A black swivel chair stood between Janet Snyder and the singer Robin Thicke. Thicke sat in it. With his charcoal herringbone scarf tucked under his gray overcoat, hair carved into a pompadour, Thicke fit his part: pop star.
Snyder fit hers, too: Buffalo’s relentlessly youthful, on-trend media personality.
She was wearing a dark dress that hugged a thin, muscular physique, one sculpted by six workouts a week. Her razor-straight blond hair was freshly coiffed by her on-site stylist. Snyder held a microphone topped with the triangular logo flag of Kiss 98.5, the station to which she’s dedicated most of her three-decade radio career.
This was Kissmas Bash 2015, WKSE-FM’s annual December concert at First Niagara Center. Snyder was less than an hour from ending her evening, slipping out a bit early and indulging in her one treat: salty, crispy French fries. But first came her backstage interview with Thicke, chilling in his lone swivel chair.
“Are you sitting on my lap?” deadpanned Thicke, he of the now-famous Miley Cyrus twerk duet at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards.
“That would be so much fun!” Snyder teased back. “Can I?”
“Only if I was wearing a Santa outfit,” Thicke said.
The laughs continued. This radio thing is part real, part show. Snyder plays a character. She has a brand, one she’s crafted carefully and protects fiercely. She’s proud of her place as woman – “a pioneer,” as one of radio’s most powerful executives calls her – in her industry.
But as Snyder was joking with Thicke, she walked to the corner of the pocket-sized room. “The Santa hat will mess up your hair,” she told Thicke as she grabbed a chair for herself.
She has boundaries. She’ll tell you about some of them. Just not all of them.
Snyder is co-host with Nicholas Picholas of WKSE’s “Janet & Nick in the Morning,” and also works in television for WGRZ as host of “Western New York Living.”
On the radio, which is her primary job, Snyder’s day-to-day role has her interviewing guests, running concert-ticket giveaways, riffing on the news and staging in-studio promotions.
There’s that Top 40 pop music thing, too.
“Janet talks a lot,” said her mom, Marie, who listens every morning and texts in her feedback. “In between her talking, she plays a record or two.”
The formula is working. In Nielsen’s fall book, WKSE’s morning show dominated with the coveted women 18-to-49 demographic. Current and former WKSE officials also point out that the morning show tends to draw from outside the station’s core demographic: Older women listen. Men listen, too. (Case in point: Jim Toellner, Snyder’s television boss since hiring her in 2010, first listened to her in the early 2000s when he was driving his daughter Kristin to early-morning swim practices.)
“She is the captain of the ship,” said Shannon Steele, who worked at WKSE from 2006 to 2012 as an on-air personality and, in the latter part of her tenure, as music director. “She’s been there through pregnancies, through marriage, through divorce, through absolutely everything. That station is her heart.”
Steele, who until recently worked in radio in Ohio, is effusive in her praise of Snyder (“I don’t know when she sleeps; sometimes I think she’s a robot.”) and candid about their sometimes-tense relationship. “Trust me, we didn’t get along all the time,” Steele said. “It’s not like I’m blowing sunshine. We were competitive, too. I was the other girl on the station, don’t forget.”
They had “spats,” Steele said, including over who got to do the big-name interviews. Steele, as music director, was the person who scheduled those interviewers. Except for one – Gwen Stefani – Steele lost every battle.
Sue O’Neil, WKSE’s program director and the arbiter of who gets to do the splashy interviews, likens Snyder’s ability to that of a globally known personality. “I would put her equal to Ryan Seacrest,” O’Neil said. “She’s tremendously talented at bringing out the answer in someone that you don’t think you’re going to get. She can do that, and she’s good, and that’s why she gets them.”
Steele, speaking separately from the interview with O’Neil, agrees with her former boss. “Trying to compete against Janet Snyder is just futile,” Steele said. “It can’t be done. And I consider myself a pretty decent DJ. But she’s just too good.”
“Should I go with the black dress or the sparkly dress?”
It’s one day before the sold-out Kissmas Bash, where Snyder would be co-hosting onstage and conducting on-camera backstage interviews with Thicke and two other performers, former “American Idol” winner Adam Lambert and 17-year-old heartthrob Shawn Mendes.
For Snyder, this is like a prom, one where (performers aside) she’s guaranteed to be queen, and not just because of the carefully selected dress. At WKSE, she’s now the sole female deejay. Around the country, she’s one of a few women who are the lead morning show hosts.
“Janet was definitely a pioneer,” said her college friend Tom Poleman, whose position as president of national programming for iHeartMedia makes him one of the most influential executives in the music business. (Snyder doesn’t work for Poleman, though as a student he was her program director when they worked together in college radio.)
Women in lead morning host positions is still “rare in any format, but it’s happening more and more, which is great,” said Poleman, adding, “Janet is one of those people that has led the industry in that direction.”
By Snyder’s recollection, she was the first woman in the country to hold a lead morning host position on a top 40 format station when she started.
By the way, when did she start?
Snyder, sitting in an armchair at Starbucks and wearing a cream cashmere sweater and jeans frayed at the knee, allows a sly smile. She knows where this is going. She stops the question with her eyes before she cuts in.
“Don’t ask my age,” she said.
She knows you can discern the number, but she’s not going to assist, and neither the Kiss website nor her LinkedIn page list her dates of graduation or radio employment.
But it’s no secret, thanks to the Internet. And math.
She graduated from Williamsville East in 1983 and Ithaca College in 1987. After beginning her career at WKSE, she leapt to mega-station Z100 in New York City, where she spent the better part of four years as a midday host. Snyder returned to Buffalo in 1992 to raise her family. With Picholas and producer Wease, she’s been a morning mainstay since the mid-’90s, save for a two-year period when Nick took a job in Toronto.
She added her television role with WGRZ in 2010; by then, her kids were old enough where her days as a homeroom mom and carpool driver were mostly in the past.
“I’m as old as you think I am or as young as you think I am,” she said. “I would say back to you, ‘Who asks a woman their age?’ ”
Snyder has waged war on aging, and not just through her refusal to say the actual number aloud or share the ages of her young-adult children, William, Kristen and Patrick. She has a personal trainer and works out six days a week, including 30 minutes on the step-climbing machine. “No one likes the stepper,” she said. “From a girl’s standpoint, it’s great for your butt.”
She studies fashion. She stays on trend. Snyder’s television dresses are provided by Tony Walker & Co. of Williamsville and, like the ones she wears to events like Kissmas Bash and emceeing gigs, tend to be form fitting. “If I’m going to work out six days a week, you’re right I’m going to wear a figure-flattering dress,” she said. “I’m proud of being fit and healthy.”
With that comes criticism – mostly social-media noise and office chatter – and Snyder has heard it: She doesn’t dress her age. Picholas counters this by saying Snyder dresses for “a personality and not for an age.” In a phone interview, their former colleague Steele’s voice teetered on edgy: “If she lived in LA, no one would even say a word about this,” Steele said. “So what’s the difference – geography? Please, give me a break.”
Snyder looks at it this way: Want to take shots at her for being on trend? Fashionable? Youthful?
Your criticism is a compliment.
“Go ahead,” she said. “I love it. I feed the beast. It doesn’t bother me at all.”
She has limits, guided in part by taste and in part because she has kids who don’t need to see their mom wearing dresses with deep necklines or backlines. So, she covers up. Take that black dress she chose for Kissmas Bash: It had a high halter neckline with sheer sleeves. Coupled with boots that extended above her thigh, and only a peek of skin was visible.
“I think there’s appropriate and inappropriate, but to dress a certain age?” Snyder said. “For real, till the day I die, I’m going to fight aging and keep a young-minded spirit about me.”
In a gold frame on a flower-patterned wall inside the East Amherst home of Paul and Marie Snyder hangs a portrait of their five children as young adults: son Paul and daughters Kathy, Sue, Sandy and Janet. Four of the five Snyder kids have dark hair and are wearing tops of whites, grays and cream. One – Janet – is blond and wearing a sky-blue shirt.
When baby Janet Snyder entered the world – 18 years before the year she graduated from high school – the doctor looked to Marie Snyder. Janet was the family’s fourth child. “You know, Marie,” the doctor said, “this one is different.”
He was referring to Janet’s blue eyes and light hair, the product of her father Paul’s German bloodlines. (The other four Snyder kids’ darker hair presumably traces to Marie’s Lebanese ancestry.)
That doctor was more prescient that he probably realized.
The Snyder kids were born into privilege. Their father is a self-made businessman who founded and later sold Freezer Queen, the NBA’s Buffalo Braves and Darien Lake theme park. Today, his Snyder Corp. owns an array of businesses in hospitality and health care, including the downtown Hyatt Regency Buffalo and the Biggest Loser Resort in Java.
Still, they all worked as teens, “and we all work full time now,” Janet pointed out. The Snyder kids gained a strong competitive spirit from their parents that, Janet said, means “winning, period, in everything you do.”
“You should see the Easter egg hunt,” said Janet, sitting in the airy white kitchen where her parents listen to her every morning on a Bose radio over a breakfast of fruit salad and toast with peanut butter. “It’s as close to full contact as an Easter egg hunt can be. There’s a golden egg. You want to find the golden egg at this house. All bets are off.”
Paul and Marie Snyder insisted their children work for anything they wanted. This is where Janet’s differences emerged. The Snyder kids were teens or college-age when their dad was building up Darien Lake, and they all worked at the theme park. Younger Paul drove a sanitary truck. The other girls worked in food service or similar jobs that taught them the value of doing gritty, often unglamorous work.
She was the star of Darien Lake’s country western show.
“She really used me to get that job – I didn’t think she sang that well or danced that well,” said her father, his dry sense of humor running thick. “But she was the star of the show, and she was cocky and smart and independent. …
“Everybody gave Janet a hard time because she had the fluffy deal,” he added, “but it forced her to learn how to hold her own with everyone else, and that’s good.”
His daughter’s individual path became even clearer when she chose a college. Her siblings each went to Cornell University’s hospitality school, following in their father’s line of work. She went to Ithaca College. Her initial goal was to study advertising, but then she discovered broadcasting. When her mom and dad were driving to the college to visit their daughter on parents weekend, they heard a familiar voice on the car radio.
“Paul,” said Marie, “is that Janet?”
The path was set. Janet had joined WVBR-FM, a commercial station run by students from Cornell University along with a few crossovers, like Snyder, from nearby Ithaca College. She spent day and night in a work-hard, play-hard atmosphere with her fellow DJs and their program director, the now-iHeartMedia executive Tom Poleman, who was then a student too.
“She always had star qualities,” said Poleman, explaining that Snyder had an inherent ability “to connect,” to sit alone in a room with nothing but a microphone but talk as if she were surrounded by friends.
“You can always tell when somebody is going to have a future, and somebody who’s probably not going to do this very long,” he said. “She immediately took to it and you could hear the star quality immediately.”
Radio studios are famously cramped and cluttered. The Kiss 98.5 studio is more spacious than many, even with an empty red hot tub (the remnant of a promotion from long ago) stationed near the door.
For Snyder, Picholas and their producer Wease, this studio – and more so, the show they create from it – is “a safe space.” They’re equally comfortable holding a Star Wars-style light saber “competition,” with callers buzzing their lips like the Luke Skywalker weapon, as they are with holding a serious forum on Buffalo’s heroin problem, opining on politics and development, or raising money for charities. (Their Kiss Cares for Kids Radiothon raises thousands each spring for Women & Children’s Hospital of Buffalo.)
“She embraces all the things about Buffalo, whether it be snow, whether it be, ‘Gosh, we put pretty lights on the bridge rather than building a new bridge,’ ” said O’Neil, the program director. “She always brings a positive spin, which is so refreshing right now.”
Snyder’s motherly instincts play out here too. Last summer, when a group of about a dozen girls converged in studio to celebrate the boy band One Direction’s concert at Ralph Wilson Stadium, one of them burst into tears when a friend happened to call in and win meet-and-greet passes. It’s easy to write that off as an overdramatic teen meltdown. Snyder knows better, and was in the hallway comforting the girl, far away from the microphones.
The co-hosts protect that safe space. Picholas rarely spoke into the microphone about the death of both his parents last year. Or Snyder, who will readily put her family members on air, never spoke about her divorce a year and a half ago from longtime husband Will Kelly, whom she met in college and describes as a “good man” and “a great father.”
It’s too personal, too invasive.
“That wasn’t easy for me to live through,” Snyder said. “There were bad days. There were some really sucky, sucky days, and I wanted my kids to come out of it OK …
“You try to do the best you can. But it’s not something I would talk about on the air.”
In her private life – the unbranded life, the one that few people outside her co-hosts and family truly know – Snyder describes herself as quiet and shy. She slipped out of Kissmas Bash early, beating the traffic and evading any club-scene after parties. Instead, Snyder headed for the suburbs, parking herself in front of a plate of French fries and fried pickles at Buffalo Brewpub in Williamsville. A woman saw her and said, “Didn’t you go to the show?”
That happens a lot. Snyder is too Buffalo famous to go anywhere anonymously, which complicates her desire to have “somebody to share my life with.” She demurs on any talk of dating or relationships except to say, “Someone amazing needs to come into my life.” That someone, she said, needs to be OK with the scrutiny. She needs someone who is “Perfect,” Snyder said, then reconsiders. Perfect is impossible.
“Close to perfect,” she said.
Snyder knows that won’t happen easily. It’ll probably take time, and though she seems OK with that, it’s hard to know for sure. Some aspects of Snyder – her youthful mindset, passion for fitness, bubbly public persona – are there for both the taking and raking. Other parts of her life – age and love, chiefly – are left open for interpretation. Not only by the rest of us, but for her too.
“I look forward to the next chapter of my life and finding that happiness again,” she said. “To be shy, be private, and rebuild my life and be public? It’s hard.”
It’s easier to handle broadcast banter, fangirling tweens and pop stars like Thicke, whose interview became an easy mix of playful and thoughtful. “You should insure your hair – your hair has got good flow,” Snyder said, moments before asking, “What humbles you?”
“Everything. Humanity,” Thicke said. “I count my blessings every morning before I get out of bed.”
“It’s like, ‘hashtag blessed,’ ” Snyder offered.
“Oh please, I’m very grateful, always,” Thicke said. “And because I made it much later in my life” – he was 24 when his first album dropped – “I was able to become grounded long before.”
Oooh. Thicke, not quite 40, injected age. Snyder cut in. “Because you’re so old?” she said. “What are you talking about?”
Nothing she’ll talk about. Snyder has her brand, and she’ll be a pioneer, but only one that’s ageless.