Welcome to a series of stories about the pioneers of Contemporary Christian Music Radio. You can read some the previous stories here. Some of these pioneers started radio stations with just a few dollars to their name. Many had very little radio experience. But each had vision, a calling, and a deep passion for using Contemporary Christian Music and radio to impact their community. There was a time they were considered the rebels in the stodgy Christian industry of the time. Today, they are considered the pioneers.
Bob Souer – Raising the Standard of Professionalism, Jesus follower and CCM lover, Kind
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Christian Countdown USA was the “must-listen” weekly syndicated Christian music countdown show. It aired on hundreds of CCM radio stations and helped the Christian AC format by raising the bar for excellence and creating a national Top 20 playlist. Bob Souer was the host of Christian Countdown USA from 1986-1996. He was, and still is, one of the smoothest voices you will ever hear, and one of the nicest guys you will ever meet in radio and voiceover.
Bob Souer grew up in the church. He came to fully realize his need for salvation as a young boy of 7 years of age. He was baptized at the age of 16. He believes that God has watched over him and guided his steps all through his life.
His grandmother was the town librarian in the small town in North Central Minnesota where he grew up. As soon as he was old enough to read, he quickly became an avid reader; and maybe avid isn’t quite strong enough a word, because his grandmother actually told his mom that she thought he was reading too much! (For a librarian to say somebody is reading too much is pretty remarkable.) But as he reflects, he believes the love for reading eventually gave him an expansive vocabulary which has been a valuable asset in his voice over and broadcasting career.
But broadcasting and voice over wasn’t the plan. From Junior High through High School and then College, Bob wanted to train to be an opera singer. In his final year of college, he was even given an opportunity to audition for one of the main coaches at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. But as he was preparing, he learned that no matter how much this man (coach) liked him that day…He was not going to go straight to the Met. Instead, he was going to have to move to Europe for several years and grow his reputation. (That’s just how it worked.) Well, he had gotten married a couple of years before this audition, and he realized that dragging his wife to live in other countries was not going to be good. So, he cancelled the opera audition that day. But he still believes that those years of vocal training were NOT wasted because he has been able to use those skills every day in his voiceover and audiobook narration work. The breath support. The understanding of the line of a song (or now story) from beginning to end. And on and on. God didn’t waste a drop of what he had learned.
Bob got into radio in the craziest of ways… First, he worked as a sales manager for a very large record store in the Chicago area. (You remember the black vinyl discs?) At the store, one of the regular shoppers offered him a different job of selling houses and he took it. And shortly after that, one of the first people he sold a house to was a program director of a radio station. That PD hired him as an air talent. A little later, he was hired at WCRM a contemporary Christian music station that was based in Dundee, IL (a northwest suburb, a little north of Elgin). Over the course of all this time God was at work, teaching him how to be a communicator.
Christian Countdown USA was started in 1984 by Chuck Wagner (producer) and Jim Channell (The show’s first host). Chuck had been working for many years for the Moody Broadcasting Network and very much wanted to produce a show that was targeted at young people. They worked on this new show together. After a year, Jim needed to step away from hosting the program. Chuck then asked George McNerlin to host, which he did for the year 1985. But after a year, he too resigned. Bob then auditioned to become the host and Chuck chose him to take over the show. That was in early 1986. The show was already airing on 200 stations, by then!
But it wasn’t the glitz and glamour of Hollywood! Instead, for a while, they recorded the show at Domain (Christian Syndication) studios and offices. But they couldn’t afford their studio fees, so they bounced around and scrounged studio time when and when we could, relying on the kindness of strangers and fellow broadcasters. It wasn’t easy and not a recommended way to meet a weekly production deadline! Eventually, Chuck bought a home in Wheaton and they pooled their equipment and bought a couple of new pieces of gear, including a custom “plate reverb” unit, a multi-track (4-track) Tascam reel-to-reel recorder and so forth, and they set it up in Chuck’s house.
The two made a good team. Chuck was producer and director. Bob learned much about voice delivery, audio storytelling, and connecting with the listener from Chuck. After a couple of years, Chuck was hired by CBN and so Bob moved the recording gear to the spare bedroom of his house and took over production. Chuck remained the owner of the program and eventually convinced the powers that be at CBN to hire Bob and move him to Virginia Beach. He continued the show from his house there. Chuck later sold the program to the CBN Radio Network and eventually CBN sold their entire radio network to Salem.
In the early years, Bob conducted and recorded all of the interviews.
Old timers (and audio nerds) in radio might enjoy knowing these details…They bought lots of Ampex open reel recording tape (10 inch reels) back in those days, and recorded all of the interviews for the first several years on a reel-to-reel recorder which Bob lugged everywhere. They eventually switched to minidisc and then to a portable DAT machine for recording interviews. As for editing and production, they used the multitrack reel-to-reel deck to do final production of the show for the first 5 years, and then switched to using Digital Audio Workstation software in 1991. Only people with long memories will know the name Microsound DAW.
How were the Top 20 song selected back then?
Bob says, “I don’t know for sure how the 20 songs were chosen in the beginning, but eventually we conducted a survey of several of our affiliate stations and then compiled the song list from their responses. After CBN bought the program in 1989, they took over compiling the song list and then for the last few years we worked out a deal with CCM (the magazine) to use their research.”
All good things must…
In 1994, Christian Countdown USA merged with a program that CCM magazine had started, and the name was changed to “The CCM Countdown with Bob Souer.” About two years later, the producers of the show decided they wanted a bigger star to host the show and asked Gary Chapman (who was a known CCM artist and was hosting a television program on the Nashville Network) to take over as host. There was a transition program in which Bob introduced Gary as the new host. From there, Gary took over as host of what was called “The CCM Countdown with Gary Chapman.” For Bob, it was a great 10-year run. About 5 years later, the producers decided to shut down production of the program. The show ended in 2001.
Bob Souer is the “Second nicest guy in voice over”
In 2006 (after CC USA) Bob was cast to narrate the entire New King James Version of the Bible. Needless to say, that is jumping into the deep end of the pool in the world of audiobooks, because the Bible is not easy to read, with all of the Hebrew names and items and places and all that. But it was great audio book experience and took him eleven months to record at Thomas Nelson. This audio version of the Bible is still available on audible.com and amazon.com.
After the Bible recording, Bob’s voice over and narration career began to take over. He was hired by a company, for whom he’s now narrated more than three hundred audiobooks! He actually ended up narrating the Bible twice. And he voiced John Calvin’s The Institutes of the Christian Religion, (another very large book with lots of Greek and Hebrew words.)
Today, he voices audio books for several different publishers, narrating nonfiction, exclusively. Topics are all over the place: biographies, histories, theology, scientific books, books on mathematics. He has even read books that are strongly pro-evolution and the books that are strongly pro-creationism. In his words, “My job is to do the best job I can in presenting the author’s point of view as effectively and powerfully as I can. That’s what I try to do, whether I personally agree with it or not is immaterial. So yeah, I mean, it’s endlessly fascinating and there’s always something new to talk about.” If you google Bob Souer, you’ll see he’s mentioned at “the second nicest guy in voice over…
One last CC USA Story…
While Bob was hosting Christian Countdown USA, doctors discovered that his wife Kathy, had cancer. By the time they found, it was already stage four. She was able receive some really good chemotherapy that helped her to live an extra two and a half years. But on January 29th, 1988, at 1:21 in the afternoon, Kathy slipped from here to eternity. Bob shares these thoughts…
When I was with my wife, after the oncologist delivered the bad news following the two-year remission, we sat there in silence for several minutes and then Kathy turned to me and said, “I don’t want to die, Bob. I want to watch my daughter Karen grow up. I want to live with you. I want to continue together.” Sometimes you have one of those moments where, you know, God reaches into the situation and provides guidance, because I don’t think any of what I said next was anything I could have come up with on my own. I said, “Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I think what’s going to happen is that you’re going to step through that veil and turn around and Karen and I will be right there behind you. Because the only thing that we know about eternity is that it’s not in time. It doesn’t move in a linear fashion like time does. So, I don’t think you’re going to be aware of the passing of time while you’re waiting for us. We’re just going to be right there.” That’s what came to me. We don’t have the infinite perspective that God does. Our inability to see everything and understand it all at once would prevent us from being very good at being sovereign.
Chuck Wagner filled in for Bob on CC USA on the week that Kathy died. They had already announced the news of her cancer on the show, but after her death the show received hundreds of letters of encouragement from listeners. Bob still has bags of letters stored today in his garage.
Final words from Bob…
Dear CCM Radio Friends,
The single most important thing I learned from my time at CC USA was to listen carefully when you are doing an interview. Almost always, your guest will say something that will prompt a follow-up question and the interviews that flow like that are always the most interesting. When I reflect on my time hosting the program, my heart is filled with gratitude for all of the friends I made, the people I got to meet and spend time with and the many opportunities to talk with people about what God was doing in their lives. Truly, God is good, all the time!
Who is a 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 loves working with radio stations and artists as National Director of Radio and Artist Engagement for OneChild.