February 12, 2001

Jon Rivers, the music man

___Jon Rivers has perhaps one of the best-known voices in Christian radio. He is a morning on-air personality and vice president for programming management at 94.9 FM KLTY in the Metroplex, the nation's top-rated Christian radio station. He's also host of a syndicated Christian music review program called "20 The Countdown Magazine" heard on hundreds of stations in the
United States and abroad, including the Armed Forces Radio Network. His smooth bass voice is heard on commercials and other productions as well. He and his wife, Sherry, live 80 miles northwest of Dallas on a ranch where they raise Morgan horses. They attend Denton Bible Church.

___ How did you get into broadcasting?
___I always loved music. I ended up being in the Marine Corps in the late 1960s, and I went to Vietnam for a couple of years. When I got back, I really had no trade. I was a musician, but I figured I'd starve if I tried to do that for a living. So I thought, well, radio's about as close to music as I can get. I took a correspondence course while I was still in the Marine Corps and worked really hard, every waking hour. I was horrible. I was from the hills of Mississippi, and you could barely understand me, I had such a horrible accent.

___. How did that lead into religious broadcasting?
___I worked all nights free at WAPE in Jacksonville, Fla., a big station. I ended up in mainstream radio, did the whole rock-and-roll Top 40 thing. I became a Christian about six years into this thing, in 1976, while I was working at KILT in Houston. Then I immediately realized that I wanted to be somehow involved in Christian media if possible. But Christian entertainment media was so bad, I just couldn't do it. In the meantime, an audition was held for a show called "Powerline" at the Southern Baptist Radio & TV Commission. I got that job and did that all along, ... but it was a show meant to run on secular stations. That was 1974. You say, "But I thought you got saved in 1976?" I did. But I acted pretty well, so they didn't know I didn't know Jesus. But sitting there reading those scripts for "Powerline," they kind of got inside my system and they had a lot to do with my becoming a Christian. A few years later, an opportunity presented itself when (I learned) there was a station going on the air in Dallas-Fort Worth called KLTY.

___ Could you tell a little more about how you became a Christian?
___I was reared agnostic. My mother was a Christian, but she was never allowed to talk about it. ... My dad called the local Baptist church the buzzard's nest. ... I never really grasped who Jesus was. I thought he was just a nice guy, a historical character. ... After doing "Powerline" a couple of years and speaking so much truth in those scripts, ... they got into my system and started changing me. At the same time, I had a friend who I worked with in secular radio, Bo Weaver, who was a Christian and totally understood the deity of Christ and witnessed to me constantly. Powerline on the one hand planting the seeds and Bo Weaver planting his seed in person gave me something to fall back on when I needed it. And within a couple of years I really needed it. I reached rock-bottom in my life. I had nowhere else to go. I was really successful in radio and had a good job and a promising career, but I was desperately unhappy and literally just fell on my knees one night and gave my life to Jesus, asked him to come in and walk with me the rest of my life. And he did, and it's really that simple.

___ Who have been the most influential people on your life?
___Rich Mullins influenced me as much or more than anyone. Because of his passion and his reckless abandon to the gospel. He was a guy who cared about nothing but his pursuit of God, a modern-day prophet. I just had never seen anyone like that. He was clearly the No. 1 Christian songwriter of all time. The reason he could do that was so much of God's word was in him, it just flowed out. While other artists and writers would try to write some culturally relevant song and still have some meaningful message, he couldn't help but do it.
His lyrics were just burned into my mind. He was the most amazing man I've ever known except for Jesus. He was John the Baptist--powerful, yet so human, so profound.

___ With your role at KLTY and your influence on "20: The Countdown Magazine," some would say you have the ability to make or break Christian artists. What kind of responsibility do you feel as you approach this task, and how do you view your own role?
___I never think about that. I don't think it's true. It just doesn't enter my mind, because our focus here is to program a Christian entertainment resource as best we can and make the right decisions for our audience. I don't think, "Well, maybe I can help this artist."

___ How close are you to the Christian artists you interview on "20"? How do they relate to you and you to them?
___Rich Mullins and I were as close as we could be and not live in the same state. He was my best Christian artist friend by far. He trusted me. Wes King is another guy who has influenced me a lot. We're going the same place, thinking the same thing. Groups like Avalon I'm very close to. Point of Grace, Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, Gary Chapman. We're all fairly close, as close as you can be and not live there. I think they trust me. I don't pull any punches. There's never any power trip.

___ You often tell inspiring stories behind the songs you play, stories about the experiences the songwriter or artist had that birthed the music. Where do you get that stuff?
___From the songwriters and singers. We talk to them. I think people like to know where songs came from, what artists are going through. It's interesting to know what other people are going through. Sometimes it helps us in our own walk. Most Christian artists are just very honest, sometimes to their own detriment.

___ Critics both inside and outside the Christian music business have said they fear it has become too commercial, too secular. Do you share their fears or not, and why?
___I don't. It is more of a business than ever, but I don't know that's necessarily a bad thing, because the music will go on whether the business does or not. I know that. Businesses may come or go, radio stations may come or go. But the songs that are praising our Lord and Savior are going to be here. People can sing them, whether they can record them or not. But more to the point, I guess it would be more comfortable if we could say, "Oh, yeah, that's a Christian company from top to bottom." But all the companies I know, the people who are in charge of the music are Christians. For instance, EMI is a big secular company, but from the president on down, they are sold out. They are in the business of doing Christian music, not just music. We'll know if there's a problem. It will manifest itself. I have this deal. I don't think God lets his work go astray. I believe that once you enter God's world, his eminent domain and say I'm doing Christian music, you invoke his power and his judgment, possibly his wrath.

___ Would you ever not give airtime to a song you found to be theologically wrong? For a station like KLTY, is there any sort of filtering process to weed out a bad message?
___Very rarely, because there are so few songs like that. Occasionally, there will be one that's just so shallow we'll ask the question, "Does this really do anything but just be a pleasant song?" That would be what comes up more often than not. There's one song I know was recorded by a guy who's sold out to Jesus, but was misunderstood. It's "The Color Nine" by Chris Rice. It's such a questioning song. It sounds like he's saying, "God, I've never felt you." When I found out the story behind the song, I understood it. It's written not from his perspective, but from the perspective of a teenage camper. But people who hear it don't know that. So even though he was totally noble in his efforts, the song because of its perspective could send the wrong message. But that's not from a guy who wanted to water it down.

___ What do you see as some positive influences of contemporary Christian music on the church over the last 20 or 30 years?
___The music has helped revitalize a lot of churches, especially our modern praise and worship. It's made worship services more relevant to more people. It's made worship more of a joyful experience. It helps a lot of modern believers connect where maybe they couldn't before.

___ Is the quality of music being produced today better or worse than in the past?
___Oh, my. It's leaps and bounds. I don't think there's anything as good, and there's nothing better.

___ What defines a "Christian" song or "Christian" music?
___It's too hard for me to draw that line. I think in the end, is it something that communicates the gospel or a lifestyle that's compatible with the gospel? And possibly in some cases, is it by an artist who is such a wonderful disciple of Christ that even though it says nothing about Jesus or spirituality, it's relevant? For instance, "That's What Love is For" and "Place in this World" by Michael W. Smith are accepted as Christian songs because the artists for so long have been accepted as musical ministers.

___ In what way is Christian music and Christian broadcasting a ministry?
___It gives you a place to go and get entertainment that is just as good as what the secular radio stations are offering. We do everything everybody else does, except the dirty stuff. We don't take cheap shots at anybody.

___ How do you keep yourself spiritually grounded and focused?
___The most important thing we do is pray every day for a long time. When we first started praying on the way in, it might take two minutes. Now we have a major prayer time every day. It's not that we don't read the word of God or go to services, but it's that prayer time that keeps us straight.

___ Any advice for aspiring Christian artists?
___I've come to believe what I've witnessed other artists do. Do your music wherever you can--whatever church, whatever stage, whatever school, whatever living room. Do your music. If you're going to "make it," that's going to have to come first. I can't think of an artist who wasn't already doing it. Don't say, "I have to go to Nashville and be great." Do what you do, and keep getting better. They'll hear you if you're supposed to be heard. That sounds crazy, but keep doing what you're doing.
___Interview by Mark Wingfield

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