My Moment with Jay Thomas

A departure from the usual FDA fare. The blog is meant to cover FDA issues, but also various aspects of communications. This is a story about media training, sort of.

Jay Thomas died yesterday. He was 69 years old. He had a lot of acting gigs and I always really liked him. But it may be less known that he was also a disc jockey and he had a popular morning show in Los Angeles.

On November 7, 1991, Magic Johnson announced that he had HIV. It was a momentous announcement, ushering in HIV awareness on a broader scale than ever before and to new audiences. In 1985 Rock Hudson had brought HIV into every living room in America, but during the years before that HIV was not really talked about and certainly not understood by anyone outside New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. In the years following the Rock Hudson milestone – AIDS was still perceived as a gay, white male disease. Magic Johnson’s announcement brought with it a vast expansion of HIV-related subject matter into straight world, into sports world and into African American world. It was a huge.

Consequently, the day of the announcement, I was busy. I was the Director of Client Services at AIDS Project Los Angeles. In the morning ABC News called me to say someone big was coming out with HIV and asked if I knew who it was. I said I did not. They were dubious. In any case, a few hours later the news broke. In the afternoon, every major news outlet and camera was in our conference room and I held the kind of press conference where microphones are all taped to a podium and where flashbulbs went off like strobe lights in a disco. You learn a lot during those moments, which is why I enjoy doing media training to this day.

What this all has to do with Jay Thomas is that the next morning I was on his radio show. It was a live show in the morning hours in Los Angeles. He and everyone in the studio was very nice. I got there early – 5 AM actually. There was a woman he worked with and we all got acquainted and then we put on our headphones for the top of the show. We were all drinking beverages – mine was definitely coffee. I had done so many interviews the day before, I was losing my voice.

He came over and introduced himself. He was very pleasant – smart, warm, personable. He was quick. He was the kind of person with whom you immediately felt comfortable, as if you had met before, even though you hadn’t.

The show began. Jay did his greeting and then an intro for the show. He reported that the day before Magic Johnson had announced that he had HIV. He had some more to say about that. Then he said that he had Mark Senak from AIDS Project Los Angeles as a guest to talk about the announcement.

He looked at me. I looked at him. The woman took a sip of her coffee. Then he began the interview by asking me -“So Mark – what’s your HIV status.” I looked at him. He looked at me. In a very visible gesture, the woman he worked with came close to spraying  out her coffee onto the console.  I still looked at him. He still looked at me. Drivers all over Los Angeles were waiting to hear if I was HIV positive or negative. He noticed. He was swift – this man. He was quick on his feet.

“Maybe that’s a bad question,” he said – or something to that effect. I recovered somewhat. I wanted to say that it wasn’t a bad question if he was interested in dating me, but I didn’t have the chutzpah for that. So I simply explained that taking an HIV test and sharing the results was a very personal decision, and that I wasn’t making mine then and there. On the air. With a LOT of Los Angeles listening. It actually turned into kind of a teachable moment.

Then we went on and had an interview.

I do a lot of media training and I really enjoy it actually. Most media trainers are former journalists, but I was the guy in the interview seat for many years and in many hot spots. This was the most unusual. I always use this as an example of how a media interview can get unexpectedly personal. And you have to prepare for that.

But today the bottom line is – a nice guy has gone. He had a great career and was very talented. And he gave me a very fine memory and provided me with a teachable moment then, and now. Bye Jay and thanks. You probably did not give me a moment’s thought after that, I’ve remembered you all of my life.

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