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Jerry Thomas woke us up with a smile on WKRC-AM for four decades

Brian Thomas posted this photo with his father, Jerry Thomas, on Facebook today.
Courtesy Brian Thomas
Brian Thomas posted this photo with his father, Jerry, right, on Facebook Thursday.

The Price Hill native, who died Thursday at 83, also oversaw the transformation of WKRC-FM into rock station Q102 in the 1970s.

Jerry Thomas woke up Greater Cincinnati radio listeners with "punch lines you missed" and quips from his "Granny" character for four decades on WKRC–AM, and helped build sister station WKRQ-FM (Q102) into a rock powerhouse with the hiring of a young programmer named Randy Michaels.

He died Thursday morning at age 83. The news was announced by his son Brian Thomas, who took over the WKRC-AM morning show after his father's retirement in 2006.

"Dad passed away early this morning. He was a wonderful father and husband. Thanks to everyone for all their thoughts and prayers during his battle with Alzheimer’s. Love you Dad. 11/11/1939 – 12/8/2022," he wrote.

The 1957 Elder High School graduate was a WKRC-AM fixture for 44 years, including when his morning show was No. 1 for most of the 1980s — a significant accomplishment considering the station broadcasts on 5,000 watts, compared to WLW-AM's 50,000 watts, with an AM sound quality inferior to FM radio.

Thomas survived by adapting with the industry, playing hits by Madonna (not one of his favorites by any means) on the radio in the 1980s, then going home and listening to Stan Kenton and other jazz artists.

After retiring in 2006 at 67, Thomas continued to be heard voicing commercial endorsements on Cincinnati radio for years, often on his son's morning show.

"I believe he was the best pitch man in the business," says John Phillips, the longtime traffic reporter and radio personality who started his career at WKRC in 1974. "He related so well to the listener. If Jerry said it was worth it, you could take it to the bank."

Born John Gerald Crusham on Nov. 11, 1939, the Price Hill native started his broadcasting career in 1957 as a WLWT-TV "floor boy" helping set up Ruth Lyons' 50-50 Club and Bob Braun's Bandstand show.

He worked at Kentucky radio stations in Paris, Lexington and Louisville before coming home to the 1-6 a.m. shift on WKRC-AM on May 1, 1962, when the station began 24-hour broadcasting. He legally changed his name to Jerry John Thomas in 1965, before Brian was born.

In his four decades at old Taft Broadcasting — which once owned WKRC-AM, WKRQ-FM and WKRC-TV — he did about everything. He was a DJ; radio program director; Q102 station manager; salesman; sales manager; morning personality; and conservative talk host paired in mornings with Craig Kopp. He also co-hosted PM Magazine on Channel 12 in 1984-85.

Thomas is best remembered as Cincinnati's popular morning host doing humorous bits as "Granny" (inspired by Jonathan Winters' frisky Maude Frickert character), telling listeners the "punch lines you missed" to jokes; and voicing politically incorrect weather reports from Usual Lee Wong, a Chinese weatherman. He also participated in the annual Delhi Township softball Skirt Game dressed as "Granny."

After doing his 9 a.m.-noon shift on WKRC-AM in the early 1970s, Thomas worked as station manager at WKRQ-FM as it was transitioning from automated rock music to live DJs. In March 1974, he hired Chris O'Brien to join FM staffers Pat Barry, Jim Fox and Ted McAlister. Soon after he brought Michaels here from Buffalo as program director.

Thomas, then in his early 30s, "really loved being station manager of this young operation," O'Brien said. "Later, when he was no longer the station manager and solely did morning drive on 'KRC, our studios were across from one another when I was doing mornings on the Q. He was always hanging outside the glass window trying to break me up. Sometimes he would come into my studio and try to prank me in other ways. He was always fun to be around."

At the peak of his ratings in the mid 1980s, his morning team included newsman Richard Hunt; traffic reporter Nancy McCormick; AccuWeather meteorologist Elliott Abrams; sports from Paul Sommerkamp or Phil Samp; and Paul Harvey's syndicated news and comments.

In 1992, he made headlines by abruptly leaving WKRC-AM after 30 years after failing to reach a contract renewal with the station's owner, Great American Broadcasting, which had proposed a 40% pay cut, he said.

Years later he told me that he quit WKRC-AM because it was losing money. "I could see the station going down the toilet," he said.

But by the end of 1992, he returned to the WKRC-AM morning show after the station was bought by Clear Channel, owners of rival WLW-AM and managed by Michaels.

Thomas was so popular that he considered entering politics.

"Off and on, the Republican Party has talked to me about (running for) a number of things … I've been giving it a lot of thought," he said in 2002, after 40 years on Cincinnati airwaves.

To his former coworkers, Thomas was remembered as a generous mentor.

"Jerry knew the city like the back of his hand and he knew everyone. He taught me a lot about what it means to keep the broadcast local," said Janeen Coyle, who co-hosted WKRC-AM mornings with Thomas 1993-95 before joining husband Chris O'Brien for WGRR-FM's Married with Microphones morning show.

"He was the master of the live commercial. I learned a lot about delivery from him. You never read the commercial; you tell the listener about the product and why you love it," she said.

He gave advice to Phillips and college-aged overnight newsman Chad Pergram, now Fox News' senior congressional correspondent.

"Jerry went out of his way to offer me insight and advice. He found ways to encourage me to be 'me' on the air, not to imitate someone I thought I should sound like. [He taught me that] you couldn’t fake sincerity — it had to be real. He made it look easy, and it wasn't," Phillips said.

"I don’t ever remember him being critical. He’d catch you doing something good and call you out for it, often in front of others. He’d give you a grin and a wink, and you felt a mile high," Phillips said.

Pergram, an Edgewood High School graduate who grew up in the tiny Butler County community of Jacksonburg, recalls being a nervous 20-year-old working the station with Thomas.

"I was intimidated to even talk to him in the hall. But he was very kind, and I talked to him about how to get deeper into radio," said Pergram, whose overnight news shift ended as Thomas came on the air.

"I loved his 'punchlines you missed.' You had to figure out what the joke was," Pergram said.

Thomas would read a handful of punch lines every morning from jokes typed single-spaced on 15 pages. He once told me: "Every one of them is legitimate. I mean, I've heard them all. They might start out a little different, but they all wind up coming to the same place."

Although Thomas knew a million punch lines, Phillips said, "what set him apart was his ability to see the potential to turn it into money. He had all the fun the rest of us had in radio, but he could sell it. He made the company a ton of money."

When he celebrated his 40th anniversary in 2002, Thomas admitted that he almost jumped to WLW-AM in 1983 when Michaels took over the 50,000-watt station.

"I sometimes replay it in my mind: What would have happened if I came over (to WLW-AM) back then? Would I be part owner? Would I still be doing mornings? Would I be looking for a job?" he posited. "But I don't have any regrets."

By 1999, when he was ready to retire and spend winters in Florida at age 60, his bosses talked him into staying by giving him eight weeks of vacation.

"They've been good to me," he said. "But I've made them some money."

And he made a lot of listeners smile.

John Kiesewetter, who has covered television and media for more than 35 years, has been working for Cincinnati Public Radio and WVXU-FM since 2015.