When Tom Pless retired in 2017, after more than 40 years as a public-school teacher, he had no idea that just a few years later, he would be running an internet radio station with more than a million listeners worldwide.
“I got in at the right time and I got out at the right time,” Tom said of his teaching career.
Although there were many things he still enjoyed about teaching, one thing made the decision to leave relatively easy. “I left because I had the golden ticket,” Tom said. He had more than 30 years of public service and he was 66 years old, which meant he could retire with a comfortable pension and good health care coverage.
Having his finances and health care taken care of, Tom was more concerned about staying busy, then making money. “I needed a purpose,” Tom said.
The Origins of 97 Underground
He found that purpose at 97 Underground.com, a pure rock station that he had started over 40 years ago.
Tom began working in radio and television in 1974 part-time to help supplement his teaching income. Then in the 1980s, he began 97 Underground, an FM radio station, at Dundalk High School where he taught. The students participated in the running of the station and used it as a learning experience.
After a while Tom took the station off the air until the concept of internet radio was introduced. He then ran the station out of the high school as a music box, a station that simply plays music with no programing or commercials.
Prior to retiring, Tom attempted to partner 97 Underground.com with the new HammerJacks Nightclub in Baltimore, but when that deal fell through, he decided to run the station out of a studio from his home.
With the help of a friend, he built a fully functioning studio in his basement. “I bought all the pieces on eBay,” Tom said and his new 97 Underground.com internet radio station was born or reborn.
Back then, in 2017, Tom had no more than 15,000 listeners. Now he has Roku and Amazon FireTV stations as well as in his App on Apple and Android and social media channels. You can even buy a T-shirt through his store, Metal Merch Nation. He’s become a media mogul.
A Typical Day at the “Office”
Now, he starts his day with a cup, no a gallon of coffee. Then he gets to work on his station scheduling music and programs, creating slides and commercial spots for his sponsors and advertisers and hustling to get more exposure.
One of his biggest advertisers and sponsors is Elijah Craig Bourbon from Heaven Hill Distillery. Tom is a whisky aficionado and during his show , The Phantom’s Lair, Wednesdays from 2-4 p.m., he dispenses quality pours for review on the “Whiskey Wisdom” segment of the weekly live broadcast. During this time, Tom tastes and rates different whiskeys provided by Heaven Hill.
He not only provides radio spots for these sponsors, but also creates slides that are displayed on his multiple outlets.
When he compares his life now to when he was working, he said, “Same amount of hours. Same amount of stress. No personal contact. That’s the one thing I hate about this work, no personal contact,” Tom said
But don’t let him fool you, the smile that spreads across his face as he talks about 97 Underground.com says it all.
What Makes 97 Underground Different
His radio station has grown over the years to include 15 different hosts each bringing their own unique perspective to rock music. Many of them have loved music almost as long as Tom has and he has hosts that are from as far away as Great Britain.
97 Underground.com plays rock music from the 1970s and 1980s. Much of the music is fairly mainstream until 9 p.m. when the station plays harder music during “Nasty at Night.” 97 Underground.com has everything, plus one thing that makes his station a little different from other rock stations — he plays new music.
Tom is always looking for new music and enjoys discovering new bands. He spends Fridays listening to new music and gets “bombarded” with emails from new artists saying, “Please play my record.”
Not only does playing new music give him a unique sound, but it also helps promote his station. Tom posts a playlist of the songs he will be playing that week and the featured bands promote his station on their social media sites.
Tom also wants to find out how his listeners feel about the music he’s playing. He surveys his listeners to find out what songs are their favorites.
One of his favorite stories is about a new talent he discovered, Abby K, a female bass player. He helped her get her first gig outside her home state of North Carolina. She and her band played at the Ottobar. Now she is living in Nashville making a name for herself and has already put out eight singles.
What the Future Holds
For a self-described “analog person in a digital world”, Tom has become very tech savvy running five different pieces of software and producing all the commercials.
One thing he doesn’t like about internet radio is that listeners have to find him intentionally. “It’s not like the old days when you were sitting in the car searching through stations, Tom said. However, over a million people have made the effort.
At 71, Tom shows no signs of stopping. Next month his is doing the Red Carpet at the Central Pennsylvania Music Hall of Fame. He will be playing music and interviewing the bands.
He also has plans to broadcast live from a rock festival in Atlantic City and for the upcoming Bike Rally in Dundalk as well as other music events. These live presentations and word of mouth are where Tom gets his listeners.
For Tom, every day is a new adventure. “It’s my world. I have a purpose,” Tom said.
When asked about his advice for others considering retirement he said, “You have to have a plan. Inactivity causes you to become complacent.” That word will never be used to describe Tom Pless.
If you know someone who you think would make an interesting subject for my blog email me at email@example.com.