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Dusty Rhodes

Senior Vice President

WAY Media

Colorado Springs

 

     

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Dusty's Career Capsule
Dusty’s first radio gig was mornings and General Manager at college radio station WGMB/Bridgewater, VA 1974-1978, including a 1977 summer Programming Dept. job at #1 ranked WMAL/Washington, DC.  After college graduation, he landed overnights then middays 1978-1982 at mainstream Top 40 WCHV, Charlottesville, VA’s top-rated station, winning Billboard Magazine’s Radio Station of the Year. Next he did mornings and PD/OM 1982-1993 at Christian full-service station WPIT-FM in Pittsburgh, PA (now WORD-FM).  While there in 1988 Dusty won the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper’s Top Morning Personality contest from among all radio formats. Then nearly 18 years ago he joined WAY-FM by launching WAYF-FM/West Palm Beach, FL and served as General Manager of that station for its first 8 years, winning GMA Station of the Year in 2000.  Later Dusty moved in 2001 to join founder/president Bob Augsburg in Colorado Springs, CO to open up WAY-FM’s new home office and serve as Chief Operating Officer, overseeing the launch and expansion of several stations and departments.  In 2005 he was promoted to Senior Vice President of WAY Media, Inc.

 

1. How has WAY-FM evolved over the last few years?

We have had to “face the brutal facts” as we observe the same challenges everyone else in our industry sees; challenges that affect how we will function.  Areas include access to music, distribution of content, emerging mobile platforms, the use of social media and other digital opportunities—and that’s just the technology side.  There’s also the increasing importance of having unique talent and content, changes in how donors prefer to give, the weaker economy and its impact on local business support, new rules and regs from the FCC plus finance, fundraising, PCI and other compliance issues, and potentially negative legislative issues on the horizon, just to name a few.

In light of all this change, WAY-FM’s leadership has been very intentional to stop and consider “why does this ministry exist” and “what things must not change in order for us to fulfill our purpose?”  We revisited our Mission and Core Values, looked at who we are trying to serve and what those results should look like.  Speaking for myself, I think it was a rich time together as we reconnected with our purpose, reaffirmed the quality of our people at every level of this organization, and reset our sights on improving what we do and with a fresh context for why we do it.  We’re still working on those questions; it’s a process.

Like many in our industry we realize most of our impact on lives for Jesus and most of our revenue to support that impact still comes mainly through our terrestrial signals.  But we know that model may not last forever.  So we no longer see ourselves as just a radio organization.  We still want to grow our signals, yet we know we must expand in new areas beyond FM.  At WAY-FM we have taken some tangible steps that demonstrate this.

To start with, we changed our name by dropping the FM.  Our non-profit organization is now WAY Media, Inc. because we feel that better represents who we are today and the direction we are moving.  Our radio stations will retain the WAY-FM brand because it still holds significant equity among our radio listeners.

Next we budget separately for digital media initiatives.  This disciplines us to think about it all the time, to think differently about it, to plan better, and also measure results in that area.  This has already accelerated changes to our websites and mobile applications.

Fundraising is changing.  But again, identify what needs to change and what must not.  Our philosophy has not; still biblically based and donor centered.  Yet the tactics do change as our donors change.  For example, the digital side has afforded donors more options for how they prefer to give, while at the same time it has also afforded us new opportunities to help them feel connected to and informed by the ministry.  And because budgets keep growing beyond what on-air pledge drives can sometimes deliver, we have ramped up initiatives in foundation funding and planned giving.

 

2. Has WAY Media made any changes due to the economic situation, or been affected in any way?

Oh yes.  We sadly made some gut-wrenching decisions about cutting things and reducing staff.  That really hurts because then you can’t accomplish things you know you want to.  And you are saying goodbye to some amazing folks you believed in or you wouldn’t have hired them in the first place.  And for the first time in our history we instituted a salary freeze for a year.

But in tough economic times you can’t cut your way to success.  You have to innovate your way there.  So eventually we added more experienced sales staff for the business side and focus more on selling the digital side, created a new year end on-air pledge drive-type event for the donor side, sold some non-strategic assets, explored how to do more with less, upgraded at least four of our FM signals and, like I mentioned earlier, launched two more channels of funding.

 

3. How does WAY-FM connect locally with markets?

Technically, though we may be an international organization now, with our newest radio network affiliate in the Philippines (and soon in the UK), one of our core strengths is having boots on the ground in the local community and doing life with our listeners.  We live there, shop there, go to church there and basically work hard at impacting each community we can through the talented local staff and volunteers at our radio stations.  This is manifested in local concerts and other events we produce ourselves.  We also connect by being a conduit.  If there is a flood, hurricane or other similar relief effort needed, we help mobilize our radio listeners and social media “friends” to help their neighbors; basically helping them express their ministry to others through WAY-FM.

I feel compelled at this point to include our air talent.  Now some may think, “they’re national talent so they can’t connect successfully with my local market!”  They can if what they say and do and how they do it matters to your local listener.  Our talents Brant Hansen and Wally of Total Axxess connect effectively with listeners in every market.  They are authentic, entertaining and relevant, and engage the radio listener and digital media user in ways that makes the physical location of all parties involved less of an issue.  The meaning of “local” is not always synonymous with the word “location.”

 

4. What plans do you have for WAY Media to grow in 2011?

Personally I keep a SWOT chart (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) I update periodically as internal and external factors evolve.  It helps me return to a 30,000 foot view occasionally while working down here in the real world.  Our General Managers and Executive leaders are very good at thinking strategically.  Our founder/president Bob Augsburg is always looking up the road for opportunities for new outreach.  So as we try and finish 2010 strong and look ahead to 2011, we’ll certainly explore a number of things to see how we might function more efficiently, provide more training and development for our people, upgrade or launch new revenue streams, test some new ideas, keep developing the digital area, explore new strategic ministry partnerships, and upgrade more signals or find new ones.

 

5. In your opinion what are the biggest obstacles facing Christian radio today?

First, a sidebar:  I love that brief scene in the movie City Slickers where actor Jack Palance says to Billy Crystal, “You know what the secret to life is?  One thing.  Just one thing.  You stick to that and nothin’ else…” (you know the rest)

In addition to some of the issues already mentioned, I believe there may be one obstacle that is not often discussed honestly and openly.  I think, for whatever reason, some of us don’t yet fully embrace the mission aspect of what we do as the most important “one thing!”  There, I said it.  Are you sure you want my opinion on this question?

If we are “Christian media” then we have, by default, signed up for a mission whether we’ve thought about it or not.  Some of us have been around long enough to remember how this whole industry “thing” got started, and for most of us I’d say it wasn’t to work hard to build a business, because what really mattered instead was that “one thing” and if we made money at it, then that was considered a bonus.

To be clear I am not saying anyone in our industry is in this for the wrong reasons—I wouldn’t know because that’s a matter of their heart.  However because of the daily pressures of work we may at times find ourselves (myself included) too close to the forest to see the trees, and reminders every now and then may be helpful.

What helped me step back from the tree line recently was a message from thought leader Mark Ramsey.  He addressed our industry to a packed room at Momentum 2009 and later elaborated in a personal phone conversation with me, and said the following:

“What business are you in?  If its all about Cume, then go mainstream.  Christian radio is not an Arbitron audience...You have a Mission so why not build it up and go with it…Where is the proof of what you do for my family and me, besides being on-the-air?  Get beyond the claims.  Get off-the-air and into peoples’ lives.  Are you in the local radio business or the local action and cause business?  Its about community action.  Bring people together and do good…Its not about ‘you.’  Its about what you help ‘me’ do…Give me a cause to patronize.  Other stations are not gonna do this for me.  Are you just a stick with a signal, or do you make a difference in my life and the lives of others?  Tell me my dollars are being put to good use…Define your Mission and what success is.”

We need to be good business people, for sure.  Budgets and financial reports are vital tools.  I believe its more honorable to God to function in the black rather than in the red.  And certainly non-profits still have that fiduciary responsibility and an accountability to their boards.  But a Christian media ministry does not exist for the chief purpose of just operating a radio station to end the year in the black—anyone can do that.  Instead a ministry exists to make an eternal difference for Jesus in a life and in a community by fulfilling a unique purpose articulated by its Mission, however that uniqueness is defined by that organization.  That is the “one thing.”  Said another way, all aspects of the organization (sales, programming, concerts, digital media, engineering, IT, promotions, finance, HR) do not exist to serve the budget.  Rather all of those aspects, including the budget, exist to serve the Mission.   When I talk with donors, they “get this” without any problem.  And they expect us to “get it” too; its why they donated their hard-earned dollars.  And if we can meditate on this “one thing,” embrace that, let it permeate all that we do in our organizations, and commit ourselves to it, I believe we open the door wider for God to do some things we haven’t even thought of yet to reach more people for Him in these challenging times.  If we don’t, then I think we may be needlessly creating our own obstacle that can interfere with what He is trying to do through us.

 

6. What (if any) Christian radio stations do you consider as innovators today?

My longtime friends Tim McDermott and Jon Hull and their KSBJ team in Houston are right on with their program of mentoring other radio stations.  It may fly under the radar of some, but that is very significant work they are doing for the Lord.

And Jim Hoge who I first met in 1993 before he started Z-88.3 in Orlando, they just keep growing.  They keep doing the right things that reach more people, and that inspires their donors to join them in their efforts.

 

7. Where do you see Christian radio in 5 years?

Who knows?  Things keep changing constantly and in significant ways as we’ve discussed.  I’ve been reading the writings of others smarter than me who say “long term planning is no longer 5-10 years but now 1-3 years!”

I think a major piece of the puzzle is answering a question we’re learning how to ask at WAY Media.  What does our customer value?  And the answer lies not in us but in them, so we have to ask the customer, and then we have to ask them again, and then again, keeping in mind they are always changing, and usually a few steps ahead of us.  It seems they hold the answer to this question.  And choosing to make the necessary investment of time and resources to get at the answers may determine who, five years from now, are barely surviving or clearly thriving.



 

 

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