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Summer Shepherd Interview

Summer Shepherd
On Air Host/Content Creator
WNWC – Life 102.5


Career Capsule: Radio has been the most clearly God-ordained path Summer has ever been on. Never having considered a career in radio previously, open doors and invitations found Summer starting her career on-air in Chicago with Moody Radio. After several years running the afternoon ship there, she took a leap of faith and applied for a position out of state, with a highly respected organization, for a job she was not at all qualified for. The team at Life 102.5 in Madison saw something in her that they were willing to take a chance on and she joined with Northwestern Media in 2016. Since then her experience has grown to include production, listener engagement, and roles in nearly every day part for a variety of markets. Today she serves as Afternoon and Weekend Host for Life 102.5 in Madison, Middays for KGBI in Omaha, Evenings for Life 96.5 in Sioux Falls, and hosts two podcasts for Northwestern Media including “No Seriously, How Do I Do This?” and “The Connected Life Book Club.”


Summer, tell us what’s new at WNWC … any news, changes etc, plus what’s new with YOU?

There is actually a ton new over here! Regarding the station we have a newly-opened seat on the bus that we are looking for the PERFECT person to fill, and some restructuring. In fact, I’ve just accepted a brand new position that allows me to be on-air fulltime as a host, podcaster, and content creator. Listener Engagement will be moving into the very capable hands of Amanda Brooks. I love working for an organization that sees people’s passions and moves mountains to find them their perfect fit within the team. Lately I’ve been able to work from a home studio, which has always been the dream. Who’d have thought it would have taken a pandemic to get here? I mean, thanks COVID? On a personal level, we’re drowning in kids. Had some pandemic twins who are now 10 months old and little balls of squishy misadventure. My husband and I are now outnumbered 2:1. Send reinforcements.


In your experience, what ingredients are needed to make a Christian Radio music show work?

A pinch of know-how, a liberal dollup of vulnerability, and all the passion you can find in the pantry. Shaken, not stirred. But in seriousness, I have found the most success being honest. Be honest with your listeners about where you’re at- someone will relate to your journey; someone NEEDS your journey. Be honest in your giftings- own where God has called you and communicate that to your team, it may lead to roads no one has thought to explore yet. Be honest about your limitations- ask for help when you need it; muscling through more often leads to burnout than breakthrough.


Overall, what is the best show advice you’ve been given? The worst?

Josh Villa once shared this gem with me when we worked together in Chicago: “The only difference between radio people and everyone else is that we don’t freak out when you stick a mic in our face.” He really helped me to embrace a conversational, authentic style to my radio work. It’s easy to default into a false and forced performance when we are nervous and under-prepared. Treating our audience as a singular friend we are chatting with at a coffee shop, about stuff we know they care about, helps our listeners see us as the friend they might desperately need at that moment. I’ve also been encouraged along the way to do a deep dive into who I am to better understand how my content should be framed in order to be authentic to who my audience knows me to be; to be authentic to myself. Not all great content is great for me.

 The worst advice? “Give up.” I won’t name names, but I once approached a colleague I had a lot of respect for and asked if he would be willing to mentor me. I was just starting out in radio and was hungry to learn. I was told that he had no interest in that because he didn’t think I had a future. “There is nothing special about you,” were his exact words. I cried in my car until the windows fogged up, then kept going. I don’t know why exactly. I just knew I had to. Don’t let others dictate your journey. If they’re worth it, let them play a role in it. Learn from them, be corrected by them, and grow. But if they tell you to get off the path you know the Lord has you on because they can’t see what He does? Kindly, and with all due reverence, tell them to kick rocks (though probably not in those words) and keep going. **cue “You Say” by Lauren Daigle**


What’s something you’ve learned due to the pandemic, about Christian Radio, that you didn’t know before?

When people listen to the radio, when they listen to you, they are spending time with a friend. There’s a reason that Christian radio is the one genre that didn’t take a hit during the pandemic- it’s because this is more than entertainment for people. When I first became a Christian I was a mess. I was barely holding it together. I knew I had Jesus, I knew He wanted me to be a light, and I knew I wasn’t strong enough for that. I would sit in the car before hanging out with the same broken crowd I had always hung around with listening to Christian radio in order to “fuel up.” It was hope. The songs were my education, my church at the time. The DJs were my friends and cheerleaders. God so often used the lyrics to minister to me specifically, or at least that’s how it felt. The whole world has been hurting these last 18 months, and many of them turned to the place on the dial where they knew they would be lifted up because y’all had earned their trust. The ratings are fun, but my favorite measure of success is when I hear from a listener who says that I helped get them through something, or that they consider me a personal friend because of the time I spent with them on-air. I wonder how often Top 40 DJs get to hear that.


You’ve had a lot of success with your podcast, “No Seriously, How Do I Do This?”… Tell us about what you’ve learned about podcasting since launching, the mechanics? why is it successful?

Oh man. What a crazy ride. Here is what I love about podcasting: its charm is in its authenticity and imperfection. Podcasting allows you to create something around your passions, your soapboxes, the under-served segments of your audience that you have a heart for. There is so much freedom in podcasting. But the imperfection piece is something I had to really sit with since launching my first podcast in 2018. This is something I still struggle with, and it is the hardest thing for radio people to get over. On air we’re in and we’re out. We’re prepped and polished. Usually…ish. In my opinion the best podcasts are the ones where you feel like you’re sitting in on a real conversation with real people. Real people say “um,” real people have rabbit trails. The trick is not to over-edit. Mechanically, that’s been my biggest takeaway. But mechanics are never going to win you the podcast game. It takes passion. Who are you? What do you love? What do you geek out about? What can you offer that people need? For me, it was the fact that I am a hot mess mom who has NOTHING figured out, and my willingness to own that. Because, let’s be real, no one else does either. We just like to pretend. I realized that there were way too many shared experiences that people weren’t talking about and I wasn’t afraid to go first. But what do you care about? Start there. Don’t start a podcast because you feel like that’s what you’re supposed to do. It won’t resonate with anyone if it doesn’t first resonate with you.


Is your podcast an extension of your radio show, what is the connection, how is it different?

Well, yes and no. It’s an extension in the sense that my listeners know me as that hot mess mom who owns her mess and likes to tell stories. On my podcast I am a hot mess mom owning her mess and telling stories. However, the podcast is a safe place to “go there” on topics that can’t be explored on air. For example, early on we tackled depression in children. More recently we did a two-part episode on sexual assault (we also have a ton of fun and give stuff away, so don’t be scared of me). What has been totally awesome is how each platform is able to edify the other. Each episode we pull clips from the podcast that can be used on air by myself, or anyone else who feels like talking about what we’re talking about. Easy prep. Good conversation starters. When used on air, those also serve to cross-promote the podcast, driving listeners to want to learn more. Interviewing artists on the podcast has helped to shine a light on them as people, causing the audience to relate to them in a deeper and fresher way, which helps grow listener passion for the music. It’s a beautiful relationship where, when done right, radio and podcasting feed each other.


Where will new up and coming air talent for Christian Radio come from?

It’s going to come from the crowd at concerts, or from the minivans waiting in line at the elementary school to pick up their kids. It’s going to come from our own homes as we model this gig for our kids. It’s going to come from people listening to you being excited about what you do, and not being afraid to let your passion and love for Jesus shine with boldness. There is something so infectious about someone who loves their work. I once heard a pastor say, “When you light yourself on fire people love to watch you burn.” A little morbid, maybe, but true. Some of my best friends in this industry are people who stumbled into radio. Who volunteered for an event, who had a conversation with someone at the right time, and who saw and caught the passion. In order to win people to this field we need to try to maintain our own excitement about this field. I get that that’s easier said than done somedays, which brings me waaaay back to my earlier point about being honest. Reach out and talk to someone if you’re feeling drained and disenchanted. Guys, we have the coolest job ever, ok? Some days are harder than others, but we get to play with crazy technology and tell THE WORLD about Jesus without even having to put makeup on. The future of radio starts in the present, with our own example. Would anyone watching us work want to do what we do? If not, why not? Start there.


Who are your radio heroes and influences? And why?

I have met some really talented and impressive people on this adventure. I think one of the most impactful for me has been Lisa Williams. I remember listening to her in the car on those days I needed fuel before facing my friends. Since then I’ve gotten to know her as a professional, and more recently as a friend. She’s my talent coach currently and dang man, she is the whole package. What I love about Lisa is her passion for this industry, her desire to grow, and her willingness to let her cracks show. That’s the kind of talent and person, and friend, I want to be. And I love how many “Lisas” I’ve met in this industry, male and female 😉 Y’all make me want to keep growing. Let’s go light the airwaves on fire and invite people to watch them burn.

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