Lizette Beard: [00:00] Podcasting from Nashville, Tennessee, this is “Keep Asking,” the weekly podcast that helps you dive in a bit deeper and wider into the research providing insights into today’s church and culture.
Lizette: [00:23] Hello, and welcome. I’m here today with my colleague Scott McConnell. We have an interview coming up with Jennifer Epperson with Moody Radio. Before we do that, I want to open up with a very special question just for Scott today before we begin that.
[00:56] Scott, you know, as a researcher, especially a qualitative researcher, it’s important that I dig deep and I find those sources that may not always be the most obvious or the most accessible. One of the things we learned from a previous interview with Bob Smetana is keep digging. Keep finding some stuff.
[01:17] I’ve done a little extensive, extra‑extensive research and I found out that there’s some interesting experiences you had this year with prom. You had a fascinating experience with prom for your oldest, was a little bit different than you expected. A little bit more to it. What is behind that on that story?
Scott McConnell: [01:42] We got to go to the entire photo shoot this year. We were out of the country last year, so we were bad parents, not being anywhere near prom last year. But we got to be around this year. We had a lot of fun actually going for about a two‑hour photo shoot that my daughter planned all out. It was fun.
Lizette: [02:03] Now, who picked out the outfits for the photo shoot?
Scott: [02:06] Definitely everything had to be approved by my daughter, for sure. It was well‑planned.
Lizette: [02:12] You as parents were in the photo shoot?
Scott: [02:16] A very small percentage of the pictures, but yes.
Lizette: [02:18] But your outfits were planned ahead.
Scott: [02:21] Absolutely.
Lizette: [02:22] My source told me that there was just a little bit more involved in prom than you had expected on the steps and stages.
Scott: [02:31] Yes. There are things that go on in a young girl’s mind that I will never understand. I appreciate them and I appreciate her, so it was a fun day.
Lizette: [02:41] Good deal. All right. We’re going to jump in with…we’re going to get Jennifer on the line and I think you’re going to enjoy this interview today.
Lizette: [02:49] We have Jennifer Epperson from “Moody Radio” on the phone with us today. She is Director of Research and Learning. We’ve had the privilege the past few years to do several projects with them. Welcome, Jennifer. I guess I can say that. Hello.
Jennifer Epperson: [03:13] Hey. Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Lizette: [03:15] Jennifer, tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do with Moody Radio.
Jennifer: [03:23] Sure. I am a radio person through and through. Once it gets into your blood, it really stays there. I have been involved in Christian radio since I was a little thing of 20 years old, and have served in various facilities up in New England and then down in Florida for a while where I was a station manager with Moody Radio.
[03:47] Also, have been involved in some work with the National Religious Broadcasters. Just really love radio. Really love the audience and the transforming effect that broadcasting the Word of God can have on people.
Lizette: [04:00] This project evolved from some early conversations. I’ll let you and Scott jump in. Jennifer, if you want to start with what birthed in you guys the desire for research? Where did you guys go with that?
Jennifer: [04:20] For many, many years, ever since radio started, it’s an early form of mass media. With the spoken word, of course, starting out way back in 1920 when the first radio station, KDKA, signed on. It was a wonderful, new development where we could connect with people just almost up to the minute.
[04:43] We really didn’t know a lot about who was listening at the time. Over the years, as technology has evolved, we were able to get something called ratings from companies like Arbitron and now Nielsen.
[05:00] They just gave you a really high level of who may be listening to you. You didn’t learn a lot about them. You certainly didn’t find out what were driving them to tune into your radio station? That was always a mystery to us.
[05:18] We would try to get to know our listener, of course, because it really is a two‑way communication. You just can’t see how the listeners are responding on the other side of the radio. As time went on, we certainly, especially here at Moody Radio, had this desire to get to know our listener even better.
[05:41] We knew that by having some of these knowledge, we would be able to serve him or her better. That’s what birthed desire to do, some more pointed research about our listeners with LifeWay.
Lizette: [05:54] Scott, we’re not radio people. I think I ask you this a lot, what made you so sure we could help Moody Radio? What business do we have sticking our nose into this?
Scott: [06:08] We understand research. There’s a science to research, there’s a process to research that, frankly, we trust. We trust that it’s going to be helpful to an organization to be learning, not just learning for learning’s sake, but learning, in this case, to make ministry more relevant.
[06:32] When Jennifer and Moody approached LifeWay, the conversation we began to have is how can we use research, use a very intentional objective process to better understand their listeners, so that they could connect with them in a more systematic way.
Lizette: [06:55] I want to jump in. We can talk about some of the different things we did, but I’d really like to focus on the most important piece, which is the qualitative methodology. For this project, we got to do one of my favorite things, which is focus groups. Jennifer, what did you all think a focus group could offer that surveys, or interviews, or some of the other methodologies were not going to be able to offer?
Jennifer: [07:25] I do have a little bit of a background in research myself. I neglected to say that initially in my comments at the beginning. What I was looking for, having been exposed to some of this type of methodology before, is the real human element. I knew that surveys could provide some good numbers, some good information, but radio is really kind of at the heart of people.
[07:55] It’s at the emotional level, and that’s why people make connections with us. To actually have people who cared enough about us to come to a focus group and then share their true feelings about why they tuned in, what they liked, what they didn’t like, those were some of the things that I was really anxious to hear about.
Lizette: [08:17] All of these have been some really fun groups, because people are so intensely‑connected, or intensely‑disconnected because we would hear both the pros and cons. Anything from the groups that you felt like was helpful, or particularly insightful that you were able to hear and learn as you heard them talking and having conversations?
Jennifer: [08:46] Yeah, I think you really put your finger on something there, Lizette. We found out that people really did have very strong opinions about what they liked and what they didn’t like, of course, that’s to be expected. We did find that people were very passionate about us, to the point where they trusted us.
[09:08] We found out that that word “trust” was so important and that it really added weight to what we do as a ministry, how we do things. We realized that when we make decisions, it’s going to impact a whole lot of people and to really make these decisions that are not only based on the numbers, or the research that we were hearing and some of the feedback we were receiving, but really to make it an item of prayer as a means of determining direction.
[09:40] People were giving us their trust, and in return, we needed to be giving them what they said that they needed and wanted. In our case, it was a Biblical world view and spiritual inspiration. We have a sacred trust with our listeners and that’s what we take away from the study.
Scott: [10:03] Jennifer, you’re in a unique position in that you’ve been a station manager, you’ve been on the air, you’ve heard from listeners in that way. They’ve called in, they’ve sent letters in. You also have studied research and understand the more systematic side of things.
[10:28] How do those two things come together? Do they complement each other, or do you end up listening to one more than the other?
Jennifer: [10:39] Yeah, you’re right. There’s a dichotomy there. I think that I got into research because I had this desire to make what we do better. Having that solid information that you can get from research was so helpful.
[10:59] In many ways, as I described radio before, you’re sending things out in space, and then some of what you may get back are those phone calls and those letters, but that may not be representative of the general population.
[11:12] It may be just a few people that have feedback or opinions, and you can’t make decisions based a phone call or a letter there. We needed that more systematic approach of doing research to say, “Aha, now we’ve got a sample of people. It’s more a random sample, and this is probably more reflective of the truth of things that’s happening.”
[11:36] Then, with seasoned radio professionals, you do have something called the radio gut, and you do want to listen to that gut. You never want to throw the gut out, because the numbers, too ‑‑ I think we’ve seen in the recent presidential election ‑‑ can be pointing a certain way, but you also have to use wisdom.
[11:56] For us, as Christians, coming from a Christian worldview, definitely seeking prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit, and asking for God’s presence as you’re making some of those decisions. I think, even as researchers, first of all, we’re Christian researchers. We hold these things in tension, and we approach it all with Christian worldview, asking the Lord to lead us.
Lizette: [12:20] We incorporated an interesting element. There was the primary survey, where you were getting to know your listeners, but we paired it with the Transformational Discipleship Assessment. What was the goal in looking at these discipleship habits, actions, attitudes for your listeners? What did you hope to see in that?
Jennifer: [12:54] I think that we always need to keep the mission at the center of what we do, our organization’s mission. Our mission at Moody Radio is to help people take the next step in their relationship with Jesus Christ. If we say that, wow, we definitely want to see if we’re delivering on that.
[13:17] Are people actually being helped to take their next step in their relationship with Christ? Are people’s hearts being transformed as a result of listening to Moody Radio? The transformational discipleship assessment was a wonderful tool.
[13:34] In fact, one of the reasons why we went with LifeWay Research and were so happy with the outcome is because you had developed this proprietary survey study, where you could assess spiritual growth. Wow, as a Christian radio ministry, that’s what we wanted to find out. Are people also growing?
[13:57] It’s great if they like us and they’re tuning in, but are they taking their next step in their relationship with Jesus Christ? We were able to survey a group of our listeners, much as you would survey a church congregation.
[14:10] It revealed areas of strength, where they were very strong, and areas in their faith that perhaps they needed a little more guidance or perhaps that we could come alongside and help them with. When we received that information, we were very excited to see that, yes, our listeners did seem to have a growing, vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ.
[14:35] Also, because LifeWay had done so many research studies with other congregations across the country, we were able then to take a comparison between our Moody Radio listeners and other evangelical congregations across the United States, and maybe see how they’re doing, where they are strong and where they need some extra guidance.
[14:57] It was a very useful tool for us, and, because radio people are sewing those seeds of faith over the airwaves, it was so encouraging for our on‑air people to hear, “Yes, we are making a difference in people’s lives.”
Lizette: [15:14] I want to let Scott brag a little on those numbers. There’s something more than the numbers, but Scott, I think we were almost taken aback at how strong those responses were, even just compared with church‑goers.
[15:36] What do you think, seeing those numbers, you could say to pastors or leaders of ministry, as maybe using Moody Radio as a tool or to enhance discipleship? Maybe back up a little and give me some of your thoughts on those results, having done several of those studies.
Scott: [16:02] Discipleship is definitely a lifelong journey, and there are so many aspects of it. Even as you look at our assessment sometimes, it can be very overwhelming to say, “Wow, there’s a lot of sanctification needs to happen in my life, in all of these areas.”
[16:20] When we use that with a group of people and see some really stellar responses, like we saw with especially the most engaged Moody listeners, that told us that ministries can make a difference.
[16:40] Especially with all the Biblical content that Moody provides, it made sense that the people who were willing to tune in over and over again, that there was going to be fruit to that, those seeds of the Gospel and seeds of the Word of God being sewn in their lives. We definitely saw that in the results.
Lizette: [17:07] One thing that stood out to me is how so much of this learning was happening as they were going on about their daily lives, commuting, just other places where they have radios or computers. These folks were getting this really rich discipleship experience, and they were enjoying it. I’m not implying that discipleship isn’t always enjoyable.
[17:32] Jennifer, back to you. Switching a bit from the project, as much as you can say on radio, without divulging insider secrets, what have been the challenges and opportunities for you in being the point person of taking this research, and then helping your colleagues become decision‑makers on research?
Jennifer: [17:55] Let’s just say one of the challenges is perhaps persuading leadership that the expense of research is worth it.
Lizette: [18:09] Yay!
Jennifer: [18:10] Yay!
Jennifer: [18:11] The dividends will come later. I was, if I can say, Jenny One‑Note for quite some time. When you’re making decisions with limited ministry budgets, I just began asking questions.
[18:30] I think that I got rather annoying when I would say, “And why are we doing this? And what evidence do we have that this is going to be successful? And do we have any numbers that prove that, “dah‑dah, dah‑dah‑dah.”
[18:46] It took several years of being the drip within my organization, and being that annoying person who knew that we would be able to benefit from something like it until ‑‑ I don’t know whether I wore them down, or I convinced them ‑‑ but they said, “OK, yes, let’s do this. And by the way, we want you to be the person to lead this charge.”
[19:12] That’s when I made the transition from being a station manager to being research and learning here at our central office in Chicago. I can’t promise everybody that being a drip will lead to a new job, but it certainly does lead to different challenges.
[19:29] Some of which is being a pioneer and saying, “OK, how do we take research and translate that into learning,” hence, my title Research and Learning. Once you have that information, you need to act on the information.
[19:48] I think we have to have the integrity, as Christians, to say, “OK, we’ve learned something now. Will we believe it, and will we act on it?” Having received the information from LifeWay, I was able to create a learning event for all of our content creators, and presented to them, “Here is our listener.”
[20:10] I’ll use the word “she” because our listeners largely are female. “This is why she listens. This is who she is. This is what she expects from us. Are we delivering on this?”
[20:25] You bring the information of research into the plumb line of your mission, and you make the necessary adjustments to ensure that your mission, and the way you’re doing things, and the expectations of the listeners come into line.
[20:40] It’s been really fun to take that information and create it into these learning events for adult learners who are also speaking to our listeners on the air. It’s going to take a while for everything to align because things don’t change overnight.
[20:59] It’s been very helpful for our content providers and the people on the air to say, “Hey, I actually know who’s listening to me now, therefore, I can approach her in a better way.”
Lizette: [21:10] Has the learning been your primary or single avenue in communicating the results, or have you had some of the one‑off conversations, or small group, 360 Leadership about the research? What are some different types of people you’ve led to understanding the results? How do you approach that?
Jennifer: [21:36] That’s a great question.
Lizette: [21:37] Thank you.
Jennifer: [21:38] I’ll qualify this first by saying that I’m only one person right now, so what I can do is very limited, but I try to do what I can. The first people obviously that I want to get the information ‑‑ my primary audience are the content creators here at Moody Radio.
[22:00] We’re a national network, so I’ve been able to visit our stations and present some of the information, and we’ve certainly done something ‑‑ had that learning event, transmit from here, had our Chicago people listening and our outside station people listening as well.
[22:20] Whenever you’re reporting, you’ve got multiple audiences, which I think you’re alluding to. And we have our leadership to whom we’re responsible, those people who we’ve kind of convinced to release the funds to let us do this.
[22:32] It’s been so encouraging for our leadership here at the Moody Bible Institute. These are educators and pastors, these are not radio people. Nonetheless, they are our leadership here at the institute, and they’ve been very heartened to hear about the impact that Moody Radio is making nationwide.
[22:55] Of course, when you hear results come back like this, it has a very practical implication of them allowing more funds to be released.
Lizette: [23:06] Yay!
Jennifer: [23:06] Yes. “Hey, we’re having success in this area. Let’s not kill a good thing.” Then there have been others as well around the country who have been affiliates of Moody Radio. I, myself, started out in Christian radio, at a little station in New England.
[23:29] Some of these don’t have the funds to be able to invest right away in their own research, and perhaps, they need a little bit more convincing. We have been able to share our information with others who are affiliates with us, who are involved in the National Religious Broadcasters.
[23:47] I’ll be attending another seminar down in Dallas this coming week, and really, just out of goodwill saying, “Hey, if you have a format like ours, here’s some things that maybe you can learn from us.”
[24:03] In a very real way, and I don’t want this to sound too grandiose, our partnership with LifeWay is helping us to positively impact and inform our industry, the Christian radio industry.
Scott: [24:17] That’s really a unique posture. We look at a lot of organizations, especially businesses, when they do what we call proprietary research, they typically keep it to themselves.
[24:31] Frankly, Moody Radio would have every right to do that with this information, and yet, they’ve been very generous in different settings, trying to help others with that information. That’s kind of refreshing to see the body of Christ working in that way.
Lizette: [24:50] Absolutely.
Jennifer: [24:51] Well thank you.
Lizette: [24:52] Yeah, that was kind of a warm, fuzzy…
Jennifer: [24:55] That certainly is our goal.
Lizette: [24:57] Anything else that you’ve learned? Being someone who knows research, knows learning, and also, that return on investment is important to you. Any small wins, or little ways that you’ve seen that have just been good for you, or even sharpened how you think about research for the future?
Jennifer: [25:21] When I first graduated, underwent the whole doctoral process, I knew I had learned some things that would be very, very valuable, but I was obviously new at it, I was very hesitant. When I approached LifeWay, I approached with some confidence because I knew the world view was very similar to the organization at which I worked.
[25:54] I felt that I was very, very new at this, but then as I began discussions with you, I began to grow more confident. I’m like, “OK, I did hear about this. OK, this is the right thing to do.” I just had the sense walking through this with you that I was also learning in a real‑world context.
[26:17] Looking back now, this is not a small win, I think this is a big win. Having been a radio person who has stood behind a microphone and wondered, “Are these people even listening to me,” because it is truly a faith ministry, yes, people are listening.
[26:39] Yes, their lives are being changed, and yes, the mission that we have put so deep in our hearts, the reason why we work at Moody Radio is being realized. We couldn’t get that from the Nielsen numbers, we couldn’t get that just from talking to people.
[26:59] It took real, systematic, solid research methodology to be able to discover that, and then with confidence be able to share that with those who work here at Moody Radio, who are putting the work in, and with those outside of Moody Radio who are so kindly investing their prayers and their funds to support this radio ministry. Thank you so much, LifeWay. Moody Radio deeply appreciates you.
Lizette: [27:28] This has been so affirming.
Scott: [27:32] There are many ministries out there that don’t have a Jennifer Foreperson. Jennifer, as we think of ministries, especially those that might be similar to Moody Radio in that they have a creative component as well, those are two settings where sometimes introducing research can be difficult.
[27:56] Would you have any advice for someone who’s in a ministry, might be even in a creative environment? To date, they haven’t been using research, they haven’t had objective findings and insights. What advice would you have to say, hey, these can go together?
Jennifer: [28:17] I would say to you, if you just think of the best sort of leadership model, or the best approach, it’s always a balanced approach.
[28:29] If you are more of a creative ministry, as we are here at Moody Radio, I would say balancing the art of what you do with the science of having the knowledge of what your customers need ‑‑ or your congregants need, or just those who are subscribing to you and benefiting from your ministry needs ‑‑ please bear in mind that your creativity will not be squashed.
[29:00] It will, in fact, be bolstered by the knowledge of who you’re serving. In some ways, you might even get some surprises out of the research, which can help you think a little bit more out of the box about new products, or different ways to do things.
[29:18] I would heartedly recommend that investment in research, not fearing that the creativity would be taken away, but it would be fueled by the information that you’ll find out through it.
Lizette: [29:29] Jennifer, if there’s someone new to Moody Radio ‑‑ I feel like this is the altar call for Moody Radio ‑‑ where would you send them to learn more about Moody Radio, or anything you would want them to know about who you all are and what you do?
Jennifer: [29:48] Yes. We’re a part of the Moody Bible Institute situated right here in downtown Chicago ‑‑ I’m looking at some skyscrapers and some building work going on right now, as I’m glancing out the window ‑‑ founded by evangelist D.L. Moody, in 1886, some may know who he was.
[30:09] We have a Bible institute here, we have publishers here, and we have Moody Radio. We’re also stationed across the United States, and I would send you to MoodyRadio.org. And we always repeat things in radio, MoodyRadio.org.
[30:27] See if there’s a local Moody Radio station in your area. If not, you can always listen to us online.
Lizette: [30:35] Excellent. Jennifer, thank you so much. We appreciate your time and we’ve appreciated the opportunity to work together. I think I may appreciate you more than Scott because when the two of us our together in a meeting with Scott, I feel like we outnumber him in our personality types being so similar, so it’s nice to have this alliance.
Jennifer: [30:56] The poor man is left speechless.
Scott: [30:58] Usually a bunch of communication happens in French while I’m at the table, and I have no idea what’s being said.
Jennifer: [31:04] It certainly is a pleasure to have been working with you, and here’s to many more studies to come in the future.
Lizette: [31:13] Excellent. Thanks, Jennifer. Have a great afternoon.
Jennifer: [31:15] Thank you, you too.
Lizette: [31:17] Thanks everyone for listening to Keep Asking. Remember, you can tweet us your questions, comments, and feedback on Twitter, @LifeWayResearch, and specifically to Scott, @smcconn, and to me, @LizetteBeard. We look forward to talking to you next time. Keep asking, learn more, do better.
Dr. Jennifer Hayden Epperson is Director of Research and Learning for Moody Radio. Dr. Epperson started her radio career in her home state of Rhode Island, worked as a station manager in Connecticut and Florida, and was host of TWR’s Women of Hope. She studied French literature and music in college, earned a graduate degree in broadcast management, and then an EdD in organizational leadership from Nova Southeastern University. She serves on the NRB Radio committee and has taught college courses in radio and leadership. She and her husband, Jack, a radio engineer, enjoy their pug dogs and like to travel and serve with ministry organizations.