Special Edition: The Living Legends Foundation,® Inc. Presents The Living Legends Series with Tony Gray

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Tony Gray

*In this special edition of The Living Legends Series, EURWEB.com’s contributor Gwendolyn Quinn talks with radio legend Tony Gray.  As The Living Legends Foundation celebrates its 25th year anniversary on October 6th at the Taglyan Cultural Complex in Hollywood, Gray will be honored with the organization’s Jerry Boulding Radio Executive Award. His Chicago-based firm, Gray Communications was founded in 1990 and is recognized as one of the nation’s leading radio consulting companies boasting a client list including a wide variety of urban formatted stations.

Named one of The Most influential African Americans in Radio for two consecutive years (2009-2010) by Radio Ink magazine, Gray’s illustrious career continues to thrive in an industry of uncertainty, marked with corporate broadcast downsizing and an ever-evolving technology landscape.

“I am humbled and truly honored to be recognized by the Living Legends Foundation,” Gray said of this year’s honor. “Jerry was a longtime friend. He was an urban contemporary programmer, who used general market programming tactics at urban radio.”

While in high school, Gray secured his first introduction to radio with an internship in his native St. Louis at rock station, KSLQ. He credits broadcast legends Harry Caray of KMOX and Don St. John of KWK as his inspiration and early influencers. After high school, Gray attended Illinois State in Normal, IL where he received a degree in Communications. While in college, Gray secured his first on-air position at the college classical radio station WGLT-FM, where R&B music was programmed on Saturdays.

After college, Gray landed his first job as an on-air personality at an AM country station in Peoria, IL.  After his stint in Peoria, legendary radio broadcaster Dan Valle offered him an on-air position at New Orleans’ leading Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR) station, WEZB-FM, where he was best known in the Big Easy as “Tony Green.” While at WEZB-FM, then general manager John Malvar of WTLK-FM in Baton Rouge not only offered Gray another on-air post, which established him as a leading jock in the Louisiana market, but Malvar also hired him in his first role as program director. As a testament to his commitment to excel in two key markets; radio jock “Tom Gunn”—as he was known in the Baton Rouge community—commuted back and forth from New Orleans to Baton Rouge daily.

Still on the fast track, Gray moved to Detroit in the mid-80s to work as the program director for WDRQ-FM. After leaving the Motor City, Bishop Willis of WOWI-FM in Norfolk, VA, now an iHeart station, offered Gray a position as on-air personality. He only stayed there for six months before moving on to WUSL-FM’s Power 99 in Philadelphia. Under his new moniker “Mike Jackson,” Gray emerged as the city’s top radio jock. When he was hired at the station, he also moved into the position of assistant program director and later promoted to program director.

In 1986, Gray’s mentor Barry Mayo offered him a job of a lifetime—named program director for the number one urban station in the country, WRKS-FM in New York City. During his tenure as program director at Kiss 98.7, the station remained the number one urban station in the market.

Among his influences, he counts the late Mildred Carter of KPRS-FM (Kansas), as someone who set a great example for him. “She was committed to servicing the local African American community. Mrs. Carter and her husband also set the standard for entrepreneurship and encourage ownership of black radio stations.” Gray has also been influenced by black media groundbreakers Cathy Hughes, the late John Johnson and Reginald Lewis.

Gwendolyn Quinn: Please explain to our readers what radio research is and how it impacts our broadcast experience. And share with us the services that Gray Communications offer.

Tony Gray: We utilize several different forms of audience research to focus our stations to deliver the most compelling end product to our listeners. This ranges from weekly callout music research to auditorium music test to perceptual audience studies.

GQ: With both satellite and digital radio, how have that changed the business model for traditional terrestrial radio?

TG: Satellite and digital radio have created more competition for AM/FM broadcasters and forced us to think differently going forward.

GQ: What advice do you have for young African American talent interested in breaking into the broadcast business?

TG: My advice to young broadcasters just starting their careers is simple “Stride for excellence.”

GQ: What advice would you give entrepreneurs and investors interested in ownership of black radio stations?

TG: Investors looking at radio should know the changing media landscape.

GQ: As a leading broadcaster, what has been your most rewarding experience and accomplishment through your career?

TG: Most rewarding experience has and continues to be working with talented and dedicated professionals.

GQ: What do you think are the most challenging issues facing black radio?

TG: Black radio biggest challenge remains growing our ownership footprint.

GQ: What do you feel is your biggest contribution to black radio?

TG: My biggest contribution would be trying to lead by example.

GQ: Which areas in radio do you see growth opportunities for African American executives and talent?

TG: The biggest opportunity for growth for African Americans in radio would be to purchase FM translators and acquiring CPs for LPFMs.

GQ: What do you want your legacy to be?

TG: I would like my legacy to be that I always tried to be the best in my field.

GQ: What are you most optimistic about in black radio?

TG: I see a bright future for our industry and I wake up every day excited to be part of a business that plays a vital role in people’s everyday life.

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Gwendolyn Quinn

Gwendolyn Quinn is an award-winning media specialist with a career spanning over 25 years. She is the founder of the African American Public Relations Collective (AAPRC) and the publisher of Global Communicator. Her weekly columns, “Inside Broadway with Gwendolyn Quinn” and “My Person of the Week” are published with EURWEB.com. Quinn is also a contributor to Souls Revealed and Handle Your Entertainment Business. Contact her at [email protected].