After more than 30 years in Detroit broadcast journalism, award-winning reporter Vickie Thomas says she’s ready to start a new chapter. She retired from radio station WWJ April 29, and she’ll be joining Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration as director of communications for the city. Stateside caught up with the veteran journalist on the eve of her retirement from WWJ to discuss her years of experience bringing Detroit stories to the air.
From medicine to media
Thomas says journalism wasn’t her first calling. When she started college at Michigan State University, she planned to become a nurse — like her mother.
“I just loved the fact that she wore this crisp white uniform every day and helped people,” she said. “I looked up to her so much for just her loving, caring spirit for her patients, and wanted to follow in her footsteps.”
Thomas says she faced financial difficulties and had to leave MSU after two semesters there. She worked for a doctor until she was able to go back to complete her undergraduate degree, and at that time, she reimagined what her career might look like. She graduated with honors from Wayne State University, where she studied broadcast journalism.
“I had to sit back and really think about what I really, really wanted to do, what I was good at, and what I enjoyed doing,” Thomas said. “So I looked back over my years in high school, and I won a speaking competition for Health Occupations Students of America. I won a Fox 2 news essay competition on ‘What do you think about American versus foreign-made cars?’ So I put the two together, and that is actually how I landed on journalism.”
A career in Detroit
Many journalists — especially those at the start of their careers — must move frequently, taking jobs wherever they can find them throughout the state or country. But Thomas has always been in Detroit, beginning with her first radio job at WDET. She says her deep connection to the Detroit area helped her as a journalist covering the city.
“Something about the fighting spirit of these communities, and being part of that and being able to relate to people on that level, gave me such a great insight into the challenges and what people were going through, because I go through some of the same ones that they go through,” she said. “I completely understand the high insurance rates for auto coverage, for homeowners insurance, the high water bills. I experience all of that, so I can definitely relate.”
She says there was just one problem with beginning her career in Detroit.
“Being part of the community, never having to go to a little small town to start out, it was great. But the downside is: all of those mistakes that you would make in a small town — I made some of those mistakes right here in Detroit when I initially started out,” Thomas said. “I remember [former WDET news director] Chuck Wilbur running into the studio one day because I pronounced something so wrong, and his eyes were so wide. And I'm thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I must have really messed that up.’ So those mistakes were made right here on the air in Detroit.”
Finding the “heart of the story”
After working in public radio at WDET, Thomas transitioned to her job at the commercial news radio station WWJ, which required her to work quickly on short-form reporting. She says that as the city beat and morning drive reporter, she grew accustomed to turning around eight or more stories a day. But, she adds, she always tried to balance speed and efficiency with compassionate connection with the people she interviewed.
“Being able to get people to open up to me has been a huge blessing, because that kind of lets you get to the heart of the story,” she said. “When I do a story, I want to have some sort of impact. I want the listeners to feel something, right? Either shock, or, ‘Wow, I didn't know that,’ or, ‘That's just terrible.’ Or, ‘I could relate to the person that's speaking.’”
Thomas says she always worked to be fair and unbiased in her reporting, and that she made a point to give people the opportunity to tell their side of a story. But, she adds, she never hesitated to ask tough questions in her interviews.
“Anybody that knows me, even if we're casual acquaintances or whatnot, talk every now and then, they know that if something happens, I'm going to do my job,” she said. “I think they understand that. They respect that. You get into trouble, I'm going to have to ask you that question. That's just the bottom line.”
Thomas has won many awards throughout her journalism career and was inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame in 2019. She’s also served in a number of leadership roles with the Detroit chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists. She says that after 33 years in radio, she’s looking forward to what’s coming next.
“My new chapter, Vickie 2.0, will be challenging and exciting, and I'm hoping that I'll be able to make a huge difference,” she said.
For more, listen to the full conversation above.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.