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Some of country music's rising stars joined several of the industry's biggest names for a weekend celebrating country radio and its support of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital during the annual Country Cares for St. Jude Kids® radio seminar.
More than 650 country music artists, music industry executives and radio station personnel gathered in Memphis January 14-16 for the annual seminar which features hospital tours, roundtable discussions and special sessions for the visiting stations to learn the ins and outs of creating a successful radiothon.
"There's nothing like it. There's nothing like St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. There's nothing like the St. Jude Country Cares program," said Country Cares founder Randy Owen. "This is the most important thing I've done in my life besides take care of my wife and children."
After meeting St. Jude founder Danny Thomas more than 20 years ago, Owen was inspired to rally the country music industry to support the work of the hospital. And the industry rose to the challenge by raising more than $365 million in the program's 20-year history.
Owen was joined on January 15 by some of country music's hottest stars to visit with St. Jude patients and learn more about the hospital. Carrie Underwood, Jewel, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Steve Azar, Danny Gokey, Little Big Town, Darryl Worley and Joe Nichols led the list of nearly 40 artists who walked the halls of the hospital.
"When you walk in the door of St. Jude, it is happy," said Underwood. "There are pictures on the wall—kid-created pictures—and it is not like a hospital. It is not a cold environment."
Gokey reiterated that sentiment, saying "The one thing I noticed is that this is a happy place. And you see the children and there is so much hope and optimism in their eyes."
Jewel, making her second trip to St. Jude, said "I'm a fan of this hospital and what they are able to do for children.
"I think the part of the tour that really stood out for me today was the research lab," she added. "It was all really fascinating. And meeting the kids is always most heart-warming. The experience here is overwhelming."
For many of the artists, such as Lynyrd Skynyrd members Gary Rossington and Rickey Medlocke, the 2010 Country Cares seminar marked their first visit to the hospital they've heard so much about from others in the industry.
"I didn't have any expectations," Medlocke said. "I am excited to be here and be a part of it. This is a phenomenal place, and it's wonderful that children can come here and have a chance at life."
Rossington said he and Medlocke participated in the seminar on the encouragement of Owen. And now they plan to share the St. Jude message with others. "Anyone we meet, we are going to tell them about St. Jude. It takes your words away," Rossington said.
Two-year-old patient Jaedyn was excited about the stars he called "singers" touring the hospital. His favorite song is Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog," and artist Mallary Hope serenaded Jaedyn with the song as the two colored pictures of guitars and cowboys hats.
"It's great for them to come and take time for the kids," said Jaedyn's mom Angayla. "The (kids) deserve the excitement."
Six-year-old Zowie was able to meet the singer (Underwood) of her favorite song ("Before He Cheats"). Underwood spent some time coaxing Zowie from her shyness, but soon the two were happily chatting. Underwood wished the little girl a happy belated birthday.
"It's awesome for them to visit," said Zowie's mom, Josie. "It gives them something else to think about besides being here and being sick."
St. Jude Radio Advisory Committee board member Don Langford knows personally how important Country Cares' support is. For him, St. Jude is not just a charity he stands behind. It's the hospital that saved his daughter's life.
Langford has been with the Country Cares program since its second year. He helped retool the program into the success it is today. But despite all he knew of the hospital, nothing prepared him for the moment when doctors told him his daughter had Hodgkin disease.
"It was overwhelming," he said about walking through the hospital doors as the parent of a child with cancer. "They made it very clear to me as a father that my job is to help her get well and it's the hospital's job to cure her and to figure out how to fund it."
And "funding it" comes from the listeners of country radio and the stations who conduct the radiothons. And for many of the veteran attendees, coming back each year allows them to refocus on what matters: the children.
"Coming to the seminar is a wonderful way to recharge your charity batteries. It's a great way to ground me and ground my staff, to remind us of what's important and why we're helping," said Bill Black, program director of WKSJ in Mobile, Alabama. Black's station has a 16-year history of participating in the Country Cares program and he has been to seminar every year for the past 10 years.
"When we come back and get started on our radiothon, we really feel like we have a connection there," said Black.
That connection strengthened even more as the seminar continued on Saturday, with St. Jude patient Ellen Taylor opening the day by serenading radio representatives with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" at breakfast.
Taylor's singing has become a popular staple around St. Jude since the 5-year-old came to the hospital for treatment of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer that originates in the lymph system.
Ellen is winning her fight against the cancer that threatened her life, thanks in part to the support from the Country Cares for St. Jude Kids radiothon program.
After breakfast and Taylor's singing, representatives dug into the working portion of the weekend as roundtable discussion took place to help new stations better understand how a radiothon works and provided real-case scenarios of successful radiothons.
Those sessions were especially helpful to stations new to the Country Cares program, like 98.5 KVOO in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "This is our first year and everybody at the station is as excited as can be about it," said Luke Jensen, the station's program director. "I'm glad (our radiothon) is close to seminar so that it's all fresh in our minds." The station will hold its Country Cares radiothon the first week of March.
"I wish all American citizens could experience St. Jude, but they can't. So it's our job to tell them our experiences and hope they get as excited as we are," said Jensen.
Richard C. Shadyac Jr., CEO of ALSAC, the fundraising organization of St. Jude, attended Saturday's luncheon to thank country radio for its support of St. Jude and to acknowledge the terrible tragedy occurring in Haiti. He assured those at the seminar that St. Jude stands ready to assist children in Haiti suffering from cancer or other catastrophic diseases the hospital treats. A full statement is available on www.stjude.org.
Also at lunch, invited speaker Lon Helton, Publisher and CEO of Country Aircheck, presented seminar attendees timely information on the PPM rating system and its implications for radiothons.
Following the roundtables, panel discussions on programming, and sales and luncheon speakers, the seminar welcomed a special guest, noted Hollywood movie and television director/producer Tom Shadyac, the brother of ALSAC's CEO. While regaling the audience with quips about celebrities and his work in the movies, he also spoke about the importance of supporting St. Jude and the valuable work that Country Cares does for the children.
"Gosh, you guys get it so right," he said, comparing them to George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life, whose actions had such a great impact on his community. "You are the guys who make it happen. Thank you, sincerely, because you make it work. We love you. We do. The kids love you."
Tom Shadyac turned the microphone back over to his brother as Rick Shadyac hosted his first "Meet the Patients" program. In his role as emcee, Shadyac continued the legacy set by his father, former ALSAC CEO Richard C. Shadyac Sr., who began the "Meet the Patients" program in 1992.
"This was my dad's favorite thing to do," Shadyac said. "It's neat for me to carry on with this tradition. I feel very, very blessed to have an opportunity to care on his mantle. His spirit lives on here."
During the program, Shadyac talked with several patients and their families, including Evan, 8, who is being treated for neuroblastoma; sisters Jayla and Felicia Lee, 5 and 6, who are being treated for optic pathway glioma; and 7-year-old Anthony Lawrence and 2-year-old Colin, both of whom have a tumor called ependymoma.
The parents talked about how they came to be at St. Jude and what the hospital has meant to them. While Colin fell asleep in his dad's arms, Jayla and Felicia flirted with the audience, and Evan and Anthony Lawrence both brought down the house when they accepted invitations to sing.
"You know, I have people ask me 'Why did I do this? You were a lawyer; you lived in Washington, D.C.,'" said Shadyac. Then he turned toward the children and their parents on the stage. "This is it. Easiest decision of my life."
Colin's dad, Ian, thanked the Country Cares station from his hometown in Connecticut. "It's awesome what you guys have done. I want you to know your money's gone to excellent work.
"I have hope for tomorrow, and I live today in a way that is very meaningful," he said. "Whatever the outcome, the moments we have with Colin are ones that St. Jude helped provide and you can't replace that. The money you donate, that your communities donate, it does make a difference. We’ve got to win the battle."
The Country Radio Seminar concluded Saturday night with the annual Songwriters’ Dinner, which featured performances by the writers of many well-known country hits and a special tribute to former ALSAC CEO Richard C. Shadyac who passed away in September 2009.
"Randy was close friends with my dad, who was the CEO of ALSAC for 13 years," Shadyac told attendees. "Together, they worked to make Country Cares into the program it is today, always striving to achieve the dream of St. Jude founder Danny Thomas of a day when every child would leave St. Jude healthy, happy and cured."
Following the tribute, songwriters Lee Miller, Wayne Carson, Brice Long, Jim Weatherly, Wynn Varble and Randy Owen took turns playing some of their well-known hits. The songwriters brought the crowd to their feet with songs such as "You're Gonna Miss This," "You Were Always on My Mind," "Nothing On But the Radio," "Midnight Train to Georgia," "Waitin' on a Woman," and "Tennessee River,"
Owen ended the evening with a stirring performance of the song "Angels Among Us," as the crowd stood up and joined in the singing.
"I want to applaud each and every one of you for your commitment to helping St. Jude save the lives of children fighting cancer and other deadly diseases in communities everywhere,” Shadyac told attendees.
"All of you play a critical role in sharing the message and mission of St. Jude with millions of country music fans across the nation. As the needs of St. Jude and our patients continue to grow, we are so fortunate to have the support of the country music industry to help us continue our lifesaving work."
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