Don Buettner Interview

Don Buettner
VP-Operations/Program Director
WLAB/Fort Wayne
STAR 88.3

 

Career Capsule: Approaching 40 years in Broadcasting, Started on my 19th birthday at WKKI in Celina, OH. Also worked at WERT in Van Wert, OH before moving to Fort Wayne in the Fall of 1988 to help launch a new rock station. Currently into 25th year at WLAB (STAR 88.3) Hosted “The Heart of Worship” which ran nationally from April 1999-April 2009. Serves as Show Producer for “Keep the Faith”

 

Don, tell us what’s new at STAR 88.3 … news, changes, & new with YOU… etc?

I’m in my 25th year here at the station and we have certainly gone through some ups and downs over the years including the station being put up for sale in 2009. We’ve had several new team members join us just in the last two years and it’s been fun for everyone to get to know each other. We’ve restructured roles quite a bit to fit the skill sets of those we have hired and it’s working well. There’s a sense that this is a new era in the station’s history and that’s exciting. Things just feel “fresh” again and that’s saying something when Melissa (Montana) and I have been here for as long as we have. We’re also pretty pumped about being nominated again for CMB Station of the Year.

 

How has your job changed during the pandemic?

I can do laundry while working from home! Many on our team already work virtually so we didn’t have to adapt all that much when the pandemic closed everything down. The biggest change was just getting used to Zoom meetings. I’m an introvert so being stuck at home and not being able to physically be in the office wasn’t a big deal for me. Ha. Actually, it’s become the norm now and I love it! I feel like I’m more productive. It’s also nice to be able to stay in sweatpants and a t-shirt. My home studio is more like a command center (4 TV’s and 3 PC’s) and I actually have more access to things here than I do at the station and I can stay connected with the world. I just have to make sure I don’t too get distracted when Match Game comes on at 1pm on Game Show Network. It’s a hoot but then I am a product of the 70’s. 

 

What’s been the most challenging thing for you as a programmer?

Consultants! Just kidding John Frost! Seriously, just being able to stay on top of changing technology and changing lifestyles while trying to maintain a healthy personal life. I believe we have seen more changes (advances) in these past ten years than in the last 40 and it makes my head spin as we try to not only figure all this out, but to keep pace as things continue to change so rapidly and finding the funds to invest into it. It’s certainly a far cry from the days of cart machines, razor blades and splicing tape, and realizing that many who are reading this don’t know what I just explained, Ha.

 From a lifestyle standpoint, it’s been valuable having 20-something’s on our team who can give us a realistic perspective on things as they are today, how we relate that both on and off the air and how we present our product on our social platforms.

On a personal note, it’s been a challenge juggling work and personal life in recent years being a single-Dad. That’s an interview for another time but prayers for my daughter Zoe would be appreciated as we’re facing some serious decisions in the next few weeks. She just turned 15 and suffers greatly from social anxiety and depression. It’s a situation that has forced myself to open up to people and so many of my record label pals have been so helpful, not only in just listening but praying for us.

 

In your career capsule, it says you moved into Christian radio after programming a Classic Rock station?

Yep. I have to admit, one my career highlights to this day is when I was a part of the launch of a new station here in Fort Wayne. I moved here in the Fall of 1988 as one of the first people hired and was reunited with the GM who gave me my very first radio job in 1983. We launched what then was basically a hit-oriented Classic Rock station and it was a big deal because there hadn’t been a major launch of a new station in this market for quite a while. I was the Assistant Program Director and overnight jock and was charged with building all the music so we built a dubbing station (all of the songs were on individual ‘carts’ back then) and had it in my apartment at the time since the format was top secret, so secret that most of the music came from my own personal CD collection. And we had major industry players who were investors so we were able to tap in to some incredible resources when it came to programming, marketing and promotions. Our studios were in the heart of downtown and I had a view every night of an incredible skyline that included one of the stations I grew up listening to in WOWO AM 1190.

 

So what led you to STAR?

The station (98.9 The Bear) had evolved more into what we know today as an “Active Rock” station. My heart was changing too toward the music we were playing and that came out of my growing involvement in my church and obviously my faith journey. Along with changes in ownership and leadership, and the fact that I was tired of working overnights, it just wasn’t fun anymore. And through my involvement at church is when I started meeting people like Melissa and others who were working here at the time. I’ve always had an interest in CCM music going back to the early 80’s when the Sports Director at my first station used to host a live Sunday morning CCM show. I wanted to bring my mainstream “experience” to our industry. Eventually, a door opened up for me to come work at the station and I’ve not looked back since.

 

With that experience then, who are your radio heroes and influences?

I encourage anyone reading this (no matter your CCM format niche) to research these names because I feel anyone in our line of work should understand where we came from and how a lot of these philosophies came into being, I would have given anything to have met these influencers back in the day.

 The less familiar names would include Bill Drake who co-developed the Boss Radio format in the 60’s. Even back then, he applied many of the methods we use today such as market research (playing only the top hits) and limiting the amount of DJ talk. Bill was also a partner in a syndication company that produced a 52-hour radio documentary called The History of Rock and Roll which was the trigger that launched my interest in pop radio and Top 40 music history as a middle-school kid. It was an incredible educational lesson. I have a pirated copy of the entire show on 52 CDs but don’t tell anyone.

 Another is Lee Abrams who is credited with developing the Album Rock format. He pioneered audience research connecting people’s lifestyles to their listening habits. He took what was basically a free-form format and developed a tighter form with playlists. Have you heard this somewhere before CCM folks?

I can’t leave out Casey Kasem. I grew up in a small town that didn’t air American Top 40 until the late 70’s. I actually used to go a local bookstore that carried Billboard Magazine and I would grab it and write down the Hot 100 chart every week. But that didn’t make the workers there very happy since I wasn’t buying a copy of the magazine. To this day, I still listen to an old countdown on Sirius-XM and I’m amazed at what I continue to learn about songs or artists that I didn’t know before. 

 Obviously, I can’t leave out the more familiar names such as Alan Mason, John Frost and Tommy Kramer all three of whom have made huge contributions to the CCM industry and with STAR 88.3. And one more…Jonathan Little at Troy Research. I love his insight not only on research but with the broadcast industry as a whole.

 I have other “heroes” too that fall into the Sports TV world such as Pat Summerall, Jack Buck, and Dick Enberg, all of whom are sadly gone. I’d give anything to meet Brent Musberger or Jim Nantz of CBS. I could sit for hours and just listen to their stories. Dan Patrick (formerly of ESPN) is another because of his Ohio roots. I catch his radio show on TV quite a bit.   

 

Is there anything you miss about your days in Rock Radio?

Yes and No. When we launched the station in Fort Wayne, it was a very special time in all of our young careers and the audience really connected with our music along with our silly antics. (That’s another interview). We truly were a team and everyone was passionate about their role and hungry to win! The DJ’s were supportive of each other and we each knew what all the others were doing both on and off the air. We all truly enjoyed what we were doing and even learning from each other. And it was helpful knowing Management and Sales were supportive as well.

 I don’t miss the lifestyle. Sadly, I witnessed a few divorces because of it. Rock and Roll radio can be pretty hard on a family. (Ministry is hard enough, too!) As the years have passed, it’s also taken a few lives of some of the original team.

 The other thing I miss is Radio & Records. That was like the bible for young programmers like me. It was a great resource to learn from other leaders in the format and to read success stories about specific stations.

 

Where do you go then to keep learning?

The CMB Newsletter is great and perhaps the next best thing to what we used to know as Radio & Records and Ted, you do a great service here to compliment that and to stay connected with what’s going on in our CCM world. (I was not paid for that plug!) But outside of that, as a former rocker, I have a relatable connection to Fred Jacobs whom many of us have heard at Momentum. Obviously the Frost Advisory is another great resource along with Tommy Kramer’s Coaching Tips, Brian Wright has quick nuggets at Audience Development Group, Chuck Finney, and a few others. The key is to be motivated to keep learning because none of us know it all. And we don’t know what we don’t know.

 I also enjoy some of the leadership resources that come from places like the Global Leadership Summit. Fort Wayne actually has the distinction of hosting the largest gathering each year so that’s always fun to be recognized on a global scale. We’re very blessed to have a lot of believers in key leadership positions in our community.

 

Many people may not know you are involved with the “Keep the Faith” program.

I’m actually the one who puts all the pieces together that come from the other producers and deliver the show to all the stations. As of this interview, we have done 620 shows and celebrated our tenth anniversary this past February.

 

What do you enjoy most about being a part of “Keep the Faith”?

Delivering a strong product to stations, especially the content. The “show” is our format at its best in connecting lifestyle and how the music serves as the soundtrack. We go through a grueling process with each show and it’s really an honor to play a key role in what has become the top Christian music show in our industry. I also love the fact that we go “outside the Christian circles” in those who have contributed to the show ranging from Chrissy Metz (actress from the TV show, “This is Us”) to Scott Hamilton (Olympic skater), to Jonathan Cain (from the rock band Journey.) Singer Harry Connick Jr. was just on a recent show, for example and right now we’re seeing an incredible response all over the country with someone who David Sams (Executive Producer) feels may be the next big breakout star, Jackie Dorman and her “Married in 12 months” program.  

 

If you weren’t in radio, what do you think you’d be doing?

I’d be a weatherman, game show host or operating a chain of Dairy Queen restaurants, (we used to play DQ with the neighborhood kids as we had a drive up window at our house), OR working in the broadcast division at the National Football League. I’m still fascinated with how they put the broadcast schedule together and all that stuff.

 

What would you like to share in closing?

CCM folks! We have the best thing going !!! We’ve never been more primed to see an incredible amount of growth than right now! (and I would have said that even before COVID.) All you have to do is read an article or two about the latest cutbacks at I-Heart radio (or wherever) and see that there’s not much left of what was once known as “traditional” or hometown radio. I’ve been on the other side. Never lose the fact that we have the best message ever to share with the world. People from all walks of life are searching for hope. Whether it’s mainstream or Christian radio, it’s a line of work you truly have to have a passion for. While I’ve experienced my own seasons of that, I can’t imagine doing anything else because what we do truly matters. Love what you do, find ways to stay refreshed, and don’t treat it is a job. It is a privilege to do what we get to do!

One thought on “Don Buettner Interview

  • May 2, 2021 at 3:49 pm
    Permalink

    Great interview, Don! You are one of the true radio “vets”.

    I appreciate all of your hard work for The Kingdom!

    Reply

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