Christian Music Broadcasters’ Pioneers: Sandi Brown

Many have seen The Jesus Music Film, released in 2021, which chronicled the early history of Contemporary Christian Music. Welcome to a series of articles/stories about some of the pioneers, (I call them “legends”) of Contemporary Christian Music Radio. In the coming months, I will share some of the stories of people who founded and grew the CCM radio format into what it is today. Some started radio stations with just a few dollars to their name. Some of them had radio experience. Many others did not. But all had vision, and a deep passion for CCM radio ministry in their community. There was a time when they were considered the rebels of Christian radio and media…Today, they are the pioneers. 

 

Sandi Brown – Overcomer, Groundbreaker for Women, Pioneer

Beginnings 

Sandi Brown wasn’t raised in a perfect Christian home where they listened to Christian music all day long and received encouragement together.  Actually, it was quite the opposite.   Sandi grew up in a broken home that was messy.  But her mom loved Jesus.

   

 

Because of all the pain and turmoil in those early years, she drank heavily to self-medicate during high school.  On the summer before her senior year of high school,  she cried out to God and she knows he heard (and probably smelt) her vodka drenched prayer.  On that day she asked God to save and change her life, and to give her one friend (because she knew she couldn’t hang out with the same crowd and follow Jesus). God answered every part of that prayer and the one new friend is still her best friend today, her husband, Mike.

Sandi and boyfriend (and future husband) Mike

Shortly after, she changed the spelling of her name from “Sandy” to “Sandi” because she wanted everyone to know that she wasn’t who she used to be. (Plus, the “i” seemed to work pretty for well for Sandi Patty at the time!)

 

CCM and CCM Radio

In 1984, Sandi fell in love with CCM music.  She even applied for a part-time position at the only Christian music station in St. Louis (WCBW). The General Manager (Linda Tiernan) asked her if she knew how to “run the board?”  She didn’t even know what that meant.  Linda was kind but didn’t hire her.  So, she volunteered at another radio station that had special programming for the visually impaired. Volunteers would read the newspaper over the air.  After several months of reading/training, she applied at WCBW again and was hired as a part-timer. Linda became a mentor and great friend.

She also admits that in her 20s, before she was married… she had a little crush on Carman. Maybe every woman in CCM did?   He came to St Louis and did a show at Six Flags.  Songs like… “The Champion.” “Lazarus Come Forth.” “Satan Bite The Dust.” “A Witch’s Invitation.” He had everyone  in the crowd all riled up. But Sandi was the only one invited backstage to interview him after the show, and she was told to have a seat and wait. He was taking a quick shower and would be ready to chat in a few minutes. In her words, “When Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome walked into the room, his wavy black hair was still wet and glistening. (On his head and his chest!)  His songs may have been cheesy. His attitude was lofty. But his hair and good looks were champions in my book!”

 

Carman headshot from 1980s

Sandi was making minimum wage, which was $3.35 an hour.  During that time, she also worked weekends at a mainstream AC station in St. Louis, making $20 an hour and that AC station offered a full-time position.  But before deciding, she prayed about it for several days, and said “I didn’t hear God audibly. But I believe He said this to me, ‘You may not see it now, but trust me. I have a plan.’” So, she turned down the mainstream position and continued to do mornings and eventually grew into a leadership role at WCBW.

Sandi Brown with co-worker Rick Sewell. Late 80s working for WCBW

 

Radio/Change/Growth

When WCBW was eventually sold in 1997 and the format changed.  St. Louis was left with no Christian music radio station.  As Sandi prayed for direction, she felt like God said, “Your circumstances have changed, but my plan hasn’t. Stay where you are.”

The next 3 ½ years were the most faith building season of her life. No job. No salary. No idea how to start a radio station. But she joined Bobbi Schuessler (another former WCBW employee) and formed a not-for-profit corporation and set out to bring a CCM radio station to St Louis.  They had no money and no experience in launching a radio ministry.  The goal was to find a signal to purchase then raise the needed funds to purchase it.  The only available option at the time was a rim shot signal that barely got into St. Louis and the price was $1.2million.  Together, they presented the opportunity to every church, business owner and former WCBW listener that they knew and raised ZERO dollars.

That’s right, not a penny.

It was discouraging, but they decided that their efforts had reached an end. During the actual final board meeting to “close up shop,” the phone randomly rang, and it was a business leader that they had talked to about the station. He asked if they still needed funds because he had been given some stock that was going public in a couple of weeks. He thought he might receive about $1million and if he did, he wanted the money to be used to bring Christian music back to STL.

God provided.

That very business owner eventyually made $2.4million and allocated $1.2million for the radio signal purchase and that was how JOY FM- St. Louis began in 2001.

 

Sandi at JOY FM 2001 sign on

Since neither Bobbi or Sandi had radio management experience, the Board of Directors for the new station hired a GM to take lead as JOY FM prepared to go on the air.  After accepting the position, the new hire unexpectedly reconsidered and then declined the opportunity. There wasn’t time to hire another GM before the station was launched, so the board asked if Sandi would serve in that role.   She told them that she would serve for one year only and even required a contract with the term clearly spelled out, because she had no desire to be the leader and she also felt she knew her own limitations.  That was 21 years ago.

“I am still aware of my many limitations,” she says, “But I love leading the JOY FM and BOOST team. It is the absolute best job that I never thought I wanted.”

In 2010 (nine years after coming on the air) God opened the door to purchase a full power signal, and their listening audience grew from 80,000 to almost 400,000 people in 6 months. In another stunning display of God’s provision, listeners paid the $18 million signal purchase off in 10 years.

Sandi with longtime on-air partner, Greg Cassidy, and Harlem Globetrotter, Meadowlark Lemon

“Our mission is to reach all of St. Louis for Christ…not simply those that like CCM,” adds Sandi, “In 2014, we launched BOOST (Pop.HipHop.Hope)!   Last year, we purchased a full power signal for BOOST in St. Louis. And because of a partnership with EMF, it is now also heard in Chicago, Minneapolis, Portland, Pittsburgh and Fayetteville, NC.”

Women in leadership in CCM radio?

Maybe it was because Sandi’s first boss/GM was a woman (Linda Tiernan/ WCBW) that she didn’t really think about the fact that it was rare our industry at that time to have a female GM?

She does remember hearing several guys on staff habitually criticizing Linda. When Linda was firm, they described her as a witch or worse.  When she showed heart or emotion, they made fun of her and linked it to the time of the month. She couldn’t win in the eyes of some on the staff.   Sandi remembers pondering, “If these same leadership actions were taken by a man, he would probably have been viewed as strong, decisive, caring and passionate.”  She still considers Linda as one of the best leaders she has worked for.  She does also remember that the more she attended GMA, NCRS and industry events,  she realized how few women were in the industry, let alone in leadership positions.

Sandi with another CCM female pioneer, Amy Grant

Sandi notes, “I don’t think gender makes someone a better or lesser leader, or employee. I’ve seen some men struggle to follow a female leader. But I’ve also seen some women struggle to follow a female leader. I have never wanted to solely present myself as a “female leader.” I would much rather have these words used to describe me: passionate, visionary, committed, mission minded, etc. I believe that we, as an industry, have grown and are better at celebrating leaders’ strengths whether they be male or female. It was an absolute honor to be the first female invited to serve on the CMB Board of Directors. In 2021, I was elected to serve as Chairperson for the board, the first female to serve in that role.”

 

Today

Currently, Sandi leads both JOY FM and BOOST RADIO as President of Gateway Creative Broadcasting where she is able to focus more on vision casting, mentoring and developing staff and exploring growth opportunities for both JOY FM and BOOST. She is also still on the air as part of the JOY FM Morning Show. Additionally, she serves as the Christian Music Broadcasters’ Board Chair.

Current on-air staff of JOY FM / BOOST: Mike Couchman, Scott Anthony, Jake Moore, Nick Spiniolis, Justin Paul, Neal Hopson, Kim Underwood, Yoshi, Tim Thomson, Jeremy Louis, Jordan DeSocio, JBo

 

Boost staff after winning CMB Station of the Year in 20

Sandi recently co-wrote a book called, Healing Out Loud: How To Embrace God’s Love When You Don’t Like Yourself.

It is an invitation to discover healing and vulnerability…something I wrestled with for years. I wrote it with my former therapist, Dr. Michelle Caulk, so you get a glimpse of healing from both sides of the couch…plus a Healing map to guide you along in your own journey.

Sandi and friend, Natalie Grant announce the new book

“The last few years have been full of emotional healing, vulnerable conversations and writing, she says, “Now that the book is out, God is opening doors for me to share with others (especially women) who wrestle with negative self-thoughts and shame. It is a season that I never saw coming. But it is so life giving!”

 

Final Word  – A few thoughts from Sandi Brown to our Industry…

I’ve been working in CCM radio for just over 35 years. I remember the first time I was given the privilege of going “live on-air.” It was 1985. I was a board op for the Saturday morning shift 6am-noon, which meant I started the talk and teaching programs (cassette and reel to reel tapes) that played during that time.  But from 6:45-7:00am was a 15-minute block of music. It was my time to shine. My debut as an official radio DJ. I was so nervous that I couldn’t stay out of the bathroom. I had one opportunity to speak during that window of time and I knew that my future broadcasting career was dependent on how well I did. So, I wrote out every word of my :08 talk-over and rehearsed it no less than 27 times. Even though my name was Sandi Shadowens, I was prepared to use my “radio name” of Beth Brown.  (My middle name and future husband’s last name). My heart was racing as the song ended and I clicked on the microphone for the first time.  “Good morning, St. Louis! My name is Sandi Patty…..uuuum. No, it isn’t. I’m Sandi Shadowens. I mean..no I’m not….Here’s Carman on WCBW.”  It felt like that was both the beginning and the end of my broadcasting career. An :08 disastrous run. But, God.

As I reflect on what I have learned over these 35 years, I think about these things:

  1. Understanding your mission is essential. For years, I thought we were in the radio business or even the Christian music industry.  But God lovingly showed us that we are missionaries to our city. That clarity has changed the way we “do business.” It changes the culture inside of the building. We’re on mission together. It isn’t about any of us. It is about the people we get to serve. And it impacts what we do in our community. There is freedom and joy in serving. We’re not chasing “bigger” or “more.” We’re simply sold out to the mission. Our belief is that if we love and serve people well, God will give us more people to love. That is the mission.
  2. Let God do the dreaming and vision casting. I used to feel a lot of pressure as a leader to “think big” and come up with the next great idea that no one had ever thought of before. But God has reminded me that He doesn’t need help with thinking big. I can’t find a time in scripture where God asks His people to conjure up an idea so He can bless it. But there are countless times when God revealed His “You’re not going to believe this” plan and invited His people to follow. And, it was always big… so big it was impossible without Him. God has an impeccable track record at doing really big things through really insignificant, yet faithful, people. There is nothing better than seeing God do what only He can do. That’s why I have a metal rendering of a pig with wings in my office. Nothing is impossible with Him! If/when we believe that, it will change the way the live and lead.
  3. We need to value rest and honesty more than we do. When I began my career, I thought that the more hours I worked, the better employee I was. My passion ran deep. And it seemed God honoring to be overextended, overtired and emotionally depleted. Those were the indicators that I had given God my very best. I don’t believe that any longer. A few years ago, I asked my Board of Directors if I could take a sabbatical. I recognized some things in me that I didn’t want to continue: weariness, feeling numb and lack of inner peace. The weeks I took off from work and the year I spent in counseling was so life giving and life altering. I slept in. Read my Bible everyday (not for show prep but for my soul). Traveled. Journaled. It took several weeks before my mind “detached” from thinking and worrying about work. The lessons learned were many. But at the core was a realization that I need rest. Regularly. Not just sleep. But time to think, pray and be curious about things other than radio. Time to relax. Laugh. Learn. Be grateful. None of those were priorities before my sabbatical.
  4. Lastly, for me, embracing rest began when I got honest. With myself. With Him. And with others. We don’t get extra credit for working harder or longer. We get anxiety, depression and numb. And I see this so often in my industry peers. But we suffer in silence. Because we feel we can’t be honest about the condition of our hearts. Or we think we’ll be misunderstood for calling “time out” or building more time in our lives for rest.  I pray that we will find the strength and courage to be as honest as Elisha who honestly cried out to God for help and rest. God didn’t shame Elisha. He fed him. Told him to rest. Then whispered life giving words to him. We will never hear God’s voice if we’re chasing the next earthshaking, industry rattling thing. But if we honestly cry out in exhaustion to him, let Him tend to our souls, and wait for Him to speak, we just may hear him whisper.

Do you have a suggestion for a future article/pioneer that should be featured?  Reach out to me at fdice@onechild.org  

Faron Dice has been in Christian Music Radio for almost 40 years.  He is the former Chief Content Officer for WayFM, and currently serves at National Director of Radio and Artist Engagement for OneChild.

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2022 Membership Exclusives

January – 2022 Calendar
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