60 Years of WordDec. 13, 2011
Jarrell McCracken, "The Game of Life"
In 1951, a Baylor ministerial student looking for a way to reach his culture with the good news of Jesus Christ recorded a vinyl record that recast the Christian life as a football game.
Jarrell McCracken, BA '50, MA '53, found his experience broadcasting (actually, re-creating) Baylor baseball games over Waco radio station KWTX ideally suited to the idea, which he came across in a magazine article.
What sounds to today's ears as a hybrid of sports cliches and John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" was fresh and engaging to its listeners, and demand for copies eventually pushed McCracken into business -- a business that would become the world's largest Christian media company, based in Waco, Texas.
Its name, Word Music, came from the mythical radio station on which McCracken called the play-by-play of "The Game of Life:" W-O-R-D. And much of its human talent, manpower and creativity came from Baylor University.
"From day one, he was looking for Baylor talent," recalls Lois Ferguson, BA '68, MSED '94, who joined the company as a fresh Baylor journalism graduate in 1969 and rose to become McCracken's executive assistant during her 17 years with Word. "Jarrell was extremely loyal to Baylor."
The first musician McCracken signed to his fledgling Word, Inc., label in 1951 was a fellow Bear, baritone Frank Boggs, BA '48, the co-writer of Baylor's fight song who would go on to a successful singing career. Word's early years were sometimes touch-and-go as McCracken learned the ropes of establishing a business, but by the late 1950s, the music company had its feet on the ground, thanks to an executive team that included secretary-treasurer Marvin Norcross, national sales director Paul Meyer and executive vice president Tom Norfleet, BA '50. Kurt Kaiser came to Word in 1959 after finishing a master's degree at Northwestern University to be the label's director of artists and would soon become one of the company's best known and respected creative directors.
The company's leading personalities influenced those who worked under them. Roland Lundy, BBA '72, who joined Word in the 1970s and would rise to become Word Entertainment president, says McCracken had a remarkable ability to look ahead and encourage others to follow. "His vision was always bigger than anybody who worked here. You knew you were going to be supported. I think all of us benefited from that form of thinking," he says. "Marvin Norcross was Jarrell's right-hand man. We all learned from him about integrity. I think that rubbed off on all of us. "
In the 1960s, the company moved to its largest and last Waco facility, one with a distinctive "flying W" logo built into its facade. A Waco Tribune-Herald special supplement printed for the occasion noted the youth of Word's management; McCracken and most of his associates were young men in their 20s and 30s.
McCracken's gift for finding talented individuals, then letting them loose to create and innovate, soon made Word a powerhouse in multiple fields: recording, music publishing, book publishing, books on tape, book clubs and record clubs.
Although Word would become known in the 1960s and 1970s for the artists and authors signed to its labels and publishing house, its remarkable ability in distribution, sales and marketing made sure places would sell Word merchandise. Word became a household name not only in Christian bookstores, but in churches across the country that bought its sheet music, devotional books, tapes and educational material.
"People liked to work there. There was innovation and fun," recalls Lundy. "At the end of the day, you'd go home feeling you were doing something good for people."
As Word grew into a multimedia empire, it found plenty of talent in Baylor's School of Music, the Hankamer School of Business and the university's religion department. Kaiser soon took advantage of Baylor's musical talent. He led the Baylor Religious Hour Choir for several years and recalls he and his music colleagues often used Waco church choirs for tape demos or simply to try out new ideas. It was that fertile environment that led Kaiser to create Word's first youth musical, "Tell It Like It Is," which, with "Good News" and Broadman Press' "Celebrate Life," would open church doors to a contemporary sound that would alter church music within a generation. That new musical territory attracted the attention of church music minister Billy Ray Hearn, BM '54, the first graduate of Baylor's church music program, who signed on with Word in 1968 and would become a pivotal figure in contemporary Christian music.
McCracken's management style encouraged creativity and risk-taking, and many who rose in the ranks did so by taking opportunities outside their collegiate field of study. Lundy went looking for a job with Word after graduating in 1972 with a Baylor business degree so he could stay around and continue his ties with Baylor baseball. That job was telemarketing in an office, Lundy recalls, where the floor plan was rearranged every few weeks by the boss, Stan Moser, BA '71, to keep callers from becoming bored. Moser became a mentor of sorts, and Lundy rose through the ranks. Seventeen years later, the former telemarketer became Word Entertainment's president and CEO.
Don Cason, BMED '76, earned a music education degree with a vocal emphasis from Baylor. But it was his music theory training under Baylor music professor Dr. Herbert Colvin, BA '44, BM '48, coupled with a music editing workshop that Charles F. Brown, BM '66, led for Baylor students, that gave Cason the skills needed for Word's music editing and publishing work.
Cason worked his way into a music editing position, changing his career plan of becoming a music minister, and spent 28 years at Word in song and songwriter development, music publishing and licensing, eventually becoming president of Word Music under Lundy.
Gary Rhodes, BM '81, presently the music minister at Waco's Highland Baptist Church, started transcribing musical artists' songs in the late '70s for Cason. He signed on as a music editor after graduation, then became creative director of choral music. He produced a choral arrangement for Michael W. Smith's "Great Is The Lord" which sold some 250,000 copies -- "I wish I'd gotten paid for it," he quips -- and began to write church musicals with the encouragement of his Word superiors. Nearly three decades later, the Dove Award-winning Rhodes continues to write musicals for Word.
Word's choral music department also gave valuable experience to Baylor music graduates such as Robert Sterling, BMED '77, and Mark Hayes, BM '75, who continue to be prolific composers of church music.
"Word at that time was a breeding ground," Cason notes.
The Word connection also brought many of the leading contemporary Christian music performers to Waco for concerts attended by Baylor students: Amy Grant, the Imperials, Russ Taff, Sandi Patty, Evie, 2nd Chapter of Acts and Wayne Watson, up to today's Chris August, Point of Grace and Mark Schultz.
The Waco-based music giant also boosted careers for Baylor grads on its periphery. Bob Darden, BSED '76, a Baylor journalism graduate working as entertainment editor for the Waco Tribune-Herald, found Word's domination of the Christian music business gave him an advantage when he applied to be Billboard Magazine's gospel music columnist. Not only did Word bring some of gospel's best-known names to Waco, where Darden interviewed them, but its marketing and sales strategies were the meat-and-potatoes information that readers of the music industry trade magazine wanted.
As Word continued to mushroom and make money, outside corporations began to take notice. In 1974, ABC Capital Cities bought the company. The purchase expanded the financial resources available for Word, but at the expense of local autonomy. In 1986, company founder and visionary McCracken retired. Two years later, Word execs decided to move the company's headquarters to Las Colinas, closer to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, to facilitate transportation. The move, however, severed the company's proximity to Baylor and its talent pool as well as ties with those Word executives and workers who decided to stay in Waco.
While Word's move to Dallas, then Nashville, diminished the chances of Baylor students to find part-time work that would turn full time after graduation, Baylor-educated executives continued to drive the company's fortunes. Moser, who signed Amy Grant to Word in 1977 and launched her career, headed Word Records and served as executive vice president of Word Music. Lundy succeeded him and became CEO and president of Word Entertainment. Cason was Word Music president from 2000-06.
Hearn, who went from the Sparrow Music label he founded to EMI Christian Music Group, remembers a recent Nashville reunion of Baylor graduates that showed, physically, the impact the university has had on the Christian music industry. "It was amazing. There were about 23 or 24 Baylor grads in executive positions in the music industry," he says. "Baylor has ruled this town as far as Christian music is concerned."
As Word Entertainment moves into its seventh decade, it faces a landscape revolutionized by the digital era. Online music and downloads have eroded CD sales. Sheet music and scores are also downloadable, affecting music publishers. E-books and e-readers are taking a growing share of the book publishing market. The major legs on which the Word empire was built -- music, music publishing and book publishing -- face a future radically different from that a generation ago.
Current Word Entertainment President Rod Riley, however, sees opportunity. "I'm bullish on the future," he says, noting that music has become an essential part of many lives even as the ways in which people acquire and store it have changed. "We will continue to develop, adapt and innovate."
The skill set needed for that is being developed through Baylor's Music and Entertainment Marketing program, with its Curb Learning Lab, and the student-run label Uproar Records, both of which are designed to offer hands-on experience and contact with industry leaders and professionals. Adding to the mix of fresh ideas is the biannual Hearn Symposium on Christian Music, which brings Christian music professionals to the Baylor campus. [Read more on these efforts below.]
Heading into this brave new world, Riley says Word Entertainment is taking lessons on what today's artists are doing to build audiences, pay the bills and create a career. Rather than limit its involvement to the creation, production and distribution of a musician's albums, Word now gets involved in the merchandising that's become second nature for independent bands.
Word recently acquired the booking agency 25 Entertainment to become more active in live events and, on the church end of things, is developing and marketing conferences that address specific themes, integrating worship leaders, speakers and musicians into the conference programming.
While its programs and products have changed with the times, Word's mission to equip the church hasn't, says the company's CEO. "Our calling is to serve the church," he says. "We have a name that has meant something to the church."
As a Baylor play-by-play announcer called it 60 years ago, that name is W-O-R-D.