Career Capsule: I’m deep into my 4th decade in broadcasting which began when I was in high school at a 500 watt AM radio station in my hometown in West Texas. My pony league baseball coach owned the local radio station, and it was obvious to all that I wasn’t going to be an elite ballplayer. One could say that the curveball made a disc jockey out of me. My first PD gig was when I was still in college in Abilene, Texas. From there I went to my first “big” station KEEL in Shreveport, then on to major markets like Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Seattle, and then back home to Dallas-Ft. Worth. It was at The Oasis in Dallas where I really began learning what programming was about when Alan Mason walked into my life to help develop what became a top 4 ranked station playing music few people had heard before. Since everyone’s favorite station is the station that plays their favorite music the principles we implemented in Dallas have been foundational in developed top performing Christian stations that play music that isn’t that familiar to the broader audience.
John, tell us what’s new with you… etc?
Obviously the coronavirus and the racial unrest have changed our lives in significant ways. I am very honored to be working with great Christian radio stations during times such as these. People are looking for hope. People are looking to escape the negativity. People need to have a perspective that isn’t so myopic based on today’s social media and political partisanship.
How is the current crisis an “opportunity” for Christian Radio?
We need to ponder what we are learning about our radio station that wasn’t as clear before the pandemic.
Over the last few months I’ve personally witnessed dozens of stations embracing this struggle. You know what? They are better radio stations because of it.
If you think your radio station is only about songs and deejays and unfamiliar music, you’ll never understand how to connect with what people are feeling today.
One of the things I’m learning is that when we get outside “our lane” we are noticeably irrelevant. In other words, when we start doing a bunch of stuff that no one comes to us for we lose our impact. * It’s bad enough to be talking about National Pie Day (that’s 3.14, don’t cha know?) in ordinary times, but in these times we sound foolish.
After the Coronavirus pandemic passes, what do you think will be the lasting effects (changes) if any to Christian Radio?
I think we’ve been forced to learn how technology can help us be productive in these situations. Whether it is broadcasting from home, team shows being separated at different locations, telecommuting with Teams and Zoom, or sharing station events or concerts on line, the pandemic has forced us to innovate.
Maybe we’ve learned that the talent hasn’t been trained to talk effectively about difficult topics within the perimeters of your station’s purpose.
Maybe we’ve learned that we haven’t built up relationships with African-American churches/communities to be able to tap into their perspective and wisdom that would help us come together as believers, and model behavior to the world. One of the first songs I learned to play on the guitar was, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” A good thought for today, don’t cha think?
What is the best special advice you can give to air talent during this crisis?
Great radio is hard work.
We know what our format is NOT. We’re not about dividing people. We’re not about stirring up controversy. We’re not about drawing attention with alarming BREAKING NEWS alerts. We know that we should be a unifier of people of faith.
But, gosh, it’s tough sometimes.
But you know what? I’ve heard some remarkable radio recently. I’ve heard honesty. I’ve heard compassion. I’ve heard self-reflection of our own thoughts, behaviors, and prejudices.
Great radio is hard work. But it can happen when you have a highly developed station, you understand your purpose and your focus, and you have seasoned talent trained over time for such a moment as this.
What part does a stations imaging etc, play in this crisis?
Effective imaging plays a key role in connecting the station’s purpose to the listeners’ needs. In times of crisis stations should seek opportunities to “put your flag in the ground”, declaring why your station exists. Hearing listener voices helps establish the shared experience; we’re in this together and we’ll get through this together. Imaging can provide a dynamic range of laughter to tears that helps humanize the listening experience.
Some say more Christian stations in a market the better, do you agree with that, why or why not?
From the standpoint of Kingdom work I wish all stations were Christian. From the standpoint of competition I’ve seen numerous situations where competition makes the incumbent station better. The Fish in Atlanta and KLTY in Dallas-Ft. Worth are examples of that. They’ve never sounded better. From the standpoint of specific ministries or businesses redundant formats clearly siphon quarter hours and donors away from each other impacting their business model. I’ve seen situations where a new station in the format moves into a market and drops the existing station out of the top 5 in ratings, maybe even out of the top 10. The incumbent station is obviously impacted by loss of revenue and the new station isn’t able to garner the donor support desired because of the splintering of the audience. In my opinion the best scenario would be for multiple stations in a market to offer different flavors of Christian music so that a broader spectrum of people could be impacted. My good friends at Z88.3 in Orlando do that with their array of formats; Hispanic, Hip Hop and Pop, Rock, Gospel, Worship and Retro, all under one ministry umbrella.
All are available on line and several can be heard on local FM translators.
In your opinion, where will future Christian radio air talent come from?
I wish I had a pithy answer for this challenge, but I don’t. Great communicators are rare in any profession. I’ve learned that it is easier to find great communicators and teach them radio than it is to find radio people who are great communicators. That’s our own fault. We should have been nurturing and coaching talent early on, like I was fortunate to have even when I was on air as a teenager.
As executive producer of “Keep The Faith” for the last ten years, I’ve had a front row seat to process of finding great communicators and providing for them a stage in our format. Amazing communicators like Matthew West, Andy Andrews, Max Lucado, Tim Storey, and Amy Grant weave their stories into songs that can help transform lives. I’m less concerned with the zip code of the communicator and more concerned about the impact of the station on the listener’s life. My bottom line for content is “Does it add value?”
Who are your radio heroes and influences? and why?
I was so fortunate to be around some great radio pros from the start of my career. Before I ever went to college I had worked with guys with major market experience. I was only 21 when I got my first PD gig. Obviously I didn’t really know much but it began the process of soaking up what seasoned pros could teach me. My first “big” station was 50,000 watt KEEL in Shreveport, Louisiana, a station I grew up listening to. There I was mentored by Howard Clark who had worked for Bill Drake, one of the creators of Top 40 radio. While at KEEL I also worked with the legendary J. Paul Huddleston, who had been Robert W. Morgan’s newsman at KHJ in Los Angeles for over a decade. J. Paul frequently conducted training seminars for the talent and I soaked up his every word.
The biggest transformation for me as a programmer was when Alan Mason and I were teamed up to develop The Oasis in Dallas, a Smooth Jazz station that would ultimately reach top 4 in Adults 25-54. Alan introduced me to strategic concepts that fundamentally changed the way I thought about programming. Instead of thinking of programming as simply songs and deejays and contests he taught me the importance of meaningful brand values like Apple, Starbucks, Harley-Davidson, and BMW. Albert Einstein said, “Once you’ve been exposed to a higher level of thinking you can’t go back.”
Another person who transformed my career was Bud Paxson, the creator of the Home Shopping Network. I would later join Alan Mason and Tommy Kramer in working for Bud at corporate giving us an invaluable broader perspective working with all 47 stations, extremely valuable training for what I’m doing now. Because Bud was a devout Christian Alan and I tried to convince him to develop Christian radio stations. Those conversations led to Bud tithing our services to WAY-FM, the local Christian station. Later I was hired to relaunch a former Paxson station in Jacksonville we named The Promise. I spent many hours driving up I-95 from West Palm Beach to Jacksonville and eavesdropping on Z88.3 in Orlando. Eager to learn as much about the format as quickly as I could I reconnected with my old friend Dean O’Neal who I had worked with at Paxson Orlando, and he invited me to stop by and meet his GM Jim Hoge and talk to their team. That was 20 years ago. What a great adventure it continues to be!