“Outlaw” Tommy Smith, a familiar and outrageous voice on Arkansas radio for generations who recently announced his retirement, sat down to talk with Arkansas Business just before Christmas. Myasthenia Gravis, a chronic autoimmune disorder, had robbed him of much of his powerful voice, and he said it’s the reason he’s dropping the microphone.
The “Show With No Name” co-host for 17 years on The Buzz, 103.7 FM, described rising to stardom at rock station Magic 105 in the 1980s before being fired by new station owner Clear Channel for running afoul of a Federal Communications Commission decency crackdown. That came after entertainer Janet Jackson’s breast was exposed at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004.
“You couldn’t say titty on the radio anymore,” Smith succinctly put it.
Signal Media, led by Philip Jonsson, rescued his career by hiring him and pairing him with former Arkansas Razorback star David Bazzel. Jonsson and his son, Steve, stood by Smith through a drunk-driving case and rehabilitation, more than once.
Here’s a transcript of the Dec. 16 interview, lightly edited for clarity.
How are you feeling?
“I know I need sleep, and I want to travel and see the country.”
When is your last day on the air, Dec. 29?
“Yes, I believe that’s right.” [Bazzel announced on Dec. 21 that Smith’s successor on “The Show With No Name” will be country singer Justin Moore, an Arkansas native and avid Razorback fan. Moore’s first broadcast was scheduled Dec. 30.]
What are some of the things that you look back on in your career? What stands out?
“Going back to Magic 105 days, 1980 was the hottest summer ever, and I was doing paving work, and it was miserable. I had been doing radio out west but had to come home, and I wanted to be back on the air. I didn’t have a demo tape, so I just bugged the crap out of [KMJX Program Director] Tom Wood every single day. And finally he gave me a job, we eventually kicked into high gear and we absolutely did some stuff that you can’t do on the radio anymore.” [In one popular promotion for Groundhog Day, Smith would climb into a Little Rock sewer and emerge to see if he saw his shadow; he certainly smelled something.]
“We had Danny-Joe Crofford bury a lingerie-clad mannequin at where Interstate 30 and 40 meet. And the state cops got there so quick. [Laughter.] It was funny for people who knew what was going on. But people passing by were seeing a guy out in the middle of an interstate burying something wearing lingerie. We got a lot of feedback on that.”
When did that sort of thing start getting you into trouble?
“The day that I really knew that my style had become taboo on the radio was the day Janet Jackson was on the Super Bowl with her wardrobe malfunction. I knew it was over. So Roger [Scott] and I got fired. And we turned to one man, Philip Jonsson, who is a hero to me, a real hero to me. He gave me a chance, and when I screwed up at times, he welcomed me back.” [Philip Jonsson, who founded Signal Media of Arkansas in 1984, died in 2020.]
Looking back, what were some of the big events?
“I would say the biggest day in my radio career was 9/11. I was on the air and I had to go from a guy who's talking about ‘All right, who's got the best cheeseburgers?’ to somebody looking at a TV screen and seeing what happens. I have to go on and be the guy that describes the second building falling and all that stuff. And people are calling KARN and they're saying I'm just making something up, but it was playing out right before our very eyes. And over the years I've had so many people come up to me and say they remember where they were hearing me. To me, that's a pretty good job.”
Let's talk a little bit about Magic 105. What was the start like?
“I started in the summer at Magic 105 the summer of 1980 after I moved back from Colorado Springs. I'd had a nasty divorce, but had that not happened I would have never stumbled into Magic 105 or met my current wife of 39 years, Karen. So I got lucky.”
How is Karen reacting to your decision to retire?
“She's right behind me. Yeah, we're gonna take six weeks off and see the United States of America. We're just gonna drive.”
No particular destination?
“I want to start out west, maybe Colorado, and work my way over to Montana. Then we'll maybe go down through Chicago and Philly to New York City. I really want to see the coast of Maine. I've been there before and it's absolutely gorgeous. And then we'll probably work our way back to Destin and stay there until we come back.”
After the six weeks will you be looking for work again? Or is this a retirement, where you don't come back?
“I really had two or three things I would like to do. One, because of the situation with my speech, is to have a classic rock-slash-talk-slash-sports station. And when I'm having a good speech day, I'd be able to talk about whatever. But if I can't talk or nothing's going on, I'll pop on some ‘Free Bird’ or some Eagles or something like that. I would really enjoy that. But it ain't happening at six o'clock in the morning.”
Tell me about being a morning DJ. Is it different from when you were in the afternoons?
“Yeah, you have a lot more show prep, you have to be conscious of what's going on on all fronts. I do show prep like a couple hours every day. I've been doing it for a long, long time. But the toughest part for me as I go on is getting up at 4 and driving in. So it came to me that it’s time. Honestly, it's time to pass the torch. I've kind of aged out of our demo. I mean, they still listen, but I think it's time to move on for them. And I really have no choice till my speech clears up or they come up with something in treatment.
Who are some people you’ll think about?
"Well, my rock on the radio for the past 17 years has been David Bazzel. I met Roger Scott when I was music director of Magic 105. And it wasn't just radio folks like Tom Wood, Sharpe Dunaway and Sandy O'Connor; I got to meet anybody who came to town. I sat down with football idols, got to interview Brooks Robinson, got to interview Jack Nicklaus. This business has been very, very good to me.”
You've always been a sports fan and a rock fan. How did that combine over a long career?
"Arkansas is not a major league sports market. And come April, May or June, there can be not a lot to talk about, so you've got to do some homework to have something to talk about. But it wasn't hard to love rock music and love sports, and to share both with the listeners.”
How about the state of radio these days in a far more corporate and technological age?
“When I started, we queued up records; we had to splice tape. Everything now is done on the computer and I think you lose the spontaneity factor a little bit. But like I said, over the years these people have been so good to me. I did what I could for them for 17 years, but going back further I got to meet all those special people: Tom Woods, Sandy O'Connor; golly the list goes on. Jeff Allen. And all these characters like Roger and Crofford. And they were all coming on my show over there [at KMJX] for free. And I was saying to myself, we're going to pay these guys. Well, I didn't get a chance. They all went to The Buzz. And then I went there too after they fired me and Roger. Like I said, Philip Jonsson took me on and the rest is history.”
Well, if you've got one sort of final word, what's your message on the way out?
"Thank you, everybody. The company [Signal Media] has been good to me. The listeners have been outstanding. I went to Betty Ford for treatment this summer and got over 400 pieces of mail. And that was a good thing. That was a great thing. And when I came back, they accepted me I moved on. But this myasthenia gravis thing is tough. If you're a radio guy and talk for a living, it don't work. But to everybody, I say thanks, and I'll quote an old Eagles song. 'Lighten up while you still can ... take it easy.' I'm truly flattered and honored."