Thompson signs off after 50 years
May 21, 2015
If all goes as planned – or as Jim Thompson says, "Lord willing" – the popular network program "Country Cafe of the Airways" will become history when he signs off the 4,250th show May 29. Jim's voice, attitude, and ideas have attracted radio aficionados for a half century, and "Country Cafe`" fans since February, 1999.
Beef production directed the scenes of Jim's early youth. As a country kid, he enjoyed the pristine beauty of historic eastern Oregon, the lush cow country that lured his South Dakota-bred father Paul with hopes of weather warmer than Harding County's. Paul's savvy stockman skills were in demand, and they lived several different places in those years.
Beef production supported the Thompsons in Oregon. Beef – namely his grand champion 4-H steer – took Jim to the Union County Fair, where wild and wooly rodeo action was a tradition since 1907. Beef even helped push him into broadcasting, which became one of his chief careers. No wonder he still aces those beef and bull commercials.
"I got into radio because of baseball and meat cutting," Jim explains. "I worked at the Bargain Barn in Sturgis all through high school, cutting meat with Jack Roth. One afternoon in the summer of '65 I was at work cutting on a quarter of beef, the knife slipped and I cut my left index finger. It really wasn't bad but I was only 17 and the owners, worried about me, rushed me to the clinic in Sturgis. With the finger wrapped in a soft cast, I couldn't play ball that night, so I intended to keep score on the bench. But the radio station guy, Ray Ricci, was there and asked me to sit in on the broadcast with him. I said there was no way I could talk on the radio, but I'd help him keep score. Well, he put a mic in front of me, and I talked."
Remembering that first summer after graduation Jim admits, "I frankly didn't know what I wanted to be. But I got a small scholarship from the teachers at Sturgis High School so I was planning on going to Black Hills State College to become a teacher and a coach."
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However, when that pivotal baseball game signed off, Ricci suggested Thompson should go to Brown Institute, a broadcasting school in Minneapolis. "So I sent in an application and a demo tape, and they accepted me," Jim recalls. "I went to the year of training they provided and then took a job in Valentine, Nebraska in 1966. I went to KBHB at Sturgis a year later…so this summer marks 50 years in radio for me."
Jim became an army man in 1968 and recalls "for whatever reason, in assigning duties I ended up in Korea in the Military Police." About midway through his 13 in-country months he went to Seoul to "try out" for Armed Forces Korea Network, resulting in an "almost overnight" transfer and what he terms "great experience as a sports guy on both AFKN Radio and TV."
Back home in 1970 Jim resumed work with KBHB, then found a sports job at KCCR in Pierre for Dean Sorenson and stayed there from 1970 to 1981. That was a good decade for Thompson, who says, "Dean was my mentor and remains a good friend."
A natural for sports broadcasting, Jim's voice, savvy, audience control, humor, and enthusiasm reeled in South Dakota's Sportscaster of the Year award three times before he moved into management, along with honors from the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame. "One of the highlights of my radio life was trying out for Minnesota Twins baseball announcer in the winter of 1980," he said.
"WCCO in Minneapolis chose me as their announcer, but it had to be approved by the owner of the Twins, Cal Griffith," he explains. "They phoned me on a Friday afternoon to say that I would have to report to spring training in two weeks, and they'd let me know when Griffith approved me on the following Monday. That was the longest 72 hours of my life…and ultimately Griffith chose a former player and manager of his Twins, Frank Quilici. WCCO called with regrets, kept their word about recommending me, and later the Texas Rangers phoned for me to try out…but by then I'd committed to rodeo and really didn't want to live in Arlington, Texas."
Ah yes, rodeo. Another world in which Jim Thompson spent from 1976 to 2013 carving his own unique niche. Notable moments and honors abound from that era, starting with announcing ProRodeo's very first Circuit Finals – hired by Jerry Olson to call the Badland's Finals in Deadwood. Now a Gold Card PRCA member, Jim was selected to announce "every Finals rodeo in the country – including alternate at the NFR plus the Senior Finals, World Finals, College Finals, High School Finals and Indian Finals." Not surprisingly, the Casey Tibbs Rodeo Hall of Fame and the Black Hills Stock Show Hall of Fame have honored Jim.
His permanent case of wanderlust is evidenced by Thompson's decision – after 37 years in rodeo – to travel with PRCA steer roper Rod Hartness this summer. "Yes, we'll hit Pawhuska, Oklahoma; Pecos, Texas; Prescott, Arizona; Belle Fourche, South Dakota; Sheridan, Wyoming and Seattle Washington . . . five of those rodeos in just nine days," Jim grins.
That's during rodeo's wild and lucrative "Cowboy Christmas," and Jim is convinced "Every announcer should see what it's like to travel overnight from Douglas, Wyoming to Fort Benton, Montana." Considering his satisfying years behind the mic he notes, "It's easy to forget how rugged the contestant's road is when you are met at the airport, provided with fine accommodations, transportation to and from the arena…always the best of everything."
JT's "Country Cafe`" fans will surely have withdrawal symptoms after May 29, but his golden voice will still resonate from countless radios. "I will continue to record two daily shows for distribution," Jim says. "'On the Road Again,' a three minute rodeo program I've done since 1976 is aired by Northern Broadcasting from Billings. Also 'The Good Stuff,' a five minute slice-of-life show I started following Paul Harvey's death in 2009, which airs in six states every weekday; twice a day on many stations.
"One of the negatives for me about rodeo announcing, as well as moving with Dad from place to place, is there was never free time to see the country," Jim declares. "I finally started scheduling rodeos so I could travel at a slower pace from one to another – like in August from Moses Lake to Miles City, then on down to Buffalo and Kaycee – and I discovered so many great places! I look forward now to finding a lot more."
For instance, Ireland's County Cork, where Jim has twice visited as a tourist and plans to return to his rented townhouse in Kinsale from mid-October through mid-December. "I love it," he enthuses, "and I'm thinking of marketing an hour-long Cowboy poetry/Cowboy music show to Heritage locations there, with my talented friend Dan Mahar from Sioux Falls, who also loves that place. Hopefully I can help advance Cowboy poetry more into the U.K. I'd like to encourage more people to Margo Metegrano's great site http://www.cowboypoetry.com."
Cowboy poetry is a favorite with many "Country Cafe" fans. As the genre's head cheerleader and promoter, Margo – in her warm, inimitable way – echoes the hearts of many in saying, "Jim Thompson has devoted cowboy poet friends and fans across the wide West. For years, he has reached out to cowboy poets everywhere and included them on his show and in the wonderful and much-missed Heritage of the American West performance venue, which he founded. Jim understands their lives and lingo and has given them a wide audience. As is his way, he has made real friends of so many poets and others in their community. He truly shares their lives, and for that, so many are grateful."
Jim is lauded by many associates from his last half century. Dean Kinney, co-owner of KBHB Radio, comments, "Jim Thompson is a pillar in both the radio and rodeo industries. Generations of people in both businesses have grown up trying to emulate him. For me he has been a mentor and, now, a treasured friend.
"Though he has decided to end his daily program, I actually think we will see much more out of Jim Thompson in the coming years," Dean adds. "With the benefit of being able to take his time and pick his projects it will be exciting to see what happens next. I'm a fan."
Wherever you go, don't be surprised to see Jim Thompson. And keep listening for that voice on your radio. He's not really retiring…just taking a new trail.