Bob Thornton Interview 10-8-18
National Programming Manager/Stephens Media Group
Career Capsule: I started in radio at 16 on my hometown station and continued working at various stations through college. From there I worked in Oklahoma City and Wichita before coming to Tulsa in September 1998. Currently I serve as National Programming Manager for Stephens Media Group as well as Operations Manager for the Tulsa cluster. I’m also responsible for directly programming KXOJ, KXOJ2 and KTSO.
Bob, tell us what’s new at KXOJ and Stephens Media… news, changes, & with YOU… etc?
A lot of things are changing at Stephens Media Group right now. We just closed on two clusters in Washington state (Yakima and Tri-Cities) which puts us over 40 signals now. One of those, a 100kw in Tri-Cities, was just flipped to Christian music at the end of July, so I am looking for a PD for that station. We’re also about to start construction on a 12,000 square foot expansion of the home office, necessitated by a new digital division we just opened and the additional stations we’ve acquired. That will be followed by a total remodel of our existing 12,000 square foot floor with all new studios. In the end we’ll occupy two floors of Cityplex Towers in Tulsa, a 60 story office building. It sure makes the STL shots easy! If all of that is not enough, I’m also about to begin a search for my own replacement. I’ll be moving into a VP role over programming and content, so I’ll be looking for KXOJ’s first new Program Director in 20 years as well as an Ops Manager and someone to take care of KTSO, our 80’s station.
Christian Radio has become very competitive… what do you do to stand out from the crowd?
Well I think you have to have a service mindset first of all. A hallmark of all Stephens Media Group clusters is a real desire to serve the community. We have incredible people at all of our stations who give so much of their time and talents to the community and I think people remember that. I’ve never met someone who can’t remember who introduced them to their spouse, right? So when we connect people to Christian artists, or to a church or their community, they remember that connection and who made it. I think it’s the best kind of marketing if you will.
What is the best programming/show advice you’ve been given? The worst?
I’ve learned the most from the people I have worked with over the years but when it comes to advice, no one has had a larger impact on me than Tommy Kramer. He’s the best I’ve ever known at teaching people how to truly connect with listeners and make the station very personal. Worst advice? I’m sure Tommy is involved in that answer too but I would have to think on it some more, LOL.
Some say more Christian stations in a market the better, do you agree with that, why or why not?
I don’t know who would say that. There is a law of duality and more than 2 stations of the same format in any given market are probably going to leave any chance for a 3rd station to succeed very, very distant. Of course now we see a lot of low power translators and variations of our format (classics, hot chr) so I think those can be good tools for heritage stations. For example I like how the RTN JOY stations offer a classics stream for their aging core audience as well as a hot chr for a new generation of listeners. If you are an organization that is based on building a total audience and not a particular ratings share, these seem like natural, good moves.
What is the ONE thing you must have everyday to do your job?
Where will future Christian radio air talent come from?
Good question. Hopefully they are all reading this and will report to Tulsa immediately and then I will let you know from there. It’s tough! Just within our company we need young, upcoming talent in Tri-Cities and Tulsa right now. We need engineers all over the country! Universities full of students who want to communicate through Youtube are not being introduced to radio as real, viable careers. We have been working with Oral Roberts University (right across the street) to try and introduce more students to the idea of a radio career and so far they have been very receptive, but no doubt we need educators from high school on up to start advocating for radio.
Generally speaking to the industry what are the biggest obstacles facing Christian radio?
Even generally speaking this would take a volume of books to cover. We have challenges on every side right now. We are in a bit of an identity crisis within and without. I know a lot of mainstream broadcasters who think all of Christian radio is KLOVE. That’s not KLOVE’s fault but all some people see are fan awards shows and cruises and race cars and like Kleenex is to tissue, they just think all of us are KLOVE. That’s not good for non EMF stations of course. On the music side, there is the debate on how much worship music to play. When I was starting out we were trying to move away from worship and be more “seeker sensitive”. That was back during the rise of Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith and DC Talk. Programmers in those days were trying to distance their stations from the Maranatha Singers and the worship bands of the day. Now, it seems more and more and running toward them, whether that is at the behest of labels or a CCLI chart being used as research (bad idea) or whatever. I think you can have both for sure but each station is going to have to decide what they want their station to be and have a clearly defined music strategy. Either way, we could use some more superstars. If every band/artist as old as Third Day decided to retire like they did, we would have very, very little name recognition in our industry. We need some names even the mainstream world recognizes.
Who are your radio heroes and influences? and why?
Jon Rivers, because I grew up listening to Powerline and even though it was secular music, Jon’s message between the songs softened my heart to receive the Gospel later. Mark Shannon, a DJ on KJYO Oklahoma City when I was in high school, because he made me want to make radio my career. Mark Rider, because he was willing to help a brand new, scrawny little PD attending his first GMA conference in 1992, and because he did some of the most creative things I have ever heard before or since on Christian radio when he was at WAY-FM in Florida. Craig West, who I worked with for 17 years, because he goes all out at everything he does and has never been afraid to do a 180 if God called. My wife Jackie who has been my encourager when things seemed impossible or doubts about what we were trying to do crept in. And today it’s people like David Stephens (my boss) who has demonstrated what it means to risk everything on your faith and then everyone in our company who are the most talented people I know. I could go on and on. In the end we are only as good as the people around us and I have been blessed to be around some of the finest in the industry.