Berkshires radio pioneer dies

Wednesday, Oct. 07
Donald A. Thurston, a pioneer in local radio who became a leading voice on county politics and business matters, died Tuesday morning after a long battle with Parkinson's Disease.

He was 79.

"He was one of the most powerful voices in the Northern Berkshires for nearly 50 years," said Mayor John Barrett III of the longtime Clarksburg resident. "Politicians always tried to get on his good side. And when he read an editorial, people listened."

Thurston, a Maine native, broke into radio at 20 years old when he scored a job in 1949 as an engineer for a small station in St. Johnsbury, Vt. Two years later, he was managing a second station in Newport, Vt.

Thurston came to North Adams in 1960 to head the operations of WMNB, then owned by the Hartman family, former owners of the North Adams Transcript.

Under the banner Berkshire Broadcasting Co., Thurston went on to purchase WMNB and WNAW in 1966, Great Barrington's WSBS two years later, and several stations in the eastern part of the state and in Connecticut.

He was known for sounding the call for increased business development early in his tenure, taking on a leadership role in the Northern Berkshire Development Corporation and serving as president of the Northern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce.

"He was always in the middle of the activity, advocating for businesses and local industry," Barrett said. "People respected his opinions."

As cities in Western Massachusetts began losing blue collar jobs in the 1960s and 1970s, Thurston was the one rallying the call for business leaders to be proactive in drawing new industry.

Thurston also was involved in the republican party and met several U.S. presidents. He was a friend of the late U.S. Rep. Silvio O. Conte.

Paul Willey, 79, of North Adams, worked with Thurston for more than 40 years as his chief engineer. He said Thurston was the last of a dead breed of radiomen who focused on local concerns rather than manage with a corporate outlook.

"The Thurstons were kings compared to the people who own radio stations now," he said. "Don was a fair man to work for. He cared about the area and his employees."

His son, Corydon L. Thurston, joined the company in 1974 and served as the company's president until it was sold to the Vox Radio Group in 2004 for $2.02 million.

Thurston received the Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Broadcasters in 1980 and was inducted into both the Massachusetts and Vermont Broadcasters Halls of Fame.

He served as chairman of the board of both the NAB and Broadcast Music Inc. and was a longtime trustee of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

"Don had a remarkable career," said friend and fellow radioman Stephen Long. "It is highly unusual for a small market radio station owner to achieve the national positions he did."

Long, 73, first worked with Thurston in 1959 in Vermont and later at WMNB. He called him "a mentor" who not only had a superb radio voice but who also wielded good business sense.

"He was a real renaissance man," Long said. "He could do it all. And he was just a good person. He could go speak with the president of the United States and then come home and have a half-hour talk with the janitor and not treat him any differently."

Thurston was an avid hunter and angler and enjoyed trips to the family cottage in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom.

He even taught a broadcasting course at Williams College, inviting national broadcast executives for guest lectures and leading students on a field trip to CBS studios in New York.

He is survived by his wife of 58 years, Oralie Thurston, with whom they had two children, including Carolie Collins, and five grandchildren and two great grandchildren.


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