It’s an unexceptional May night whose possibilities seem more or less drained—the kind of night when even a Nationals game against the woeful Marlins looks like a high point—when Jordana Parra stops outside CBS Radio’s box at the ballpark. Parra has just recognized Tommy McFly’s voice.
After a quick back-and-forth, Parra is invited into the box to meet McFly, who cohosts the weekday morning show on CBS’s local affiliate, WIAD, with Jen Richer and Kelly Collis. Richer snaps a few photos, which later turn up on Facebook, and records a phone greeting for Parra’s son.
Are hugs exchanged? You’d better believe hugs are exchanged. This is a moment to celebrate: The Tommy Show has added a new member to “the Fresh Family.” (WIAD is marketed as 94.7 Fresh FM.) “It felt like I’ve known them forever,” Parra says.
As mass media’s numbers become ever smaller, radio deejays can no longer count on mere celebrity to build an audience. The Tommy Show crew wins its listeners one at a time. If that means deejays giving out their cell numbers to pretty much anyone who wants to connect, that’s fine.
McFly’s retail approach seems to be working. The Tommy Show accounts for about a third of the station’s listeners, and more than 320,000 tune in each week. “One of the reasons radio gets a bad rap is you have all these shows that are piped in from places like New York,” says Steve Davis, vice president of programming at CBS Radio in Washington. “They’ve lost touch with the listeners.”
Not McFly, whose empathy levels Davis compares to Bill Clinton’s. The Nats game was one of the semiregular gatherings at which the Tommy Show staff could connect. Jeremy Scott, a lobbyist from Arlington, brought his two daughters, Claire and Lauren. When Scott’s wife died, the deejays showed up at his house with dinner. Laura and Kimmy—two women who have been a couple for 14 years but keep their last names private here because of work concerns—started hanging out with McFly, Collis, and Richer because, Kimmy says, “they were very accepting of our lifestyle.” Patty Moore “worked” as an intern on the show after being furloughed in the 2013 government shutdown. “I’ve adopted them,” Patty says. “They can’t get away from me now.”
The 29-year-old McFly, born Thomas Pavlick, came to DC in 2006, “right off the boat from Scranton, Pennsylvania,” where he’d worked his way to the morning drive time at a country station. After a stint of afternoon shifts on WIAD, management gave him a shot at mornings. He brought in Collis, who ran City Shop Girl, a blog about local retail, and Richer, a news producer at WMAL, with the idea that their “unconventional family” would host a “giant breakfast table around the Beltway.” Listeners call in all through the show, which the trio runs without an army of tech staff.
“There’s no normal anymore,” McFly says about radio in the second decade of the 21st century. “There’s no punching the clock.” At work by 4:30 am, McFly—who lives with his partner, Chrysovalantis Kefalas, a candidate for US Senate in Maryland—is out most nights at “family” events.
A few weeks after the Nationals Park event, Collis is at Jiffy Lube Live, celebrating her wedding the previous day to Patrick Bauer, a government contractor. The festivities take place on the venue’s party decks, at the rear of the amphitheater. As Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” plays, Collis appears wearing a two-piece wedding dress, a veil, and flip-flops, to applause from the 50 or so attendees. “If you’re going to have a job, it’s not a bad job to enjoy,” Bauer says, smiling.
When Collis throws her bouquet, it’s snagged by Brooke Parker, a 26-year-old from Montclair, Virginia, who won tickets to the bash. “They’re always listening to what their listeners have to say and really including them as a family,” Parker says later. She’s happy to have caught the bouquet but admits she isn’t dating anyone. “I’ve got to meet someone fast!” she says, laughing.
Tommy, Jen, Kelly: A family member needs you!
This article appears in our September 2015 issue of Washingtonian.