2022 InducteeCentral Florida Sports Hall of Fame
For Tom Thornburg, it was love at first sight.
“I knew the first time I stepped foot in a radio studio,” said Thornburg. “Remember, this was a long time ago. All the dials and lights and bulbs, I loved it. The smell, the sound, the lights. I knew this is where I wanted to be.”
And in many ways, he’s never left.
Raised on Crooked Lake after his family moved to Polk County from Indiana, Thornburg’s childhood was spent in the woods and on the water.
“It was a great childhood. Idyllic,” he said. “My parents moved here to run a fish camp. I was outside all day long.”
It was 1955 when Thornburg, still in high school, started giving the fishing report for Crooked Lake on Lake Wales radio station WIPC. That evolved into a part time on-air job that carried him through high school and into college.
“After a year at Florida Southern, I looked into the U.S. Air Force,” said Thornburg. “When they told me about Armed Forces Radio and Television, I knew that was for me.”
After six weeks of training in Los Angeles, Thornburg was shipped about as far away as possible – Japan.
“I worked on Armed Forces Radio in Chitose – about 30 miles south of the capital, during the day, and picked up a job at night on Japanese radio in Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, where they were trying to stimulate English conversation,” said Thornburg. “It’s also where I met my wife, Susan, whose father served in the military. We had our son Jeff in Hokkaido, Japan.”
The Thornburg’s loved their four years in Japan – even the different skiing.
“I’d learned how to water ski here,” said Thornburg. “And quickly learned the difference between snow skiing and water skiing.”
But after four years, the Thornburgs decided to move back to Florida. Tom found himself back at the Lake Wales station.
“When times were tough, I started making sales calls,” he said. “Next, I was the general manager, plus doing the morning show, sales in the afternoon and ballgames at night.”
It was 1984 when Tom struck out on his own.
“What can I say, the bankers believed in me,” he said. “WPUL was on the market and we bought it in a day.”
Born was WWBF and the high level of community involvement that have set the Thornburgs apart.
“We immediately married ourselves to the community,” Thornburg said.
Fields were cleared, towers built, frequencies and an FM translator added – and a legacy built.
“We started doing the things that you couldn’t get anywhere else,” said Thornburg. “We started carrying local ballgames, adding local news. Everyone likes oldies music, and the shopper program in the morning is a big hit. We wanted to be a part of the community and we earned our stripes.”
No time was that more evident than after Hurricane Charley. While Florida was battered, WWBF not only stayed on the air, but for many was the sole source of information during and after the storm. But while news might inform the listener, sports have a special place in their heart.
“Sports – high school sports in particular – is a key aspect to community,” Thornburg said. “We had a serviceman in the Middle East listen to his son in Bartow pitch in a baseball game. We traveled to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, when our Dixie Boys baseball team was in the World Series. In fact, we’ve probably done half a dozen Dixie Youth Baseball World Series from all over the Southeast. It means a lot to people around here. That’s why we do what we do.”
The family operation – his wife Susan has been in on the business end since the beginning, his son Jeff serves both as chief engineer as well as a host, and his daughter-in-law Kim works in the office – holds to its core belief in service to the community. And while another son, David, has struck out into his own business ventures, he still helps out while he can. When it comes to sports, the station primarily covers Bartow teams.
“But Bartow plays the big three schools here,” he said. “And if another school in the area is doing well in a sport when Bartow isn’t – like Fort Meade, Lake Wales and Frostproof – we’ll get out to those games if we can.”