(Part One of a two-part series)
By Hannah Mayer and John Kerezy
BARBERTON — Mark Zimmerman will be back in broadcasting in the near future, rock-solid certain that when “Mornings with Mark” begins anew at WKJA, 91.9 FM, he’s right in the center of God’s will. It’s unheard of in 2020 to see a new radio signal appear in a major media market, but that’s just what will happen when WKJA, Heartfelt Radio, begins broadcasting on February 14.
Zimmerman became widely known around Northeast Ohio after a career of more than two decades with WCRF, 103.3 FM, Moody Radio Cleveland. He created the Children’s Radio Funhouse Saturday morning show for WCRF, and then hosted the station’s morning show for more than 15 years until he was let go from Moody in September 2015.
For Zimmerman, the job loss marked the onset of a four-year “wilderness” experience which took him from Bright Hope International to the Cleveland Museum of Art, and then to Geauga County Transit. It was an eye-opening experience.
“Some of the things I learned behind the wheels of that bus, and in life, are going to show up real soon on Heartfelt Radio,” he says.
A MEDIA CAREER TURNED KINGDOM CAREER
A proud Bowling Green State University communications major, Zimmerman began his career in television and radio production. At WUAB-TV, he was an assistant director of Cleveland Indians telecasts. “I worked with Joe Tait and Bruce Drennan, and back then the video production team was ‘leased out’ to the visiting teams sometime, so I also met and collaborated with TV play-by-play baseball announcers from all over the country,” he recalls.
When WUAB laid Zimmerman off in 1986, he migrated to advertising. He began as a writer at the May Co., then moved to Manheim Advertising and next to AdPro, where he was the agency’s creative director.
“We had won a number of awards for our creative work, when I learned in 1992 that WCRF-FM was looking for two part-time announcers for their station,” he says. “I had a comedy show at the campus radio station at Bowling Green and really enjoyed it. I went to my wife Wendy and said, ‘what do you think?’ and she said I should give it a try.”
By now Zimmerman was at an enjoyable mid-career stage of his life. He and Wendy were raising three daughters (now all grown) in Chesterland. They worship at St. Mark Lutheran Church there, where Wendy sings in the choir and Mark led (and still does to this day) a Bible study class. WCRF represented an opportunity for him to use his communications talents for a purpose higher than just selling products or services.
BUILDING OFF THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS FOR 22 YEARS
Zimmerman began at WCRF on Saturday mornings, and there he immediately made a mark by improving the station’s programming for children. “I started digging into programming and music that was available for children, searching for who was popular,” he recalls. “In the pre-digital pre-Internet days, I was making phone calls and writing letters. Gradually I found people around the country who were making good music for children.
“I started getting their CDs approved for playing on the air, and invited these talented artists to come to NE Ohio and perform,” he continues. “Eventually we renamed Saturday mornings as the Children’s Radio Funhouse.”
Next, Zimmerman was selected to serve as substitute host for the “Clockwatcher” program, the morning show at WCRF. Legendary Bob Devine, who began at the station in 1959, was both the host and a mentor to his younger colleague. “Bob was in radio for more than 45 years, and at WCRF for more than 40. He’s in the Broadcasters Hall of Fame, and I was privileged and blessed to learn from him,” Mark says.
When Devine retired in 2000, Moody selected Zimmerman to take over the morning show.“I was succeeding a legend, a great man of God, the rock and cornerstone of WCRF for decades,” Zimmerman says. “It was like building off the shoulders of giants to come after Bob (Devine).”
Under Zimmerman’s watch, WCRF continued amazing accomplishments. “The VBS Express” was an idea he implemented to expand the station’s reach. “We would travel to different churches in the area and take part in their vacation bible school,” Zimmerman says This provided the children and adult volunteers an exciting experience to be part of WCRF, while also giving the station great publicity.
WCRF also expanded its ministry globally by partnering with international outreach ministries such as Bright Hope International. Bright Hope is an organization that unites Christians to help those living in extreme poverty. Zimmerman knew he wanted to take part in Bright Hope after his first mission trip to the Dominican Republic. Zimmerman recalls seeing 10-by-10 foot homes on both sides of the street and gutters filled with sewage spewing down the alleys.
“That was an important step for me, because I was able to see some tragic conditions in the world that I’ve never witnessed before,” Zimmerman said. “It changed my perception of the world, and what the responsibility of a believer was”.
WCRF then teamed up with Bright Hope and Cleveland Indians pitcher Justin Masterson for an unique global outreach campaign. Zimmerman had already been interviewing Masterson for years before, which only made the Bright Hope projects more special to him and also to many Cleveland Indians fans. Two fund-raising projects with Masterson more than $400,000 for new homes in the second biggest slum in Nairobi, Kenya.
As Zimmerman worked internationally to help people in poverty, he realized that he wasn’t doing much in his own hometown. Zimmerman began working with the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Jeff Johnson, and was inspired by Trinity’s model for neighborhood ministry. Pastor Johnson told him about the people groups that his church helps around the city, and shortly after, Zimmerman decided to create an event called “One Night on the Street.”
For “One Night” WCRF produced a live broadcast from different ministries and asked people to volunteer with various organizations for just one day. More than 400 people stepped forward to help, and some who still continue to volunteer with these organizations.
But nothing lasts forever, especially in media in the 21st century. Local jazz aficionados are mourning the format change which 107.3 FM (formerly the Wave) is now undergoing. Moody Broadcasting began undergoing a shift of emphasis with its morning shows, starting with its flagship station WMBI in Chicago in 2014. That continued in Cleveland, when Zimmerman and News Director Gary Bittner were released in 2015. Moody Broadcasting went with much younger hosts, Brian Dahlen and Kathleen Ferrini, as it aimed to attract a younger audience of listeners.
PRAISE AS THE COMEBACK BEGINS
Zimmerman has gained countless friendships from his long career in radio. One person who he had met while working for moody radio was Wayne Shepherd. Shepherd was Moody’s Broadcast Program Manager in Chicago for almost 33 years. The two met shortly after Zimmerman began at WCRF and they’ve continued their friendship even after both departed from Moody. Shepherd has always marveled at Zimmerman’s faith.
“Seriously, his love for the Lord and his patience and faith during his recent wilderness season of life has been a great inspiration,” Shepherd said. “Tenaciousness and faithfulness in the midst of disappointment— these are qualities I’ve learned from my friend.”
Zimmerman’s pastor at St. Mark Church, Mark Matzke, is an individual that has been present in Zimmerman’s life leading up to his debut on Heartfelt Radio. Matzke only knows of Zimmerman “off-air”, since he became the pastor of St. Mark Lutheran after Zimmerman was let go from WCRF.
Matzke believes that Zimmerman had a gap from radio for a reason. “I think God had some things he wanted to show him during that stretch,” Matzke said. As the debut of Heartfelt Radio comes closer, Matke is thrilled to see what Zimmerman is going to bring to Christian radio. “I have no doubt that Mark is going to put his heart and soul into this new ministry,” Matzke stated. “It will be a blessing to his listeners.”
There are also tens of thousands of people in Northeast Ohio who tuned in to WCRF for decades and are excited about Zimmerman’s return to the airwaves. “I was a listener to Moody Radio Cleveland for more than 30 years,” says Allison Delfeld of Broadview Heights, a mother of two and grandmother. “I have fond memories of Mark Zimmerman hosting the Children’s Radio Funhouse on Saturday mornings. I tuned in to the station with my two sons and we would listen to ‘Ranger Bill,’ ‘Adventures in Odyssey’ and other shows and children’s songs.
“Mark’s ministry went well beyond just the radio,” Delfeld adds. “I was blessed to accompany him and other WCRF listeners on a Buckner International mission trip to Latvia in 2006. Mark’s compassion for the impoverished people in countries such as El Salvador, Kenya, and Guatemala moved me and countless other listeners to action.
“I’m thankful that Heartfelt Radio is coming to Northeast Ohio, and Mark Zimmerman back on the air will be making mornings great again. I can’t wait to tune in.”
NEXT: PART TWO – A preview of Heartfelt Radio
Guest author Mayer is a journalism major at Kent State University. She was a student at Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) when she co-wrote this story. Kerezy is associate professor of Media and Journalism Studies at Tri-C.
If you have questions or story ideas for eyeoncleveland.com, contact John Kerezy at email@example.com. More than 3,000 people visited eyeoncleveland.com in 2019 to read about Shelby Oliver Miller, D-Day Conneaut, Taylor Headrick, and other profiles here.