El Paso Music Scene

Tom Connelly (99.1 The Bandit) Interview

Click on the image to get a higher-resolution photo

Tom Connelly is the Program Director for El Paso radio station, 99.1 The Bandit, as well as for two other Clear Channel stations, including KTSM. The Bandit sponsored The Rock 'n' Roll Rumble, a battle of local cover bands.

EPMS: How long has 99.1 The Bandit been in existence?

Tom Connelly: Since February of 2000.

EPMS: How long have you been at 99.1?

Tom Connelly: I'm from Boston. I've been in El Paso five years.

EPMS: How did 99.1 come about?

Tom Connelly: That was unusual. I wasn't here for the kickoff. Clear Channel was looking to explore opportunities on the border. El Paso is a large city on the border. Grupo Acir, a large broadcast company in Mexico, owned the 99.1 frequency. Clear Channel did the market research, and found no classic rock here. Grupo Acir and Clear Channel made a lease management agreement. We're owned by Grupo Acir, with a lease agreement by Clear Channel to provide programming for station. So, The Bandit was born. Clear Channel had just started in the El Paso marketplace. Two stations were in the Channel Nine building, Four were in the Piedras facility; all were brought to this facility in October of 2000.

EPMS: I have a hard time picking the station up on the far East side of El Paso.

Tom Connelly: We do have a signal problem. With our agreement, we have to follow laws of the land. We have certain requirements of the Mexican FCC. We have to run Mexican PSAs (Public Service Announcements), ninety-two a day. We have to play the Mexican national anthem two times a day. It surprises me, but people are offended by it; they think we do it to be funny or something.

EPMS: Do you have a solution for the transmitter problem?

Tom Connelly: No, not that we're aware of. We have investigated it. The transmitter is blocked by Mount Cristo Rey.

EPMS: How are your ratings compared to those of KLAQ?

Tom Connelly: They are probably double what we are. They have the luxury of being the heritage rock radio station. Their audience is mostly twelve to thirty-four years old. This station's audience is twenty-five to fifty years old. It's a business decision. In our world, we're very competitive.

EPMS: How does it affect the station to be part of Clear Channel?

Tom Connelly: It's the difference between being in a large corporation, versus a smaller company, or a mom-and-pop organization. I've gotta tell you, the resources available to me are limitless. That allows me time - everything is pretty much at my beck and call. There is no music in the whole building, everything is on computer. If I'm looking for something, I can mass-e-mail to all PDs: does anybody have... it could be anything. Things you'd normally spend a lot of time looking for. My prep time is reduced dramatically.

EPMS: What's the story on the Rock 'N' Roll Rumble?

Tom Connelly: It was an overall positive thing. Next year we'll do it better, stretch the whole thing out. We only got one level of feedback: when the bands submitted their recordings, they didn't have to be professionally done. We didn't make this clear.

EPMS: What about future battles of the bands?

Tom Connelly: We are talking about another Rumble next year. It's good for us, and for the music community. I've always worked at classic rock, so it occurred to me, put a query out there, it had to be a cover song, which made it more inclusive than exclusive.

EPMS: There was some grumbling about it being cover tunes only.

Tom Connelly: The average joe, does he really want to start buying music they don't know? It's kind of interesting, years ago, forty-fives (EPMS note: seven-inch vinyl records containing one song on the front, one on the back. Up until the mid-eighties, they were usually used in juke boxes) cost seventy-five cents. A song for an iPod costs one dollar. We didn't charge anybody. I didn't care who won.

So, bands entered, we gave them all a listen. Three people listened, we narrowed the field to sixteen bands. Everybody was honestly listened to. The response was very, very good. We had six or seven hundred people a show. To me, that's successful. We gave bands a lot of exposure. I'm happy to do it.

El Camino, we promoted them when they won. Their original song got three or four plays at a time in the week that people would be able to hear it.

EPMS: Why don't you play music from local bands on The Bandit?

Tom Connelly: I have to meet the level of expectation of our listeners.

When we did the Rumble, we taped the performances. The following day, we'd play some from the bands that participated. On Monday, we'd announce who won that round. We were playing back the songs at noon on Monday, so they got a big audience.

On Fridays, when we were running The Rumble, we'd devote an hour. Thats two hours a week, we'd play of the different bands. I think that's significant.

EPMS: Why not announce gigs of local bands on the radio?

Tom Connelly: Honestly, there are two answers: first, the enormity of the bands that are out there. I don't know how, without people saying we're playing favorites. We've talked about doing it on our site, but we just haven't really had the time. The other thing is, clubs are not advertisers. It's not fair for people that do advertise. If club A has to pay, and we provide the same service to club B for free, that's not good business.

EPMS: How often do you see local bands play?

Tom Connelly: Myself, I'm not a club-goer. I have thirty years of doing this. I'll go and see bands that interest me. I was very taken by The Black. I thought they brought something different to the table.

Rock stations require the most work. The audiences are more demanding, you need to go to more shows. Not many classic rock shows come to El Paso. but when they do, we've got to work them hard. The talent and myself, we do participate.

EPMS: What per cent of the songs played by The Bandit are requests?

Tom Connelly: We have three outlets for requests: Monday and Friday at noon, The Nooner, is all requests. Saturday night, Saturday night from seven to midnight, with Bill Forbes, takes requests and dedications. When you come into a market, everybody says, "This market is different." In reality, ninety per cent is all the same. ten per cent is different. That's what makes El Paso, El Paso.

EPMS: How much would it cost to start a radio station in El Paso, bare minimum?

Tom Connelly: Probably, in a city this size, a million dollars, or maybe half a million. That's for music. That number would double for news. It's very people-intensive to do news.

EPMS: What is the best concert you've ever seen?

Tom Connelly: Lyle Lovett at Salt Lake City. Abravanel Hall. His show is so well done. After the show, he came to the radio station, and did an acoustic set. He was phenomenal. He brought a cello player and what I thought was a body guard. This guy played brushes on a stool. They did five songs there in the studio.

EPMS: What interesting on-air accidents have you had?

Tom Connelly: There was one... it's hard to describe. I don't think, even until I heard it, I understood. In this building, there are six stations. One Saturday night, I was going to a remote, it was after seven o'clock, I had the radio on. All of a sudden, it sounded like Satan had taken over the station. So, I come back immediately. I'd never heard anything like it in over twenty-five years. What happened was, we were automated at that time, every single audio element, from all six stations, fired simultaneously, and played continuously for five hours. It's funny, one piece of audio cut through: Light My Fire by The Doors. Tens of thousands of pieces of audio playing all at once. They (the people who worked on the automation) tried to tell us that somebody in the building was hitting a key thousands of times a second.

Midnight, the system pulls all the audio elements; what is played is a copy. Like a train, we couldn't stop the thing until midnight. It keeps re-looping. You heard some talk elements, some music elements. It only happened on The Bandit.

We couldn't even shut if off. We tried everything.

EPMS: This question is one my twelve-year-old daughter came up with for a school project: if all your DJs were falling in lava, who would you save?

Tom Connelly: (thinks a long time) That's really tough. A lot of my talent is out of the market. We import it. I'd have to say, Bill Forbes. We're a staff of basically three people, we do everything. Bill and I go back quite a few years. We have every format at Clear Channel. Everybody wants to work at a rock station.

EPMS: How did you get into this business?

Tom Connelly: Up until February 9, 1964, I was supposed to be a baseball player, then I saw The Beatles on Sullivan. Henceforth, I've been involved in music. I'm a music junkie. I was a musician when younger; I was accepted at Berklee in Boston, with my goal to be a professional musician. Then, my dad lost his job of forty-four years. It was the Viet Nam era, and we couldn't afford to pay my tuition. The board at Berklee included Quincy Jones, Dave Brubeck. It was a year-and-half process to get in. Tuition was five thousand dollars a year. I was in bands, I saved some money, I was going to have to wait a year, then I ended up in Nam. I came back, started playing, I did an acoustic deal. Cat Stevens, America stuff was out there, that was easy to play. We moved around the country. I decided I needed a real job. I was married, we had two kids. Radio is a back door to the music industry. I haven't had time to get back in. I started in Boston. I just walked in the front door. I started off doing behind the scenes stuff.

I was always the person wanting to learn. Lots of people are lazy. I was an intern, but I ended up as the Operations Manager at the number one station in Boston.

The only format I haven't done is country. I've done top 40, AOR, classic rock, AAA, adult contemporary, before it had a name. The station in Boston decided it was the logical evolution of top 40... We did it wrong, poorly, I guess. There was no template to follow. Some genius came up with adult contemporary. When I found out the format, it didn't fit my lifestyle. As PD, you don't program what you like. It's entertainment, we're not here to educate people. I do research two times a week, I can tell clearly what people want to hear. You can put in oddball cuts, you can test them, find out if they get a response. I'm a far more active music listener than most. Music is not a priority in life when you get out of college. They settle into their tastes when they're twenty-four years old, they're probably not active in the music industry. They'll buy two CDs a year, as opposed to weekly. The music business is forever churning. What outlet do they have? For a twenty-four or twenty-five-year old, XM is now an option, iPods, the whole business is changing. People still don't want to pay a dollar for a song haven't heard.

EPMS: Were you ever an on-air personality?

Tom Connelly: When I saw the requirements to be on-air, it didn't make me want to do it. Programming caused me to see a lot of things.

EPMS: You're also the Program Director of KTSM. What happened to Greg Freyermuth?

Tom Connelly: That's easy. He basically was hired from one company, and his previous employer tripled his salary. There was no way we could touch it. It's that simplistic. We'd hired him from Grainger, he was a salesperson for them. They wanted him back. They made him offer he couldn't refuse. He had four kids, college was on horizon. When he was working here, he had his own furniture shop. He's very talented that way. He was getting involved in politics. Not even we expected him to do so well. My goal with Greg was to always be fair.

EPMS: What about other functions outside the studio, such as charity drives, etc., do you do?

Tom Connelly: We have a small staff. We cover three stations with my staff.

We'd done a bunch of stuff; Rods and Wheels, Randy McGee. I never know what a club's level of expectation is... I've done this around the country. It always amazes me when clubs want to bring in a big band on Father's Day. My listeners tend to be older.

As a radio station, we try to understand the lifestyle of our listeners.

Most major concerts, the bands don't usually perform on Sunday night. This market, the disposable income is lower, so the entertainment dollar is precious. People don't want to blow it on Sunday, when maybe they'd been out on Friday or Saturday.

EPMS: What's the most important advice you got from your parents?

Tom Connelly: Something my dad said, "If you argue with an idiot, what does that make you?" Sometimes those words definitely ring true.

EPMS: Who's the most interesting person you've met?

Tom Connelly: I'd say, my wife. We've been together for thirty-two years. She's always there. Unquestionably, at the point when we met, her life was on the downside. She just decided she was going to basically give up her whole life for me. We're the best of friends. The kids are gone, she's doing well with her photography career, she's accepted in the art community. She's positive, has an incredible mind. She sees or hears something, she's able to repeat it. She has a great sense of humor, she's a blast to be with. She's been with me the whole process, always encouraging. I can't think of anybody more inspirational, as corny as that sounds.

EPMS: Thanks a lot.

Tom Connelly: Thank you.

- Charles Hurley