Charese Fruge’ Talks To Natalie Rush

This article was originally posted to AllAccess’ “Women To Watch” series, written by Charese Fruge on October 27, 2020

She’s one of the few female Program Directors in the radio business and she leads a team of all female full-time staffers for Steel City Media. Natalie Rush is also the afternoon drive host for her station, Kansas City’s Best Variety, KC 102.1. So many of us radio geeks can relate to why she got into the business. “I’d always loved radio and would often call in to request my favorite songs and chat with the DJs (yes, I was that kid!!),” she says. “I happened to call in when the PD, Rick Schmidt, was on air at the now long defunct 103X in Greenville, SC. He said I had a good voice and should look into their internship program. I was only 16, which I don’t know if he knew, but it being the mid-90s when radio could accept any free labor that was offered, they didn’t care!”

“I started my internship and fell in love!” says Rush. “When that station flipped formats, I reached out to now KMXB/Vegas Program Director J. Love, who was the current night jock at B93.7 WFBC and asked if I could intern with him. He welcomed me into the studio to produce his show and introduced me to his PD Rob Wagman. Together, they worked with me to get on the air. I started as a part-timer with the station when I was a senior in high school and decided that this was my future. The two of them helped mold me and get my first full-time gig before I was 20.”

Natalie has such a great success story considering she is now a Program Director as well as talent, especially coming up in the business at a time when female programmers were non-existent. I asked Natalie why she thought that was the case. “I remember being told in the past that radio in general was a “boys club”… It wasn’t hard to see the evidence of that when I looked around,” she says. “At the first four stations I worked at, I saw no women in programming, management or really even working outside the traditional roles of morning co-host or middays; we were obviously in the minority. Most stations seemed to have only one or two females on the entire staff back then. It being late 90s and early 2000s, I think that might be partly because people in the position of hiring didn’t even seriously consider going outside the norm.”

“Honestly, I fell into that thinking as well early in my career. I never even considered that I would be a programmer,” says Rush. “I would assume other females in the industry felt the same way and this discouraged some from even attempting to achieve the goal of leading a station. For me, thankfully, that all changed when I met Nikki Nite, when I returned to do middays at WFBC in Greenville,” she says. “It took me seeing a talented, in charge, confident woman sitting in the PD chair before I opened my eyes to the possibilities. Nikki and other amazing female programmers have blazed a trail that has led to far more opportunity now than in years past. I’m very proud to work for a company that supports me as a female program director, and to lead my all female full-time staff.”

Natalie’s advice for women who want to become Program Directors: “Don’t be intimated… put your best foot forward, put the hard work in and earn the respect of your peers and your management. Learn from as many people as possible, but also find a woman in the industry to be a confidant. Ask her questions! Plus, don’t be afraid to speak up with your ideas even when you’re the only woman in the room.”

Mentoring is important in the radio business, in fact, it’s vital, according to Natalie. “I don’t know what I would do without my mentors that I’ve already mentioned. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. I also consider it an honor to share the knowledge they’ve passed on to me. Without us all building each other up and encouraging each other forward, I don’t believe our industry could evolve.”

Over the course of Natalie’s 20 plus years in the business, some of her biggest accomplishments are more than just ratings success and awards. “I take the most pride in the people I’ve been able to work with over the years. I’m very happy that I’ve earned the respect of mentors of mine that still help guide and mold me today. Plus, I feel as if I’ve paid that forward to help energize members of my different staffs over the years. It’s been a huge honor to watch people I hired move on to some great positions,” she says. “In addition, it’s an ongoing pleasure to watch my current staff overcome some amazing setbacks over the last few years including a computer virus that took us completely down, two station moves in less than six months, and the current pandemic. They have leaned on me and trusted me during this crisis, as I have them. Knowing that you are someone people can count on, is a huge accomplishment to me.”

Another big accomplishment over the last 20 plus years was the birth of her son. “It was pretty darn exciting! It even aired on my station at the time!” she said. “But the most amazing thing I’ve witnessed career-wise was watching a woman win $102,000 from my station a few years ago with an insured contest. I NEVER thought I’d see one of those pay off!! The pure joy that we were able to bring to that family was exhilarating. We changed their lives in a good way. That’s what I love most about radio… whether it’s making someone a winner or just making their day by playing a song they love at the perfect time, that’s what makes this industry my passion.”

2020 has been a challenging year for Natalie, but it’s not the worst she’s seen. “Without a doubt, the biggest challenge for me happened last year when my company was hit by ransomware. We lost almost everything. All 4 stations in our cluster had to rebuild from the ground up. It was devastating to lose everything you had worked so hard to build,” she says. “However, during what was the most stressful thing I’ve ever encountered in my career, I was reminded how great the crew is I have on my station and on the amazing programming team we have as a whole in our building. We banded together, we got through, we worked long hours, but we supported each other and we came out stronger.”

Like everyone else, the COVID-19 pandemic has also presented its challenges for Natalie. “I’m now trying to help virtually teach my 14-year-old son AND I AM NOT built for this. I could easily show him how to schedule a music log or talk up a song intro, but I am not good at freshman Biology or Algebra!! We are getting by though and have fared far better than many others, in part because of the company I work for, Steel City Media,” she says. “I very much realize how blessed I am that they’ve made no cuts to the programming staff during this time. They have allowed us to continue coming in to do live and local radio. We have continued to keep our listeners informed and entertained when they need it the most. We have all adjusted and have adapted to new safety protocols of course. We’ve also had to reimagine how to do radio in this new world.”

I think it’s safe to say that a lot of us in this industry could learn a thing or two from Natalie. She says she doesn’t have trouble sleeping at night. “I used to lay in bed and worry non-stop about the station, the future, my son,” she says. “However, the last few years have taught me to try to focus on what I can control and adapt as it comes. No need to stay up all night worrying when you can tackle tomorrow’s problem tomorrow. All I need is some good monotone true crime doc on television and I’m out like a light.”

As a single mom raising her son on her own since birth, Natalie is passionate about Big Brothers Big Sisters. The mission is such a rewarding experience for both the children and the volunteers. Natalie’s son just recently became a “Little” and it’s provided an opportunity for him to have a strong male role model in his life since her brother just recently had to move away from them. Natalie eventually plans to become a “Big” as well. I can attest to the importance of the organization myself, because I am a “Big Sis” too, and I absolutely love it.

Natalie is also passionate about her friends and family. “I enjoy good long conversations over dinner with good friends, and just hanging out with my son,” she says. “I also love rooting for the Chiefs and hanging at the Lake Of The Ozarks with my adopted Kansas City family led by Bill Rusch, who convinced me I needed to live in KC after working with him in Springfield, MO.”

Natalie is in a good place right now and hopes to maintain the balance. And like most, she doesn’t know what the future holds for her but she’s optimistic. “I just know that I want to keep doing what I love, which is supporting local radio, playing good music, making people smile and encouraging my team. Whatever comes from that, is where my path will go.”

Follow Natalie Rush on Facebook: natalie.randall.311 | natalierushkc