Radio stations often will honor retiring legends by naming a conference room or booth after them. Larry “Moon” Thompson thinks his KS95 bosses have gone one better by plastering his mug over buttons that open the station’s automatic doors for handicapped people.
“Pretty cool, huh?” said Thompson, whizzing his $50,000 wheelchair around the studio he’s called home for the past 17 years.
Thompson was in his usual upbeat mood last week, despite battling a bacterial disease that had reduced his voice to a croak, humming Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” and glowing over the fact that Hubbard Radio’s vice president Dan Seeman had given him a shoutout the night before while receiving a prestigious Marconi Award in Dallas. But Thompson is less than enthusiastic about signing off Friday from “Moon & Staci,” the hands-down leader in afternoon drive time among women and adults.
“Taking away my microphone is like taking away a guitar from Prince,” said the 61-year-old personality. “Radio has been my oxygen. Whatever I’ve had to deal with in my life — deaths in the family, losses of marriage, addiction — I’ve always had that microphone. Not having it is going to be hard.”
Thompson has been struggling with the cruel effects of multiple sclerosis since he first learned in 2005 that he had the disease, resorting to a cane a decade ago, then a walker, and finally his tricked-out chair, retaining his self-deprecating sense of humor through every broadcast.
“Part of his charm is his ability to laugh at himself in a bad situation,” said on-air partner Staci Matthews who will be joined by new co-host Greg “Hutch” Hutchinson, who previously broadcasted under the name Brad Steele at Z99 in Mankato, starting Monday. “He can be a curmudgeon, but in an Oscar the Grouch kind of way.”
Finding his way to work every weekday is no longer a realistic option for Thompson. In August alone, he had 21 doctor’s appointments. His swollen feet have made it impossible to wear shoes. The Lakeville police have been to his house 20 times in the past year to help him after he’s taken a fall. Last week, he was finally forced to sell his beloved motorcycle. He estimates that since he got the diagnosis, he’s been stuck with 1,300 needles.
“It’s been a ride,” he said. “Mostly downhill.”
But don’t even think about throwing Thompson a pity party. He won’t let you.
“Listeners are drawn to him because he’s so positive,” said Dave Ryan, KDWB’s morning host and a longtime friend. “You and I might complain about getting too much e-mail, but I’ve never heard him complain about anything. He’ll talk about the MS, but it’s never in a ‘Woe is me’ way.”
Thompson is nothing but grateful for his success in the Twin Cities. Breaking big in radio was his dream, ever since he started listening to Denver broadcasts at the age of 10 while operating the tractor on his dad’s farm in Sidney, Neb. He was more juiced by the DJs’ stories than the tunes they were spinning.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t want to read a book,” he said, cradling a station sweatshirt in his lap. “But if you told me a great story, you had me captivated.”
In high school, he went up against two other students for a part-time job at the local radio station. The night before the auditions, he took the competition out for Everclear and Coke. The next morning, the others were slurry and sloppy. Thompson was just fine.
“When you’re a farm boy, you drink some beer, so my tolerance was probably higher,” said Thompson, who has been sober for 30 years. “Next thing you know, I’m doing the morning show.”
He skipped college to focus on radio, moving his way up the chain: Omaha, Denver, Las Vegas and finally Houston, where he spent nine years on the morning shift.
Along the way, there were disgruntled listeners — one fired a bullet into the studio, forcing Thompson to slip on the next song from under a desk — and wacky promotions, like dressing up as a werewolf and sitting for days on a 7-Eleven rooftop. At some point, a program director gave him the nickname Moondoggie after a character from the “Gidget” TV series.
KS95 program director Leighton Peck, who had worked with Thompson in Nebraska, took full advantage when the Houston station let him go, luring him to the Twin Cities.
“A lot of radio people try to be a character on the air, but Moon is a character in real life,” Peck said. “He doesn’t have that big booming voice, but he knows how to talk to people.”
Thompson and Matthews have never been as outrageous as Ryan or KQ92’s Tom Barnard. Listeners gravitated to their heart-tugging conversations with Zach Sobiech, the Stillwater teenager who shared his emotions on air about battling terminal cancer; rundowns of showbiz gossip, and goofy practical jokes, like the one in which Thompson had fans believing he had been beaten up during a traffic altercation.
“The chemistry between the two of them has always been pretty special,” said Ginny Morris, the chief executive for Hubbard Radio. “They just make people smile and help them forget what’s happened after a long day of working. They put them in a good mood and feeling good about life.”
Thompson is doing his best to be optimistic about his retirement, how he’ll be able to spend more time with his second wife and the grandkids. But his colleagues know it won’t be easy for him.
“He fell in love with radio before he fell in love with another human,” Peck said. “He loves entertaining people. Being out of this is going to be tough for him.”
Thompson doesn’t disagree.
“It’s going to be hard,” he said, almost boasting about how at least a dozen fans were reduced to tears saying goodbye to him at the Minnesota State Fair. “But it does have its blessings. I don’t have to look for Kardashian stories anymore.”