Remodeling Via Radio

March 6, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — It worked for Tim Allen, so why not Pat and Sandie Thompson?

Ex-Michigander Allen made a name for himself in the 1990s with his popular television program, "Home Improvement," in which he played the bumbling contractor turned TV star, Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor.

The Thompsons might not have the clever nicknames or a national audience, but their weekly duties as hosts of "The Home Improvement Show" on WOOD Radio have won them a certain amount of notoriety, and some business to boot.

The Thompsons, proprietors of Thompson Remodeling Inc., took to the air in 2004, taking over for original host, Rob Blodgett, of Blodgett Construction & Home Improvement Co. Other than a handful of guest appearances on the program, they had no radio experience. What Pat, Sandie and their son Ben did have was a great reputation in the remodeling business, and an ability to communicate as a team.

"They wanted that family dynamic, like we were sitting around the kitchen table," said Pat Thompson. Ultimately, he joked, it was his "radio face" that got them the job. More realistically, it was the Thompsons' ability to answer home improvement and construction questions in a way that is both informative and entertaining.

"We approached the Thompsons to host (the show) based on their stellar reputation as home remodelers in our community, and also because of the fact that the Thompson family is so easy to work with. I mean, they are a team both on the air and off," said PhilTower, program director at WOOD Radio. "They are incredibly well-prepared for each show, and they sound great together as 'The Thompson Trio.'"

Ben Thompson acts as the show's producer, coming up with weekly topics and project ideas. On some call-in shows — such as National Public Radio's "Car Talk" — listeners call in or e-mail their problems ahead of time, the producer chooses those that will best fit into the program theme, and then arranges to call them back during the taping of the show. The Thompsons have no such luxury. Their calls are truly live, and can therefore lead to dramatic swings in the show's topics.

"The show turns on a dime, from someone with a clogged toilet, to another wanting to know when laminate, granite or solid-surface is the best countertop choice," said Ben Thompson. "It takes all three of us to tackle what's coming through the phone lines."

Answering those questions on-air has been a unique challenge for the Thompsons. Describing remodeling and construction techniques is an innately visual process. Pat Thompson said that it was difficult at first to put some of his tips and techniques into words.

"Fortunately, each of us is pretty articulate," he said. "So we got the hang of it."

On the air, Ben Thompson tends to be the facilitator, while his father serves as the technical expert. Sandie's perspective as a woman rounds out the discussion.

"Sandie adds a whole other level of insight to construction," said Pat Thompson. "She really sees it from the softer side."

That blend of viewpoints is among the reasons for the program's popularity. In the fall 2005 Arbitron ratings, "The Home Improvement Show" was the No. 1 program in the market during its time slot. Not only was it the overall leader, it also garnered the highest ratings in several age demographics. The ratings confirm what the Thompsons already knew: There are a lot of people listening to their show.

"We're shocked at the variety of people who listen to the show," said Pat Thompson. Ben Thompson said that he often runs into friends and clients who have called into the show. But much more frequently, he hears from people who are just fans of the show, regardless of whether they do any of their own home improvement work.

Of course, in addition to providing a public service, and giving the Thompsons something to do on Saturday mornings, "The Home Improvement Show" is a big publicity tool for Thompson Remodeling Inc. Ben Thompson said that the show has certainly added to the company's name-recognition, but he's hesitant to say whether it directly inspired any listeners to choose Thompson for their remodeling projects.

"Everybody who walks through the door says, 'I love the show,' but I think that's just pleasantries," said Ben Thompson. "But, it is certainly good for our top-of-mind awareness."

He went on to say that more than 90 percent of the company's 2005 business came from repeat customers or referrals. He can't say whether the radio show inspired any of those customers to return, or to recommend Thompson Remodeling to their friends. Regardless, hosting the show certainly doesn't hurt business. Throughout the year, the company handles around 80 projects, with an average price tag of $34,000. On the weekends, they handle a few more.

"Saturday mornings we take on the home improvement questions of the other 524,000 households in West Michigan," said Ben Thompson. "On the radio we're helping more folks from a distance, anonymously, without commitment. In our remodeling projects, we're helping families on a much more personal level. Both mediums are a lot of fun. And with both services we're aiming to be a part of improving all of West Michigan's homes."    

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