Charese Fruge’ Talks To Kayla Thomas

This article was originally posted to AllAccess’ “The Bigger Picture” series, written by Charese Fruge on March 15, 2022 

Kayla Thomas has been in radio for about five years now, and she’s already a “Super Star” on KIIS-FM/Los Angeles. She is currently the late-night host, on air Monday through Thursday 11p – 5a (PT), and Saturday and Sunday afternoons. “I will soon be starting some national work for iHeart Radio and will be doing overnights on different stations across the country! I am also a voice actor,” she adds.

You won’t believe how she got the job in Los Angeles. Her story will not disappoint. But before we get to that, let’s get to know her a little: “I started in the radio business as an intern at WXLK (K92)/Roanoke, VA. I was heading into my 5th year at Liberty University and needed an internship to graduate,” she says. “At that point, I knew nothing about radio other than what I learned in an audio class the previous semester. In the summer of 2016, I worked under Danny Meyers, Kevin Scott, and Freddy Mac learning as much as I could about the industry. At the end of my internship, I was granted the opportunity to come on as a part-time employee and voice track the night show on K92.”

“In January of 2017, I was promoted to middays and took on the role of the station’s promotions director. In October of 2018, I left Virginia to move to Pennsylvania for a new adventure with Townsquare Media,” says Thomas. “I was offered the position of the nighttime jock on WPST (94.5 PST)/Trenton-Phildelphia, as well as the host of Townsquare’s nationally syndicated show ‘Pop Crush Nights.’ I was at Townsquare Media for three years before accepting the role as the late-night host on KIIS in Los Angeles.”

Kayla’s career in radio started for her in college. “I never thought that I would end up in radio. Growing up I made YouTube videos, I wrote, directed, and acted in plays; so, I always thought that I was meant to be in front of the camera. I went to school to study television and ended up not enjoying it as much as I thought I would,” says Thomas. “My senior year I took a random audio class that was required for me to graduate. It was the class that everyone dreaded taking because the professor was known to be super tough. His name is Chris Underation, and to this day I credit him for changing my life. Don’t get me wrong, the class was hard. I think I cried more times than I can count. But Professor Underation pushed me in a way that no teacher had ever done. His class is where I discovered my voice. His class is where I fell in love with the art of storytelling through audio. And I truly believe that the work ethic he instilled in each one of his students is why I work so hard to this day.”

“After completing his class, I started looking for internships with local radio stations. In the summer of 2016, I interned at K92 where I was mentored by many seasoned veterans in the radio industry. They saw my potential, took me in, and helped shape me into becoming the radio personality I am today.”

Despite only being five years into the business, Kayla has already been blessed with some amazing opportunities and recognition. “Two of the most exciting things that I have experienced in my career were being invited to radio row at the Grammys and the

Billboard Music Awards,” she says. “It was so surreal to have my own booth set up in a room full of radio personalities that I have looked up to all my life. I looked to my left and saw The Bert Show, a morning show that I have listened to for years. I looked to my right and saw the Zach Sang show, someone with who I always wanted to have a conversation with to pick his brain about how he is so successful at conducting interviews. I was in a space where I got to interview the biggest names in music and no one questioned whether or not I belonged,” says Thomas. “Another pivotal moment in my career was being named as one of Radio Ink Magazine’s 30 Under 30 Superstars. Sometimes you forget how much of an impact you make every single day because you are alone in a room with a board, a mic, and just yourself. So being recognized as someone who is making a difference in this industry reminded me why I started this in the first place.”

Despite her quick rise to the top, it’s been a rough couple of years for Kayla. “I think one of the biggest challenges I have faced is overcoming depression. On July 4, 2019, my college roommate and one of my closest friends died in a car accident. It was extremely hard for me to go on air, entertain and act happy when all I wanted to do was stare at a wall and not speak to anyone,” she explains. “It changed who I was at my core. I became cold and distant to people who meant the most to me, I even lost some of my closest friends. And I started resenting the one thing that I found the most joy in. It made me sick to have to turn on my microphone every night and make people happy when I wasn’t happy myself. I felt so phony, and it just didn’t feel right to do a break about celebrity gossip when I had just finished crying right before I turned on the mic,” says Thomas.

“I have to say that quarantine came at just the right time. I was able to move back home with my parents in Maryland instead of working from home alone from my apartment in Pennsylvania. Living at home for the first time since high school helped nurse me back to health,” she says. “I started therapy, and for the first time in my life I truly started working on being a better person. In 2020 I went through a vocal cord injury that took me out of radio for a while, and I was also diagnosed with Lupus. It just seemed like one thing after another,” says Thomas. “I remember being on-air, doing a break, then feeling like I was going to faint because my body was so weak. This went on for months and I was starting to think the universe didn’t want me to be on the radio.”

“2021 was the first time in years that I started to feel like myself. It took a simple decision to not let my situation take me out for good. I believe God gave me this voice for a reason and I was determined to keep fighting. I’m still fighting to this day. I am just so grateful for the people who stuck beside me and did not give up on me when I was at my lowest. I owe those people everything.”

So, fast forward to the KIIS-FM gig, this story brings me back to the “good ol’ days” of radio and makes me smile inside and out. “How I ended up at KIIS in is actually an incredible story,” says Thomas. “While I was working in the Trenton market for a different company, I heard of a rare opening for a night jock at WIOQ (Q102) in Philly.

My mentor Helen Little, who works for WLTW (LiteFM)/New York was the one who told me about the job opening and encouraged me to apply. I applied on the iHeartMedia website, but also wanted to do something to stand out and get the PD’s attention. I knew there would be hundreds, maybe thousands of applicants, and I didn’t want my resume and demo reel to get lost or forgotten,” she says. “I decided to send the PD, Buster Satterfield, a pizza. I called a local pizza shop in Philadelphia and asked them to remove a slice from a large pepperoni pizza. Then I ask them to write on the box ‘I am the missing slice to your pie.’ They delivered the pizza to the Q102 studio that day, and once they told me it had been delivered, I emailed Buster my resume and demo reel and told him to enjoy lunch on me.”

“Unfortunately, it turned out that Buster wasn’t even in the office that day! But his coworkers facetimed him, showed him the pizza and he reached out to me later that day,” she explains. “He ended up telling me that they were already far in the process with someone else, but that he liked my stuff so much that he would send it up the chain. He told me he definitely saw a future for me with iHeart Radio and that someone higher up in the company would be reaching out to me soon. A few weeks later John Ivey contacted me and said he wants to find a place for me in the company. We communicated for a couple of months before he introduced me to Beata Murphy and the idea of me joining the KIIS family. And the rest is history!”

“Being on KIIS is a dream come true. Ever since I got into radio, I have dreamed of being on either KIIS or Z100. When it comes to what is next for me, I’ve learned to never limit myself and never say never. I would love to one day host afternoons in a major market. You don’t see a lot of female radio jocks in the afternoon slots in CHR. And there are even fewer Black women,” says Thomas. “I always look at someone like Nessa on Hot 97. She does it all. She does TV, radio, hosting, and serves her community. God gave me this loud powerful voice for a reason, and I want to use it to reach and inspire as many people as possible through as many platforms as possible.”

Kayla is definitely an inspiration to young women in the industry, and she’s got great advice. “My advice to any young woman who wants to be in the radio industry, or any woman in general, is to not get discouraged over the ‘No’s.’ There were so many times in my life when I was told I was too much, too loud, yet not good enough at the same time. There were times when I was turned down and told I didn’t have what it took. But I learned throughout my life that what is meant for you will always find you. What is considered ‘too much’ for one person, is another person, job, or company’s ‘just right.’ Trust that your gifts and talents will make room for you.”

The business requires talent to live their lives so they can relate to listeners on air. Kayla does a good job of staying busy. “In my spare time I like to work out, go hiking, listen to podcasts and binge watch my favorite shows,” she says. “I am such a foodie, so I love to go on food crawls and find new hole-in-the-wall restaurants to try. I am super adventurous. So, when I’m not working, I am always out exploring, traveling, and indulging in new experiences. I am currently binge-watching Ozark on Netflix. I was tired of seeing everyone talk about season 4 on Twitter and being left out because I hadn’t caught up. So right now, I am in the middle of season 1. Give me a few days and I’ll be able to tell you if I am ‘Team Ruth’ or not. Some of my favorite shows are Grey’s Anatomy, Money Heist, Grown-ish, and All American.”

“The one thing that keeps me up at night is constantly thinking about what I can do to be better. I am a perfectionist,” says Thomas. “And I know in radio they encourage you not to be perfect, but I always say that working in radio is a 24-hour thing. When I’m not on-air I am always thinking of how I can make my show more entertaining, what bits I can do, and what encouraging words I can give to people. My goal is to make people’s day. And If I can do that for just one person as they are driving home at night, then I did my job,” she says. And Faith is what keeps her balanced. “I was raised in a strong Christian household and I always refer back to what was instilled in me as a child when I go through trials and obstacles in my adult life. I meditate a lot which also helps when I start feeling stressed or anxious.”

As for what’s ahead for Kayla in 2022, “I am starting the year with a brand-new job in a brand-new city, and I can’t wait for the adventures and opportunities that are going to come from being in LA. I am still getting my feet wet and still have a lot to learn when it comes to being a radio personality in the #2 market. But my goal is to keep growing, keep honing in on my skills, and keep working hard. The grind doesn’t stop now that I’m here. This is when I have to go even harder,” she says. Also, be on the lookout because I plan to bring my podcast ‘Pettyish’ back later this year.

Follow Kayla Thomas on Instagram @Kaylathomas40 and Twitter @Kaylathomas40