Career Capsule: I’ve spent almost 35 years doing my best to serve the Christian public (a very underserved audience, in my opinion).
While in college completing my marketing degree, I began working as a music buyer in a Christian bookstore. That led me on a 12-year journey in the Christian music business working for companies like Diadem, Benson, and Word Music.
I held several roles within these companies, from sales rep to marketing manager to director of operations. While at Word Music, we were distributing a kids’ brand called VeggieTales. There was a job opening in their consumer products department and I joined that team for three years.
During that time, I had the privilege of working on their first feature film, Jonah … A VeggieTales Movie. That gave me a taste of the film and home entertainment space. While my first love has (and continues to be) music, I saw God’s hand leading me to begin expanding my horizons in how I share Christ with the world.
My next stop was working with Max Lucado (at Thomas Nelson Publishers) on his kids’ brand, Hermie & Friends. One of my career highlights was getting to work with Tim Conway and Don Knotts, who were voice characters for Hermie. Shortly after these years in the kids’ business, I stepped fulltime into film marketing, where I began working on a movie called Fireproof with two brothers out of Southwest Georgia named Stephen and Alex Kendrick.
During that season, I not only worked on their marketing teams, I also began developing consumer goods for them, publishing products, and agenting their New York Times best-selling book, The Love Dare. That led to many years of partnership with the Kendricks, along with other filmmakers, including Jon and Andy Erwin (I Can Only Imagine, I Still Believe).
In 2009, I felt God leading me to start my own company, The Working Title Agency (WTA). We had four primary goals in serving creative people. First, we marketed great products. Second, we helped great product find distribution to the consumer. Third, we worked with creatives in developing publishing/ancillary products around their core product. And last, we ran a small venture-capital fund that invested primarily in the making and marketing of faith-based films.
During the WTA years, we had the privilege of being involved with such films as Unbroken: The Path to Redemption (produced with Universal Pictures) and Run the Race (co-produced with Tim Tebow). In 2019, EMF and WTA came to an agreement that we’d be better together, helping both organizations achieve their goals more efficiently and effectively. I’ve had the honor of being at EMF since July 2019 and am now in my fourth year.
Bill, tell us what’s new at EMF … any news, changes etc… and what’s new with YOU?
It’s an exciting and challenging time at EMF. On the exciting side of things, you may have heard we’re moving EMF’s headquarters from Rocklin, CA, to Franklin, TN. We’re also growing EMF’s ministry reach by building new media channels in podcasting, live events, film, book publishing and audio/video streaming, all while continuing to grow and make significant investments in our two radio networks (K-LOVE and Air1).
On the challenging side of things, we are experiencing the inevitable disruption that comes with a cross-country relocation. As we move, we are saying goodbye to some incredible people in California, all while watching God bring us talented new team members in Tennessee. With those changes come natural challenges. And like many others in Christian radio, we are navigating the challenges of this tough economy. But just as God has done with EMF throughout the past 40 years, we are seeing His faithfulness time and time again.
How do you balance work & family, how important is it for someone in Christian Radio to ‘have a life”?
This might be a better question for my wife … HAHA. Like so many of your readers, I love what I do. It’s sometimes hard to find the balance when so much of what I do is my life’s ministry. But we have a few habits in our household that help us with this.
First, my wife and I have a meal out together at least once a week, just the two of us. Second, my one son who is still at home travels with us a lot. Third, several years ago we started honoring the Sabbath and continue to do so. From sunset Saturday evening to sunset Sunday evening, I do no ‘normal’ work. I’ve worked hard to instill this culture at EMF as well. Scripture makes it very clear that this is important to God, so it should be important to us. Lastly, I binge The Andy Griffith Show when I need a break from life’s hectic pace.
Overall, what is the best advice you can give regarding acquiring, and adding new stations?
Have Joe Miller on your team! If you don’t know Joe, he’s our acquisition genius. And as my predecessor Mike Novak once said, Joe is EMF’s secret weapon on the radio side. Now all that said, we also have a great Sig-Ex team that involves a lot of experienced people, and some new faces, that sit together every 10 days and discuss the opportunities in front of us. I couldn’t do this alone and I am grateful for all the voices and minds in those meetings.
What’s something you’ve learned due to the pandemic, about Christian Radio, that you didn’t know before?
I don’t know that what I’ll share is new news, but the pandemic affirmed something I think we all believe to be true of Christian radio … it’s a lighthouse of hope amidst a sea of darkness.
In the initial pandemic year alone, we answered close to 500,000 prayer request calls from our listeners. Our pastors and prayer team were INUNDATED with requests for help from people who needed to take their hurts to The Lord. On a national level, we were able to come alongside the hurting and point them to Christ for hope, truth and emotional healing.
What are your thoughts on K-LOVE and Air1 not being “local”.. and what would you say to a station with EMF in their market & competing with K-LOVE or Air1?
With regard to the ‘localization’ question, we do spend time trying to make sure our product can be the best it can be for Suzy in Sacramento, Nancy in New York and Marco in Miami. And we will occasionally ask ourselves if we could do localization better. As you know, we do provide localization with news break-ins, local underwriting spots, etc. But I think people wonder sometimes why we don’t do local weather or traffic, and they wonder if we’ll ever have local drive-time shows.
Well, the answer is pretty simple. That’s just not what we are called to do at this time. We see the value of it. We understand why it matters. But we feel pretty strongly at this time that there are other options that provide local answers much better than we can, from weather apps to traffic apps to other Christian radio in the market. We choose to spend our time/resources on making the product the best it can be in other ways.
With regard to stations ‘competing’ with K-LOVE/Air1 in their local markets, I’d probably start by saying if anyone thinks we’re competing, the paradigm is wrong. I’ve been asked this question many times, and most times there’s an implication that it’s bad for there to be more than one Christian radio station in a market. But I just don’t see it that way. I could certainly make the comparison of regions having large churches and small churches in the same market. Both are needed.
If we expand our thinking beyond our own Christian culture and look at the broader media world around us, there’s more than one country, pop and sports-talk station in most markets. And they’re singing/talking about things that are nowhere near as important as the music Christian radio plays. I think we should be considering how we can partner together on things like community events, concerts and church outreach.
For example, EMF formed a format partnership with our good friend Sandy Brown at Joy-FM in St Louis and we broadcast Boost in many of our K-LOVE/Air1 markets. We all set aside our personal kingdom building to work on building the more important Kingdom.
Regarding the EMF move to Nashville, whats the latest, what’s still left to move, what challenges are you facing?
The building process has finally begun. We broke ground early this summer and the foundation/grading/etc. is beginning now. All of our building permits have been issued by the City of Franklin, and we’re officially off to the races.
We are still relocating team members from Rocklin. If you know anything about Nashville, it’s one of the fastest growing cities in America. Because of that, we faced challenges with housing, for example. So, we made the strategic decision to move our Rocklin staff in phases. Phases 1 and 2 are complete, and we’ll finish Phase 3 in early 2024 as we complete the building and move in.
I alluded to some of the challenges already, but our main obstacles are staff transition and cost increases. On the people side of things, we have a great Human Resources team helping support the move of more than 100 families. On the cost side of things, inflation is no respecter of man. We feel it like any other business, but we have world-class contractors working with us and they’re doing a great job helping keep costs under control.
Generally speaking to the industry what are the biggest obstacles facing Christian radio today?
I’m not sure I could lay out anything new that hasn’t been discussed and opined on countless times. So, I won’t regurgitate the same ole’ things again. But for folks who have been kind enough to read this far, one thing I would encourage them to consider is the example of Christian retail. I spent many years of my career around Christian retail. I saw it at its peak, and I saw quite a bit of it come to an end.
I see a lot of parallels between Christian retail and Christian radio … with one distinct exception. Christian radio has done a MUCH BETTER job of facing the challenges ahead and working together to pivot to healthier ways of doing business. Christian retail did not. Many retailers buried their head in the sand and responded as though they were victims of the ever-changing retail environment. Most of those retailers are gone. The ones who survived are strong and continue to lead the way.
I see Christian radio facing a lot of changes in the audio environment, but I see our industry working hard (and prayerfully) to address those changes. I want to encourage Christian radio that it’s on the proper trajectory. I think the industry is doing a good job of seeing its way through difficult changes. And EMF will continue to work hard to be on the leading edge of that evolution.
Who are your radio heroes and influences? and why?
I’m going to focus on Christian radio here. If I were to put together my Mount Rushmore of Christian Radio Heroes, there would be four:
Bob Augsburg: When I was 17 years old, I was already a HUGE Christian music fan. I lived in a part of Central Florida where there was no Christian radio. I’ll never forgot one night I was at my uncle’s house and he had a high-end Pioneer receiver … you know … one of those where you could spin the dial and it would just keep going. That night, that receiver picked up a Christian radio station that didn’t sound like anything I had ever heard before. It was a long way from my uncle’s house and it was playing a Russ Taff song called “Walk Between the Lines.” That radio station was WAY-FM out of Ft Myers, FL. While I don’t know Bob personally (and have only met him one time at Joe Battaglia’s wedding), Bob’s influence on my life can’t be overstated. His heart for a younger generation and his programming excellence has inspired me throughout my 35-year career.
Matt Austin: Our industry knows Matt as a leader with CMB and an incredible leader at KCBI in Dallas, along with his history at WAY-FM and country radio in Kentucky before that. But I know Matt differently. Matt and his wife, Denise, were my and Heidi’s (my wife) Sunday School teachers for several years in Nashville. Matt was also the guy that gave me my early education about how Christian radio works. I’ll never forget sitting in his car after a Tennessee Titans game and asking, “So Matt, can you explain to me why I hear the same songs over and over on WAY-FM? It drives me crazy.” Matt’s response was both educational and hysterical. He said, “Bill, I don’t program WAY-FM for you … you’re too old.” And he went on to patiently walk me through the science behind it all. I was hooked. Matt is not just a mentor, he’s a friend.
David Pierce: Yep, this one is a ‘homer.’ A guy within the EMF organization. But there’s no way I can talk about my radio heroes and not speak of him. David’s history is well documented. Early days of KLTY in Dallas and KSBJ in Houston – great stations to this day and places David had early influence. But then, 31 years ago, The Lord led David to a small radio network in northern California. That radio network is now K-LOVE. As head of programming for many years at K-LOVE, David was instrumental in setting the direction that continues to this day under the leadership of our current Chief Content Officer, Jim Houser. But David’s influence on EMF didn’t stop with the airwaves. It permeated the culture of EMF, its people, its policies and its legacy. We joke around the office and call it the “David Pierce Pixie Dust.” And that voice … are you kidding me?!? I was honored when David agreed to stay and work with me through EMF’s evolution from radio-only to radio-plus. But while David’s resume and talent are heavily documented in our industry, I believe David’s greatest gift is his sensitivity to The Lord’s leading … an example we all can follow.
Joe Battaglia: It’s hard to overstate how influential Joe has been to me in my radio journey. Ironically though, Joe and I didn’t meet in the radio world. We met in the movie world marketing many movies together. Joe was one of my consiglieres during my interview process for EMF four years ago. He quietly gave me things to think about as I considered the EMF opportunity, as well as keeping the confidentiality during the whole process. He, like Matt, has shared with me the rich history of Christian radio. And during the past two decades of working together on movies, we have seen the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. And as I continue to learn of his 40-plus years of influence on this industry, I respect him more and more.