Career Capsule: Initially poised to pursue agronomy in college, Mike Novak’s life took a radical turn that led him to radio and to eventually fulfill God’s purpose of leading the largest radio networks in the world.
While attending college in Modesto, California, Mike left his studies to pursue a job as a weekend announcer at KYOS in Merced, CA. After only six months, he was offered a full-time position as afternoon drive announcer at rock station KDON in Salinas, CA. From there, Mike continued to excel in radio at various top tier radio stations such as KFRC in San Francisco (Top 40) and KSON in San Diego (Country).
While at KSON, Mike met his future wife, Ann. Impressed by how she walked out her faith in every aspect of her life, Mike started seeking God himself. He went on to become a Christian and accepted a job at K-LOVE Radio in 1998.
Beginning as an on-air personality, Mike would go on to be the Program Director, Senior Vice President, and ultimately President and CEO of K-LOVE and Air1 networks. Since 2007, he has led a team of people to transform a Christian music ministry into a successful radio network reaching a weekly audience of 21 million listeners in the US and around the world. Looking back on his journey, Mike has realized his calling and is thankful for the opportunity God has entrusted him with.
“Never in a million years could I have guessed the path God has taken me on,” reflects Mike. “But His plans are greater than ours, and all we can do is trust Him for the ride.”
All in all, Mike is extremely happy with his life and he feels as though it has finally come together. As of January 1, 2018, Mike married Cheri Novak and they are beginning their new life together with God at the center of their relationship.
Ted: Mike I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. What’s the latest news and what’s happening at EMF?
Mike: It certainly continues to be a ministry both KLOVE and Air1 that are exceptionally blessed. Doors are opening in the radio front if you will, but also the digital space. We could talk forever about all going on and stuff and not because it’s safe to say that it’s going that direction. It certainly isn’t gone there yet but that’s why we have spent an inordinate amount of resources and time and everything else getting into that deal with the apps and all that stuff.
I’ve been here going on twenty one years, being the CEO the last eleven, and we have just grown like crazy but it’s an organic growth and by that I mean we have never targeted a station, a state, a city, anything, they come to us first. It has to be for sale first. And quite honestly we don’t pay street rates because we’re a 501 C3 we can’t. It’s not my money. It’s the donors money, gifts to God through us and so I’m very, very careful as is our entire team, about how we spend our money. But it’s going to continue to grow. I think the stories of the death of radio are greatly over exaggerated. I lived through the period to where radio took a hit , but in hindsight it wasn’t the “radio” it was what we didn’t put on it.
We didn’t listen to the consumer. I’ve been blessed enough to be in the business from where “we talked you listened” we told you what to do To now the consumers driving us. Where do you want us. How do you want us to sound. What is it you want on KLOVE or Air1? As long as we stay in touch with our consumers I think we’re going to be okay because the infrastructure is already there. You don’t need to reinvent, it’s not a costly switch over to something else. But I think EMF will continue to take advantage of the doors that God opens. We certainly are looking and exploring other opportunities whether they be in terrestrial radio, whether they be in television, whether they be in film, or you name it. I mean the opportunity has to be there. And we have a pretty good vetting system in anything we want to do. Because as I said it’s not our money. We have to be very, very careful with what we do. So “opportunistic” is probably one of the key words for EMF going forward. Keeping our ear to the ground, what the drums sound like, we’ll do our best to be there. The only thing I’ll add for the people that really run with that stuff is. I envision EMF becoming like a giant circle. And in the circle are a thousand doors, different shapes, sizes, colors, styles you name it. But once you go through the door the experience you have is identical to everyone else. That we don’t change the content which people seem to like. It may be modified a bit to fit the particular delivery system. But the heart of KLOVE and Air1 are never lost in the process.
Ted: With all the growth that EMF recently has seen with new stations in Chicago and Los Angeles, are there any markets that you’d like to see EMF enter?
Mike: In all honesty Ted the answer would have to be no based on what I said to you earlier about we just follow God’s lead. Having said that, and believe that, on a personal note I would love to have a really good signal over Washington DC. There’s a real good reason for that. I go back there four to five times a year and do a lot of lobbying and what not. Because as you know there’s a tremendous amount of things all on the floor and on the hill now that are onerous to contemporary Christian Radio or belief in general. So we’re always constantly trying to get a pulse on that. But I just think God does something with KLOVE and Air1. And if it was over that capital who knows what effect in might have. And I’m not disparaging WGTS at all. They do what they do and they do it very well. But we don’t do what they do. And again I just think that contemporary Christian music over the nation’s capital would have nothing but a positive effect.
Ted: Today in some markets we’re seeing multiple CCM stations, do you think this is a good thing?
Mike: To a certain extent it is and I’ll explain that. When a facility becomes available one of the questions we ask is who else is there and how are they doing? Let’s say somebody approached us and our thinking was about KLOVE, and there’s an AC station there already. We’ll put Air1 on there to compliment it. Our intention has never been to go head up with somebody and “beat” them. There’s no such thing in my mind at least on this side of the business. The thing that I don’t know for sure is even if its a nuance of the other station, if I’m given a chance, I do this quite regularly, I’ll sit and talk to the other people before we go on the air. I could prove to them that one and one makes three. It’s happened again and again and again. The biggest mistake and the only time I’ve ever seen another station in the same market that maybe was there before we were get into trouble, is if they quit doing what they’re doing and try and do what we’re doing. It just kills them because now they’ve driven off their own audience. But there are too many examples of “you just get better” at what you do. We’ll do the best we know how to do and we will both survive. One of my questions to people is if you can look me in the eye and tell me that everyone who needs to have contemporary Christian music in their lives is currently being served by your station. Well of course the answer is no. So we’ll go okay, I’ll take everybody else. You keep what you have and I’ll take everybody else. You own those people that you have, you superserve them. You go after them, you love on them. We’ll do what we do and we’ll both exist and the Kingdom will win.
Ted: What is your response to someone that may say EMF is just too big?
Mike: I suppose I would question the question. If God thought we were too big why would He keep Blessing us. Why would he bring us more opportunities. Why would we be able to sustain them and why should we put handcuffs on the Gospel. At what point does someone want to say to me “You’re serving enough people”.
I don’t believe God said I want you to be here, here and here… but not here, here, and here. I just don’t buy that. I think if there was something wrong we would not be able to run the facilities with excellence. I would say that’s one of the factors you have to look at, but that’s not the case. I’ve been here twenty one years and we’ve never even come close to losing a station. I think the people that would ask that kind of question, in all sincerity, aren’t really asking is it too big. I think they are imploring their own angst about something. If it was too big it wouldn’t work. That’s the simple fact. If you outgrow your britches you change your attitude about growth. That sounds to me like you’re putting handcuffs on God and saying that those people don’t need to hear it. They don’t need to hear Gods word. Well our job is to take God’s word to anybody who wants to listen. And there are no boundaries with that. There are no boundaries in the US. Just works out that that’s where we happened to be. But I’ve heard questions like that. No we’re not too big.
Ted: What do you think are the biggest obstacles facing EMF going forward?
Mike: I think to continue doing what we’re doing in excellence and to be able to sustain it … that’s the biggest obstacle. In a sense of we know we’re going to start getting into other things and we want to take careful steps to do so. Study it and then step, don’t step off the cliff, and go whoops we shouldn’t have done that. It is not really an obstacle it’s more of a challenge in the sense of where does the listener want us to be, and how is the listener using this content. How can we provide the content in a such a fashion that it becomes part of their life. It don’t believe Christian Radio as we do is a format, but more of a lifestyle. So how do we fit into their life. What delivery method could we do, what package could we give them that they’re comfortable with it. That’s not really a challenge. Its just a matter of finding out what they want and staying in tune with that.
For other Christian stations the obvious challenge a lot have is just simply financial sustainability. It’s difficult. It took me awhile to turn my head from for-profit commercial radio to non comm. It was very rewarding when I finally got my head around it. I thought this is absolutely cool. You’re doing something that someone wants so badly that they will actually support you. That was awesome, I didn’t have to sell them a pair of tires they didn’t want!
Ted: I want to ask you about the KLOVE Classics format. Is this a format you’ll be adding to more stations?
Mike: Depends on how it’s received. I mean if people want it we’ll find some signals and experiment with it in certain markets. It isn’t a multi market type of format I don’t think, but there is a hole for that, using radio terms. But we’ll see. You know it’s the kind of stuff that we really can’t play anymore on KLOVE for a whole lot of reasons. But it still has viability. We’re fortunate enough to be able to create a space like that on the internet and HD channels, and then be able to monitor it and see how it does. We’re pretty excited.
Ted: EMF subscribes to Nielsen in some select markets. Are PPM ratings important to EMF?
Mike: Only as a guide post. You look at the horizon to horizon and how we’re doing across the stations. No matter what you’re doing you’re going to have some up and some down, but collectively which direction are you going. It’s kind of a KPI (Key Performance Indicator) for us. It is not an end all for us like it used to be in for-profit radio. Certainly listener comments and donations, that kind of a thing, is another key indicator, but we look at it, we do not live by it. We cross section the country and figure if we can get a pulse from certain markets with locale, composition, etc then we could get a feel for the network.
Ted: Many don’t consider Christian Radio a “job” but rather a calling. How do you view it?
Mike: I believe it’s probably more of a calling. To be in this business, whether you’re on the for-profit or nonprofit side, is pretty unique in and of itself. But to be specifically in Christian radio I firmly believe for the people who really contribute the most and get the most out of it, its a calling.
You really have to bring your heart and soul to it because that’s what the people listening to it are looking for. They aren’t looking for somebody who goes “this is and that was” on the air. We have over four hundred employees and only a handful are on the radio. It takes a whole lot of people to run nine hundred plus stations. It’s a calling with them I can tell you that. The people who work in accounting, its a calling to them, a ministry. If you’ve ever been to KLOVE or Air1 it’s a pretty unique place in the sense of everybody tells us, we don’t tell anybody, but they tell us, when you walk in you could feel the Holy Spirit. It’s because of the people that work there, because God’s hand is on the place there’s no question about it. Whatever we’ve achieved He gets credit for it sincerely because we didn’t do it. I mean there’s no way we could have done what has happened there. There’s no way, no way on this earth. And we maintain that Spirit. We work very hard and we play very hard too. I do believe it’s more of a calling. If you want a job there’s a lot more places you could work less and make more money.
Ted: So you’ve announced your retirement. And the search is on for your replacement.
Mike: Yes, It’s not going to be an overnight process.
Ted: You became CEO in 2007.
Mike: Joined as an air personality in early 1998.
Ted: Looking back since becoming CEO, what would you say are your top accomplishments?
Mike: That’s an interesting question because it isn’t about me, and I mean that sincerely. I mean that’s the walk I walk, the talk I talk. In that sense the first accomplishment if I had to list them, would be I think that I have the ability to discern. The ability to listen to God and put it into action kind of a thing.
The second is that, and it puts a smile on my face, is the culture that we have. To be the keeper of the culture, as the board of directors call me. It’s a great place to be, it really is. One of the biggest reasons it’s a great place, and this is really weird for people that don’t do them, are pledge drives. Why? Because the blessing of having a network with millions and millions of listeners is obvious. The downside is you don’t get any face time with them. Well that’s part of my job as I travel around the country and meet as many people at events as I can. In addition to that the pledge drive is one of the times our listeners directly speak to us. Almost everybody who calls during the pledge drive wants to tell us their story which is absolutely fabulous. The employees need to know why they’re doing what they’re doing. We require the jocks to go in and answer phones because they need to hear that. To know why they’re going in there day after day after day and pouring their heart out.
I think #1 being responsive to God, maintaining the culture, and to provide the vision and the encouragement and the positivity surrounding that encouragement and motivation of the staff.
Ted: Regarding your retirement, why now, how did you come to this decision?
Mike: Haha, that’s a very good question Ted. I’m sixty nine years old and you know like they say that when you fall in love, you just know.
Mike: I know it’s time. And it’s time to make room for someone who can maintain if you will, or grow the positive things about what I’ve been able to contribute. And then bring their own fingerprints on top of that.
My vision is my vision and I have to see it through my eyes. Well my eyes have been shaped by fifty years in this business. And it’s time for another set of eyes. I’m not going away. I’m still on the board, I am still the CEO until such time as they want to make me the CEO Emeritus and I will continue to be an adviser to the next CEO, anybody on the staff, as well as the board of directors. But it’s time, like you just know it’s time.
On January 1st of this year I got married to a lovely woman from San Antonio and I will be moving to Texas probably around the first of the year. I’m based in California (born and raised) and I’m ready to explore that part of our life. We enjoy being together and we want to do what we want to do, as well as continue to serve the ministry. Cheri (my wife) is very much in love and a supporter of the ministry, was long before we got together. When I go to events and speak she just goes out and represents the ministry with the crowd better than I do. She just does understand it. And it’s very personal to her. It’s been a real blessing to the ministry to have. So I’m ready….
Ted: So are you through with radio?
Mike: Well I kind of answered that with EMF, but I’m also open. We’ve talked about this. I have acquired a little knowledge over the years and I think I’m okay at it, I mean it seems to be working, and plus I still have headphones, I mean I wasn’t that bad on the air. So If somebody wants some help I’m willing to talk to them and share. None of this stuff is proprietary, the specific things to KLOVE and Air1 I wouldn’t share because it wouldn’t do them any good anyway. It’s that “audience” that you don’t have any way. But yeah I’m not laying down by any means. I want to enjoy my time, but at the same time I’m stay involved in one fashion or another, if someone wants to talk to me they can.
Ted: Mike I want to thank you again for your time talking with us, and on behalf of the entire Christian Radio and Records community congratulate you on your work at EMF. Do you have any final words?
Mike: I appreciate that. Well to round it out I think it’s important to encapsulate the whole thing that my career, even in mainstream looking back, and I know Ted you also have seen this, you see how God guided you, and protected you. That’s very evident with me. The number one thing that Cheri and I want to do is be in God’s will. Whatever he wants me to do my prayer would be that He makes that clear to us and we go “okay let’s go do that”.
It’s really funny how God puts things together. Quick little story. I’ve met a gentleman who has become a great friend instantly. Who knows where the relationship is going to go. Whether it’s the KLOVE / EMF side or on a personal side. But I met him in a hotel lobby in Jerusalem. We were walking by and our guides said “oh here’s somebody I want you to meet”. Well he’s an American and we just instantly clicked and we both look at each other and go why here, why now? What is this all about? You just have to be aware of those kinds of things and that’s what I hope we have the discernment to feel and the ears to hear, that whatever He wants we’ll get on board.
And there is one more thing just popped into my mind.
One of my biggest concerns for Christian media going forward. Is what I observed in mainstream over the last few years and that is this. That the people who have the heart and create the content. And you know who really do the programming if you will. That they might be replaced by business people. That doesn’t work. Look at mainstream, that does not work. Christian radio is not a format it’s a lifestyle. But if that ever gets lost than it becomes a tactical business. I think God will walk away from it. I think He’ll go “I actually never did need you.”
I tell people all the time, I can’t figure out why he uses us because it’s (we’re) really not very efficient. But he is using us so we have a responsibility, we have to show up, we have to do the best we can and then we have to get out of His way.
I could see where Christian entertainment or media gets bigger and bigger and bigger. There will be that tendency to want to run it like a big business. And that will not work. I mean history is proving itself. If you lose the reason people listen to you you’re doomed.