Bill Sammons Interview
Pres & CEO The Bridge of Hope, Inc
WKNZ – The Bridge
Career Capsule: Bill got his first taste of radio in 1975 as a high school senior, when a band he was in played on a live, Saturday morning local radio show. He was smitten. A year later, while studying Journalism at Delaware Tech, he started interning with that station’s news department. Since then he’s worked at several radio and TV stations in Delaware and Maryland, spent a few years in advertising and marketing, started a video production company, and owned & operated several commercial radio stations.
In 1990, he helped launch 88.7 The Bridge in Delaware. The station now has 4 frequencies serving DE, MD, South Jersey and the Eastern Shore of VA. Bill serves as GM and co-hosts the morning show. He’s also a board member of CMB.
Bill, tell us what’s new at The Bridge… any news, changes etc… and what’s new with YOU?
The Bridge is continuing to grow and and expand our footprint. We’re adding a new digital content producer in June. This is a new position, and we’re excited to start producing more video content that will be featured online and sometimes repurposed for on-air. We just launched our new website and app, and like everybody else, we’re trying to make sure we are on whatever medium our listeners are using. 2021 was our best year ever financially, and the spring ratings showed us #1 TSA, 6+. God is blessing and using The Bridge.
How do you balance work & family, how important is it for someone in Christian Radio to ‘have a life”?
It has been a big challenge for me to find that balance, especially in the first years of starting The Bridge. We had no cash, no listeners, and only a couple people on staff full time. I was the station manager, morning show co-host, and did anything and everything required to make the station successful.
A couple of years ago, our board started talking about a succession plan and we were able to hire Jeff Twilley as our VP of Operations and Technology. Jeff had many years of experience in commercial radio, and in fact, was the engineer that put us on the air pro bono in 2010. He now runs the station day to day, and that has taken an incredible amount of load of me. I am now able to leave the station in the early afternoon (I still co-host mornings) and have a life, as you say.
We recently had Jimmy Dodd, founder and executive director of PastorServe.org here to speak to a group of pastors. He said the most common question he gets is “how do I balance ministry and family?” His answer: it’s all ministry. And our families should be first in line when we minister. We’ll always have a long list of things to do and people to call, but we need to remember Jesus didn’t heal everybody in town. And he went away and rested and prayed and served his circle. Why should we be any different? That means if your daughter has a softball game at 4pm, you need to leave work at 3 to attend the game and do it without guilt because it is part of your ministry. It might be you need to come in early tomorrow, but don’t forget that everything is ministry, and your family is first in line. Good advice.
What is the one accomplishment you’re most satisfied with in your career?
The Bridge is without a doubt the one accomplishment I am most proud of. I’ve worked at commercial country, rock, all-news, MOR and CCM stations, but The Bridge was my first foray into non-commercial radio. I was very nervous about having to rely on donations to pay the bills. When I owned the two commercial CCM stations in the 1990’s, I could grab a rate card on slow months and help sell some accounts. Non-commercial radio had no safety net, in my mind. But now that I’ve done it for over 11 years, I think it is the best way to do Christian radio.
I don’t have to be beholden to advertisers and treat our listeners like a product for sale. Instead, I can super serve the listener and spend my time focused on our mission rather than increasing sales. The most amazing thing about The Bridge, though, is the team that God has assembled here. To a person, they are beyond talented and gifted at what they do and we truly have something special going on. No drama. Just true servants that focus on mission and serving and loving our listeners. I have never experienced culture like we have at The Bridge, and we work hard every day to protect it. The station is thriving and every day I pray to God that I don’t mess it up.
What’s something you’ve learned about Christian Radio due to the pandemic, that you didn’t know before?
Can I pick a few things instead of one? First, I’d say I was reminded of how personal and important Christian radio is to people. I’ve always talked about how radio goes to places where people sometimes can’t like hospital rooms, prisons, and bedrooms of lonely or distraught people in the middle of the night. Add to that list the homes of people who are otherwise cut off from human contact and encouragement during a pandemic.
The second thing I learned was less appealing. I learned that we’re not as important or as much of a priority to people as I thought (or maybe hoped) we were. People spent less time in their cars commuting to and from work, and that meant less people were listening to us. With radios inside homes being increasingly scarce, people turned to other media sources. We all felt that. When I started in radio in 1976, AM had more listeners than FM in our market. And though I never saw ratings books, I bet our share was astronomical because there just wasn’t much competition.
Today the competition for our listeners seems endless, and I knew some listeners would trickle away to listen to satellite or their own playlists, etc. But that really accelerated because of the pandemic, and I was surprised at how many people turned to other forms of media. And I wonder how many will return.
Having said that, the other thing I learned was how loyal our audience is. It seems like a contradiction. But one month into the shut-downs, we decided to cancel our spring fundraiser. The listeners helped us meet our budget anyway. We even raised the funds to purchase a new signal in one day the following fall. So while some are wandering away and listening to us less, I think most of them still value us being in the community and they’re willing to support that financially.
Reflecting on changes you’ve seen in the industry over the years what is one that you feel had the most impact on Christian Radio?
Again with making me choose one! There are so many things that have changed over the years, but one thing that I think changed the trajectory of radio is the 80-90 Docket that the FCC implemented in the 1980’s, and the main studio rule changes made about that same time. The intent of the 80-90 Docket was to open up hundreds of new frequencies, mostly Class A stations, in smaller markets, so that communities could be better served by local radio.
I am being somewhat of a hypocrite for criticizing that move because that was how I was able to obtain a frequency, and bootstrap my first station. When combined with the rule change that relaxed the main studio rules, the landscape of radio started changing. As hometown stations started being programmed from other towns, radio started losing its flavor, and in my opinion, its soul. Consolidation meant savings for the corporations buying up stations, and big business moved from the major markets to medium and small markets. Radio became homogenized and frankly, often no fun to listen to. Perhaps talking about lost dogs and reading obituaries isn’t good radio – but that evolved into stations not alerting their listeners about the impending blizzard, or helping them mourn when a tragedy occurs…because the jocks are in another city, and maybe on several frequencies in far away places.
I’m not casting dispersion on networks and groups and big companies owning hundreds of radio stations. Some of them are doing great radio and many of them are my friends! And our format is reaching more people today than any of us would have imagined possible 20-years ago. But I really miss the days when most radio stations were local and were an important part of most peoples routines. We diluted our product, and then when other forms of competition came along, our product was diluted even more. When something is diluted too much, it loses its flavor and people don’t want to consume it.
On air talent has always been at the heart of Christian Radio, where do you think the future personalities will be found?
We’ve had great success finding talent in local churches. My morning show co-host, Denise Harper, grew up singing in church and sang professionally for several years (she was a PTL singer when Bebe and Cece were there). When she got married and came off the road from touring, I asked her to voice some production for me, and that turned into a midday shift, and later mornings and she’s done everything from GM to PD with me for the past 31 years. Our afternoon drive host and APD, Mark Dickey, was doing media at a local church. A couple of our weekend hosts are worship leaders at their churches.
I think the skillset required to lead worship, and the skillset required to relate to an audience on the radio, is very similar. That’s not the only place, of course. I was so impressed with the students at CMB University this past fall. Lots of great talent poised to enter our industry. And I always, always, always have my antenna up when I meet people, as to potential future hires. Sometimes I will ask them if they ever considered broadcasting, and sometimes I just file away their name for future reference.
Generally speaking to the industry what are the biggest obstacles facing Christian radio?
I’d say Christian radio’s biggest obstacle today is relevance. We complain about all the competing media sources that are available (I just did a couple paragraphs ago), but truth be told if we were offering something that was wanted, needed, relevant, entertaining, etc., then people would find us and share us and not forget about us.
Who are your radio heroes and influences? and why?
The first person to take an interest in me and encourage me in broadcasting was the news director at the station I interned with in college. His name is Jeff Pringle, and his love for radio and passion for doing it well, were a big influence on me.
Along the way I have crossed paths with a lot of people and any list I offer would invariably leave many people out that have influenced me and helped me. But some that come to my mind are Ed Marzoa, Jason Sharp, Jon Hamilton, Chuck Finney, Paul Martin, Joe Paulo, Frank Reed, Terry Dismore, Jack Eason, Tom Lewis, Randy Bronkema, Todd Stach, the CMB staff and board, and the entire team at The Bridge. Each one of them, and many others, have spoken into my life professionally and personally and are part of my story.
The fact that most of these are Christian broadcasters is perhaps one reason I think our industry is unique and special and will survive. Name another industry where information and ideas are shared freely between organizations so that we can all grow and succeed. “In abundance of counselors, there is victory!” (Proverbs 24:6)