Tommy Smith is famous. And he’s infamous, which only makes sense for a radio personality who for much of his career was called “Outlaw.” When you hear the story of Smith’s radio career, it’s easy to conclude that he beat the odds — that he overachieved. And he’d be the first to tell you that very thing.
But that conclusion overlooks a couple of unavoidable truths. Tommy Smith does great radio. He’s funny, he’s engaging, he’s irreverent, and doggone it, people like him. And they also give him second chances. Even third chances.
It was 1974 when Smith first hit the airwaves, a chance he earned the old-fashioned way: he married into it.
“It was KEWP, 1380 AM, and it was on Main Street in Little Rock, catty-corner from the Band Box,” Smith says of the legendary burger joint at 17th and Main that since has rebranded as The Box and relocated to Seventh Street. “I was marrying the new owner’s daughter, and what an opportunity I had. We were only 10,000 watts so nobody much could hear us, but I could do whatever I wanted. I’d play the Osmonds, and then I’d play Led Zeppelin. But I was getting a check.” (Smith had learned the basics of the radio business at a vo-tech school.)
“Then my father-in-law bought a station in Salina, Kansas, and asked if I wanted to come. I was working midnight to 6 a.m., and after about eight months I wanted to come home and try to get a job in radio here, but my father-in-law suggested I go to the Army. I told him I wanted to be in radio, and he said that would take care of itself.”
And, yes, in the military Smith indeed was “in radio” as in “working on radios … and tanks” at Fort Carson in Colorado. After he got out, Smith went to KKFM in Colorado Springs, doing the midday shift. But his bosses said they’d have to move him back to nights when fewer people would hear him. “They told me I said y’all and darling too much.’ There was nothing left for me there. My wife had left me, I couldn’t see my son, so I went home. I painted houses the summer of 1980 — do you remember how hot it was in the summer of 1980? And then Magic 105 came on the air.
“I called [program director] Tom Wood about two or three times a day, bugging him for a job, and finally in August, I was hired, doing night-time radio at a rock ’n’ roll station.”
And while no one then could have predicted it — plenty of local stations had tried a rock format and failed — Magic 105 would become super popular. And it definitely was quirky, broadcasting out of a tiny building on a large hill outside Mayflower. It was a radio team for the ages, including Smith on afternoons and Wood in the morning drive time.
Smith credits Paul Johnson, media columnist at the Arkansas Gazette at the time, for helping his career. “Paul would write that the rumor is Tommy is going to KKYK, and I’d get a raise,” he remembered. “And then Tom said, ‘How about if we move you to the mornings?’ Think about who else was on the mornings — Bob Robbins, Craig O’Neill, Ray Lincoln, the Uglees. Once I got into that water, I realized that it’s a lot deeper. The pressure is on in the mornings.”
Outlaw Tommy Smith didn’t just survive — he thrived. “For a 10-year period, it was solid gold. I did no show prep. I’d go on and start talking.” And people listened in droves. Smith took the show in a somewhat raunchy direction, something his male-dominated audience obviously loved.
His “Flash Me Fridays” were infamous, women coming by the studio on Main Street in North Little Rock and making sure Tommy saw their breasts through the window. (As an occasional guest on the show, I can vouch that the flashing was fast and furious on Friday mornings.)
And then things changed. Magic 105 had been purchased by Clear Channel, the corporate media behemoth, and there was Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl halftime on Feb. 1, 2004.
“The FCC ruled that you couldn’t say ‘titty’ on the air anymore,” Smith said. And encouraging women to show theirs was frowned on in corporate radio America. Before the end of the year, frustrated with his new shackles, Smith had had his fill of Clear Channel — and vice versa. But as soon as he was gone from Magic 105, Smith was at the Buzz 103.7, thanks to Phillip Jonsson.
With former Razorback great and ubiquitous marketing guru and award/mascot inventor David Bazzel as his co-star, Smith launched “The Show with No Name,” where he’s been ever since. At least most of the time.
Smith’s drinking habit finally got the better of him in 2012, and after a couple of embarrassing episodes, he left for the Betty Ford Clinic with Jonsson’s blessing.
“He knew what was going on,” Smith said. “He said, ‘Go do it. Go get fixed. Everyone has issues, and you’ve worked in rock ’n’ roll radio a long time. So go do it, and then we’ll welcome you back.”
He went back on the air at The Buzz, and for years all was good and right with Tommy Smith and his radio career. Until it wasn’t.
“I could tell something was wrong, and then [wife] Karen asked me, ‘What’s wrong with your speech? You aren’t drinking again, are you?’ But I could tell something was wrong.” Smith started researching his symptoms and everything pointed to one diagnosis — ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease. “I started thinking, ‘Who are going to be my pallbearers?’ But then I got diagnosed with myasthenia gravis,” not good news but also not a death sentence like ALS.
Smith has good days and has bad days, but for the most part he’s been able to carry on as the co-host of an intensive four-hour morning radio talk show.
And then COVID-19 hit, his brother died, a friend committed suicide, and his myasthenia gravis “was really taking its toll. It was during the [mid-February] snowstorm. I was staying at [Frank] Fletcher’s hotel [the Wyndham in downtown North Little Rock]. The second or third night I started rationalizing. I had lost a brother, a friend committed suicide; I thought, ‘You’re 66, you can have a beer.’ There was so much going on. So, I walked to a convenience store and bought some beer. I thought I could drink one or two, but five weeks later I knew I was going the wrong way.”
The Buzz management “said I could tell people I’m taking vacation. But I’ve always told [listeners] the truth. I went on the radio and said, ‘The wolf got me. I’m ashamed. Some people might think I’m less than a man for admitting this, but I’ve always told you the truth.’” Bazzel was by his side as he issued his heartfelt on-air confession. “Bazzel is my on-air rock,” Smith said, “and my wife is my off-air rock.”
So, it was back to Betty Ford for what Smith said the people there called a tune-up. “I’d been sober for nine years, and I’d been drinking for six weeks. They told me, ‘You have nipped this in the bud.’”
How much longer Tommy Smith will be a force in the local radio world remains to be seen. He has announced that he plans to leave the Buzz in April 2022. And the reasons why keep becoming more obvious to him.
“In the last week, we’ve [taken the show to] Pickles Gap, Morrilton, Arkadelphia and Stuttgart. On one of those trips, I almost hit a deer. I’m 67 years old, which is how old [legendary KATV sportscaster] Paul Eells was when he died in his car. I don’t need to be making 60-mile drives at 5 in the morning. My reflexes aren’t what they used to be. This business has been so good to me since 1974, but it’s time to pass the torch. I can’t relate to 25-year-olds anymore. Now 50-to-70-year-olds? I’ve got ’em!”
Smith said while he loves what he, Bazzel and others have built at The Buzz, he misses playing rock ’n’ roll music on the radio and can envision trying that again — sometime, somewhere.
“On a good day, I’d play a song, then talk, play a song, then talk,” he says. “On a bad day, I’d play four or five songs, then talk, play four or five songs, then talk.”
So, after he leaves The Buzz and the fame in which he has bathed through his Magic 105 and Buzz careers, will we have heard the last of Tommy Smith?