October 23, 2018
Welcome to JJ-365 Salutes. Over 2018, we pay tribute daily to one of “The Good Ones”. Today we are shining the light on Clay St. Thomas.
When Brad Phillips hopped from AM LG 73 Vancouver over to launch Z95.3 FM we knew we had our work cut out for us. A few of us had figured out how to do CHR on FM in Canada and be still be legal with the CRTC (back then you couldn’t play more than 50% hits on FM in Canada) and Z was one of them. Yes, they were a fresh and unique CHR station on FM, but they had also amassed a talented on-air team. Most of them were unknown in Vancouver and of course some of the old guard dismissed them outright but they were quickly proved wrong. Their morning show was led by Clay St.Thomas and when people asked me what I thought, I described him as a ‘sleeper’ which is a respectful term for someone who may take a little time but once they kick in they are forever. He proved me to be right.
As a farm kid in Lancer, Saskatchewan (an hour NW of Swift Current) in the 70’s, radio was alchemy and magic says Clay. His parents listened to CKCK Regina and CFQC Saskatoon but as kids their Top 40 go-to was of course The Big 8, CHAB Moose Jaw. He later learned it was the ‘baby Moffat’ station, but to them it sounded 10 miles high. He got a transistor radio when he was 10 and burned out battery after battery listening to Bionic (Jim) Ripley, Audie Lynds, and 365’er Gerry O’Day (who he later had the pleasure of working alongside at Z95/650CISL). The nighttime skip had him listening to thrilling and exotic stuff from as faraway as CFUN Vancouver and Raccoooooooon Raccoon Carney.
In the 8th grade of Abbey High School the math teacher, who was also the ‘guidance councillor’ told them to research what they wanted to do for a living. Clay said ‘broadcaster’ and the teacher looked at him as if he’d said prostitute. He had zero idea why anyone would want to do that much less how to do it, but Clay looked it up and later sent applications to every school in Western Canada that hung out a radio shingle. SAIT in Calgary politely refused him saying he needed to find out more about what broadcasting really was (he kept the letter) but the standards at Lethbridge Community College were much lower-:) he says. Their program head Ian Mandin was one he describes as charismatic, childish, and crazy in all the best ways, and a real inspiration. In his first year there, Clay looked up to second years like Jeff Palmer (later News1130 Vancouver), Carol Thomson (CKIK Calgary/CFQC Saskatoon) and 365’er Boyd Leader. Then, as now, Boyd was the best of what radio comrades should be he says…the guy always in the middle of the funniest thing in the room.
He hadn’t finished first year when Boyd helped him apply to his first station, CKLQ Brandon and at 18 he left to do their all-night show for PD Jerry Agar(now of course a major talk instigator at CFRB). A few months into that tender gig he woke up in a panic at 2AM cause he’d missed his shift and rushed to the station to find that sports director Gord McDonald (News Director at the legendary CKNW Vancouver for pretty much forever now) had been out pubbing with the rest of Q’s air staff and was using Clay’s absence to finally try out the jock’s chair. Other jocks at Q included his Brandon roomie Bill Stovold (now chief of engineering at Jim Pattison Broadcast Group), Jay Hitchen (years as a PD for JPBG) and Steve Antaya, a Manitoba icon at CKLQ who last year asked Clay if he’d like to be Q’s imaging voice. A cool full circle kinda thing he says.
His second stop was CHAT Medicine Hat (home station for voice god 365’er Jim Conrad), also a training ground for, as he calls her, his mensch Ruth Blakely, a savant at news, programming, and anything else she chooses to do. A year later he was part of the sign-on at CJAX92.5 Edmonton, hired by 365’er Marty Forbes and started his friendships with Greg Sherrett and Brian Depoe. Clay says: “Weird…I’d met Marty and Greg, then at Lethbridge’s LAFM, when I was a college kid who took his guitar down for auditions at the station’s ‘Lethbridge Folk Club Hour’, a performing career that continues in my basement today. Can’t thank Marty enough for all that early support.”
Soon after CJAX, he moved across town to CKRA/96K-Lite to work for another one his great mentors, Len Theusen. Over six years there he did every shift…weekends, middays, mornings, and drive and got to work with bright lights like Steve Burgess, John Beaudin, Dale Wolfe, BJ Doyle, Candace Webber, Ken Dawson, Grant Ainsley and Pat Kiernan. He still loves Edmonton and says it was an amazing place and time to learn the business. At several points, he was doing four club gigs a week, sleeping til noon then rolling in to his drive shift. “Not a bad way to spend your 20’s. Oy!”
Clay left Edmonton for a project that became one of North America’s first modern rock stations, CIMX/89X in Windsor. The shared history of Windsor/Detroit in the CKLW era was a huge lure, though he wound up having a different experience. Six months after arriving, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Thousands of miles from friends and family, the next year was tough, juggling a new market, new city, new disease. By late 1990, he was pining to get out. He almost took a morning job at MIX96 in Montreal with 365’er Jeff Vidler and had done everything but sign the papers with Gerry Siemens for mornings at CHFM in Calgary when Brad Phillips and 365’er Liz Janik called and asked him to interview for mornings at a new CHR startup in Vancouver. He still remembers Gerry’s reaction when he couldn’t take the Calgary job because he was waiting for Vancouver. Gerry said “well, when you find out what Brad’s doing can you let me know?? ….Cause I’ve got 3 other guys saying the same thing!!”
That gig was mornings at Z95, and it’s debut in 1991 made it the first CHR on FM in Vancouver. That alone made it a success out of the box, and it rocketed from there. He gives most of the due to Brad Phillips whose been a mentor and friend of his for close to 30 years. Brad had a habit of hiring the raw goods and then letting those talents race up to and over the line and Clay says it was something to watch. That early Z crew included Darren Darren B. Lamb, Matt Matthew McBride, Joe Nickolls, Zack Spencer, Tara McGuire, Janice Ungaro, Randy Butson, Pamela Jones, Pam Schewe, Tracy Fresneda, Buzz Bishop, Mark Lacock, Jeff Aldus, Sue Zimmerman, and Curtis Maddams Strange. Says Clay “…it makes my head spin just to think about it. It’s sort of amazing that bizarre, high-concept bits like ‘When Clay Was A Boy’ and ‘The Apology’ were regular features. Not smart, maybe, but brave:) At it’s peak, Z was the first FM station in Vancouver to crack a 12 share.”
After 5 years, Standard bought Z and within months six on the on-air crew found themselves on the beach. The day he was fired he got home, and the phone rang. It was Gerry Siemens, by now the GM at JRfm. He said, “I just heard. I think they’re making a huge mistake” and within 3 months he was the new morning co-host at JR and has been doing that show for the 21 years since. The first couple of years were with his old buddy and roommate, 365’er Tamara Stanners and they were blown away that we got to do a Vancouver morning show together. When Tammy left to spend more time with her young kids they hired a small, explosive woman (that’s a compliment he says) named Karen Daniels to co-host. What Gerry liked most about her was that she swore once on her demo. After the first couple of weeks, Clay was worried they’d made a mistake. Karen was pretty direct and testy but one day very early on Clay started giving it right back to her and she liked it! That was where they knew not to take each other seriously, something clicked, and they’ve been working side by side for close to 20 years. Says Clay: “So many of the good things that have happened in his radio career are because of Karen. Wicked funny, smart, fierce, and a real pro but like me does not take herself or the job seriously enough to be a pain in the a**. Thank god my path crossed hers.”
No one starts a gig thinking that it’s going to turn into decades, especially in this business. It’s sort of bizarre and he blames Gerry S. and Gord Eno for his time there at JR-?. For his first 15 years they were GM and PD and he had the very unusual radio position of feeling completely supported and trusted from day one. One of the reasons he loved working for them was that they both come from that old-school style of ‘programming first’: all station successes happen when the on-air product thrives.“It’s a gift not many jocks get” he says, “and I am happy that current GM/PD Mark Patric also shares that philosophy (one of the few people who’s worked for JR longer than I have). It’s not a coincidence that early in Mark’s tenure, Karen and I were named the BCAB’s Broadcast Performers of the year. We’ve been really, really blessed. JR always punches above it’s weight as a country station in non-country Vancouver because management makes room for the talent to play (shout out to Doc Andrews, Nicole Savage, Barbara Beam, Jaxon Hawks, our boi Graeme Gordon, and the crazy talented Nick ‘The Guy’ Harrison).”
Clay sums up: “My first and only firing was a great reminder that you can’t let worth be defined by one boss or job. You ultimately work for you so step up, work hard, and trust in your own stock. That way you’ll obviously be valuable to employers, you’ll become trustworthy and great coworkers will gravitate into your life and together you’ll start to build something awesome. For example, the week after getting canned I started an acting class (one of the other things I always wanted to do). That career path has now gone on 20 years as well and given me another great tribe of people to play with: Michael David Simms, Blain Anderson, Sandra Madeiros, and the best agent on the planet Jamie Levitt Dallas. So, I get to laugh on the radio as me and I get to be a bunch of weirdos as a voice actor (saintvoices.com) and on screen. There are 50-odd film/tv roles on my IMDB resume, 3/4 of which are the same role I’m playing in new Steve Carrell movie this Christmas: news anchor. It’s pretty funny…never worked news, but played it in a lot of shows and films you’ll never see.
As for advice I’d give young broadcasters who are coming in to help radio thrive in these days o’ change: be gentle with yourself, own the things that make you special, and remember that the wonderful people around you are your greatest allies. For me, that’s my family (Anne, Sam, and Lena) and a kick-ass list of co-workers I’ve loved.”
This is a smart fellow who still does the work each and every day. Want to stay in the business for a long, long time? Take some pages out of Clay’s play book. Work hard, stay connected, understand that ‘show business’ is actually two words (‘show’ and ‘business’) and work it accordingly, play well in the sandbox and keep up with what is going on. Long time morning shows understand ‘Chemistry is not content! Chemistry brings content to life! ™ and never let up. This describes Clay and Karen and with this attitude and professionalism, they could work almost as long as they would like to.
Atta be Clay. We never got to work together but over the years I have watched your career and had you firmly in my talent bank. I heard nothing but good things, in a business that is not always kind. Keep it up and congrats!
Thank you, Clay St. Thomas, for being one of “The Good Ones”. Feel free to like and share Clay’s positive story. Who is the subject of tomorrow’s JJ-365 Salutes? As they say, stay tuned.
Jim JJ Johnston is the CEO, President and Chief Talent/Content Coach for JJIMS INC. and works with talent in many different industries.