I was leaving a get together at a friends house, when the guy who runs the local athiest society stopped me outside. “Hey, you’re the radio guy, right?” My brain quickly tries to choose between accessing Bible verses to use for apologetics, or that fight scene at the Colosseum with Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon. “Yeah, I work at 88.3.” He smiled and said, man, I love listening to you guys. This time my brain is stuck somewhere between shame and confusion. “Thanks man. I gotta ask though, if you listen, you know it’s a Christian station, why do you listen?” He reaches out to shake my hand; “well honestly I hate your music, but I listen to all the local stations and local DJs and they’re just boring. You guys are different. You’re the only ones I like listening to.”
Let’s put aside the obvious part about him being an atheist, but in addition, he’s a dude in his early 30s. There is nothing about him that fits the Christian radio demographic in any way, but we’re the only ones he likes, because it’s not the same as the rest.
I love to learn how we can be better at what we do. I write copious notes at seminars and industry events. I still have SO much to learn. What would happen, though, if time and money were not an issue, and we could attend every seminar to perfectly shape every aspect of what we do, from music selection to demographics to promotions? We’d be the same. And when you are the same, nothing stands out.
Two of the oldest snack brands are Tootsie Roll and Oreo. Tootsie Roll came out in 1908, Oreo 4 years later. Neither brand has to change, they both have a proven product that has worked for generations. Don’t fix what isn’t broken. Except, one of them always gets the attention. Did anyone ask for Swedish Fish Oreos? Or Cotton Candy, or Peeps, or Jelly Donut? Oreo doesn’t need any of those flavors, but each one sets off a wave of food blogs, tiktoks, Youtube videos, and conversations in the grocery store.
I’m fairly certain Tootsie Roll is doing just fine with a product that works, but for me, I’d much rather be the one talked about because something different is happening. In fact, with the mission of sharing hope that Christian radio has, I feel obligated to not just ‘be fine’ and carry on, but to stand out in a way that catches attention and draws more people to that hope.
I think sometimes our industry cheers on the idea of innovation, and then we pat ourselves on the back for being out of the box when we choose the ‘up-tempo’ mix of a song that added a bass guitar in the 6 second intro. I’m talking more about taking risks and stepping out in ways that are unique to you. There are some things in which real good research can shape decisions (like what your local audience is consuming) but there are others where the research will just be you, because nobody else has tried it yet.
I don’t have this all figured out, and I don’t know what that looks like for you, but here are some suggestions. First is letting go of the fear of failure. That will kill innovation. I’ve had lots of ideas that have failed at our station, but that process of trying has also led to some big moments and momentum that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Second, ask the big ‘what if’ questions, and choose one to try. What if you’re DJs felt they could be themselves, and not just the version they think 38 year old Becky wants to hear? What if you picked that one song you believe in but no one else is playing and just give it a shot? What if you let the morning team try that off the wall game?
I’m still learning this balance, and always will be. The moment I think I’ve landed on the right balance is the same moment sameness starts creeping in. It’s a process, and it keeps us always looking forward. In the end, when it comes to the results of trying something new and different, I’m less interested in the lady who tunes out because she didn’t like a new song, and more interested in the atheist guy who tunes in because the difference caught his attention.
Matt Pelishek is the program director at 88.3 Life FM, and co-host of the Afternoon Joy Ride. He has been in radio over 20 years, and is just now starting to figure out what most of the buttons do. Contact Matt at Matt@kaxl.com