Feature InterviewInterviews

Dustin Tatro Interview 5-7-18

Dustin Tatro
KGNZ at Night

Career Capsule: I am an un-retired former secular radio guy that also is the staff organist for a large, downtown United Methodist congregation and a full-time EMT and chaplain with Abilene’s 911 EMS organization. I was commissioned just last year as a United Methodist deacon charged to bridge the church with the world, to proclaim the Word, to serve others, and embody and champion compassion and justice. God has given me the perfect ministry opportunities to live out this call. I got my radio start in 1999 (I was about to turn 13) doing a few PSAs for our small-town country AM/FM, later doing some morning show work during high school. I later worked with oldies and classic rock before “retiring” to move to Abilene where I pursued bachelor’s and masters degrees at Hardin-Simmons University in organ and choral conducting. The plan did not include radio, but in my need for full-time employment, in 2015 I ended up reporting and shooting news for Abilene’s CBS affiliate, KTAB News. Our morning anchor (and KGNZ’s long time early afternoon announcer and host of our Classic Half-hour) suggested I volunteer at KGNZ. I loved being not only back in radio, but being able to use that venue to glorify God so much that I haven’t left. Now, it seems, God has placed me in a position that I simply can’t leave. Also, I absolutely LOVE what I do.


Dustin, tell us what’s new at KGNZ… news, changes, & with YOU… etc?

I just received photographs of our new twin Wheatstone L-12 digital consoles (with all the networked audio bells and whistles) that are working their way through production. We also took delivery of our new Nautel GV20 transmitter last fall! We hope to have both projects fully operational in the next couple of months. Both of these (desperately needed) capital campaign projects are entirely because our listeners take ownership in this ministry called KGNZ Radio… and that is a humbling thing to be a part of. We are blessed to have people like our Chief Engineer, Glenn Arnold (whose heart is bigger than Texas itself) on staff.

In March, KGNZ at Night partnered with Paul Gibson to bring The Christian Rock 20 to Texas airwaves… KGNZ is the only Texas station airing this great program. We placed it immediately following our Saturday night airing of 20 the Countdown Magazine and that placement is working well – and brings our much loved rock from weeknights to the weekends. Paul – a former Abilene radio personality himself – is competing directly with a very well-known local Texas Country show in his timeslot.

My heart has been humbled by KGNZ at Night since we took the show on air July 3 of last year. It’s hard to believe that we haven’t been on-air for a full year yet, but we don’t call it “the Harder side of Life Changing Music” for nothing. In the past few months, we have begun receiving correspondence from inmates in the Texas prison system. We have five units in our on-air broadcast area, and one thing they are allowed in their possession is a broadcast radio receiver. Inmates have written in and gotten their family to contact me on their behalf. They’re even passing along requests this way! Two weeks ago, I made an in-person interview with an inmate at the French Robertson unit that we aired the next night with video on our Facebook simulcast. It moved several listeners to tears. Richard Rodriguez’s testimony “Hard Time vs. Hard Love” has resulted in five more inmates writing in to the show to share they are “sliding back” from their gang. In Texas gang culture, that could result in grave danger to their well being. Men have been killed in prison for this. I later learned that Richard is in administrative segregation for inciting a riot before his life changing experience. For unknown reasons, he turned his $20 commissary radio “all the way to the left” and heard rap music one night. Being from Houston, that caught his attention, then he realized it was Christian rap with a positive message. Through shouts down prison halls, we are now #AllTheWaytotheLeft. It’s been most humbling to realize the impact we’re helping facilitate behind bars, but I’ve also visited with people from all walks of life who have found a home here to war against their issues. We embrace grace, freedom, and Christ’s victory for us over the darkness. We hear from bands and band members with incredible testimonies of God’s work in their own lives, over beating lives of addiction and crime. I’ve wept at times from joy and amazement so viciously I could not catch my breath. I’m able to maintain some degree of relationship with a few of our listeners. It’s humbling that I have become a pastor figure in many lives.

KGNZ at Night continues to evolve. It’s neat to realize I get the #nocturnals because I am one myself. What that does mean is that to make the show work with my EMS schedule that the show gets voice tracked 2-3 nights each week. Technology is an awesome thing for people motivated to make things happen, and through Facebook, Garage Band, Google Drive, and VNC (all managed from my iPhone!), I can still generally accommodate requests between runs. When we are live, we are now simulcasting the show on our Facebook page (KGNZ at Night with Dustin Tatro) in high-definition using multiple video shots, graphics, and video with a service called Switcher Studio. We’ve had fun and had great feedback from the listeners with this video simulcast. Our live judged hot sauce contest at Christmas allowed the listeners to see our reactions… we had different community leaders on camera reading Christmas stories the day before Christmas eve… we’ve shown listener artwork… and this year on Maundy Thursday, I had a volunteer out in the community looking for people to serve through prayer, and we were able to see them. It’s been just another new tool to live “live” and narrow the disconnect between us and the listeners.

Finally, I should bring up our show mantra. You’ve all been there, where you said something off the cuff that “just stuck.” So it has become with #curbstompthedevil. I was thinking of Luke 10:19 and Romans 16:20, and it just happened a few months ago. Since #therockshow has really evolved into something of a spiritual warfare command post, this took off. The listeners say it in public… some have made it apart of their lives on social media! We even made a video promo and plastic sign our listeners take pictures with at remotes centered around this. And it’s something I can get behind… #CurbStomptheDevil!


Christian Radio has become very competitive… what do you do to stand out from the crowd?

KGNZ is the only contemporary Christian music station in the market driven by local content. In fact, we have local hosts on airshifts for more hours of the day than any station in any of our markets. That makes a difference. There is a connection with the folks out there. We don’t mind getting on air – sometimes immediately – to take an issue or request before God. Where else can one have such an enormous prayer team on hand instantly? Some listeners turn here for syndicated programming they can’t get elsewhere. As a music station, we continue to air the teaching programs that our listeners have said for years make a difference in their lives – everything from Focus on the Family to Insight for Living. On Saturday mornings, we cater to our gospel-loving crowd with The Gospel Greats and to families with Odyssey. In addition to our recent addition of The Christian Rock 20, we’ve been a 20 the Countdown Magazine station since the beginning. Variety seems to be the spice of life, and in West Central Texas, it’s helping us meet the needs of our listeners.

I would suspect that a consultant (KGNZ does not use them) would say that KGNZ at Night is doing all the wrong things right. The Abilene market does have a C1 frequency broadcasting a national Christian CHR station. When I was moved to late nights, I began considering what such an opportunity might do to meet some needs. As a nocturnal worker myself, I began looking around to see what the audience needed. Several remarked what they loved about the national playlist and I originally sought to recreate the rock-leaning CHR sound that I loved a few years ago, setting out initially at least to “take on Air1.” God evolved my heart quickly to realize there was no purpose in this kind of competition, I was headed down the wrong path and head a clear message directing me down a different, darker, scarier path that involved some deep content. Simple listener interaction has evolved the show into the driving, stronghold pounding, demon stomping command center for spiritual warfare it has become. Oh, how those consultants would have a field day with me if they could. We start each hour hard. Classics from Skillet, Pillar, Demon Hunter, even PAX217 and Five Iron Frenzy. We incorporate a ton of Christian rap and hip-hop, both old school like Gospel Gangstaz and new school like the new Illuminate, Derek Minor, and Andy Mineo we’ve added in the past few weeks. Multiple requests have been considered along the lines of “we’d love to hear more music we sing at church.” We’ve accommodated going into and coming out of the bottom of our hours, including some of our daytime “A/C” hits. A longtime fixture on the local secular rock station suggested accommodating the many requests for Christian metal and hard rock at a specific time – thus birthing our nightly “10 o’clock Hardest Block.” I now have a perfect open can of worms trying to balance the requested screaming metal (which honestly, has grown on me quickly primarily due to lyrical content) with an occasional comment that it’s hard to understand. The show’s listenership is the most diverse I’ve ever worked with. We’ve had a lot of fun with embracing the unconventional and engaging our listeners. I do use plenty of liners from actual show listeners that we’ve gathered at concerts and other events. We frequently bring in in-studio guests to co-host the show. We’ve begun inviting men from a local faith-based recovery house to come guest DJ. We introduced a hot sauce contest, “Hot Hot Christmas,” which we judged live on-air and awarded some great prizes. I work hard to keep a prize closet stocked to do simple nightly on-air call-in giveaways. We’re already talking plans for the second season of The Friday Night Football Show, the only radio based Friday night scoreboard show targeted only at our local market teams and making use of multiple live volunteer sideline reporters. Don’t forget about that Facebook Live simulcast of the live shows. We will be taking the show on the road often this summer to a variety of fun night spots like the oldest mini golf course in Texas and a family entertainment center with bowling and all the bells and whistles. These remotes will be offered for free just to get us out of the studio. We want to be out with our people.

Embracing the unconventional – daring to do things differently – is making the difference with our listeners. They go out of their way to let us know that we’re grasping their attention, and then the issues we address through conversation and the deeply raw and inspired music are coming alongside – parakletos – their own faith journey. For me, that makes what we do on #therockshow worthwhile.


What is the best programming/show advice you’ve been given? The worst?

Best: I have found the best practical advice usually comes from the listeners!

Worst: “Don’t rattle the cage.”


Some say more Christian stations in a market the better, do you agree with that, why or why not?

We must be careful to maintain a unified message. It’s common sense that the more stations in a market doing the same thing, the less potential listener share for each. If it’s something we’re going to do, it’s important that we engage with our listeners and meet their unique needs. In Abilene, we have two stations with similar overall formats – KGNZ and a non-local option. The non-local station has tremendous popularity due to a household and nationally-known name. KGNZ has existed here for 37 years and works to meet the more specific and unique needs of these communities, but still runs into some difficulty attracting listeners that “didn’t know we were here.” A third faith-based station is a LPFM that plays a very unique and popular Inspirational Country format. Personally, I am very glad to not be in a market that has several CCM stations all doing nearly identical things. Find your station’s voice and ministry… and do it!


What is the ONE thing you must have everyday to do your job/show?

My 59-50 Texas Rangers hat – NEVER worn “frontways!” You might call it “imaging,” I call it an identity issue… I just don’t feel myself without it!


Where will future Christian radio air talent come from?

I’ve noticed a trend for media types reared in the church to focus on venues such as recording/live sound, graphics design, video production, and web work for training and possible ministry paths. Even at Abilene Christian University, many choose to participate in newer media avenues rather than the campus radio station. That station has a large focus on news, with the bulk of its student announcers handling regular news updates. Many of them have moved on to careers in news, like a friend of mine that reported alongside me at Abilene’s Nexstar operation before moving on to Colorado. My alma mater down the street, Hardin-Simmons University, had sold off its radio station to EMF long before I came to Abilene. I’ve heard arguments including little chance of a livable career (I think this is true of radio in general as we continue to see consolidation of air talent roles) to lack of interest.

I’m an example of a secular radio host turned toward Christian radio. There are many of us I think that identify with that. I came in with the general skills and knowledge I needed. I have had several volunteers that are looking for careers in radio. All are people of faith near my age (early 30s). Two attended a private, non-degree broadcasting school, one in person and one online. Even with my help, we can’t seem to get their foot in the door. One, who regularly comes on the show and to volunteer with our pledge drive also assists by volunteering at other Christian stations in the state. Another one of my volunteers is doing promotions and a Friday night airshaft on a Texas country station just to be doing something. I think we could be doing a better job attracting students at a young age. That’s what got me in. We need to be at high school career and volunteer fairs, and when these young men and women express interest, we need to find better ways to plug them in rather than employ them as a free janitor. Maybe we worked our way up from there, but in 2018, I fear that attitude will only serve to help them lose interest.


Generally speaking to the industry what are the biggest obstacles facing Christian radio?

I’ve realized that very few stations in our circles can rely on commercial sales to keep operating. Most of us are non-comms and struggle to keep the electricity on and the staff paid, much less to make major capital upgrades to definitively deal with aged and failing infrastructure. That translates also to inability to find business staff and on-air talent. A lot of people need jobs and people holding other full-time jobs find it hard to devote time and energy. I’ll admit that I am stretched thin, but am able to force myself to get enough rest and have no plans to stop. Tax regulations are changing and it is no longer a tax benefit to many of our listeners to donate to the station… we are now relying on their will to support a ministry exclusively. I sense that finances will only get harder to work with as we work to secure means to continue ministering.


Who are your radio heroes and influences? and why?

I had cassette tape air checks of some of the greats and sadly don’t even know how I came up with them. XM and YouTube have been a treasure grove! I’ve been able to enjoy the smooth, personable way that Pat St. John connects with his listeners, and the energy that Phlash Phelps uses his interest and expertise in geography to drive listener interaction. There was a guy on Hartford, Connecticut’s WDRC named Ron Sedaille that did a really interactive all-request Oldies show that posted some of his shows on YouTube a few years ago. The guys on the local oldies station that were always in the community doing remotes. All of this is possibly what drives my desire to get listeners involved and get the show out of the studio when I can. I can’t say that a lot of my influence has origins in Christian radio, but I do enjoy listening to Frank Reed and the morning crew on KLTY if I am in the Metroplex on a weekday morning.