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Radio Interview

                                     

 

Thomas Kenny

Music Director

XM - 31 The Torch

 

 

 

Thomas Career Capsule
In 1991-92 I was at a top 5 College Station, 90.3 FM KUSF, San Francisco. I was Asst. Underwriting Director for a department that brought in the most underwriting in KUSF’s 18 years of service. I had heard of KUSF reading my Rolling Stone a year earlier, and when I graduated community college, I headed west to be in radio and finish school at the University of San Francisco, a catholic Jesuit school. I also wanted to know faith that I grew up with in the home. I learned it. I got saved while hanging out with a bunch of spirit-filled Christians who attended USF.

I left USF in 1992 not finishing school and joined a rock band in Athens GA to evangelize kids in the clubs. I was the vocalist writing Christian lyrics. Ultimately, I returned to DC and met my wife, Angela (just celebrated 12 years on Easter) who answered an ad I had for a band in a music street paper. After we were married in 1995, we moved to VA beach and became youth pastors. We started a band there too. I volunteered some at WODC (Anne Verbelee was manager). In 1999, the Lord asked “what do you want to do?” I told him radio and began pursuing it. I was frustrated because not many were doing a Christian Rock format. It was my prayer. My wife and I returned to DC and I enrolled in college at George Mason University to finish my school. I took an internship at WAVA FM 105.1 and a 10 hour week position board operator while attending school. I graduated GMU in 2001. Salem had already asked me to help with operations on their XM project which featured XM 170 FamilyTalk, XM 32  The Fish (now, The Message) and XM 31 The Torch. I became the MD of The Torch in 2002 and have been doing it ever since.

 

1. Personally how do you keep the ministry in the “business”? 

Well, the Bible says all believers have the ministry of reconciliation. So, it already is there as long as I remain in relationship with Jesus. He is constantly showing me things about what I do, about how to handle situations and share the power of His life in me. The Christian music industry is a business. That reality will never change and industry can never be ministry by itself. We who believe have been given the ministry of reconciliation. I am a person charged with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and commissioned to preach it whether I do this job or not. What I do is business. I work for a media company and the first rule of all commercial media is to make money. The ministry of reconciliation is inside of me because that is where Jesus lives. He said, “him and his father would make their abode with us” in the Gospel of John. That is the confidence I strive to walk in everyday and distribute to whomever I come in contact with daily.  Listening to Him will keep the business practice full of integrity, joy and it will not be burdensome.

 

2. How has Satellite radio affected Christian radio in general?

I don’t know. Christian Radio has a lot of commercial free stations in general so I don’t know how it would change it. We all have 168 hours a week to program. The church to me should not be competing against itself. My former general manager said to me when he launched an FM Christian talk station that many came to him in Christian radio community saying the station with its big signal would “crush them.” His reply was, “The audience is a huge and growing pie and none of us have gotten all of it for ourselves.” Matter of fact, all the Christian stations didn’t have much of the pie in the community. The whole pie should be our focus. Secular radio competes viciously everyday for listeners. I think Christian radio should do the reverse and present unity. It is, after all, a church on the airwaves much of the time. Christian radio is asking listeners in the marketplace to make not just a Christian programming choice but many times a complete change of thinking and way of living. Our business practice should represent that very life. The potential audience is a huge pie and concerns the whole market. There are things local Christian radio can do to super-serve their communities that I can’t do. Satellite radio should not change their view about their market. 

If we look at what is going on in the world and particularly with the events at Va. Tech, the question I would have to ask is, how have we changed the hearts of people in our communities? Are we presenting the powerful Gospel to a society that continues to fall asleep in the malaise of culture? Are we telling people you can have an impacting relationship with Jesus that goes beyond mere religion and institutional form? Are we giving them a real experience on radio that compels men and women to seek Jesus with all of their heart? A friend of mine said he would not go to church because he “didn’t like the paisley pink presentation and surroundings.” What he meant was, it was not speaking to him the way Jesus spoke to him personally as a man of faith. It was water downed and whitewashed. My wife calls it “milk toast.” Are we presenting milk toast or that real message in a significant way?

I know there are things people have to deal with in the business. But as long as you can present the reality of the transforming relationship with Jesus then all of us should be fine and getting more of that ever expanding audience pie than we are accustomed too.  

 

3. What do you think are the main characteristics of today’s Christian radio PD?

Integrity. Servant. Creative. A PD needs to find the gifted, recognize their strengths and put them in a place to succeed. When I was a youth pastor, my goal was to work myself out of the position by training kids to be ministers of reconciliation. My wife and I just had lunch with some of our former youth visiting DC with their spouses! One leads worship in her church!

A PD (especially rock) needs to be creative constantly and listen to creative ideas and take chances. I program a rock format that is Christian centered. I REALLY DON’T COMPETE WITH RADIO. I COMPETE WITH IPOD”S AND THE INTERNET! In the era of MySpace and internet and all that, doing the same ole radio formatting will kill you. Music is important to kids and they can see right through safe “program for the ladies or mothers” that works in other formats but not in rock! They vote with their feet when they feel they are being spoon-fed. As a youth pastor, to present the mundane church program meant kids would not come back next week. They wanted connection, ownership of their group and validity. Trusting in them helped build the boundaries because they in turn trusted what I was saying to them, which was the gospel. When they got the Gospel nothing stopped them. A PD that can allow their staff that kind of freedom will succeed in the 21st century.

 

4. What criteria do you require for a song to be played on your station?

That it kicks maximus musically and it has great production so it will sound good on the broadcast. There are great songs I receive in the mail that are not finished from a production standpoint.

We are artist friendly. One of the biggest disappointments to me is when artists get bitter about the Christian music industry. I have seen it so much on the rock side. I have heard stories of great music not getting airplay because it did not pass a “lyrical review.” I am talking great songs that have valuable faith lessons to discover when you dig beyond the surface. It is no wonder that artists get angry and quote – fall away. As an industry, we lose valuable human resources from artists, to marketers because we judge before we listen and understand.

I trust the artists who eagerly seek to work in the Christian music industry because they obviously believe and seek Jesus relationally. They have a specific calling to basically go broke making music to express it. That is enough for me right there to honor them by reviewing their music and honestly considering it for airplay. On top of that, labels see their talent and seek to help them along. Someone has taken faith in their message, whether it be overt or poetic, and invested in their career and their own business. I find that honorable and therefore I can relax and be at peace listening to the message with a heart of flesh and not stone. Furthermore, I trust my listener’s discernment (and tell them even that they have it and have to make a choice). You would be surprised the types of things kids learn from music that we, as programmers, never see. I have faith that God is in control of his relationship with my listeners and I can focus on the making great radio.

Some artists have left the “Christian music industry.” I still celebrate their contribution and follow their careers. Some listeners ask me, “are they still Christian?” I respond, “they probably still have their relationship with Jesus though I haven’t asked them. I haven’t asked 98% of the artists on my station now ‘if they are still Christian.’ If I wanted to meticulously judge, I could find something wrong with everyone. My question is, ‘does that song still speak to you that they wrote when they ‘were Christian?’” The answer to that is always “yes.”

 

5. What kind of promotions work best for Christian Satellite radio?

Content driven promotions. Presenting artists and events relevant to the Christian music fans!

 

6. How do you think Christian Record labels can better serve Christian radio?

Send their music on CD. I am a digital broadcaster and I know download servicing companies help them immensely, but I cannot use them. Send CD copies out on the release date (or 2 days before J) so we, the radio peoples, can review them and can tell our audience that the CD rocks! I personally am not going to take it home and stick it on my shelf because we need a resource CD at XM! I often share music with other MD’s and PD’s who do rock alternative formats here at XM because we are all in the same building.

You know, kids are passionate about the message of the Gospel, but what they are really excited about is their music that they stylistically enjoy presenting the powerful message of the Gospel. And when you honestly present that as they honestly appreciate it, then you have a win win situation. So these types of things to help the radio person on-air to put forth honest communication about the music and the message in it will help get the listeners more excited about the music and go out and buy it.

Check this email out from a listener:  - First of all, let me tell you what an AWESOME station The Torch is!!!  I was a die-hard ethel fan (XM 47), but the only station I listen to now (with the exception of ESPN and MLB) is XM 31.  What a great time in Christian music that there are so many great artists out there that appeal to the crowd outside of the pop-christian music scene.  My question is, where in the world can I go to get this great music?  Is there a website or good music store out there?  I am working away from home, so I do not know if there are any national chains that you can recommend to me or is it best to try to find it on the bands' websites?  Thanks and God Bless!!

That is just one example of many. I say something on the air about an artist and I will get an email that sometimes completes the story. I asked my listeners one time about the Thousand Foot Krutch record, The Art of Breaking and what does the title mean? I really didn’t have an answer to my question. I had no clue. I got like ten emails with explanations that day with scripture references so significant and powerful, I had a Bible study at work.

This goes back to my point, listeners already know what is going on in the music, because they are fans!! Many times, they became fans of bands before I did!! That is why their artist is on the radio! Because they supported them! They don’t need us to tell them who Jesus is all the time or present this in a spoon-fed manner. I just try and help them along with things that I know or can ascertain from being in the business.  It is my job to push the story of the music out so the fans can develop better connection with their artists of choice. Having the CD resource and stories behind the records helps to turn listeners into music buying fans!

 

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

 I don’t think there are any. We have a creative group of music artists and bands making impacting art that is edifying and engaging the culture head on. The message is the most powerful on the planet!!! It’s truth! The biggest obstacle is ourselves getting in the way of what these powerful people can do when given the access to do it. We need to not water down what these people are doing or are saying.  When an artist comes to XM 31 The Torch, I am here to serve them. I want to hear their story, record it and pass it on to my listeners. Their testimony is an encouragement to the listeners.

This is just one example of how not to get in the way. Some believe that the person in charge is accountable for whatever goes over the air. That is true, but in a Christian world that is based on Corinthians 13. Two qualities stand out in that chapter - Love always trusts and never fails. If I can present that on the air by being inclusive rather than exclusive for fear out of how a song message maybe perceived then I am fully accountable. So I try to get out of the way when I am not certain. Plus many times, the listener is smarter than I.

 

8. What do you believe is the primary role of the Christian radio air personality?

Passion for the music. We know you have passion for the ministry. I do both on air. But I am not trying to use the format to hopefully keep kids from listening to other things. They will do it anyway if they choose. But if I am honest in my presentation they will comeback and stay with us. So if you are connected like they are to the genre then you will be easily relatable. Some have questioned whether I was playing Christian music. Well if you are passionate, you know what is going on and are able to lead and build a relationship with a new listener who is examining your station for the first time.

I answer all emails personally. It is the most important thing I do. Some of the correspondence turns into conversations because people are passionate about Jesus and the music they hear on XM 31. The internet has deteriorated the traditional MEDIA gatekeeper’s authority in society. This job hasn’t given me privilege or a higher position in the cultural hierarchy, but an opportunity to communicate the ministry of reconciliation to more people. Spinning Christian tunes all day and reading a Bible verse on-air is NOT a ministry. Building relationships with people that get me and them one step closer to Jesus is ministry.  

 

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

RADIOU – They have proven the power of full-metal Christian radio. I have always admired their passion and execution to serve 12 -24 demo where they are in the culture and kicking maximus continually.

 

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

On the Internet. Wimax is coming soon.

 

 

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