There’s no greater testament to the power of radio to make a positive difference in the world than the half-billion dollars country stations have raised in the last 25 years for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Last week in Memphis, many of those responsible for the fund-raising efforts gathered to celebrate the silver anniversary of the Country Cares for St. Jude Kids program, founded by Alabama’s Randy Owen when he met with the hospital’s founder, actor Danny Thomas. Since then, nearly 200 radio stations across the country have participated and raised $500 million for the hospital. Because it doesn’t charge patients for treatment and also covers such family expenses as housing, food and transportation, St. Jude’s operating costs are nearly $2 million per day, so stations’ fundraising efforts have become especially important.
Representatives of most of the 176 currently participating country stations, along with some from other formats, gathered at the Peabody Hotel Jan. 16-19 for the annual Country Cares For St. Jude Kids Seminar. They were joined by Nashville label executives, artists managers, media, sponsors and 30 country acts, making for a crowd that swelled to almost 1,000 this year.
The event drew even bigger names than usual. Rascal Flatts, Rodney Atkins, Brantley Gilbert, Sara Evans, Eli Young Band and Kellie Pickler were among the stars who toured the hospital and visited with the radio attendees. The annual Songwriters’ Dinner on Jan. 18 was similarly amped up with artist/writers Jake Owen and Hunter Hayes joining Randy Owen to perform.
Jake bantered with Randy about their shared last name, and confessed that fans often mistake him for Randy’s son. Besides playing his own hits, Jake also launched into a spontaneous version of “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” changing all the words on the spot to reference the St. Jude event.
Earlier in the night, Hayes said, “One of the greatest gifts given to us on earth is St. Jude.” He also revealed that he’s been in the studio recording a new album, and debuted one of his newly recorded tracks, “Still Falling.”
During the Songwriters’ Dinner, 64-year-old Randy spoke about the importance of newer stars stepping up to support the hospital, joking, “Somebody might have to take Randy Owen’s place one day, ’cause I’m old as hell.”
The seminar offered its usual mix of hospital tours, panels, speakers and round-table discussions, all aimed at helping stations host more effective radiothons. There was also the always-packed “Meet The Patients” session, as well as a riveting keynote address by motivational speaker and former inner-city football coach Bill Courtney, the subject of the 2011 Academy Award-winning documentary “Undefeated” and author of a new book, “Against the Grain,” to be published in May.
The hospital tour for radio seminar veterans had them donning hard hats and routing through construction of what will be the world’s only proton therapy center dedicated solely to the treatment of children, a $198 million project that’s slated to open in 2015.
Other artists taking part in the seminar this year included Scotty McCreery, Jerrod Niemann, singer/actress Lucy Hale of ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars,” and “The Voice” winners Cassadee Pope and Danielle Bradbery. They had an opportunity to tour the hospital, sign items for stations to use in their fundraising efforts, and later play games and do crafts with some of the small patients at an indoor carnival set up specifically for them.
Also participating were newcomers the Swon Brothers, Kristy Lee Cook, Cadillac Three, Krystal Keith, Leah Turner, Dan + Shay, Austin Webb, Jackie Lee, Dylan Scott, David Fanning, Dean Alexander, Chase Bryant, John King, the band Blackjack Billy and duos American Young and Brothers Osborne.
Among the children participating in the carnival was 9-year-old Avery, a brand new St. Jude patient who was scheduled to have surgery days after the seminar ended to remove a brain tumor, to be followed by months of radiation. That’s according to her parents, who had an opportunity to put aside their fears for just a few hours to help their daughter make Valentine’s Day cards with many of the country stars.
Phyllis Stark is a longtime member of the Country Cares Advisory Council.