Though our paths have moved in different directions since our years in Richmond, I do count Clifton Dixon as a mentor in my earliest years of ministry. In fact, he was a mentor in my media ministry even before my ordination.

[I told some of this story in my previous blog about my radio program “Celebration Rock.” Since Cliff was instrumental in my being involved in that radio/rock ministry, there is an account of how that came to be at www.celebrationrock.wordpress.com .]

The Rev. Clifton E. Dixon was the pastor of a small Richmond, VA congregation, and a film maker. He was connected media-wise with the Virginia Council of Churches and the Presbyterian Synod’s radio-TV outreach. By the time I was in seminary, Cliff was also involved with the Richmond Area Council of Presbyterian Churches’ radio ministry. Certainly I would count him among the young media pioneers of the Presbyterian Church. He would later leave the pastorate to lead the Synod’s TRAV office, a regional franchise (we might say) of the Southern Presbyterian denomination’s Television, Radio, and Audio Visual production office in Atlanta.

Now, all that was back in the 1960s, and as I look back on that era, I think about how creative, how committed, and how vital that ministry was on all levels of the church. Pioneers like Cliff Dixon (and those who had gone before in previous decades, like Robert Kirkpatrick, Charlie Brackbill, and Bluford Hestir, Jr.) had a vision for the way the church could communicate the Gospel through broadcasting and what we used to call audio-visuals (movies, slides, audiotape, and the like).

Working with low budgets and often under committees that knew little of the technology involved, those media prophets converted ideas into modern communication efforts that reached perhaps  millions of people, rather than mere congregational gatherings. Cliff had the visual eye of a film maker, but also knew the potential of radio, and it was his involvement with that medium that brought Cliff to my seminary apartment door one night in 1967.

A downtown Richmond church had started the city’s very first radio station in 1924. Without going into its interesting history, it’s enough to say that some forty years later the church’s WBBL was sharing its frequency with WLEE, the city’s number one rock station, with a huge youth audience. Yet, WBBL was still in the old mold of broadcasting sermons, lectures, choral music, etc. during its Sunday night hour-long broadcast. And hundreds, maybe thousands of youth were turning their radios off.

The church had relinquished responsiblity for that hour to the Richmond Area Presbyterians organization, and Cliff Dixon and Robert Kirkpatrick encouraged the local committee to produce a program more in line with the youthful audience of WLEE. Dr. Kirkpatrick, on the seminary faculty and manager of the seminary’s radio station, knew of my college experience in radio and suggested that Cliff invite me into the process of producing a pilot program along the lines of a new nationally syndicated Lutheran radio show called “Silhouette.”

I remember being very excited by Cliff’s visit, but also very nervous, since the idea was to produce a program that used popular music to hook that teen audience — and I knew practically nothing about pop/rock music. But the idea of having an hour-long weekly radio show on a top-rated station certainly sharpened the focus of my call to media ministry.

I went to a discount store and bought a “12 Greatest Motown Hits” album, figuring that it would have enough music to build a pilot show that the committee could consider. Using the seminary’s radio station facilities (WBBL’s production facilities were not up to the task), I made a demo tape, and called it “Showcase,” a title I had used for a show in college. The committee had kind comments, some helpful critique, and suggested we air our new show for a month, to measure response.

I’ve said many times in the past that the program was well-conceived, but not really that good at first. But because it was so different from the church’s previous efforts, people thought it was good. At least they applauded the effort. And the month-long trial began a 20 year run.

All along the way, Cliff Dixon was there to offer counsel, encouragement, and direction. Especially in that first year, he not only guided me in the production of that program, but he also was instrumental in the formation of a Richmond TRAV office, and that entity called me to serve as its director, again, thanks to Cliff’s initiative. With Richmond TRAV offering a call, I was eligible to be ordained a minister in the Presbyterian Church and was given the flashy title “Minister of Electronic Media.”

In my first year with R-TRAV, Cliff introduced me to the annual conference of the North American Broadcast Section of the World Association for Christian Communication (NABS-WACC, about which I have written here earlier — see my words about Ed Willingham). I rarely missed that conference over the next 20 years or so.

 For a few years, Cliff chaired the committee that oversaw my ministry, and served on that committee beyond his chairmanship. The committee morphed into a new organization, and more than once as I look back. R-TRAV became RPM (Richmond Presbyterian Media) and then PBM (Presbyterian Broadcast Ministry), and finally it was lodged under the Presbytery’s Mass Media Subdivision. Cliff stayed with us through all those changes, and he proposed even more changes as the ministry developed. That led to some professional disagreements.

Frankly, I was settling into a very comfortable role as radio producer and host, adding several new programs to my line-up. I had weekly (and in one case, daily) programs on several Richmond stations, and could justify them all, and produce them with hardly any budget. The big sticking point was the syndication of my original show, now called “Celebration Rock.” Some folks questioned why we were putting presbytery funding into a program on the air in Tampa, Washington, Raleigh, and Salem, OR of all places, upwards of fifty in all. And I was refusing to ask my audience for financial support, though obviously duplicating and mailing tapes was getting expensive. I was convinced that putting an appeal for funding on my show would break down the trust I had established with my young listeners. I wanted to distance myself from the tele-evangelists and their exploitative “ministries.”

Another issue is hinted at in my sentence above when I referred to “my” line-up. I was operating as an independent agent, and (I confess) not responding to the committee’s dreams and wishes to expand into new areas. I heard Cliff pushing us to move in different directions, wanting us to explore more TV, cable, and other media expressions. But I had settled in to what I knew and did best. I stood my ground, and pushed back, though I knew that the Presbytery itself was changing its own mission priorities, and would be looking toward an amicable divorce of sorts. 

By now, Cliff’s own TRAV office was transitioning with Synod’s changing goals, and he was teaching film at VCU. I signed on at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education to teach and produce video. I eventually continued “Celebration Rock” on my own, repositioning the show as a local offering, while doing another long-running radio program under Presbytery’s auspices, with that program continuing until I moved to pastoral work in Vermont.

Cliff Dixon was right to push us all toward new things. He had imagination, communications savvy, and more history than I, and I was too reluctant to follow. That’s the thing about mentors and protegés, isn’t it? Almost always, isn’t there a rift, a cutting of the once-close ties, as the protegé stops listening to and learning from and following the mentor? That it may be a natural process doesn’t lessen the sometimes hurtful feelings that result. Thus, I offer some regret that when I left Richmond for Vermont in 1992, Cliff and I lost touch.

Yet, I count him among one of the most influential guides I’ve had along the path of faith and ministry.

Advertisements