The Phantom Tollbooth Interviews Dave Trout
The Phantom Tollbooth was one of the first Christian music and entertainment online magazines, around for over 16 years (since the early days of the Internet). I was honored to be interviewed by them about the past, present, & future of UTR. Better yet, that interview piece was the "cover article" for the month of February 2013 on their site. With their permission, we are reposting the interview here:
Gourmet Music Is On The Menu At Under The Radar
Published 2/1/13 by The Phantom Tollbooth
Under the Radar is a podcast/radio program that highlights some of the best undiscovered and under-appreciated tunes from Christian artists. In this one-hour weekly program, host Dave Trout shares stories, spiritual insight, and exclusive artist interviews to discover the depth of faith and creativity found in the music. UTR also features live in studio performances by many of these artists. This show should be of particular interest to Phantom Tollbooth readers as a way to discover new and interesting faith based music. The Tollbooth "sat down" via hyperspace with Dave Trout to discuss the beginnings and ongoing goals of this unique music program.
Tollbooth: Can you give us some background on how Under the Radar began?
Dave: I was hired by ReFrame Media in November 2007 as a full-time marketing manager. The ministry was re-building, and we were trying a lot of new initiatives. Just a few months into the job, and I started to get the itch to put together my own radio program. We weren't doing anything with music, so I knew that was the direction I wanted to go. Still, the world did not need another Top 10 countdown show, and it's not as easy as you might think to come up with an idea that's marketable as a syndicated program. We ended up sticking close to my budding passion for more artistic, creative, well-crafted songs, and unashamedly featured the best music that was largely not heard on Christian radio. We recorded 2 pilot programs (each had a different title) and we had over a dozen radio managers listen and give us feedback. We had positive response, so the program was green-lit, and it launched on the air in November 2008.
Tollbooth: How big was the original audience of UTR and how has it grown?
Dave: "If you build it they will come" -- definitely a myth. But you do have to build it if you want people to eventually find out about you. Our audience the first couple of months was laughable. We launched on about 25 radio outlets, which is a good start, but we only had about 30-60 download listeners for each of the first 8 weeks -- I'm pretty sure most were friends and family. Our first big break came in our 9th week. We were airing our first interview program, our guest was Andrew Peterson, and he gave a nice plug for us on the Rabbit Room. In our 9th week, we jumped up to 800 downloads. Since then, we have experienced a very nice, grass-roots, slow growth over the last 4 years. Currently, UTR gets downloaded over 6,000 times per month, and we are airing on about 220 radio outlets weekly.
Tollbooth: How many shows has UTR produced to date?
Dave: We have produced 220 shows. We are 4 years and 2 months old, so we average more than 52 new programs a year. It's something I'm pretty proud of. There are some excellent podcasts that feature artsy Christian indie music. We might not even be the best. But we are definitely one of the most consistent.
Tollbooth: What is the criteria used in selecting the music you play?
Dave: Every single song is hand selected. It's what sets us apart from FM radio, which usually has a computer spitting out hourly playlists. There is only one true objective criteria for the songs we play -- that the songwriter/artist is a believer in Christ. Some people have asked, "Why not play spiritually thought-provoking songs by Bruce Springsteen, Wilco, or Gillian Welch? Aren't you being too restricting?" I have found that instead of limiting ourselves to playing music that is blatantly "Christian" or spiritual, we focus on the worldview that is being presented with the art. It's the opposite of restricting. It allows us to play songs that might not be explicitly about God, but could be about fear, freedom, a mother's love for her baby, loneliness, doubt, and joy. By limiting ourselves in small ways, it helps us to redefine what "Christian song" means. The other criteria is mostly subjective -- musical creativity, quality of lyrics, production level. But unlike other podcasts, I have to always keep our radio affiliates in mind. We definitely push the musical envelope for most of these stations, but we don't want to take advantage of the grace they offer us.
Tollbooth: How do listeners contribute?
Dave: Listener interaction has been one of UTR's pillars since our launch. Nearly every episode, I share my personal email and invite folks to tell me about the hidden gems the world needs to hear. I can't count how many songs and artists we checked out for the first time based on the input from our listeners. We probably play 100+ song requests a year on the show -- it's an important part of what we do.
Tollbooth: UTR also promotes artists. How does UTR do this?
Dave: We really want to tangibly support indie artists. Getting a song played on our show can help, but the deeper we built relationships with these (oftentimes struggling) musicians, we saw their biggest need: bookings. I think I've been a closet wannabe concert promoter for several years, so I found a way to scratch that itch while helping out some of the artists we play. Somehow, some way... on top of all the work on the podcast, website, and social media, we have managed to organize or sponsor over 100 concerts in the last 3 years. Getting in the trenches with these indie artists has given us a deep friendship with dozens of artists we would not have otherwise.
Tollbooth: Do you have any favorite shows or moments?
Dave: Man, it's not easy to pick favorites, because each episode is a labor of love for me. If someone starts at episode #1 (they are all archived for free) and works their way forward, I think you would taste some special ingredients thrown into every show. I will admit that because I prepped for 2 years, I am especially proud of the 3-week tribute of Rich Mullins we did this last September. Our year-end program, counting down what the UTR critics panel named the Top 11 Gourmet Albums of the year, is another show I look forward to doing every year.
Tollbooth: Where do you see UTR going in the future?
Dave: I will admit that I am a dreamer. I do have big, hairy goals for UTR. God has been leading us to exciting places, and we want to continue to follow His lead. We also have two key groups that we are primarily serving: the consumers (podcast listeners, blog readers, social media followers) and the indie artist community. We will always have our ears open to these two groups as they share ideas and dreams that can guide our steps. Want to be the first to hear about a couple of our upcoming goals? We would love to launch a 24/7 UTR Internet radio channel before the end of this year. We are also hoping to put together something that I've been dreaming about for 3 years -- some sort of a UTR summer music fest. And let's not forget over 50 new UTR episodes will be produced this year. 2013 should be exciting!
Tollbooth: We at the Tollbooth are also excited about what is in store in 2013 for the Under the Radar broadcast.
You can connect with Dave Trout and the Under the Radar team on Facebook, at their website or on twitter. All of the Under the Radar shows are available for downloading at their website, which is something you want to investigate.
Under the Radar is Phantom Tollbooth approved listening.
A special thank you to TPT Associate Editor Larry Stephan for conducting the interview. If you are a blogger or podcast host and want to request an interview about UTR or just about indie/folky music in general (or my favorite topic... pizza), just send me an email.