Tommy Smith, the self-styled radio “Outlaw” for 40 years at KMJX-FM and 103.7 The Buzz, could hardly speak above a whisper Wednesday when he called to discuss retirement plans after a long, irreverent career that made him both famous and infamous in Arkansas.
“My myasthenia gravis is making it hard to talk, and I’m about to be called in to the doctor’s office,” he told Arkansas Business. “Maybe my voice will hold out for my last nine or 10 shifts on the air.”
A morning drive-time attraction for most of his career, Smith is scheduled to make his last appearance with co-host David Bazzel on The Buzz’s “Show With No Name” on Wednesday, Dec. 29.
It looks to be the final sign-off for a provocative figure who ruled the local ratings for almost two decades but also ran afoul of station owners, decency monitors and the Federal Communications Commission. "When you work in radio, you pretty much have to be able to talk," Smith said, succinctly.
The retirement ends the last vestiges of a rambunctious era of competition among outlandish morning DJs in central Arkansas, an age when Smith worked and competed with stars like Craig O’Neill, now a television anchor at THV-11; Bob Robbins, the KSSN Country hall of famer; longtime KMJX Program Director and announcer Tom Wood; and Ray Lincoln of KKYK-FM and KAAY.
At 67, Smith says age was starting to tell on him even before his symptoms worsened from myasthenia gravis, a condition marked by a breakdown in communication between nerves and muscles. Common effects include weakness, drooping eyelids and trouble speaking and chewing.
In a statement released by The Buzz on Tuesday, Smith said station owner Signal Media had “gone above and beyond to take care of me” over 17 years, including stints of rehabilitation after an on-air collapse in 2010 and a driving while intoxicated conviction in 2011.
“But my speaking problems have become overwhelming, and I think it's time to pass the torch. Radio has been very, very good to me, I am deeply saddened that it had to end this way, but I want to thank the listeners, advertisers and all my co-workers for their support over many years on the air," the statement said.
An Arkansas native, Smith worked for KMJX, a rock station known as Magic 105, for more than 20 years before moving to Signal Media's Buzz in 2004.
Wood, in a 2019 interview, told Arkansas Business that Smith was one of his first hires after starting at Magic 105 when the station opened in 1980. Wood even gave up his own DJ slot in the mornings to make way for Smith, who had become a hit in the afternoons with a fresh and provocatively funny approach. “We concluded he should be the morning star,” Wood said. “The trick was convincing him to get up at 5 a.m.” Smith set his alarm and became king of Little Rock radio for years.
Smith’s uncompromising crudity was highly popular with his largely male audience, but it was also his downfall at KMJX-FM after the station was bought by Clear Channel Communications, now iHeart Media Inc.
“One executive heard Tommy’s show and thought it was too blue,” Wood recalled. “I tried to tell him not to kill the golden goose, but he ordered a change in tenor. Of course Tommy went back in and did the same exact show; the fellow heard it and fired Tommy on the spot."
Kelley Bass, who profiled Smith in October for Arkansas Money & Politics, recalled being an occasional guest for Smith’s notorious “Flash Me Fridays” segments, when women would gather outside the studio window on Main Street in North Little Rock and expose their breasts. “I can vouch that the flashing was fast and furious,” Bass wrote.
The 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, in which Janet Jackson suffered her famous “wardrobe malfunction,” brought renewed zeal for decency on America’s airwaves, and Smith was definitely out of line with that trend.
“The FCC ruled that you couldn’t say ‘titty’ on the air anymore,” Smith told Bass, and the authorities were also weary of announcers promoting things like indecent exposure. After his Magic 105 dismissal, Smith got the first of several second chances from Phillip Jonsson, the station owner who hired Smith at The Buzz in 2004.
There he joined Bazzel, a former Razorback linebacker, and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sports editor Wally Hall on “The Show With No Name.” Hall moved on to another station afterward. Over the years, Smith and Bazzel remained popular with a focus on sports, but also regular detours into politics, entertainment and other topics.
“Tommy Smith has been a major force in making The Buzz what it has become today,” 103.7 General Manager Justin Acri said in a statement. “Listeners across Central Arkansas have loved Tommy for decades, and many tune in each weekday to hear his familiar voice and unique perspective. We are extremely thankful to have had him on our air for almost 20 years.”
Smith had already been scheduled to retire in April 2022.