One of the first things immediately evident when walking the corridors of Memphis’ St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is that it doesn’t smell like a hospital. It may seem like a small thing, this ability to procure cutting-edge air-filtration systems that cut through the usual overwhelmingly antiseptic smell, but it’s one of the many ways St. Jude is able to transform its relationship with the country music industry into an advantage for their young patients.
That partnership — celebrated Jan. 24-27 during St. Jude Hospital’s 30th annual Country Cares Seminar — has amassed a celebrated $800 million in donations through radio-thons. That impressive amount has done wonders in the face of St. Jude’s purported $1 billion annual budget, which is stretched as thin as possible in order to better the lives of children afflicted with cancer and their families.
As Country Cares moves into its next decade, it is reimagining ways to work with radio in the face of growing competition from newer technologies, including streaming and voice activation, to ensure its efforts reach the largest segment of potential donors.
Jasmine Boyd, senior liaison of radio & music development for ALSAC (the fundraising organization for St. Jude), trumpeted the importance of radio embracing these new technologies when it comes to fundraising.
“Eighteen percent of Americans are now using smart speakers, bringing audio back into their homes,” Boyd pointed out to an audience of industry professionals during a Jan. 25 seminar held at the Peabody Hotel. The Peabody was one of three hotels within the downtown Memphis area that St. Jude had basically commandeered for the four-day event and its 1,000 attendees — double the number who usually attend the event.
Larry Rosin, co-founder and president of media research firm Edison Research, also hit upon this insurgence in audio entertainment within the home as a way of counteracting recent studies that found younger generations rely more upon digital options — such as streaming or podcasts — than traditional radio.
“Smart speakers have accounted for a rise in audience numbers over the past 10 years, which saw only 8 percent of those polled between the ages of 18 and 34 in 2008 claimed to listen to radio within the home, while in 2018 the number had risen to 29 percent,” he said.
This embracing of new tech was a talking point throughout the weekend, in a high-wire act that saw ALSAC working to introduce innovations within their group to members of the radio and print industry still reliant upon the methods that have worked for them over the preceding three decades. One of the new methods introduced by the communications team at the hospital is the storytelling platform St. Jude Inspire, built to provide readymade stories of those impacted by the research institution — children, parents, staff and survivors — as inspiration to members of the press in need of content.
“We want families to know about St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital when they need us the most. To do this, we are meeting people where they are most engaged: online, on mobile devices, on Instagram,” Richard Shadyac Jr., president and CEO of ALSAC, shared with members of the press. “Inspire allows us to share in tangible, intimate ways the magic and promise of our … hospital.”
Country artists were on-hand throughout the weekend, though heavy touring schedules left many acts with only just enough time on their schedule to preach to country radio about the importance of their continued philanthropic efforts.
“I like the idea that these families never receive an invoice,” Brantley Gilbert told Billboard. “When your child is a patient, you never receive a bill. To me, that’s just unprecedented. … I have a healthy and happy 14-month-old kid. We were blessed enough for him to not be diagnosed and have to go through anything like this. With that being said, you come here and meet these kids, and they’re all just warriors. [St. Jude’s] will get my help any day of the week.”
The weekend was capped by the annual Songwriters Dinner, which saw Alabama’s Randy Owen, co-founder of the Country Cares for St. Jude Kids Program, share the stage with Clint Black, Michael Ray and Jake Owen. While the evening had its share of laughs — with Black acknowledging, “These events tend to become ballad-heavy, so here’s another one to bring you down,” and Jake pointing out that he never thought he’d have to follow performances by Randy and Black, then proclaiming, “Good luck, Michael!” — it had its share of emotional moments as well. Randy Owen teared up at an impromptu cover of the 1983 Alabama hit “Lady Down on Love” by the other three artists onstage, while Jake Owen was visibly moved when named this year’s recipient of the Randy Owen Angels Among Us award for his numerous contributions to the charity through events held in his home state of Florida.
“[St. Jude founder] Danny Thomas once made a prayer to St. Jude, asking to be shown his way in life, to be shown his purpose,” Jake Owen told the crowd. “There’s been many points in my life where I didn’t know my purpose, and didn’t know my way, and I moved to Nashville more lost than anything. There I met Greg Fowler [tour manager for Alabama] … and during that first year I heard a lot of Alabama stories, but more importantly he kept coming back to St. Jude. It was at that moment that I realized, not only was music my purpose, but also helping people. … I promise if I can be here [to help St. Jude] until I’m 99 years old, I will.”