Career Capsule: My first foray into radio was in 1974 as an intern on a show called “Come Together” on WTWB, Auburndale, FL. The host of that show, Jim Campbell (now President of Radio Training Network) later went on to start WCIE/Lakeland, FL; WLFJ/Greenville, SC; WJIS/Sarasota, FL and many other RTN stations. In 1976, while at Florida State University, I worked at WCVC/Tallahassee, FL until I graduated. I then worked for WCIE in Lakeland, starting out as evening host and eventually becoming station manager. In 1989, I went to work for K-LOVE in Santa Rosa, CA for three years till I left to join KBIQ and The Word in Music Satellite Network in Colorado Springs, CO. In 1996 I came here to KSBJ, where I’m currently the Senior Director of Mentoring.
Jon, Tell us what’s new with KSBJ… news, changes, & with YOU… etc?
In more than 20 years at KSBJ, I can say that I’ve never been as excited to be working here as I am right now. KSBJ continues to grow, do more things, and reach more listeners. We signed on a new full-power FM here in Houston (KXNG) for NGEN Radio last August. Between KSBJ and NGEN, we’re reaching about a million different listeners every week! At the beginning of May we conducted our first “Power Drive” (fundraiser) on the Houston NGEN signal and the results were better than we could have hoped for. We’re bursting at the seams staff-wise, so we’re looking at building a new facility in the next five years. We’ve been given a pretty sweet parcel of land in a new development and are very excited about the possibility of relocation. In my mentoring capacity here, I’m watching us come alongside more and more Christian broadcasters and walk them through the challenges associated with reaching more listeners. We’re helping with strategic initiatives, fundraising, talent & leadership coaching, programming and production – just about every discipline a CCM station deals with on a regular basis. Our mentoring is divided pretty evenly among domestic and international CCM stations. Still, I end up traveling more than 100,000 miles every year. We’ve just begun a project with a 50+ year-old international partner we’re very excited about. We’re also about to announce something brand-new that will make mentoring available to every CCM station on the planet. I’d love to tell you what it is, but we’re saving the big reveal for CMB Momentum in September.
What are some unique characteristics you’ve discovered about your market?
Geographically, Houston is the fourth largest city in the U.S. We’re pretty spread-out. The challenge has always been about strategically serving an audience who may live hours away from another member of the same audience. Houston is now the most ethnically-diverse city in the country with more than 130 different languages and dialects spoken. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times suggests that, by 2050, America will look a lot like Houston does today – an international hodgepodge of people living in the same area (even if not all in the same neighborhoods.) As a radio station that seeks to serve ALL of these listeners well, we’re constantly looking for ways to engage, and build deeper relationships. Our prayer outreach, commitment to community involvement, and work to care for people outside the four-walls of a church are things we do to try and reach more than 6.5 million Houstonians every week. Even with all of this geographic and ethnic diversity – people are still looking for hope and someone that will really care for them. Our mission is to point them to Christ, the real solution to their needs.
What is the best programming advice you’ve been given?
I’m blessed to have learned from some of most gifted Christian music broadcasters in History. I hope I will continue to do that. Every day I come back to something I learned from Brad Burkhart. He taught me how to become a student of my listener – the person I’m trying to engage. By knowing that person well, and programming a station based on their desires (rather than my desires) I’ll do a better job of reaching them. Eventually, their desires become my desires. It seems like such a simple thing. Believe me, it’s not.
Some say more Christian stations in a market the better, do you agree with that, why or why not?
I think this is one of those questions that has one answer in theory and quite another one in practice. While we’d like to think that having more stations in a market will cause everyone to win, I’ve found that NOT to be true in most cases. It hardly ever works well – particularly when the new station signs-on doing basically the same format as an existing station. The audience becomes fragmented, and while they may listen to more than one station, they’ll always choose their favorite to engage with. I don’t blame them. Unfortunately, this shift in engagement often includes the listeners’ financial support, so one station ends up siphoning cume, TSL, and money from the other. I haven’t seen the “rising tide” I hear touted from many pundits “floating” the financial boat of all of the stations. It certainly can, but it takes a very rare situation for that to work. So, I would generally disagree with the premise that more CCM stations in a market is a good thing.
What is the ONE thing you must have every day to do your job?
Since I travel so much, a strong relationship with my wife Karen. Without her loving, prayerful support I couldn’t do what I do. I’m also very thankful for a visionary leader at KSBJ who sees the potential of what we do and works hard to make it a reality. Tim McDermott has been my friend and supporter for more than two decades.
Where will future Christian radio air talent come from?
This is a reality with many of the stations we mentor. While Christian radio will always produce some of the next generation from within (through internships and passionate workers who’ve paid their dues) much of the talent pool is now being found outside our industry. We’re hiring quite a few new ‘stars’ from general market radio. There are a lot of talented people who would love to leave the rat-race they’ve been used to. I’m also finding that there are some pretty talented people who’ve never considered working in radio. One of the stations we mentor (WRVL, The Journey in Lynchburg, VA) conducted an area-wide talent search for a morning show co-host. A year later, The Morning Journey with Kenny and Leigh began to see both ratings and listener engagement increase exponentially. Passionate communicators can be found in a lot of different places. AC radio consultant Mike McVay told me that he never hesitated to give his business card to a restaurant server or someone he met behind the counter who impressed him as having potential. There are quite a few people who may have never dreamed of working at your station who might be just right with the proper training and prayer support.
Generally speaking to the industry what are the biggest obstacles facing Christian radio?
I can’t accurately rank these by size, but in my work I see these ten almost every day. I’ll list them in no particular order, because they’re all important.
– Christian radio has to fight to stay focused on deeply engaging listeners despite all of the other things that masquerade as being more important.
– Talent coaching is crucial, but something that many stations struggle to prioritize.
– We say yes to way too many things. We need to learn how to say no. There’s a big difference between a good thing and a God thing.
– Fundraising is getting harder and harder. Listeners are saturated and have become wary of the hype that’s often used to leverage their giving. This is a very dangerous slope.
– Hardly any station has the budget for proper promotions and marketing. Just being on the air is not enough to get people to listen. You have to approach them, woo them, and keep them.
– Everyone is busy. Radio personnel are still wearing too many hats, and often sacrifice quality in the process. Listeners are time-starved, have more demands, and won’t listen to a station as frequently (or as long) as they once did.
– Vision isn’t taking the prominence in decision-making that it used to. I’d love to see stations return to following the passionate vision God gave them.
– I see more and more radio stations being led by people who don’t really understand radio. While there’s a very real business side to radio, it can’t simply be run as a business. There’s art and nuance and creativity that helps differentiate us from other brands. Without that, we’re simply a commodity people consume. “Real” radio folk understand that.
– In an effort to reach more people, I think many stations are actually delivering less. A lot of us don’t put as much spiritual salt in the stew as we used to. I think I understand why, because prioritizing ministry content can sometimes feel like a barrier to listening. I believe that’s an obstacle worth overcoming because at the end of the day our work ought to be done for the sake of the Gospel.
– I find that radio stations often invest too much time on things that have very little payoff. When we major on things listeners haven’t really hired us to do we waste valuable time and resources. As a result, listener engagement suffers.
Who are your radio heroes and influences? and why?
I have quite a few, but recently I’ve branched out from focusing on radio heroes to thinking more about great spiritual influencers. I love John Piper because he continues to remind me that God’s glory is both my greatest aim and highest joy. I appreciate Tim Challies and the way he stretches me in my biblical thinking. Charles Spurgeon has become a favorite down through the years for his courage and willingness to boldly challenge the sin in my heart. Here in Houston, I benefit from Richard Caldwell’s teaching at my home church. It’s rich, and I always leave the services wanting to dig deeper. I need people in my life who remind me I don’t have to water down the Gospel in order to make the message more palatable to a lost generation. The Gospel will always be an offense to some. There’s not much I can do about that. I just don’t want to add to that offense through sloppy exegesis or poor presentation.