I (Bubba) first met Rick Burgess when we both worked at the Jacksonville State University radio station, WLJS. I worked behind the scenes, thanks to an accent that some felt was too strong for an on-air personality. According to those in the “know,” I sounded “too southern.”
As it turned out, apparently those in the “know” didn’t know much. But I’m not one to gloat or have the whole story written up in a book with worldwide circulation. I wouldn’t want to embarrass anyone. (If you want names, you can e-mail me privately.)
Actually, those people have long since eaten their words and have been more than happy with the success of The Rick and Bubba Show. As for my southern accent, I haven’t dropped a single “ya’ll.”
But I’m kind of glad that I was passed over for an on-air position back then. Having experience working behind the scenes in radio had helped broaden my understanding of that world and, as it turned out, I still had a few important lessons that I needed to learn about trusting God with my career.
I’ve always enjoyed electronics and since I also had a pretty good business sense too, I applied for and got the job of general manager at a new station in town, WJXL. Not only did I enjoy that job, but it came with a nice little clause in the contract that if the owners ever wanted to sell the station, I would be first in line to option it.
What that day did come, I wasn’t about to let the opportunity to own my own radio station pass me by. So I got a partner, and we borrowed money from everywhere we could think of to buy the station. I borrowed money from my mom, and my other relatives were starting to get nervous and screen my calls.
Somehow I managed to get my hands on enough money from enough people to make a down payment of some hundred thousand dollars and carry a note for the rest. Yes, we were in debt up to our eyeballs, but we were also full of excitement and hope. WJXL was the only stand-alone AM station in the area, so we knew the potential was there. And anyway, I figured what’s a couple of months without food?
One day, though, I had a strange feeling come over me that I couldn’t explain. I didn’t know if I was having a heart attack from the financial stress that I was under or if I just needed to lay off the chili peppers. I continued to feel horrible for a day or two and started wondering if I should call a heart doctor, but then after talking to a friend about it, he asked me a question I’ll never forget. It wasn’t “do you have pain shooting down your arm?” or “do you feel pressure in your chest?” It was “have you ever thought about changing the station to a Christian format?”
As soon as he asked me that, the feeling seemed to go away. The heaviness and discomfort suddenly left me, and I started wondering if maybe making the change to a Christian station was what I was supposed to do.
Now you need to understand how difficult this decision was for me. I wasn’t a big fan of Christian radio. It seemed to me that many of the Christian radio shows that I had ever listened to had a gloomy format. I preferred a lot more fun in my life than that. And the show hosts seemed to always be begging for money. Still, every time I tried to talk myself out of it, the heaviness would return.
After much consideration and prayer (and in spite of those who told us we were crazy to do it), we decided to go ahead and take the radio station to a Christian format.
So, within six weeks the station became a huge success, and I was adored and loved by all. . . . okay maybe not. Actually, the only thing that happened immediately was that we lost many of our advertisers, especially the one that would have been offensive to a Christian audience. Churches weren’t helping us out much either because they had their own needs to meet. We had taken a step of faith, but it was beginning to look like we had landed right in a hole. And we were sinking fast.
There were some positive things happening in the midst of all this. We were getting calls and letters from people saying how something they had heard on one of our shows had changed their lives. So despite the fact that we were going broke, God was using us.
That’s why this period of my life was such a confusing time for me. If we were doing what I felt God wanted us to do, why were we tanking? Bills were piling up, and money wasn’t coming in to pay them. We were now in dire need of raising another eighty thousand dollars. I didn’t want to do fund-raisers, but I was running out of relatives fast. Some of them were starting to use fake accents when I called: “Who you looking for? So sorry. He not here. He move far away. You no call back again.”
So it was either ask our listeners for money or close up shop )a position that I’m sure a lot of Christian stations find themselves in when they hold their fund-raisers, too).
Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking we held the fund-raiser and God miraculously sent in the eighty thousand dollars, right? Wrong. We held the fund-raiser, but we didn’t raise anywhere near that amount. Even after we prayed on the air and told God that He should send us the money because we were doing what we believed He had led us to do, the money still didn’t come.
So there we were, holding our fund-raiser while the guy from the electric company was standing by ready to cut the power (I think that’s how many radio personalities learn how to talk fast.) Needless to say, it was a very difficult and trying time in our lives. I wasn’t getting paid. My wife, Betty, who had gone to school to be a registered nurse, couldn’t seem to land a decent-paying job. The bills were piling up both at home and at the studio. I was going through the sofa looking for quarters and asking God what was going on. He was God. How could this have been His plan for my life? And if it was, why hadn’t he hidden more quarters in the sofa?
I had reached the end of my own ability to fix the situation. We were a million dollars in debt now. I had no other job prospects and nowhere to go to get any more financial assistance. My feelings as a man were at the lowest they could possibly get. I remember eating bologna sandwiches with Betty for dinner many nights and thinking, “I am such a loser.” But thank God for women who can look beyond the circumstances and “stand by their man.”
Not even our answering machine was working right during this time. One day right in the middle of this financial stress, our answering machine malfunctioned and started playing as our outgoing message all the messages that our bill collectors had left us on the tape. It was a bit embarrassing to say the least. Friends and business associates got to learn a whole lot more about the Bussey family financial situation than they had ever wanted to know. Betty got a little stressed over it all, but I told her not to worry because it wouldn’t happen again. :In a few days we’re not going to even have a phone, honey.”
It was about that time that I began to wonder if what I believed I had done for God hadn’t been for God at all. Maybe I was still very much calling all the shots in my career and life, showing God what I was going to do for Him, instead of letting God show me what He could do with a life that was totally surrendered to Him.
The only job offer that came through during this time was one in sales at a local television station. The company who owned the station didn’t reflect my values, so at first I didn’t want to take the job. But after a conversation with my mother, who is known to say “common sense may be one of God’s greatest gifts,” I changed my mind. She told me that since that was the only door opening to me at the time, maybe that was the door God wanted me to take. Mom could make a lot of sense sometimes, so I ended up taking the job.
In my new position, I helped the station land one of their biggest sales on record. I had suggested contacting Charles Stanley about the possibility of our station carrying his worship services. It was a huge deal for the station, but a couple of weeks after that, I was called into the boss’s office and fired. They told me they were simply “cutting back,” but I’ve often wondered if someone there wasn’t too keen about having to hear what Charles Stanley had to say. Whatever the real reason, I had a talk with God on my way out that day. I said, “The snowball is rolling over me all the way down the hill, Lord.” I was still a million dollars in debt, and now I was feeling the sting of unemployment again. I saw no hope for a job, no hope of meeting my bills, and even the bologna on our sandwiches was starting to get a little thinner.
But on my way to my car that day, I ran into the general manager of Q-104, a radio station that was operating on the same tower as the TV station where I had been working. He congratulated me on the sale of the Charles Stanley program, then added, “If you weren’t making so much money over at the TV station, I’d love to have you come and engineer for me.”
“Well,” I said, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible, “I just might be interested. This coat and tie stuff isn’t really working out for me anyway.”
I got the job and, after contacting all my creditors, I was able to pay back pennies on the dollar. We were also able to sell the Christian radio station that I was still carrying, all without having to declare bankruptcy.
And God wasn’t done with that snowball yet. One day my new boss at the radio station came to me and said they were looking for a morning show host and wondered if I knew anyone. I mentioned my college buddy Rick Burgess, who at the time was doing a show for another station. It took a bit of coaxing, but Rick finally agreed to quit his job and do a show for us.
I’ve always loved to laugh and have a good time, so I started hanging out with Rick while he did the show, and we’d joke around a lot both on and off the air. Then, one day I suggested that he should have a southern guy come on the show and do Shakespeare. We could call it “Good Ol’ Boy Theater,” but rather than do the bit myself, my thought was to hire an outsider to do it. But Rick said, “You read it.”
I did and the response to “Good Ol’ Boy Theater” was immediate. The people seemed to love it. Unfortunately, our boss didn’t. Fearing he might end up losing his engineer, he told me I could no longer hang out with the on-air talent. But Rick kept calling me back into the studio to do more bits on his show. I was afraid our boss was going to go ballistic, but as soon as one of our sponsors offered the station forty dollars for the same spot that had been selling for ten dollars on the sole stipulation that it air during “Good Ol’ Boy Theaters,” it didn’t take long for him to do the math on that.
“Good Ol’ Boy Theater” soon became a regular bit on the show. And on January 1, 1994, we began The Rick and Bubba Show. What most people don’t know, though, is that Rick took a pay cut so I could become his partner on the show and so the station could afford to hire a new engineer. So far, he hasn’t asked for any of that money back.
The response to The Rick and Bubba Show has amazed both of us. The path we both took to get here has been both humbling and rewarding. I thought I was supposed to operate a Christian station. Rick thought he was going to play pro football. But God’s plan was for us to be who we already were, two big guys who love to laugh and have a good time, doing a radio show in an entertaining way on a secular station with, not thoughts of listeners, but millions. And to do it all in His perfect time.
The snowball has finally stopped. And we’re both still standing.