Past, Present and Future


Recently, I was asked to respond to a list of interview questions from HisAir.net’s Ted Kelly.  His website serves as a “one-stop shop” for all things Christian radio and Christian music industry-related, complete with station links, job postings, show prep and research, among other things.

Future Past & Present signpost in the sky

I decided I’d post my repsponses to his questions here before they’re actually puplished on the HisAir.net website, beginning with a brief career capsule.

Jeff, born and raised in Indianapolis, did stints at several Indiana stations (WERK, WLBC and WXIR) in the 80s and 90s before moving to Nashville in 1996 to accept a radio promotions job with Myrrh Records, helping launch the career of Jaci Velasquez.  After stops at three other labels, Jeff joined 88.7 WAY-FM full-time in 2000.  Since that time, Jeff has served in a variety of rolls including afternoon and then mid-day host, followed by six years as co-host of several incarnations of the CHRSN network morning show (Marcia and Jeff, Jeff and Elisabeth, and Jeff and Stace in the morning).  Jeff was promoted from production director to operations director in January 2005 and is thrilled that he no longer has to wake up at 2:45am.

How has WAY-FM evolved over the years?  I’m not going to talk here about how the company has evolved but instead how the product and content have evolved. There was a time when everything on the air seemed to go through this “let’s clean it up” filter.  I had this fear of offending someone and felt the need to homogenize everything I said and did on the air.  That has definitely changed.  No topic today is off limits.  Granted, we might encourage each other to choose certain words carefully, but Wally is offending people every day.  I love it, actually.  Brant is probably second in line when it comes to who’s offending the most people.  He rocks.  I don’t know if you know this or not but Christians, as a group, are easily offended.

Has WAY-FM made any changes due to the economic situation, or been affected in any way? You’re kidding, right?  Is the Pope Catholic?  Is Brant Hansen a hottie?  Is Wally a woman trapped inside a man’s body?  It’s safe to say we’ve been affected, probably more than most in the WAY-FM family.  Business underwriting is way down, though listener giving is actually ahead of where it was last year.  Radio, as a medium, has to get better at monetizing content.  In the future, that may or may not include “selling spots.”

How is WAY-FM able to connect with listeners on a local level? Several ways actually.  A recent example is the not-so-Good Friday tornadoes that ripped through the nearby community of Murfreesboro.  We asked listeners to donate new and slightly used gift cards to those affected.  This really seemed to connect.  People didn’t have to go out and get something.  They just looked in their purse or wallet and said, “Oh yeah, I do have a gift card I haven’t used yet.”  In one week we collected nearly $3,000 dollars in cards and cash (I’m happy to report that I successfully resisted the urge to sneak a card for myself).  We also use social media extensively (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) for each of the four stations we operate from the Nashville office.  This has aided us tremendously, especially in markets we can’t be in every day or every week.

What criteria do you require for a song to be played on your station? WAY-FM is structured such that music decisions are made at the network level (Network PD, Network Music Director).  I like this because it means I don’t have to make time for people like Brian Thiele, Tara Stepp, Andrea Kleid, James Riley, Kai Elmer, Grant Hubbard, Josh Lauritch, Mark Giles, Brian Dishon, and Chris Hauser…is that everybody?  Sorry if I left you out of my list of people I’d rather ignore.  Most of you are on Twitter as much as I am.  That’s probably enough.

What kind of promotions work best for WAY-FM?  Simple but compelling.  Right now, listeners are calling a number we’ve set up to share how their mother sacrificed for them as a child.  Some of the calls are pretty compelling as you might imagine.  We’re pulling the best of these calls and incorporating them into new promos that prompt more of these types of compelling calls.  Makes for a compelling presentation on the air.  I like using the word “compelling” in case you hadn’t noticed.  The non-compelling calls we just pretty much laugh at and make fun of.

How do you think Christian Record labels can better serve Christian radio? While I ignore most of their calls and e-mails regarding local promotions, give-aways, interviews and such, I think that, over all, they’re doing a pretty good job.  Fortunately for me that whole “ignoring” thing just goes the one way.

In your opinion, what are the biggest obstacles facing Christian radio today? Does anyone really care what Jeff Brown’s opinion is about this?  I highly doubt it.  I suggest, however, that you care about what Mark Ramsey’s opinion is about the obstacles radio faces.  If you read his blog and are familiar with Mark then you already know what I’m driving at.  If you don’t, it’s too late for you so you may as well begin working on your career “Plan B.”

What do you believe is the primary role of the Christian radio air personality? Did I mention “to offend” already?  That one comes pretty easily.  What I really mean is when you’re connecting in a truly honest and transparent way, listeners will naturally be drawn to you.  I’m fortunate to be associated with three of the best in the business in this regard: Brant Hansen, Donna Cruz and Wally.  I’d add Dean O’Neal, Scott Smith and Lisa Williams to that group.

What (if any) Christian radio stations do you consider as innovators today? Not many actually.  We’re not innovating nearly enough in my opinion.  To me, innovation means remaining relevant.   Z88.3 in Orlando is head-and-shoulders above the rest of us in this area.  Instead of sitting on their hands and saying, “Well, we can’t be THE severe weather station” or whatever because they’re the Christian station, they said “We WILL be that station and we’ll do it better and more consistently that anyone else.”  They made a commitment to it and stuck with it.  You can no longer call them a niche format in Orlando.  They’re as main stream as any other station in their market.  Several hundred radio stations across the country are a few years (maybe months) from becoming obsolete and irrelevant.  They continue to do radio as it’s always been done. If you’re content with disseminating your content via a terrestrial FM signal and complementing it with a website and stream, begin now to think about what you might do if it all went away.  Because it will.

Where do you see Christian radio in 5 years? It’s no different for Christian radio than it is for main stream radio.  Please go to http://hear2.com and familiarize yourself with Mark Ramsey and his way of thinking.  He is radio’s best thought leader today and I believe he is dead-on in virtually every way.  If you’re working on approaching your station’s future as Mark suggests, I think you’ll have a legitimate chance of existing in 5 years.  Otherwise, again, dust off your “Plan B.”

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6 Responses

  1. We are loyal listeners to Way FM here in Fort Myers. I thought that our local station worked side by side with the record labels-or it seems that way since they sponsor so many tours..

  2. Oh, we all do work with the labels on some level. Concerts is one of those, though often we’re working more closely with the artist’s management and/or booking agent than label when it comes to concert tours.

    The decisions on what music is added/played comes from the network and is disseminated on down the line.

  3. Excellent re-print of your interview! I love the fact your hosts (on-air talent) aren’t afraid to live on the edge. People get offended no matter what you say! Keep up the great work, we love WAY-FM up here in Cookeville and you all are making a HUGE difference!! Keep Matt in line! 🙂

  4. Thanks Michael! We really appreciate that very much. Cookeville is a huge listening area for us. Thank you for spreading the word about WAY-FM.

  5. I think radio stations in the genre of “Christian” have perhaps the most difficult job of all in trying to navigate through these turbulent times within the media industry. Not only must they understand the macro-culture and changes in technology, but they must also take the time to really understand the spiritual landscape in our country and how it is changing. A book that sheds a lot of insight into this is The Present Future, by Dr. Reggie McNeal. Of course, people are people, and much of what’s going on in the macro-culture is being mirrored in the micro-culture of Christianity and visa-versa.

    In your HisAir.Net interview, I wish you were discussing how the company (WAY) has evolved over the years, because how it got to “here” will GREATLY influence how it gets to “there”. More specifically, I’m referring to the overall institutional mindset within the leadership and followship. And I whole-heartily agree that relativizing content must proceed monetizing content.

  6. Thanks Robbie. Good thoughts. I need to check out the book you recommend. Thanks for that.

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