Jeff Thompson was my first boss.
I was a teenager, thrilled beyond measure to be in a real newsroom and nurturing journalism dreams in my young heart. Maybe I had a small salary, but since I was a blank sheet when it came to reporting, I was essentially an intern.
Jeff was almost certainly less enthusiastic about my summer job than I was since he did not hire me. I landed in his newsroom because I was the first child of the ownership of Cape Fear Broadcasting Company, where we worked, and there were six more siblings/cousins in line behind me for station jobs when they got a little older. But Jeff was game, though he cut me no slack, at least in my young and inexperienced mind.
Jeff Thompson came to Fayetteville in the mid-1960s from upstate New York the same way thousands of others have come — courtesy of the U.S. Army. Once here, he worked part-time spinning records and broadcasting live from a glass tower above a local drive-in restaurant, the Tower in the Sky. Although he did not know it at the time, Jeff had found his home — in Fayetteville, in radio and at Cape Fear Broadcasting. A glib and good-looking DJ, Jeff became what was later known as a chick magnet, and in short order, he met and married a local girl, Jean Musselwhite, who was blessed with a large extended family. He and Jean started their own family, eventually including Jay, Phil and Angie. They left Fayetteville only once for a TV stint in Charlotte, but Jeff and Jean were homesick, so back they came. The same cannot be said for Jeff’s tenure at Cape Fear Broadcasting, which he left several times over the decades for competing radio stations and at least once to sell cars.
Eventually, Jeff settled in, as did I, my family members and a handful of other treasured friends, to make our own little Cape Fear Broadcasting family, both related and created. Over time, we laughed together, cried together, celebrated together, got mad at each other, watched other people come and go and spent the better part of our working lives together.
Jeff’s primary responsibilities revolved around news gathering and reporting, and he was — and remains — a force to be reckoned with if you find yourself standing between him and a story.
Paul Michels, another young soldier who found his home in Fayetteville and at Cape Fear Broadcasting, had this to say about Jeff’s devotion to local news. “Jeff lived and breathed radio news. He had police scanners going in his office, his car and his home (not sure how Jean tolerated that). Sometimes on weekend nights, Jeff would ride around with police officers while they were patrolling the city. Jeff’s dedication to covering the news was never more apparent than the night of Aug. 6, 1993. That was the Luigi’s Restaurant shooting, when Fort Bragg solider Kenneth French killed four people and wounded six others. Because Jeff had that police scanner blaring away in his home, he knew instantly that something major was going on. He was at the restaurant within minutes, getting reactions and interviews from people who were there. I can imagine he was moving around the crime scene, getting his audio before the yellow tape was even up. He had enough content to put together a long-form feature about the crime on both of our stations the following morning. The news gathering that night was the epitome of a local radio newsperson doing his job.”
Hannah Dawson Gage, who eventually ran Cape Fear Broadcasting’s operations in Wilmington, worked with Jeff and me in news for several years. She, too, has great respect for Jeff’s news abilities.
“Jeff was an earlier version of the information highway. He knew everybody worth knowing and everything about them. His range of friends was vast, stretching from elected officials to court reporters to highway patrolmen and sheriff’s deputies to coroners and the guys running the 7-11 on Ramsey Street. He not only knew those people, he knew their individual stories. At some point, they had passed through one of this stories and had later become a source or a friend.
“Jeff understood the tapestry of people that wove Fayetteville together; he had a deep understanding of all the moving parts and how things worked. I learned things from Jeff that they didn’t teach at UNC’s Journalism school.
“As a cub reporter, Jeff was a wonderful teacher and mentor because he was absolutely fearless in his pursuit of a good story. He encouraged intrepidness. He was naturally curious about everything. He had cataloged stories about every important person and elected officials he’d ever met and, from time to time, would share those stories in the newsroom at the end of the week, the kind of stories that would ruin lives and could never be aired … but were enormously entertaining. He had dirt on everybody, but he never used it.
“He understood that there was more power in not using everything you knew. I would put him up against any journalist across the state and bet on Jeff. He was that good.”
Like most people, especially those in family enterprises, Jeff wore more than one hat. John Dawson, general manager of Cape Fear Broadcasting’s Fayetteville operations in its later years, finds Jeff’s versatility remarkable. “The thing that always amazed me about Jeff was that he started out as a very good DJ in the early 60s during the British Invasion days, then he slowly but surely morphed into a very good newsman. Most people know that about him. What they don’t know is that he was a good radio advertising salesperson. When I started at WFNC in sales, we tagged along with different salespersons to experience different styles. I shadowed Jeff on many days and learned a lot just watching him interact with his clients. So back then, his day went something like this: Donning his news director hat, he gathered the news from 4-6 a.m. At 6 a.m., off came the news director hat, and on went the talk show host hat. He wore that until 9 a.m. At 10 a.m., off came the talk show host hat, and on went the salesperson hat. Even riding in his car during sales calls, the scanner was always on. It was the definition of multitasking, back in the day.”
Jeff’s partner on the morning talk show was Lynda “Wendy” Riddle, a talented radio personality and frequent performer in what we now know as Cape Fear Regional Theatre. As the saying goes, they go way back.
“I met Jeff in the early ‘70s when I had just started on the air at WFBS in Spring Lake. Jeffrey McDonald was very much in the news, and I always counted myself fortunate to have had access to Jeff’s coverage of that grisly story. My respect for his abilities as a newsman sprang from those early days. But it was not until I made the move to WFNC … in 1977 that I really got to know Jeff. By the fall of that year, we started ‘Top of the Morning’ and began a partnership that lasted until 2003, when Cumulus took over and fired us all.
“… Jeff and I squabbled in our early morning marriage, for you cannot be locked up in a small room the size of a walk-in closet every morning for your first five or six waking hours for years without noticing you’ve spent more time together than you spend with your own husband or wife each day. Sometimes our mornings were great, but there were times we would raise our voices and have a good old verbal knockdown drag out … off the air, of course. I remember fondly the year that, at the station Christmas party, we received the “loving couples” award from the staff and management. I was always aware when our battles got out of hand by the sound of doors closing up and down the hall as everyone tried to block us out.
“One of Jeff’s favorite memories on the air with me was the time when he was trying to explain to the audience that he had no knowledge of computers. He couldn’t find the right words and kept asking me what it was that you called person like him. I answered, ‘technically challenged.’ And he’d say, ‘No, no.’ And I would say, ‘Computer illiterate.’ He’d say, ‘No, no, that’s not it.’ To which I said, ‘moron.’”
“‘That’s it!’ he proclaimed happily. He has told that story a million times, saying ‘Remember when you called me a moron on the air?’ He thought it was wonderful.
“His love for his children was undeniable and unending, and I have deep affection for Jeff for that. Actually, I have deep affection for him, period.”
Radio, like most media, attracts creative people. Work was generally fun, and there were plenty of jokes to go around — some of Jeff’s instigation and some at his expense. Sales manager Steve Harden remembers that in an expansive burst of News Department pride, Jeff had the department’s one news vehicle painted with “Unit 1” on one side and “Unit 2” on the other, an effort to make us look bigger than we really were. Later, there were two identical vehicles, an actual Unit 1 and Unit 2.
Steve also remembers a trick Chief Engineer Terry Jordan played on Jeff, which Jeff apparently never realized. Says Steve, “I remember the episode of ‘the pneumatic switch.’ Terry Jordan put out a memo saying that the pneumatic switch had been ordered, then played this trick to the max. Another memo said the switch was on backorder etc. The switch was bogus, and Terry let the rest of us in on the scheme, but JT had no clue. Finally, another memo announced the arrival of the switch. Jeff, by the way, had asked no one what a pneumatic switch was. Another memo informed everyone that the switch had been installed and was fully operational. Terry had installed a small light in the control room with a toggle switch that turned it on and off. That’s all the switch did! I don’t think JT wanted anyone to know that he, a veteran broadcaster, did not know what a pneumatic switch was.”
Jeff is not shy. Human resources director Ann Highsmith remembers the day Jeff alerted her to what we now call a wardrobe malfunction. “I was standing at the sink in the small kitchen at CFBC. News Director Jeff Thompson’s office was directly across from the kitchen. My back was to him. What I didn’t know at that moment was that my professional dress was badly compromised as I had inadvertently tucked my skirt into my pantyhose, exposing my backside to Jeff and his guest that morning, Sheriff Moose Butler.
“Jeff took notice and did the right thing in letting me know something was amiss. The way he let me know left a lot to be desired. He yelled across the hall, ’Hey, Highsmith, your rear end is showing.’ Embarrassment left me dumb; I don’t remember what I did next. I either ran out of the kitchen or untucked my skirt as I stood at the sink. Either way, it is not one of those professional moments I care to reminisce about too often.”
Like many good things, life at the radio station as we knew it came to an end. Cape Fear Broadcasting was sold in 2001, and the cast of characters who had, in many cases, grown up together and came to love each other, scattered. Weyher Dawson, who ran another section of the company, says Jeff has “had a great career. I think his post-FNC career has been interesting and really kinda blossomed five or six years ago when” other local media were “flat and little WIDU slipped in their version of a news/information format that featured Jeff and Wes Cookman and Troy Williams and so on. They were really doing a good job reaching into the ‘mainstream’ and had some really good shows. … Jeff got involved in Up & Coming Weekly with Bill (Bowman), which has also been a late-career blossom. … All said, pretty remarkable from the Tower in the Sky, WSOC-TV, WFLB, WFNC, WFBS, WIDU, Up & Coming.”
As for me, I feel so fortunate to have had Jeff as a boss, a teacher, and now a dear and precious friend. I still call him Boss, and he calls me Scoop. He and I have covered the news, written many an editorial, fought over politics, endlessly discussed the peculiarities of our community, celebrated our successes, mourned our losses and, generally, moved through life together. Jeff is a remarkable person who knows and loves our community, with all its attributes and its warts.
It has been a joy to write this and to focus on one of my oldest friends and others in the extended Cape Fear Broadcasting family. To Jeff and everyone else, keep on keeping on, lots of love and Godspeed!
Pictured: Jeff Thompson