CMB Pioneers: Bob Thornton
Welcome to another story about one of the pioneers of Contemporary Christian Music Radio. You can read previous stories here. Some of these pioneers started radio stations with just a few dollars to their name. Many had very little radio experience. Some worked in mainstream radio before coming to CCM. But each had vision, a calling, and a deep passion for using Contemporary Christian Music Radio to impact their community.
Bob Thornton – Leader, Innovator, Forward-thinking
Bob Thornton received Christ at a summer church camp when he was 11 years old. Soon after returning home his parents told him they were divorcing. The chaos that followed kept him from getting baptized and joining a church until he was in middle school. Still, he was fortunate because his older brother eventually came home from a church camp with an 8-track of Sweet Comfort Band. “Angel” was the first “Christian Rock” song he ever heard. He fell in love with CCM and gobbled every record and tape up he could find, from DeGarmo & Key to Petra to Daniel Amos. He knew at a young age that he wanted to be involved in getting this music into as many ears as possible and by the time he was 16, he was already working part-time in radio.
There were only two local radio stations in Clinton, Oklahoma and Bob was hired at the age of 16 at KWOE to “rip and read” the afternoon news after school. He worked there part-time until he graduated high school. After that, during his freshman year of college, he began working full-time at the other Clinton station, KCLI. First, as Production Director, and then 6 months later as part of the Bob & Todd morning show. In Bob’s words, “We were awful but it was fun!” A year or so later, he moved to Weatherford, OK and took over evenings on KBXR-FM (AC). It was there he started a Sunday morning CCM show called, “Heartbeat.” (He had heard the Ops Manager could not get anyone to work Sunday mornings so Bob offered to do it for free if he could play CCM and the Ops Manager agreed!)
After college, Bob moved to Oklahoma City where he became a sponge with regards to learning all things radio; music scheduling, announcing, ratings, clocks, news, etc. He did whatever he could to gain experience and knowledge and eventually he was given his first chance to program a CCM full-time at KNTL-FM. (Note here about Bob… Even though 80% or more of CCM radio stations are non com radio stations, Bob has worked his entire career at commercial CCM stations.)
“I was always attracted to the idea of of doing CCM radio on the same playing field as commercial radio, that is, to compete head to head and trying to get the ratings to support the station through advertising,” he says. “I later heard about the philosophy of Gene Warr, a Christian businessman in OKC who loved the idea of a ministry that generates its own revenue. He believed that if the radio station could pay its bills with advertising, the listener could give to another ministry. The advertiser would profit and could give to a ministry and the station could profit and give, so 3 generations of giving could happen instead of just one gift to pay our electric bill. I always loved that idea and while I’ve never precluded the possibility of non-comm, I have always enjoyed that business model.”
KNTL “The Light 105” was on the air from 1992 until 1996, when Bott Radio Network acquired the station and eventually turned into to a Christian Teaching/Talk format. One of Bob’s first hires at KNTL was Ryan Springer. Looking back, the station was always a struggling, bootstrapped effort by people who really wanted CCM radio for OKC. The city already had a Christian rock station, the legendary KOKF. However, under CBN’s ownership the station struggled to grow. The home office changed General Managers 3 times in 6 months and ultimately succumbed to an identity crisis.
Bob also remembers the first record label rep he ever met in person was Grant Hubbard, who started at Word around the same time he started at KNTL. They have continued to be great friends ever since, even though the Oklahoma Sooners are 3-1 against Alabama since that first meeting.
After it became clear that KNTL was not going to make it long-term, Bob began looking at Wichita. He had met Lyman James a year before and heard about the similar things they were trying to do with commercial Christian radio there. He joined KTLI as APD in March of 1993.
“KTLI was one of those stations where for a short season everything just worked,” he says. “We had some phenomenal air talent in Lyman James, Craig West, Ryan Springer, Kathy Sprinkle, and many others.” They were soon able to upgrade the signal to 50,000 watts and the station grew. Rich Mullins lived in Wichita until his passing in September of 1997. He became a great friend of the station. Eventually, Bob was named PD and not long after that, he began to innovate in digital technology. KTLI was possibly the first CCM station to stream on the internet. It was on a 28k modem that ran to a dial-up internet service in downtown Wichita and took almost daily reboots and fixes, but even then, there was no going back. They had listeners from overseas almost immediately! Bob also started the PD email Forum which continues to this day. (Note: Today, Bob continues to serve CCM radio with these email forums in conjunction with CMB. There are several collaborative email groups that you can join here, including Programming Forum, DJ Forum, Managers Forum, etc.) He eventually developed mobile apps, music research software, Alexa skills, WordPress plugins, and more. And started a side company called Radioservers that is thriving today.
While he was at KTLI, he was utilizing Jon Rivers as the station image voice and the two became good friends. They had a few conversations about Bob joining KLTY and he even interviewed twice. “In early 1998, I felt like we were headed to Dallas,” he says. “But then David Stephens offered me the National PD position with his growing company and a chance to move to Tulsa. With 2 very small children, my wife Jackie and I felt like Tulsa would be a great environment to raise them in, and we made the move Labor Day weekend of 1998. My second day on the job KLTY’s GM John Peroyea called me from the Tulsa airport. He was in town to take me to lunch and try to talk me into coming to Dallas- on my second day of work in Tulsa! I have not told many people that story. We ate spaghetti at Zio’s while he told me that Jon Rivers really wanted me there to help with imaging and programming so he wanted to take one more shot. It was a huge honor but I had already made a commitment to KXOJ and so we kept unpacking. That was 25 years ago.” In September 2023, Bob celebrated his 25th anniversary at KXOJ!
“As I look back, I’ve had to the chance to work with and learn from some amazing people,” says Bob. “Ryan Springer (WBGL) and I worked together in Oklahoma City and Wichita. Craig West and I worked together in Wichita and then I convinced him to move to Tulsa and join me at KXOJ. We hired Mike Kankelfritz from the country station in town to be his morning show partner. Mike would go on to KSBJ and then call on Craig again to join him as the morning show at KLOVE. In Tulsa I had the privilege of hiring Dan Ratcliffe (WFSH), Rachelle Renee’ (KSBJ), Scott Herrold (Hope Media), Caryn Cruise (KCBI), Gary Thompson (who had stops at several CCM stations before returning to KXOJ a few years ago). I was able to work for a short time with Dave Gordon (Northwestern Media), Kurt Wallace, Terese Main (Family Life), Chad Bradley (WCVO) and Ashton (Air 1). Locally we have some amazing people in Dave Weston and Katie Rindt, who are the best morning show team I’ve ever worked with, and our latest addition- Kevin Davis who spent time with RTN before coming to Tulsa. I am sure I am leaving someone out- I’m getting old!”
“I could share a hundred stories about Craig West, all hilarious. He had action figures glued to the hood of his VW Bug! He is truly the funniest human I have ever known. When we hired Rachelle right out of OU (Boomer Sooner!) she included a head shot photo. Kurt Wallace was APD at the time and showed it to me. We were like “why a photo for radio?” But she was ahead of her time- knowing social media was just around the corner at the time. Oh, and ask Scott Herald sometime about the consequences of wearing muddy shoes into the studio- he tells the story much better than I can.”
“I’ve been humbled to call Steven Curtis Chapman a friend since 1987. My fiancé (now wife of 33 years), Jackie and I went to a little store-front church in Oklahoma City called the Sonlight Center to see him in concert. It was poorly promoted and he was pretty new to the scene. There were maybe 20 people there in a small room with a tiny PA and just Steven and his guitar. He was amazing. We recorded an interview after the show and ended up talking forever. We’ve been friends ever since and still talk all the time. I love that about this industry- there are so many artists and radio people who become genuine friends.”
“My first GMA was in 1992 and remember that I drove all the way back from Nashville wearing out the “cassingle” of Man You Would Write About from 4Him. What’s crazy is Andy Chrisman lives in Tulsa now just a few blocks from me and we like to take each other to hole in the wall Mexican places. He wants me to try Sushi (as does DJ Maj with a passion) but I refuse. Some of the best industry friendships I’ve made were started at GMA or CMB conventions. Dave Gordon, Jason Sharp, Doug Hannah and many others feel like brothers I could talk to about anything, and it’s only because we stayed up until the wee hours talking at those events.”
“In late 1999 (when everyone was freaking out over Y2K) we decided to do a “Legends” concert and celebrate the best music of the 20th century. We had The Ragamuffins as the house band with Dana Key, Greg X. Volz, David Meece, Phil Keaggy, Farrell & Farrell, Billy Smiley from Whiteheart, Patrick Andrew from PFR, Randy Stonehill and Bryan Duncan. The concert nearly didn’t happen. The Ragamuffins flew in and it did not occur to us to rent backline. We scrambled to the only music store in town and cobbled together the gear about 2 hours before doors! There’s a cool review online still – https://tollbooth.org/creviews/legend99.html”
Today and tomorrow…
“I’m a forward-thinking person, so I don’t do enough reflecting to be honest,” he says. “What I have learned from the past though is that there is no replacement for personal connection on the air. There is no music rotation or promotion or marketing or social media or strategy or ai or anything else that can substitute for personal connection. Mark Rider taught me in 1991 that you can make a great connection with the audience by giving away quarters and loaves of bread. Budget does not matter. Size does not matter. One person at a time matters.”
“Today, I find myself spending more time on the future of radio delivery. We all know that streaming is growing annually and in some cases surpasses terrestrial reach. However, the method, quality and end-user experience are always changing/improving. The first time I streamed a station was at KTLI Wichita in 1996 on a 28k modem. People had to have “high speed” of 28k or higher just to listen to it. It felt like a miracle. Fast forward to all of the platforms where radio can be accessed today, from phones to televisions to smart speakers and with all the meta data, trivia and companion experiences. Who knows that that package looks like in 3-5 years. I’m on multiple Amazon, Apple and Google teams to explore these topics and more, including ai being used in a responsible way (to enhance delivery, not replace airstaff or artists). At some point I’ll think we’ll be talking about a single user experience, as opposed to multiple channels. Today we see it as radio and streaming and social media and websites, etc. We need to start thinking about blending all of it into a single unified experience for everyone, including those who are not P1’s.”
Who is another CCM Radio Pioneer that should be featured in a future article? Reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Faron Dice has been in Christian Music Radio for almost 40 years. He is the former Chief Content Officer for WayFM, and currently works closely with radio stations and artists as National Director of Partnerships for OneChild.