Welcome to a series of stories about some of the pioneers of Contemporary Christian Music Radio. Previous articles/stories can be found 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 when many of them were considered the rebels in Christian media. Today, they are considered the pioneers.
Jim McDermott – Maverick, Determined, Big Vision in Small Market
Wikipedia lists Camdenton, Missouri with a population of 4038 people in 2019, but you might be surprised at how many long-term CCM radio veterans have been a part of the Jim McDermott-Spirit FM/ KCVO story. Read on.
Jim McDermott grew up going to church, but it was formal and non-evangelical. (You know, just go to church, be good and you will go to heaven.)
During his junior year of high school, he had the opportunity to hear the true Gospel, and after graduation, he finally made the decision to give his life to Jesus and that changed his whole direction in life. Instead of going to Iowa State to be an electronics system’s engineer, he took the advice of his sister and went to Southwest Baptist College in Bolivar, MO. That was a great decision because he met his wife Alice there.
At SWBC, Jim felt called to the ministry but not as a Pastor. So, he went on to seminary with the idea of becoming a college professor, but God had other plans. After watching the 700 Club in 1976, he was struck with the clear vision of how many people could be reached through broadcasting. Finishing his M.Div., he tried to find a media job, but it wasn’t until he moved back to Missouri that he got his first radio job in 1978. After a year of playing country music, his first Christian radio position moved him to Gilmer, TX. In 6 months, he was promoted to station manager for KLXL in Dubuque, IA. In 1983, Alice and Jim moved back to Camdenton, MO (the Lake of the Ozarks) where they would start KCVO.
It January, 1983, when Jim was approached by a doctor friend about starting a Christian station. There were some exploratory meetings and from those meetings a group of four men met regularly and began to plan how to get this new station started. In January 1984, they filed for a 3kw FM in Camdenton and in October of that year, the FCC granted the construction permit. This was the beginning of KCVO, “the Christian Voice of the Ozarks.” (Keep in mind, Jim was only 31, and knew nothing about fundraising.)
Amazingly, they raised enough in donations to build a 24’x28’ studio building, buy equipment, and sign on the air. The entire building only cost $3,500 to build, because they received so many donated materials including shingles , roofing, wall studs, roof trusses, sliding doors, windows, vinyl flooring and a lot of labor. As the building went up, Jim was out there building the foundation forms by himself one day, and member of his church came by to see the progress. He told him that his forms would collapse as soon as they started pouring concrete. Soon, this 70-year-old, former banker, jumped in with a sledge and proceeded to put bracing all around the plywood forms. According to Jim, “God provides even when you don’t know you need help!”
The original studio equipment left a lot to be desired: Left over cart machines, a used Russco board, etc. He remembers that he purchased the old control board, two microphones, and a Revox reel to reel tape deck — all for $250!
September 2, 1985, KCVO signed on. The first song on the air, was Gentle Hands, by Truth! Dean O’Neal, who lived in KC somehow heard about the station and drove down to be there. He was only around 19 at the time and was already a radio geek. Those first few years were very lean financially. There was no “safety net,” and they needed at least $5,000 per month to keep the station alive. Some months it came down to the last day, but in the mail just enough money would come in. There were only two full-time employees: Jim and Gordie Wenzel. They each covered 9 hours on the air, M-F! Thankfully, some part-timers came in on the weekend. They even used heat from the transmitter to stay warm. If you have heard Todd Isberner share radio stories, you may have heard him tell the “horse story.” KCVO hired Todd to help during their second Sharathon in May 1986. (Keep in mind, the station building was in the middle of a field that was rented out for pasture. The station had a window that looked out over that field.) The station window was open for some fresh air, and Todd walked into the lobby and there was a horse with its head stuck completely through the window. Yes, KCVO was THAT station!
One of the biggest struggles was keeping an old transmitter on the air. Jim quickly gained lots of experience replacing tubes, fixing transistors and trying not to get electrocuted. These were all done in his “spare” time.
Over a hundred people have worked at KCVO-Spirit FM through the last 36 years. In 1987, Jim was struggling to find someone to do a live music show in the afternoon. A young man who had done radio part-time in St. Joseph, MO, just happened to see a sign they had on the highway, and called to see if they needed help. His name was Faron Dice. The main problem was they didn’t have the funds to pay another full-time person. So, at GMA that year, Jim sought the advice of Jon Hull, who challenged him to “Go for it and watch God work.” He did hire Faron, who only stayed with them for a year, but he helped increase the station quality a notch or two.
After Faron, a 21-year old Army wife from Fort Leonard Wood joined KCVO. Her name was Lisa Williams. She came in one day looking for a job – any job – even cleaning toilets. But Jim knew within 5 minutes that she was someone he needed to put on the air. While her first few shows were a bit squeaky, she soon blossomed into a talent who played a big part in helping KCVO become a successful station. Lisa was also instrumental in pushing for the name change to Spirit FM in February, 1994. At this point, the station had grown with translators and had expanded beyond the “Ozarks.”
And then there was Caryn Cruise (Sweat). While driving home on a Saturday night, Jim heard Caryn randomly on-the air on the KCVO weekend “teen” show, when she was just hanging around as a groupie. He called her the next week and hired her. She eventually took over the afternoon show and Bob Thornton lured later her away to KXOJ in Tulsa. Jim is also certain that he introduced Caryn to Jeremy Sweat at a CMB summit in Dallas. That led to their marriage, a move to work at Salem Nashville, and now they are doing mornings together at KCBI, Dallas.
Other notable talent who spent time at Spirit FM include Fred Young, Karen Dye, KC Wright, Jack Robertson and current morning show co-host, Brook Ullum.
In those early years, there was no money to sponsor concerts, so the station piggy-backed on to any event they could. Gordon Jensen, came to Jim’s church for a concert, so they made it a KCVO event. A college kid from Eldon, MO, brought in Wayne Watson, who was a big named artist at the time. Later, as the station grew, there were Sharathon concerts with Mark Lowry, Bruce Carroll, Michael Card, Billy Sprague, and Phillips, Craig and Dean. They also had the privilege of helping the Missouri State Fair put on a CCM concert for several years in the 90’s.
During one Mark Lowry concert in November a huge snowstorm happened during the show, so that when people walked out the door, they encountered 7” of snow! Several groups were stranded at the Lake for two days. But to make it worse, Mark was booked in Bolivar, MO the next night and St. Joseph after that. He referred to this as the tour from frozen hell!
Jim first attended NGRS (National Gospel Radio Seminar) in 1982 while working at KLXL in Dubuque. Gary Chapman, Twila Paris and Silverwind were the new artists that year. He met Lloyd Parker and Joe Battaglia at this meeting in Estes Park. After a couple of years out of radio, Jim and Alice attended GMA (Gospel Music Association) in Nashville in 1986. “It was amazing! Jim says, “I met so many of my long-term radio friends that year: Allen Henderson, Steve Swanson, Rick Tarrant and Jon Hull. That was the year it changed from NGRS to NCRS (National Christian Radio Seminar.”) Being a “squeaky wheel” kind of guy, Jim lobbied that year for a separate inspo radio chart, since inspo artists were some of the top sellers. A few months later, Musicline added the chart and Brad Burkhart came along a little later with an inspo chart in this publication, CRR (Christian Research Report). Anyone remember CRR?
By 1988, he had volunteered to be on the Agenda committee and several years after that was invited to be on the NCRS Steering committee. “I realized,” he says, “that through NCRS I was learning how to do radio the right way, and I wanted to play a role in the organization to pass on what I was learning.” He later had the privilege of being there when CMB was formed and served as the first Small Market board member. He is adamant when he says, “CMB has helped so many stations to attract audiences far beyond what we all dreamed in those early days. I am thankful to get to play a small part in that growth and be a champion for small market stations.”
Thoughts from Jim today:
One of the first lessons I learned as a non-com station manager was that people give to people (they know and trust), not to organizations. Every station needs to be meeting your listeners face to face as often as you can. Get your personalities out of the studio. Use social media to actually be “social” with your listeners. Just responding to a text can turn a listener into a fan.
Another secret to my “success” is to never be satisfied. I once thought that if KCVO could ever get to an income of $12,000/month, we would be set for life. Small thinking will hinder your growth. God opened doors for us to expand with translators and multiple stations to the point where we are a sizable Midwest network. You’d think at 68 I’d be satisfied to just coast. Nope! We applied for several new stations during the recent FCC filing window and hope to add to our network soon. Never be satisfied. God can do more than you can ever dream through your stations.
Last, but not least, please do not forget or minimize that we are CHRISTIAN music broadcasters. If we try to just blend into the culture, we will lose the very source of our power – GOD! He must be pre-eminent in our programming. Yes, you can find fresh and relevant ways to present the message, but it is JESUS that we have to share above all else!
Where do we go from here? #1 – as I just said, keep Jesus at the forefront of everything we do. Don’t compromise the message just because it’s unpopular. #2 – Love people. Our programming has to reach out to touch not only the ears of our listeners, but to allow opportunity for listeners to have their lives changed for the better. #3 – Remember: two things a listener cannot get anywhere else are your personalities and your promotions. Hire the best people you can and give them the tools to succeed. Challenge everyone on your staff to strive for excellence and always do more than is expected. For radio to survive in a digital, on-demand world, we have to find creative ways to tangibly affect our listener’s lives beyond the medium itself. These are challenges for me and I hope all of my CMB friends will take them on, too.
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.