Those who choose radio as a career are always gambling with their potential for longevity, given station sales, industry consolidation and the ups and downs of the inevitable ratings game. No doubt, Cat Thomas won the broadcasting luck of the draw. The radio veteran spent an astonishing 27 years with CBS Radio in—yes, the gambling capital of the world—Las Vegas, elevated to VP of Programming for the former radio giant. He admits, “As the saying goes, ‘Winning solves all problems.’”
Thomas is now VP of Contemporary Music for Cumulus Media, working with CHR and rhythmic stations nationwide—and directly with Cumulus CEO Mary Berner and Mike McVay, executive VP of Content & Programming. He is based in Vegas.
The broadcasting executive has come a long way from dressing as Chuck the Duck to wedge his foot in the door at CHR “XL106.7” WXXL Orlando. He went on to become the station’s promotion director and research director while working on-air. Vegas was next, manning afternoon drive with music director stripes at CBS Radio’s long-running CHR KLUC (98.5).
Thomas talks with Inside Radio about his role with the ever-evolving Cumulus, the ups and downs of CHR and the importance of seeing the format’s music through the eyes of its audience.
According to Nielsen, CHR has declined nearly two share points since 2016. Please share your report card on top 40 today.
CHR always succeeds when we do more than play music. That is the core, but listeners have many sources if they just want music. Being on the streets and part of our listeners’ daily lives is what make us a daily brand. The more people eliminate personal interaction, the more important, authentic and special personal interaction becomes—and that may well be the secret sauce that allows a station to become a brand in their market. I think we have more opportunities than ever.
How are we doing with CHR’s core artists? Is there a formidable mix of genres and tempo to maintain good health for the core audience?
Music has never moved faster. The hard part is that core artists are defined by current listeners. If a core artist doesn’t have a true hit, the young end won’t care. There is nothing better for our stations than a core artist with a huge record. After that I’ll take a great record by a new artist, then an okay record from a core artist. Okay songs by new artists don’t make it on the air. And the worst thing is a weak song by a core artist. Artists and labels are not only hurting our stations, but the artist is doing big damage to their brand.
Chasing CHR's song of the summer is always good fun. We are past Memorial Day so the gates have opened. Any contenders you are placing bets on?
We are coming through a tough time where a lot of songs were just mediocre. I refer to everything outside the top 20 as the “Musical Hunger Games,” because they would kill each other off and then every few weeks the strongest survivor would emerge. There are three I think have the ability to bring it home: Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left To Cry,” great tempo and already picking up steam; Cardi B featuring Bad Bunny & J Balvin, “I Like It,” a fun uptempo track—Cardi B is on fire right now—and Maroon 5 featuring Cardi B, “Girls Like You.” The video with all the empowered women just kills it. Did I mention that Cardi B is on fire?
What is your best advice to bring CHR back to glory?
I would like to see stations that commit bodies to the cause. Be on the streets with the listeners, be online and on air with them. Create jocks that are stars in your city. Be a part of what is important to your listeners and make sure you take opportunities to make a difference in their lives. Be authentic, fun and play great songs.
Okay, let’s talk about Cat. You were with CBS Radio in Las Vegas for three decades. How is that possible? Nobody in radio stays in one place for so long. A highlight of that amazing run?
As the saying goes, “Winning solves all problems.” If you want to stay somewhere, winning helps. If I had to pick a highlight it was the ability to create a farm system to allow personalities to grow and then become staples in our industry. While I was there, I was blessed to hire and help bring up young talent that have gone on to flourish. Also the people who started as part-timers that are now major players. People are the difference and I’m proud I was able to be a part of some great people getting their shot to grow and succeed.
Tell us about your role as one of five format captains at Cumulus. It’s now been 2.5 years working with Mary and Mike in your corporate CHR/Hot AC position.
It is a wonderful job and very gratifying. Mary and Mike have created a culture that is fun in a creative environment that allows us to do our jobs and help grow our talent. The vibe has filtered from the top all the way through the company. PDs are now empowered to run their stations at a local level. We have built an intranet called Forcebook that allows the sharing of ideas and practices that helps all of us succeed. It’s a very open society and the energy level of the company feels awesome. Mary and Mike’s culture is growing people as our most precious resource.
Top 40 is a genre designed for youngsters… What keeps the format – and the radio industry – fun for you?
Age doesn’t matter as long as you have an open mind and are observant to what the audience wants. Staying in touch with them, understanding what they want and spending time with them is key. I have two kids, one a high school senior and the other heading to college. I spend time talking to their friends, observing what they are doing on their phones, what they are listening to. A couple of years ago, I volunteered to be the chaperone for the “Life Is Beautiful” festival—and every parent said, “Thank you for doing this, I don’t want to go down there with all that noise.” I loved it. It was like my own personal social experiment, watching kids react to the EDM stage, then watching them get to the right stage for the must-see artist “Chance The Rapper”—a year before radio knew who he was. Thousands of kids flocked to his set on stage and each one could rattle off lyrics and songs as if he was the biggest artist at the festival. This is what programmers miss by sitting at a computer all day. And so, age doesn’t make you relevant, being relevant makes you relevant. The horizon brings opportunity. Winners are just those that seize it.