and downs, and you do have to be resilient. For me, it was always a passion, and I feel like I’m doing something that’s good. It’s good for me, it’s good for the radio station, and above all else, it’s good for the listeners.  

RH: Is there a flagship fundraising program at WJR that you take pride in?   

AT: We have several different fundraisers that we’re known for throughout the community. For instance, Paul W. Smith has his Paul W. Smith Golf Classic. Guy Gordon is committed to the March of Dimes. Mitch Albom has his SAY Detroit charity.  

Overall, WJR has a giant radiothon that we do for the Salvation Army. We are well known in the State of Michigan for our non-profit work. Recently, I spoke at a CATCH (Sparky Anderson’s non-profit) event. One of the things I said about WJR is that we have a mission, and we believe that we can use this giant megaphone to help others in need. That’s one of the signature things about WJR is that if you ask us to help, we have the most generous listeners in all the Midwest. They will step up and help; it’s unbelievable.  

RH: What are your thoughts on people claiming that radio is not an impactful medium, especially when you witness the daily impact that WJR has? 

AT: I think [those statements] are ridiculous. I do not think radio is dying. I think it’s all about what radio can do and what stations can do to make themselves an important part of the community.

I think you have to make an effort to be part of the community. If you do that, there’s no chance that radio is going to die, especially if you are local and you are committed to telling people’s stories and making sure you are there for what the community needs.  

RH: Several program directors, such as yourself, have spent a considerable amount of time producing talent. Is there any correlation between great producers and people who become program stations?   

AT: You do learn a lot producing for a big talent. (Ann produced Paul W. Smith for 24 years). You have to learn to work with that talent and understand what they need, what makes them tick, and what makes the best show, right? I do think that that’s been helpful regarding now being the program director at WJR. I also think that as a producer, it’s kind of like you’re on a treadmill; you’re always looking for the next story.  

You’re always trying to think of content that’s interesting, informative, and compelling. And so, I think that does help with being a good program director because now I find myself listening to all the shows, and I’m asking myself how we can make these shows interesting, compelling, informative, and entertaining.

I think that being required to put together a show day in and day out and talking to movers and shakers all over the state, country, and world does help you be a better program director.  

RH: Do producers and program directors share similar mindsets? 

AT: In both positions, you’re worried about talent, and you’re concerned about getting the best show from your talents. You’re also concerned about content because the content is king. Those are definite similarities.  

I think the difference would be, and I’m finding as the program director, is that you have a lot of different shows to be concerned about, and you have to think about what the overall sound of the radio station is and how you want to move that sound forward or change it up a bit.  

As PD, you also have to work with talent and producers, board operators, and engineers, and you have to think about what their needs are and how you can work together as a team.  

RH: Does having worked at the station for 40 years give you an edge in knowing the layout, audience, and community when making programming choices? 

AT: We’ve had a lot of great program directors here. Mike Wheeler was the program director just before me, though he had some family ties here from the past, he came in from another city. He was a spectacular program director, and he’s been a great mentor to me. I think it’s helpful, but I don’t think it’s everything.  

RH: As the Program Director of WJR, what is your top concern? What worries you the most? 

AT: I’m concerned about having content that is interesting, compelling, informative, and entertaining for the listener. It’s all about the listener; that’s what I care about the most. I care about being a good steward for the radio station.

I also care about working with the talent and their teams and getting to a point where everybody is working together toward the goal of getting as many listeners as possible to listen to the Great Voice of the Great Lakes.  

RH: Do you base your programming decisions solely on ratings? 

AT: They are not. They can’t be when you’re a big 50,000-watt radio station like WJR. We have to think about what is good for the community and what is going to be good for the community because we are a big part of this town. Obviously, ratings are important to us. We want people to listen. We also have to think about what we’re doing daily, as a big station that is good for everyone in this town.  

RH: Do you regularly set aside time to evaluate programs and consider necessary adjustments, or are you content with how things are at WJR? 

AT: We have great talent at WJR. We changed our lineup just before I became program director. Paul W. Smith moved to a new time, and Guy Gordon, who was in the afternoons, went to mornings. So, we’ve already done a lot of tweaking.

A couple of years ago, we lost the great Frank Beckmann (who died of vascular dementia), so we had to make a change to his show.

No, I will not be making any major changes. I’m really excited about this new lineup. This is a good lineup with a lot of talent.  

RH: Do you believe that your recent promotion to become the first female program director in the station’s 101-year history could pave the way for other women to pursue careers in radio? 

AT: I hope it does. There are a lot of women in this business. From the time I started back in 1982 to now, there have been major changes. When I first came into the building, I was one of the first women in here. When I had my first child, they crafted the maternity policy based on me.  

There have been a lot of significant developments for women in radio, and it will only get better. I’m very impressed with all the women who work in radio and the fact that they are climbing in their careers. Companies are starting to take notice, and women are getting good positions in radio. It’s a good time for women in radio.  

RH: What are some important long-term goals that you have for WJR?  

AT: I want us to continue to be one of the top radio stations in the State of Michigan, in Metro Detroit. I want us to continue to have the finest talent that radio could possibly have. I have worked over the years with the absolute best in the radio business. J.P. McCarthy, Ernie Harwell, Paul Carey, Paul W. Smith. There’s been a lot of talent in this building.

I want to make sure that we continue to have top talent, that we continue to be good stewards in this community, and that we do the right thing and inform our listeners.  

RH: Are you worried that the news and talk show audience primarily consists of older listeners? 

AT: I’m not concerned about it because, as we know, news/talk has always trended older. I do think that we should always be looking and talking about content where we can bring in younger listeners and have them become fans of the radio station.

That’s just smart broadcasting to pay attention to that, but I’m not worried about it. I think we have so much content that we can attract a younger demographic, but I’m perfectly fine with where we live right now.  

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