“Be a communicator. I don’t need a DJ.”
What got you started in radio? I found as a young fellow growing up on a gentleman’s farm, it was a lot easier than bucking hay bales.
My parents are still on an honest-to-God homestead. That chunk of land was homesteaded in the late 1800s by my Pyron Great-Great-Grans. My folks built a house on the land when I was in 2nd grade, and it’s where I grew up.
The local radio station was an important part of our community, and I was always enthralled with it. As a kid, I was bitten by the CB radio bug, and communicating wirelessly was a fascination to me.
At the tender age of 14, I decided to give it a shot. It turned into fulltime employment, even in high school. Wound up being the morning news guy … in small market radio you did everything. I carried a list of accounts, did play by play …
In high school? Yes, and after college as well. When I was ready to graduate from college, I was beginning to start the resume process when my old manager from my first station – which in the interim had added one of those new-fangled FMs – came to see me. He had a job for me as a Production/Operations person. He gave me some low ball offer, and I responded with what I thought a college graduate ought to be making. He scratched his head and walked out, and I thought, “Well, back to resume writing!”
He called me back the next day and said, “You know, we can make that work!” I said, “I’ll be there!”
I did that for a couple of years, and then went on to do some PR and development work out of the radio business for a while. I came back to Branson, MO in the mid 80s, and all of a sudden heard some good things happening at the radio station. It had been a small market, home spun radio station. One day, though, there was this booming voice on the station. Come to find out, there were new owners and they were changing things. I decided I needed to be a part of that.
Quite serendipitously, I walked into a downtown restaurant, and there was my buddy Charlie Earls, who I had worked for back in Berryville! All those years later, he had bought the station in Branson, and it’s still Earls Family Broadcasting today. I’ve worked here for 25 years.
We grew it from a small AM, 1,000 watt operation. Added an FM that’s now 50,000 watts. Added a 2nd 50,000 watt station. It’s been a wonderful ride to grow up with the industry.
Who have your radio heroes been? Through college, as we were trying to hone our chops a bit, we were told to pick out somebody that we admired and figure out what made them tick. Tom Brokaw was the young, new up-and-comer evening news anchor. I was doing news at the time for the college station, so I followed him. After college, I got hooked on Paul Harvey. One day, back in Berryville right after college, the phone rang and it was some folks from the college where I graduated, and they told me that Paul Harvey was looking for a School of the Ozarks graduate that might be interested in joining his organization, and they thought of me!
It turned out that Mr. Harvey was going to in St Louis, and I got to have an interview. It was one of the great experiences of my life to sit across from the master and let him ask me questions and tell me some things, too. It turned out that Mr. Harvey was looking for someone to work in the back and write … I was looking for something a little bit closer to the microphone. It didn’t work out, but we kept in touch and it was a wonderful thing to call Paul Harvey one of my friends.
How did you become a part of your community? Branson is a very welcoming community. It’s a tourism town; we host upwards of 10,000,000 guests a year, with a lot of repeat visitors. It’s nothing put on or made up. As old hillbillies, we realized early on that tourists were a lot easier to cultivate than cotton.
We truly realize that this is our bread butter, and with the advent of the lakes, and the natural beauty of the area … and genuine Ozark hospitality, it’s done well for our community.
As a newcomer, I was only 2 hours from home. I was still a hillbilly. We shared a lot of the same beliefs and backgrounds, so that was easy.
I had an opportunity to work for the college where I graduated. I got involved with civic organizations, like Lions Club. I’ve been a member of the local Masonic lodge for 30 years now. I’ve worked with the downtown association and volunteered a lot of time to emcee various events.
Branson has the Adoration Parade every year, the first Sunday in December. We have a gigantic nativity scene that sprawls across the hill across the lake from town. It’s a tradition began in 1948. The parade is totally non-commercial; it’s about keeping the Christ in Christmas. 15 years ago, the longtime emcee of that parade was ready to step down, and I’ve been doing it every year since.
You become ingrained in the community. They welcome you, but you feel you need to do your part, too, to keep pushing it along. I’ve really been honored to do that.
Before I say something publicly, or post something publicly, or, for that matter, read a piece of copy … if it’s something that I really can’t agree with, or don’t think it stacks up to core values, I’m going to let it go. That’s what makes Branson the special place that it is … the core values of the community that are well shared.
What are you doing on the tech side? I have a great support team. I’ve got a contract engineer we’ve worked with for almost 20 years now; he knows everything like the back of his hand. Since we went to the Skylla system from Smarts, talk about service. People there help you out with a simple phone call. They make my job easy. We’ve been very impressed with the up time of the system. If I can keep all of the satellite receivers and ancillary equipment working, it’s going to play it back for me.
HD? We’ve looked at it, and haven’t found it financially right yet for our company. As demographics change in our part of the world, then perhaps it will be something we’ll look at doing.
Streaming? We are. We use Abacast. We stream all of the stations. We also put up a camera in the studio and we actually video stream when we are live in the mornings. If people want to see what our guests look like, they can listen and watch. On mobile devices, we’re on TuneIn, so people can listen that way, too.
Website? It’s pretty focused on hometown daily news. All of the stories our news department cranks out goes up there. Community calendar, cancellations, special contests … it’s a busy site. Our music stations are geared more towards interfacing with social media, plus the contesting we do. We get a lot of good response to that. We’ve sent listeners to the CMAs; we’ve got a giveaway now for Disney on Ice when it appears in St Louis.
Social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…? Our music stations, My 100 and Z102.9 both do a fair amount of that. Several Facebook posts every day. We find on our news talk station, we have a special number for folks to text us during our live broadcast. We toss out a topic, and the phone just blows up. Today was tattoos. We started getting texts … and pretty soon it was pictures!
What do you do outside of the office? What’s fun? I enjoy home improvement stuff. I’ve probably got tools I’ve never used. We enjoy travel; we try and go somewhere every year. We enjoy service work through the lodge or the church. I’m the sound/light man for the church … just like every radio person that goes to church. I’ve been doing that at First Presbyterian … since forever.
What would you tell someone who wants to get into the radio business? It’s one of the most exciting times to get into radio because of the evolution of media. Back in radio’s infancy, everyone was coming up with these different schemes and ways to broadcast. Everyone had something new, but we didn’t know what to do with it yet. Things didn’t change much from the 40s into the 70s … playing music on vinyl, everything was live, and engineers were managing the controls.
Then along came digital broadcasting, automation with storage, walkaway time … when we put on our first automation system, we could walk away for 2 or 3 hours. What you ended up doing was going out to the car and just listening to yourself to make sure the thing was working! Today, when I leave the building at 7 or 8 o’clock at night now, I don’t give it a second thought.
With digital delivery, online, social media, it’s almost like the early days when we didn’t know exactly how to use everything and make money with it. It’s exciting today: some young person may have the idea that becomes as big as Top 40 in the 60s.
In the meantime, what do they need to know? Be a communicator. I don’t need a DJ. I don’t need an expert in 80s music. You can learn that. What you need to do is genuinely communicate. I think back to the voices of Brokaw, Harvey and Cronkite … they were telling the story as genuinely and accurately as they knew how. If you can do that, you can make your way in broadcast – wherever you want to go.
Earls Family Broadcasting uses the Smarts Broadcasting Skylla automation system.