On January 1, 2024, I will no longer be in the broadcasting industry. It feels weird to type that.
It’s been quite a ride, starting at a small AM day timer as a part time board op in 1976 through my last role as founder, station manager and morning show co-host at The Bridge, now a network of 4 full power stations serving Delaware, Maryland, South Jersey and Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
Oh the change I’ve seen.
Radio in the 70’s was fun and magical. Even in the small and medium markets where I worked. Turntables, 45’s, mandatory FCC Third Class Operators Permits (anybody else fail Element 9 the first time?), loud clunky teletype machines with the odorous ink spools and nails in the newsroom to hang the latest copy, studios that doubled as fall out shelters, huge microphones with our call letters in metal, rotary knob consoles, lots of glass, and the big EBS poster with the mysterious envelope we never opened.
After grabbing a Journalism degree in 1977, I entered full time broadcasting as a news reporter. They called me the news director, but I was the only news guy at the station. I was standing next to the UPI machine when the bells started dinging in August of 1977 and I remember being half afraid to look at it. I forget their system but there was a bell when a bulletin came through. The more bells, the more urgent and serious. On this particular day, the bell rang like crazy and I remember wondering what bad news I was about to announce to our listeners. The message was short: ELVIS IS DEAD.
A few months later I parlayed that news story into my first ever paid audio feed to Mutual News as the battle over Elvis’ memorabilia played out in the Delaware courts. I was 20 years old and stringing for Mutual News. Does it get any better than that?
Turns out it does.
After stints at an all news station in Wilmington, DE, I ended up doing reporting and a little anchoring at the CBS-TV affiliate in Salisbury, MD before exiting broadcasting for the world of marketing. It turned out to be a short hiatus from broadcasting as I had the opportunity to launch Delaware’s first Christian radio station in 1990. It was a commercial, Class A FM, in a small market, and we were virtually all CCM music with live jocks. I wasn’t aware but similar stations were popping up all over the country.
Until then, most Christian stations played block programming and very little music. They were churches with microphones, in my mind. Coming from mainstream radio, I heard a Christian station in my head that sounded like the top AC station in our market but with great jocks who were believers and music that mattered. WXPZ did some amazing things, not the least of which was launch a Christian music festival in 1992 called LambJam.
I bought a second station, tried a Christian Country format, learned why pioneers have arrows in their backs, and eventually sold both stations and started a video production company which I ran until we started The Bridge on December 7, 2010.
There’s been something different about The Bridge since the beginning. Not just because it’s a 25,000 watt non-commercial signal, compared to the 3,000 watt commercial signal I first operated. But something supernatural and special.
God has put together the best team of people I have worked with my entire life. Each uniquely gifted and passionate about our mission of connecting people to Jesus, and to each other. Being non-commercial has been a game-changer for me, allowing us to shift our focus off advertisers and looking at our listeners as a product for sale…and instead super-serving our listeners and our community, realizing THEY are the “customer” and our “product” is the message of hope found only in Jesus.
One thing that has really made this experience at The Bridge better has been my (our) interaction with other Christian broadcasters. Before we even signed on, Paul Martin and Randy Bronkema helped us craft a major donor strategy with systems for collecting data and tracking results. Jason Sharp invited us out to spend a couple of days with the KTIS team in Minneapolis to observe a fundraiser in action. Being from commercial radio, this was my first exposure to a “shareathon” and we learned so much.
By far the best thing we did early on was join CMB. Attending Momentum and getting plugged in with the CMB team and CMB members gave us access to data, ideas, research, resources, labels and artists and much more. CMB is the secret weapon in our industry that other industries should emulate.
Another thing I feel helped us succeed early on was partnering with Christian FM. We got our construction permit just before the economic collapse of 2008 so money was tight. Jon Hamilton and Paul Tipton helped us craft a sound that was local and relevant and I didn’t have to hire a PD or buy an automation system out of the gate. Instead I invested in getting our station out into the community, and we grew our programming team after we had established ourselves financially and had established credibility as a local ministry that loved serving our community.
There were many other individuals who came alongside us in the early days to help The Bridge succeed. Tom Lewis and Jack Eason taught us how to hold on-air fundraisers, and we’ve partnered with them ever since our first event. Jason Sharp and Frank Reed have coached our air staff and challenged us to do great radio. And in 2013, a genius professor from the University of Delaware helped us develop custom software that interfaced with our CRM and now Andy Novacin and his team at Fndrsng.com are helping Christian stations all over the country with scalable fundraising software that is a game-changer. We are proud to have been their first client. God has blessed us beyond our imagination and beyond our talents and abilities. Every morning as I climb the stairs to my office, I whisper a prayer, “God, please don’t let me screw this up.”
I can’t mention everyone who has helped us along the way, but in this Exit Interview from broadcasting, I want to encourage you that this kind of partnership, this networking, is what separates us from secular broadcasters. We actually want each other to succeed. That’s not to say I don’t want to succeed more than you. Ha! I do.
KLOVE and WGTS bought stations in this market after us, and as much as I love those guys, I want to out-serve them, out-promote our station, and beat them in the ratings. But you know what? I also want them to succeed. And I am pretty sure they want us to succeed. I have a feeling the iHeart station across town doesn’t feel the same way about the Forever Media station.
I also can’t see them sitting in the same room at a CMB event sharing ideas, offering help and then praying for each other.
I don’t have a crystal ball so I don’t have the answers for the questions we’re all asking. But as the older guy who has been hanging around a long time, I have some thoughts.
People say radio is dead. Or maybe it’s dying. Or maybe it’s just sick. I don’t think radio is dying. I think it is changing. And I think a lot of smart people are figuring out ways to adapt and grow and I don’t think any other format has the edge that we have in Christian radio. IF we don’t mess it up.
I’m a fan of stations expanding and growing. We’ve done it. I am not, however, a fan of stations moving in on top of existing stations with the same format. Especially if the existing station has a local staff on the ground. I think it’s a trend that hurts our industry. The old “it helps everybody because the music is more familiar plus more people will hear about Jesus” argument rings hollow to me when people lose jobs and communities lose access to their local stations.
Speaking only for myself, and not any organization I am currently with or have previously served with, I think that is a terrible strategy for growth. If you want to grow, follow the model of KSBJ and Way Media. Or of Northwestern University and Jim McDermott’s Spirit FM network.
Smaller, struggling non-comm stations donating their licenses to bigger ministries who will keep local staff and programming…that’s a great way to grow. Launching new formats like Boost, or Vida Unida is the way we can grow. Developing content for new platforms, that’s where our heads should be. What if we learned how to use AI to analyze our data and improve our fundraising rather than use it to replace jocks? What if we took our team off site for a day and brainstormed this question: “How would our ministry fulfill our mission if we didn’t have an FM frequency?” You might be surprised at some of the things they come up with, and those things might be how you stay relevant to your audience as the media pie continually gets sliced into smaller pieces.
What if we prayed together more? What if we realized that ministering to our team first is key to ministering to our listeners? What if we realized that we have to work on improving OUR culture before we can impact THE culture?
Buying FM radio stations from secular groups is great, but at this pace we may look up one day and Christian radio is the only thing on the dial. We will have lost our main mission field because the audiences are somewhere else.
Micah 6:8 is my favorite scripture. You probably know it in the KJV or NIV text that says Act Justly, Love Mercy and Walk Humbly. I love that. I also love how The Message puts it: “But He’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously – take God seriously.”
I started out by saying how radio in the ’70’s was fun and magical. How many people on your team would say that today about your station? I can say that about The Bridge. I mean, is there a better job on the planet than working in Christian radio? It’s not rocket surgery. We get to play music, talk about Jesus, love people, help them steward their resources, and watch lives being changed.
Sure it looks different today than it did 20 years ago. And it’s going to look different 20 years from now. But God has made it plain what we should do. We should do what is fair and just. We should be compassionate and loyal in our love. And we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously, but we should take God seriously.
I’m hanging up my headphones at the end of the year, 46-years after I first put them on. I love radio today more than I did then. More because I have seen how God can use it to change lives. I am bullish on Christian radio. I am bullish on my team here at The Bridge and on your team at your station.
If our paths crossed over the years, I am grateful. Thank you for being part of my story. It’s been an honor to serve with you and I will pray for you, support you, and I will be listening. Go do greater things!
Bill Sammons is president/general manager and morning show co-host at The Bridge (WKNZ/Dover, WNKZ/Salisbury, WNJH/Cape May). After a career in mainstream radio and TV, Bill started Delaware’s first Christian radio station in 1990. He is married to Julie, and has 5 children. He’s a lifelong resident of Delaware.
Bill we retire at the end of 2023. Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org