Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately said John Podesta of the Center for American Progress was at McFly's table during a lunch with the president. Anne Johnson of the Center was at the table.
DJ Tommy McFly was driving down I Street in January when he got the call. “It just rang 202,” he remembers. “When the White House calls, it just rings 202.”
Kyle Lierman, liaison from the West Wing’s Office of Public Engagement, asked if Tommy was free for lunch the next day. The anchor of 94.7 Fresh FM’s “The Tommy Show” would be part of a discussion with a “top White House official” about how to get more young people to sign up for the Affordable Care Act, Lierman told him.
And that is how a self-described “kid out of Scranton” found himself at a hip Columbia Heights restaurant having steak with Barack Obama and four other people. (“Yes, of course,” the president had said when Tommy introduced himself. “You’re the DJ.”)
Tommy’s tablemates included Anne Johnson from the Center for American Progress and David Dimock, co-founder of Community Health Technologies. “Everyone at the table had definitely done way more work with the affordable health care initiative,” Tommy says. “I was brought in as the guy whose show talks to young people.”
The scene didn’t faze him. “I was so amped up at that moment, I wasn’t nervous. I thought: This is going to be totally awesome.” And because he knew he wasn’t going to be “leading the discussion” on educating young people about Obamacare, he decided to stick to more familiar subject matter, sharing breaking news about the second-degree burn Paula Abdul claimed she had sustained on her inner thigh while in an infrared weight-loss wrap.
“Well,” Tommy says the president remarked, “that wasn’t on the briefing today.”
The next Monday, Tommy regaled listeners with the story about his lunch with the president — “How did that happen?” wondered Jen Richer, one of Tommy’s co-hosts — and smoothly mentioned that HealthCare.gov “is there,” if anyone wanted to check it out.
The White House chose not to comment on why it picked Tommy for the health-care lunch. But it was not the first time the DJ has entertained the president. On April 21, he’ll emcee the White House Easter Egg Roll for the fourth time; he has also appeared twice at the Christmas Tree Lighting.
The White House official in charge of the Easter Egg Roll, Director of the Visitors Office Ellie Schafer, says staff members who listened to him on the radio brought Tommy to the office’s attention. “He is young and fun and is a great emcee for the event.”
Washingtonians seem to agree. At 27, Tommy is a prince of D.C. media, with his highly rated morning show, regular appearances on WJLA-7, red-carpet interviews at the Kennedy Center Honors, and perma-host status not just at the White House but also at a stream of Washington charity events.
Although Tommy is always hyper-aware of his brand, he also comes across as unfailingly nice, completely without guile. He operates with an unedited candidness that often seems quaint, by Washington standards. But that’s his appeal, especially early in the morning.
“There’s something about reaching people when they’re first starting their day,” says Tom Taylor, who runs the radio newsletter Tom Taylor Now. “Radio listeners, like TV viewers, gravitate toward people they can trust, whose sensibility and take on the world mirrors theirs.”
Tommy is most easily compared to Ryan Seacrest, another “multi-platform” wunderkind. But, notes Barbara Martin, a principal in the public relations firm BrandLinkDC who has hired Tommy for various hosting duties, “Ryan Seacrest did not just happen.”
Neither did Tommy McFly.
Tommy was born Thomas Pavlick — even those who say he’s one of their best friends don’t know his real name — in Mountain Top, Pa. (Scranton just sounds better.)
From the beginning, Tommy’s mother, Coleen Pavlick says, “his mouth was his talent.”
His parents, Tom, who works in law enforcement, and Coleen, who has worked as a paralegal, have followed their only child to Washington, where their Falls Church rental is full of outsize leather furniture, two German shepherds, a terrier and stacks of Tommy memorabilia. There’s a photo of Tommy wearing a tiny tux as master of ceremonies at his kindergarten’s graduation. And there’s a first-grade collage of a figure with headphones, a boombox, a microphone and a karaoke machine: a vision of the Tommy of the future.
It was his first-grade teacher who pushed him into reading competitions. He racked up more high school public-speaking trophies than would fit on shelves.
At 15, he became the costumed mascot for Scranton’s WGGY 101.3, a country music station whose FROGGY 101 bumper stickers (thanks to Tommy’s efforts) can be glimpsed in some episodes of “The Office.” “If I’m on the air at 30,” he says, “I will have been on the air for half of my life.” He was dubbed Tommy McFly because all of the station’s personalities had frog-themed monikers; at the time, there was also an Ann Phibian and a Polly Wogg.
Tommy went from playing Mr. Froggy, and pulling stunts such as stealing a car from a dealership lot, to on-air talent. By his senior year of high school, he had moved to mornings.
“He was incredibly driven, very responsible, and he rose very quickly,” says Mike Krinik, the program director who hired Tommy. He was also a hit with listeners. “When we did focus groups, McFly was the number one most recognizable name in the market.”
Tommy moved to Washington in 2006 when longtime DJ Jack Diamond, who calls him a “natural” radio personality, chose the 20-year-old to co-host his morning show on Mix 103.7 FM. In 2010, McFly became an afternoon host at 94.7 Fresh FM, but program director Steve Davis quickly moved him to mornings. “What convinced me was how hard I saw him work off the air,” he says. “He was out every night, shaking hands, kissing babies, bringing opportunities to the station. He was like a small-town politician soliciting votes.”
Tommy not only designed the format of the new morning show, which he describes as “three friends with a microphone living their lives on the radio,” but he also selected as co-hosts two friends with no professional on-air experience: Kelly Collis, who ran a shopping e-mail publication, and Jen Richer, who bonded with Tommy when she was an early morning producer at 105.9 FM WMAL, 107.3’s sister station.
“There was a lot at stake to take on three unproven talents, put them on a morning show in the number seven market … and have it work out the way it did,” Davis says. The show rose in the Nielsen ratings from 12th place to fifth place among 18- to 49-year-old women, its target demographic, with approximately 250,000 listeners per week. “I’ll tell you,” Davis says, “the gods are smiling on us.”
Tommy’s day begins at 3:40 a.m. And then again at 3:41, and 3:50, and, just to be safe, 3:51. “I’m OCD about not waking up,” says the DJ, who sets four clocks and drinks a concoction of multiple espresso shots and skim milk that he calls “jet fuel.”
He has a venti-size cup of this next to him as he and Kelly, who lives near his Wesley Heights townhouse, make their way to the Fresh FM/CBS Radio studios in Lanham. The friends met in 2010 and instantly clicked. Tommy helped Kelly through a difficult divorce, often letting her sleep on his couch. She acts as his stylist and, in advance of important meetings, has been known to use her own set of keys to let herself into his home and lay out his clothing.
The two spend most of the drive tossing around ideas for the show, which airs from 5 to 9 a.m. and offers a family-friendly mix of pop music (no Eminem or Kanye West); Hollywood gossip (using a duck quack for any obscenities from “Real Housewives” or Miley Cyrus clips); and relationship-based chitchat (though sex talk is kept to euphemisms, such as spending “time” with someone or “getting frisky”). Jen’s dismal dating life is constant show fodder, and Kelly’s new fiance, nicknamed “Steadman” on-air, is a recurring character. Tommy is more tight-lipped about his romantic life but says it will soon be part of the show’s storyline.
Katy Perry has just announced her North American tour, and Washington will be her second stop. This, Tommy and Kelly decide, is the day’s headline news. “We get territorial over who gets the lead story,” Tommy says. “I’m usually on Bieber beat. Kelly handles Madonna.”
With 30 minutes to airtime, the duo enter the studio and begin to arrange their notes and laptops on a kidney-shaped desk. Tommy sits in front of a Cape Canaveral-like console, and Kelly occupies one of the rounded corners across from him.
Jen Richer joins them just before 5 a.m. If Kelly is, as Tommy likes to say, “this fast-talking, sassy single mother who is also sort of a smartass,” Jen is her yang, “a walking Labrador retriever” who loves yoga pants and coupons. There’s something about Jen or Kelly, he adds, “that speaks to everyone.” His own alter-ego, he says, is Tigger.
The three have a genuine camaraderie — complete with inside jokes, sentence finishing and kid-because-they-care ribbing — that makes it hard to tell when they are on the air or off. For four hours, the show feels like the fun table at a wedding. “Debbie!” they yell when a regular listener (or “peep” in Tommy parlance ) calls to weigh in on whether couples without kids are happier than those with. (The resounding answer from the peeps: yes.)
Together, they dissect a listicle from BuzzFeed called “18 Incredibly Simple Things Any Man Can Do to Look Better.”
“You gotta treat the bacne,” Kelly says, agreeing with the list.
“Is there a back knee and a front knee?” Jen wisecracks to the groans of her castmates.
Throughout it all, Tommy edits sound files with one hand, grabs audio with the other (“She’s coming!” will play, in slo-mo, before every Katy Perry promo), and records entertainment stories at sister station WNEW 99.1 FM. “He’s ultimately the conductor of the train,” Kelly says, “and Jen and I are passing out drinks.”
E ven off camera, Tommy is on — all capital letters and exclamation points and words like “epic.” After the show he almost always has something scheduled: a listener’s lunch, where he’ll wind up recruiting a new board member for his adored charity Best Buddies; dropping off cupcakes at an elementary school, where he’ll agree to return to read to the kids; a mentoring session with Scott Thuman, senior political reporter for WJLA-7, who will review Tommy’s human-interest segments for that station. (After the author mentioned the sudden closing of her son’s preschool, Tommy passed along the idea to the news desk, which assigned a story on it.) He will take breaks to exercise his rescue dog, a mutt named Chip McFly. Watching Chip run back and forth in front of a fence barking at squirrels, Tommy says: “He’s an only child, too. He entertains himself.”
Though he tries to turn in by 10 p.m., he’s also usually out every night of the week, hosting events, attending media nights, shooting “Tommy’s Take” segments for WJLA, having dinner with friends. The way he likes to put it: “We work 24 hours a day, but we never work at all.”
And wherever he goes, he collects business cards, a thick stack he’ll keep in his pocket, George Costanza-style, until he has followed up on every one with an e-mail or phone call. “Tommy networks without making it look like self-aggrandizing desire,” Thuman says. “That’s rare in D.C.” He also has the kind of personality that reminds his Fresh FM boss of another people person. “It’s like how you felt when Bill Clinton shook your hand,” Steve Davis says. “Like there was no one else in the room.”
The networking, the visibility, the brand, the multi-platformed McFlys; it’s all part of his bigger plan. “Depending on where this TV thing takes him, I see him making the transition and moving out to Hollywood,” speculates Mike Krinik, his first boss.
In fact, Tommy’s agent recently set up some meetings for him in Los Angeles.
But Tommy is thinking Hollywood might come to him. “I sit at the intersection between entertainment and politics,” he says. “Celebs come in and do their thing on the Hill or at a small event, but why isn’t there a place where people get to see stars having a cause, having a care, and being thoughtful about something that’s important to them?”
Besides, there are a lot of hosts already in Los Angeles. “How am I different from all the hair-gelled white guys out there?” he asks referring not only to Seacrest but also to Carson Daly and Billy Bush. “There are 10,000 Tommys in L.A.”
But there’s only one in D.C.