Tom Connolly: Great Friend, mentor, broadcaster

By Steve Cichon | steve@buffalostories.com | @stevebuffalo

BUFFALO, NY – For those who just knew Tom Connolly as the guy who said, “it’s midnight,” every night, seven nights a week for almost 25 years, its difficult to introduce you to the man. He was as unique as his voice– unequivocally one of a kind.

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We both knew it was part goof, but mostly tribute. I put up a page on my Buffalo radio and TV history website about Tom Connolly.  He’s a shadowy figure who lurks just beyond the outer edges of radio….  He’s been around at Buffalo’s top radio station for parts of three decades, where he always prefers the soft glow of the moon to the harshness of the sunlight (and all that it brings.) Tom Connolly is the man with the answer to the question what time it is…. So long as the time is MIDNIGHT, I wrote in 2006. When I asked to take a photo for this page, but suggested I take the photo from behind, “to maintain his shadowy anonymity,” he got that look in his eyes and loved it.

We’ve all seen some movie or TV show where a kid goes to the dumpy basement closet to hang out with the school janitor– a world-weary and gruff, yet kind and brilliant guy, who gives great advice and does his sometimes rotten job like clockwork.

Overnights in radio are a lot like a dumpy basement… And while Tom was no janitor, he just did his work– and a lot of stuff that he’d do just because he thought someone should– quietly with no expectation of appreciation or praise.  He was like radio’s counterculture guidance counselor.

He loved and cared for each one of us kids who went through the station, and encouraged us to make our own role there, because no one else was going to do it for us.

The first time I was ever on the air at WBEN was with Tom’s guidance– make that his insistence. On a Sunday morning shift in 1994, the news guy never showed up.

It was with his passionate, insistent, and unmistakably Connollyesque advice that I began my on air career in radio.

What many people outside of radio might not realize, is that Tom worked overnights, seven days a week. For decades.

Again, that started in part because Tom cared about me personally.  There was a time when I was working 3-11 Saturday evening, then was back Sunday morning at 5. At this point, Tom had Saturday nights off– his one night off every week.

The guy who was supposed to work the overnight shift while I’d go sleep on the station couch for six hours didn’t show up two weeks in a row. Being a naive high school kid, I never told anyone… Until one day I let it it slip to Tom. He was already angry that “the man” was taking advantage of my eagerness to work by putting me on such a schedule.

But Tom had no love for the character who skipped out on that shift. The next week, Tom was working Saturday night — the start of his 23 year run of overnights every night. He also insisted that I forgo that soiled couch in the station basement and drive 45 minutes home for some real sleep. More than once that sound sleep ended abruptly with a phone call from the station.

“Tom here.”

“Sorry Tom, I’m on my way.”

“No problem.”

And he meant no problem. For five years, Tom relived me from “running the board” as the technical producer and operator of the station in the early 90s.

Most nights he’d walk in, fresh from Tops next door, with his arms filled with bizarro overnight snacks. The menu would change through the years, but early on it was a half-gallon of Tops Vim One skim milk, which he’d drink straight from the carton to wash down a bag of oyster crackers and a pound of M&Ms.

Often a minute or two “late,” he’d simply say, “Good evening. Vacate.”

In those years he wouldn’t take official vacation days or any time off– he’d ask me to cover for him, with the same request once a year, several years running.

“If it’s ok, I may be a few minutes late tonight,” he’d say— and I then knew what was coming next. “Weird Al Yankovic is performing in concert tonight, and I’d like to attend.”

The gratitude he’d show when you did him a small favor was as if it had been served on a golden platter.

Maybe a bit more mellowed, Tom was the same cat when I came back to WBEN after several years away.

No longer a (young) punk and having some radio management experience under my belt, I had an even greater appreciation for Connolly (which is nearly universally how we’ve always referred to him.)

He taught young people not only the craft of radio, but the reward in the drudgery of work just for the sake of your own pride in getting it done. He was the cool upper classman who knew all the tricks and was willing to share.

For decades, Tom would send home board ops and news people on Christmas… And work double duty for 36 straight hours so the people at the bottom of the totem poll could spend time with their families.

After his daily nine hours at Entercom, contributing to the success of WBEN, WGR, Star and Kiss’ morning show in his typical unheralded fashion, rarely receiving the credit or thanks he deserved, he’d head to his first radio love, WBNY, and work for free on a fantastic music show– again, acting as mentor and funky uncle to generations of Buff State broadcasting students.

If one was trying to be sensitive, one would say Tom was unique. He was unique enough to be comfortable with weird. Mostly a good weird. Mostly a weird like, “Who works that hard?” Or “Who helps people he barely knows like that?” Or “Who just does his job, seven days a week, always superior with no questions asked?”

Tom was one of the people who made working in radio different, exciting, and so much better than any other terrible, terribly-paying job on the planet. His work ethic, his weirdness, and his love and support for all of us will be greatly and forever missed.

Stars make “radio” for those who listen. Guys like Tom make radio for those who make radio.

Published by

Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon is a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. The operator of Buffalo Stories Tours writes about the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo special at blog.buffalostories.com and daily at buffalonews.com/history. The storyteller and historian has written six books, worn bow ties since the 80s, and spent 20 years working in Buffalo radio and TV, climbing his way to news director at WBEN Radio. Since then, he's been an adjunct professor and produced PBS documentaries. Steve's Buffalo roots run deep: all eight of his great-grandparents called Buffalo home, with his first ancestors arriving here in 1827.