A Charlotte journalist hones the voice he nearly lost for good

Tommy Tomlinson. Photo courtesy of the subject.

IN THE SPRING OF 1993, Tommy Tomlinson was lying in a bed at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, wondering if his career was over. He had recently undergone surgery to remove cancer from his throat, and had spent more than two weeks in bed, taking meals through a feeding tube in his nose, breathing through a separate tube inserted through a hole in his throat, unable to make a sound while the incision on the left side of his neck healed. The procedure had been a success; the tumors had all been extracted—along with 40 percent of his voice box. Only after his bandage was removed would Tomlinson know whether the remaining patchwork of vocal cords would function. Only then would he know whether or not he would ever utter another word.

Tomlinson’s voice was an essential part of his livelihood. At 29, he had been hired as the music writer for The Charlotte Observer, a dream job for the man whose two greatest loves were music and storytelling. That job, in the days before email, depended on his ability to interview touring national artists and promoters on the phone and shout questions over the din at concert halls and down bustling backstage hallways. He spent days of silent uncertainty playing Tetris on a Nintendo Gameboy his colleagues had bought him and sketching out his thoughts on a notepad. He could scarcely scribble a back-and-forth with his mother without throwing his pen down in frustration. How could he be a voiceless reporter? Sure, he could still write. Maybe there was a novel somewhere inside of him. Perhaps he could build a career as an essayist. But his passion was in the reporting, in engaging with another person, empathizing, meeting them eye to eye and carefully teasing out the salient details of their stories. Without that connection, writing would seem like an empty, lonely exercise.

Tomlinson’s mother, his brother, several friends, and a gaggle of nurses looked on as a doctor stripped the bandage from Tomlinson’s neck, then told his patient to cover the hole from where his trach tube had just been removed and try to say something. Tomlinson—too terrified to remember any profound thought from the previous weeks—opened his mouth, exhaled and, on that breath, pushed out one word: Hey.

“I really wish I’d found something profound to say,” Tomlinson says now. “But I was really terrified about what would happen. And it just came out. Ragged. Terrible sounding. But it was something, and I knew I could speak. I knew from that moment that there’d be difficulties. But I had a voice.”

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Tomlinson’s voice would improve a bit from that first frayed syllable, but it would always be soft, breathy, maxing out at the volume of a heavy whisper. It would weaken and eventually give out after prolonged use. To carry on as a journalist, Tomlinson would have to change his approach to reporting. He would need to interview his subjects one-on-one, in quieter rooms and corridors. He would have to economize his questions and do more listening than talking. He would have to lean more on observation and other tools. In short, it would force him to become a better reporter.

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Tomlinson stops short of calling his brush with cancer a blessing, but he readily credits the ordeal with improving the trajectory of his career. He has gone on to become a local celebrity and Pulitzer finalist as the Observer’s lead metro columnist. He’s received the prestigious fellowship to the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, and written features for national publications like ESPN The Magazine, Esquire, and Garden & Gun. His memoir, The Elephant in the Room, is due out from Simon & Schuster in January 2019. And now, he has parlayed his skills into the unlikeliest of all gigs—first as host of his own interview podcast, SouthBound, and, starting this month, as an on-air correspondent for Charlotte’s NPR affiliate, WFAE.

Through his struggles, Tomlinson’s gravely, threadbare murmur has become one of the loudest and most prominent voices in journalism.

 

I’m the wallflower at the dance. Given my own devices, I’d stand against the wall. But I know it would be more fun to go out and dance. So I’ve made a job that forces me out onto the dance floor.

 

VOICE OR NO VOICE, Tomlinson is an imposing figure. He stands 6’1”, and calls himself a “fat guy.”

“He’s a presence,” says friend and former Observer colleague Jena Janovy. “There’s this contrast between his stature and the softness of his voice that I noticed immediately. He has a voice that was sort of lilting, rolling, very southern, with slower cadence that forced you to listen. When I heard him speak the first time, I was compelled to listen—not only how he spoke but what he said.”

He’s unrelentingly kind, considerate, and above all, curious. How are you doing? How’s your family? What are you working on? Then he sits back smiling, hands folded in front of him, cloudy blue eyes at full attention.

Tomlinson is a born listener. His father was a carpenter and mechanic, his mother a waitress at a hotel restaurant. They had grown up as sharecroppers picking cotton, and lived in a farmhouse outside of Brunswick, near the Georgia coast. The house was always full of family, aunts and uncles and older cousins who would conduct a never-ending swap meet of stories. The women would spin yarns in the kitchen while cooking, and around the dinner table while cleaning up. The men would go outside, lean against their trucks and pass around tobacco and anecdotes. “As a kid, I had a pass into both worlds,” says Tomlinson. “They all told the same stories, but with different heroes and villains. And then they’d all get together later in the evening in the living room.” The gab would carry on into the night even as folks tried to leave. “They would all linger by the car on the way out,” he says. “No one could quite say goodbye.”

When Tomlinson’s folks weren’t talking, they were singing around the tape recorder, usually playing gospel hymns and Hank Williams. Tomlinson couldn’t sing a lick, but he loved listening to his own tapes and records.

The Tomlinsons were also voracious readers. The rolled-up daily Brunswick News would arrive, the green rubber band would be slipped off, and the sections divided and passed around until every line was consumed and discussed. Tomlinson filled notebooks with short stories and bad poetry that no one ever saw. Though he got on at the high school newspaper, Tomlinson says writing and journalism never dawned on him as a possible career. Instead he went to the University of Georgia—the first in his family to go to college—on a mathematics scholarship, and when advanced calculus proved too much, he shifted to pre-law. It wasn’t until his junior year, when he wrote a couple of feature articles for the school newspaper, the Red and Black, that he considered journalism as a profession. “Feature writing, rendering people’s emotions and making sense of it really hit home to me,” he says. “The job also sort of forces me to become a better version of myself. I’m the wallflower at the dance. Given my own devices, I’d stand against the wall. But I know it would be more fun to go out and dance. So I’ve made a job that forces me out onto the dance floor.”

Once Tomlinson put himself out there, as is the case with many young reporters, he found that he sometimes couldn’t shut up. The interactions were often awkward, especially at the introduction. Then he would ramble through questions and follow-ups until he got what he needed. He talked himself into a job as a cops and government reporter with the Augusta Chronicle before he graduated college. Three years later, he became the lone reporter in the Observer’s bureau in Lancaster, South Carolina. In 1993, after a brief fling with freelancing, he shoehorned his way into the music-writer gig at the Observer’s main office.

After just a couple weeks on the job, Tomlinson noticed his voice had developed a rasp that wasn’t going away. He thought it might be a cold or laryngitis. After two to three weeks, he was worried enough to see a doctor, who noticed a polyp on Tomlinson’s voice box. Neither of the men thought much of it, but the doc removed the bump and biopsied it. A few days later, the doctor called Tomlinson and told him he had throat cancer. Tomlinson had never smoked and was not a heavy drinker. The doc told him that 60 percent of people get a disease for one reason, another 38 percent for a different reason, and a final two percent were the “other.” Tomlinson was part of the latter group. It was of little consolation. At 29, he was faced with a decision: undergo radiation therapy that would preserve his vocal chords but might not eradicate all the cancer, or go under the knife and risk losing his voice.

There wasn’t much deliberation. True, Tomlinson made a living with his voice. But in order to do so, he had to stay alive.

 

His writing is so damn lyrical you can miss the depth of reporting that he does.

 

FOLLOWING HIS RELEASE from the hospital, Tomlinson committed himself to months of voice therapy. Humming, vocal exercises, slowly rebuilding the muscles that remained. Meanwhile, at work, he practiced with a special telephone headset that would amplify what he said. Sources and colleagues alike still had difficulty deciphering his words. But that improved over the course of a year as his voice grew into the whispered shout that it would be.

Tomlinson knew he had to adjust his approach to work. He would have to be more precise in his diction, and couldn’t afford to slur any words. He no longer had much volume, let alone intonation, so he would have talk slower. He’d have to suffer the frustration of repeating himself time and again. But he also found that he was avoiding the phone altogether in favor of getting out of the office and talking to people face-to-face, where they could read his lips and gestures. He stayed clear of the centers of crowds and press conferences, preferring to listen from the periphery; if he had a follow-up question, then he pulled the subject aside to a quieter place where he alone would get the answers. “I realized that not only could I get what I needed,” he says, “the stuff I was getting was better.” He outworked his former self, compensating by arriving early and staying late. The change to his voice, he says, “rewired the way I report, and the way I think about reporting.”

The deeper reporting translated to Tomlinson’s writing. In 1997, he was promoted to replace the legendary columnist Kays Gary in the Observer front-page rail. Tomlinson now had a forum in which to wax and opine. Still, he was careful not to succumb to his introverted tendencies.

“His writing is so damn lyrical you can miss the depth of reporting that he does,” says Tomlinson’s longtime editor Michael Gordon. “He is a very good reporter. He coupled that with a great sense of humanity. He empathized with all sides. One of the first thing he had to learn as a columnist was to put that empathy aside. He has a great sense of fairness—but sometimes a columnist needs to tell readers what he really thinks. Within a couple years, he developed that. ‘Here are the gathered facts, but here’s what the hell I think.’”

Tomlinson’s empathy almost got the best of him in an early column about a local business exec busted for making up huge chunks of his resume (including a false claim that he had been an Olympic gold medalist in track). In that column, Tomlinson came clean about his own CV exaggeration: he hadn’t actually graduated from college. The confession earned him a four-week suspension without pay. But by and large, Tomlinson’s honesty and even-handedness enable him to call truth to power without drawing the ire of the powerful subjects.

“I don’t remember anyone who was a subject of a critical column calling to express that he was treated unfairly,” says Gordon. “I think his voice was part of that. It was not an ‘a-ha’ interview. Even the toughest conversations were conversational. His soft voice disarmed his subjects.”

Tomlinson may tread softly, but he carries a big and blunt pen. In 2004, he drove to Charleston, South Carolina, to cover the celebratory burial of eight Confederate soldiers whose remains were finally recovered when a Civil War-era submarine was found off the coast. He focused his column on the story of nine slave children who were sold in Charleston’s last slave auction in 1865. “The war will never die,” he wrote, “not until everyone who believes so deeply in the Polite Confederacy can square the Hunley 8 with the Charleston 9. Until then, the ghosts will do what ghosts do best: Haunt us.”

In September 2007, he tracked down several people pictured in a famous 1957 photograph of 15-year-old Dorothy Counts being harassed and slurred by white men as she attempted to enter the newly integrated Charlotte school system. Tomlinson confronted the guilty parties, and somehow got them to open up. “It’s as clear in his mind as the day it happened,” he writes of one onlooker he found 50 years later, “the day he’s so ashamed of.”

In 2005, Tomlinson’s collected work from the previous year made him a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Commentary. Locally, he became one of the most prominent faces in media. “He became a celebrity,” says Gordon. “When we’d go out to dinner or a theatre production with our wives, the owner would come out and say how pleased he was to have Tommy Tomlinson in the audience. It’s a major metro area, but everyone knew Tommy.” Janovy calls him “the voice of the paper.”

 

I told him the only person worried about your voice is you. In public radio, it’s not the quality of the voice, it’s the authenticity of the voice and the authenticity of the storytelling.

 

EVENTUALLY TOMLINSON came to feel that he could speak to a larger audience. In 2012, after 23 years and more than 1,700 columns, he left the Observer to pursue feature writing as a freelancer for national long-form publications.

The bigger and more crowded the stage, and the longer, more in-depth the format, the better Tomlinson’s laidback reporting approach seemed to translate.When he covered the 2012 SEC Championship Football game for Sports On Earth, and the Georgia Bulldogs came up heartbreakingly short of upsetting the powerhouse Alabama Crimson Tide, Tomlinson skipped Georgia coach Mark Richt’s press conference and lingered by himself outside the Bulldog locker room. There, he saw Richt’s wife, waiting for her husband. When the coach arrived, Tomlinson saw the look on Richt’s face as he and his wife embraced. It was the only answer Tomlinson needed. The scene would be his lede:

Mark Richt’s wife, Katharyn, waited for him in the hallway outside the Georgia locker room. She sat on a black platform in the middle of a small, tight group. Nobody spoke much. You could smell the diesel fumes from the buses idling around the corner, and hear the blowers on the field piling up Alabama’s victory confetti, but here in the hallway it felt like a hospital waiting room, with family and friends trying to accept this little death.

“I feel like earlier in my career, I would’ve felt the need to be in the press conference and ask questions to justify my presence,” says Tomlinson. “Now I find a place where I can be an observer rather than a talker and find moments that speak to the emotion of the moment, rather than what the people say.”

Whether it was commiserating with former NFL quarterback Jarod Lorenzen about his battles with career-crippling weight gain or getting superstar racecar driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. to open up about the concussions and ongoing psychological therapy that led to his premature retirement from NASCAR, Tomlinson seemed able to get anyone to talk—and he listened. “One thing that stood out was his own humanity and his deep understanding of other people’s humanity, who they are and what they are about,” says Janovy, who had left the Observer to become an editor at ESPN The Magazine, which published both stories. “When he pitched stories, Tommy always started with a human being. I always knew he was a capable reporter. I knew his heart was at the center.”

Though he traveled all over the country to report his features, Tomlinson never moved from Charlotte, his adopted home. His neighbors and old readers never stopped giving him story ideas, either directly or indirectly, which he collected in a small moleskine notebook he kept in his pocket. He also never stopped listening, especially as podcasts exploded onto the scene. Suddenly there were thousands of unique voices telling their own stories and those of others. “They’re not all obvious radio voices, the smooth NPR or the slick broadcaster,” says Tomlinson. “Podcasting has opened the door to anyone who can talk in any fashion to have a place. It’s expanded what a radio voice could be.”

Last year, a mutual friend introduced Tomlinson to Joe O’Connor, president of WFAE in Charlotte. Over drinks, Tomlinson pitched O’Connor on a podcast in which each episode focused on a person—an artist, athlete, activist, or just a citizen—born or living in the South who could add their perspective to better defining that part of the country. Up front, Tomlinson addressed his voice.

“I told him the only person worried about your voice is you,” says O’Connor. “In public radio, it’s not the quality of the voice, it’s the authenticity of the voice and the authenticity of the storytelling. I call it hangtime: ‘Am I going to remember that story or character a minute later, hour, day, rest of my life?’ His reputation as a columnist was that he had some serious hangtime.”

Launched in late 2017, with an introductory episode explaining the host’s signature rasp, SouthBound has thus far featured more than a few stories with hangtime. North Carolinian Earnhardt Jr. joined Tomlinson to revisit the issue of mental health. Tomlinson spoke with a doctor about sitting with a dying patient who was reaching out for family that wasn’t there. A local LGBTQ activist talked about the history of the gay rights movement in the South. Once again, Tomlinson is learning on the job, trying economize his own words and give the subject room to speak. Today, May 21, he’ll become a full-time WFAE news correspondent—one more new trick to learn.

“He’s not a natural,” says O’Connor. “But he’s picking it up quickly. He’s no rookie. He knows how to get the best out of people.”

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Tony Rehagen has written for Pacific Standard, GQ, Bloomberg, and ESPN The Magazine. He is based in St. Louis and is on Twitter @trehagen.