Luke Dennis: Development Director, WYSO 91.3FM

L Dennis Headshot2Do you love music and theater, and want to work in that world, but aren’t sure of your route? Luke Dennis started there and followed a winding path to his career at WYSO 91.3FM. I asked Luke how he crafted his career. The highlights of his story follow.

In the beginning…

As Luke Dennis was growing up in Wilmington, Ohio, his parents adopted a hands-off approach, allowing him to set his own course. He liked music. Starting in 6th grade, he played euphonium in the band and bass guitar in the jazz band and various rock bands. Currently, he plays in a local band, Lord Kimbo, with his best friend from elementary school, Mike Bisig.

Luke was in charge of his college search and visits. He visited just one school, Kenyon College, liked it, and applied early decision. After Kenyon accepted him, they sent him his financial aid package. In Luke’s hotheaded eighteen-year-old opinion, it was insufficient. Without consulting his parents, he told Kenyon, “I’m going to withdraw unless you increase my financial aid. They said, “Just do it”. “I dropped out of Kenyon before I even started and I had nowhere to go to college”. A friend’s stepfather knew the Dean of Admissions at Wittenberg University and suggested Luke visit. Within eight days, Luke was enrolled and attending orientation for new students. “One of many happy accidents I’ve had”.

“Without any reflection,” Luke declared a double major in music and theatre at Wittenberg. He quickly found mentors in each department and “it ended up being a great fit. I could act and direct in the theatre program and I ended up doing a vocal performance emphasis in the music department, which has helped me at WYSO”.

What path did Luke take after Wittenberg?

After graduating from Wittenberg, “I thought I might like to direct plays at a college”. To pursue that goal, Luke enrolled at Tufts University in Boston in a dual M.A./ Ph.D. program in theater history, literature and theory. “I didn’t do any research or think about it”.

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Luke & Sally

Luke had met his wife, Sally, in the Wittenberg Theatre program. Boston sounded good to her, too, so she moved with him and found a job teaching at Cambridge Montessori School.

While Luke studied at Tufts, he also worked three jobs, “so I wasn’t putting a lot of focus on my studies”. His jobs included:

  • Box office at the American Repertory Theater
  • Improv theater in Boston’s North End running the lighting and sound
  • Reading Room at The Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library – a public facing position working with researchers who were “researching cool interesting stuff”
  • Tufts graduate fellow – “I got paid to teach acting to undergraduates” which was “real validation of why I went to graduate school”

Although graduate school “felt like the right path for me… I couldn’t force myself to sit down and write”. “I liked going to class; I liked reading the plays a lot. But I certainly was not interested in publishing papers or going to conferences or writing a dissertation”.

Consequently, after three years at Tufts, Luke dropped out of the Ph.D. program and accepted a full-time position in the Reading Room at the Harvard Theatre Collection doing the same thing he’d been doing on a part-time basis. “I liked the ways that the past could inform the present”.

During that time, Luke and his wife also started a theater company, “actively producing about three shows a year at the Boston Center for the Arts with a focus on new plays. So I was in that world and that’s why the Theatre Collection interested me”.

Did Luke stay with the Harvard Theatre Collection?

After a year, Luke decided he needed more money. Knowing that he wanted to work with theater productions in Boston, he found a job as the Director of Education and Outreach for the Boston Lyric Opera. Opera had been Luke’s focus as graduate student, “so I just applied and basically talked my way into the job”.

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Opera Singer

The Boston Lyric Opera Company is a big company, with four main stage productions a year at the Schubert Theater, and a summer season of public performances on Boston Commons. “It was a fun job. I got to travel with their touring children’s opera”.

Three years later, Luke’s boss retired and the company wanted Luke to take on a much larger role. Luke and Sally had just had their first child, which changed things. “We felt very isolated having an infant – none of our friends had kids yet”. Luke and Sally decided, “We should raise our children around family”.

What did Luke and Sally do?

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Victoria Theater, Dayton, Ohio

Three months after their daughter was born, Luke and Sally moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio. Luke took a job as Education and Outreach Director at the Victoria Theater Association in Dayton.

The job wasn’t a good fit for Luke, however, so he only lasted for one and a half years. It did serve as a “stepping stone to become the Director of Muse Machine”.

How did Luke like Muse Machine?

Started in 1982, Muse Machine is an arts education program that works with Dayton area schools to connect students and teachers to the performing and visual arts.

Due to education’s increased emphasis on testing, arts education had changed since the Muse Machine began. Schools no longer had room in their schedules for arts appreciation programming. “I was there as a real driver of change, not just an administrator, but a creative program person – moving toward more of a residency model where artists are in the school for a prolonged period doing in depth curriculum based stuff with students”.

The funding landscape for nonprofits in the Dayton area had also changed. Major corporate supporters like NCR and Mead Corporation had drastically decreased their support as they reduced their presence in the region. Consequently, Luke had to sell the new program approach to the schools at the same time that he was reinventing the organization’s funding model.

Luke stayed for four years with Muse Machine. “I enjoyed it, but it took a toll on my family life. I did not have a good work/life balance and was letting it bleed into my personal life”. Work pressures made him want to “go back to a time when things were different”.

What did Luke do to relieve the pressure?

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Boston skyline

Luke learned that the Curator of the Harvard Theatre Collection had died suddenly. Remembering how much he had liked working there, he applied and persuaded his wife to move back to Boston. “I won’t have to work as much. I’ll make more money and our kids can grow up in the richness of the culture”.

“I thought it was going to be great, but it was terrible”.

Why was the job as Curator of The Harvard Theatre Collection terrible?

As the Curator, Luke was responsible for

  • Building the collection
  • Managing the funds and the purchases of materials
  • Discovering auctions of rare items around the world
  • Preparing materials on requested theater subjects for student use in the Reading Room

“The job was fun. I traveled a lot”. But Luke’s wife, Sally, was deeply unhappy. They had left “a very supportive network of close friends with kids the ages of our kids” and didn’t find anything similar in Boston. Consequently, Luke left Harvard after six months.

That sounds drastic! What happened next?

Luke called Neenah Ellis, General Manager of WYSO 91.3FM, and told her, “I’m desperate to move back. I need a job, so if you hear of any opening, will you let me know”.

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Luke & Neenah Ellis

In another happy accident, Neenah told him WYSO was searching for a Development Director. He applied for the  job, interviewed, got the job, resigned from Harvard, and moved back to Yellow Springs – all within 40 days.

WYSO 93.1FM is a public radio station, based in Yellow Springs, Ohio, which airs 24/7. Operated by Antioch College since 1958, WYSO is the only NPR News station in the Miami Valley. In addition to NPR programming, WYSO delivers:

  • local and state news
  • public affairs programming and news specials
  • Public Radio International
  • American Public Media
  • PRX
  • BBC (British Broadcasting Service)
  • the work of independent radio producers

Did Luke find happiness at WYSO?

“WYSO is a good fit”. Although his title is Development Director, he’s not just focused on dollars, because “programming drives fundraising”. 

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WYSO receiving support from the DPL Foundation

He said, “I get to be creatively involved” as long as it relates to the mission. “I’m really more of community, outreach, partnerships AND fundraising. I get to go to all the meetings. I get to meet with funders, meet with producers. I got to help launch the area youth program”.

“WYSO is such a nexus of so many interests and ideas; it’s like a place of ideas and collaboration. In a theater company or opera company, we were hitting… barriers to participation such as the high expense of a ticket. I love that WYSO is free”.

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WYSO 91.3FM memorabilia

WYSO offers “so much programming: storytelling, news, journalism, programs that celebrate young people with youth radio. Those are some of the things that have made me want to go to work”. That’s obviously a big draw, because Luke is celebrating his five-year anniversary.

In describing the work culture at WYSO, Luke quoted Mother Theresa, “I can do things you cannot; you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things”. He has found that sort of collaboration at WYSO. 

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WYSO out and about in the community

“Everybody works from their strength and does their part”.

 Luke’s observations:

  • Keeping searching. “If you want to be part of making something in the arts, there’s a place for you”
  • Find a positive environment and be positive yourself. “If you’re going to work in an industry where you work long hours and don’t get paid a lot, you should be surrounded by people who are just as dedicated as you are and glean just as much satisfaction”
  • Decide: “What do you like? What drives you? What are you excited about?”
  • Recognize your strengths. For a long time, Luke thought he didn’t have the right skill set, that he needed a project management background or MBA. Today his perspective is different. “What you’re good at is not a liability. It might be a liability in one setting, but it’s a gift and it’s a talent in another setting, so just get yourself in the right context, because everybody has their thing that they’re good at. Don’t just take the job because you can get it and then suffer with it, because it’s not actually utilizing your talents. Just find the thing that’s utilizing your talents”
  • “I like to experiment to see what will happen – that’s the story of my career”.

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Mike Bisig: Founder/owner of Mike’s Bike Park, musician and educator

MikeWhat if the activities you love don’t seem to fit into a coherent career path? Mike Bisig loves jumping his bike over hills and speeding around curves. But he loves music even more. He has adapted his career path, weaving music and cycling into his life. I asked Mike how he crafted his career. The highlights of his story follow.

In the beginning…

Since his childhood in Wilmington, Ohio, music has been Mike Bisig’s passion; both playing music and helping others learn how to play. His instrument of choice is the saxophone, although he’s an expert in most woodwinds, and also plays guitar. He reached such a high level of proficiency on the saxophone in high school that he was able to earn money by giving lessons.

His other passion emerged later. As a kid, Mike rode his BMX bikeKids on BMX everywhere with his friends, but didn’t become serious about cycling until after college. He had no idea it would lead to Mike’s Bike Park. He laughed when he said his “high school counselor would not have picked this as a career path”.

At Wright State University, Mike embraced his passion for teaching music by majoring in music education and used his love of performing to forge long-term friendships.

Mike graduated from WSU with a degree in music education. What was next?

Mike wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, so he taught private lessons to approximately 40 students and worked at Absolute Music in Fairborn. There he quickly realized that he enjoyed sales.

Mike believes that “life is a series of connections you make with people”. At Absolute Music, he got to know the regular customers, including the band director for Greenon Local School District. That acquaintance led to a part-time job with the Greenon high school band and then a full-time position teaching music.

While working with the Greenon band, he continued to teach private lessons, as well as completed a Master’s degree in music education.

After several years, Mike reached a decision point: whether to settle down at Greenon or explore his options. He decided to leave the teaching field entirely and move to join a college friend in Honolulu for a year.

Greenon, Ohio to Hawaii is a huge leap! What did Mike do there?

Mike is a big believer in planning, so he started saving his money a year before he walked away from the Greenon job.

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Waikik Beach Honolulu, Hawaii

Mike rapidly discovered he didn’t want a car, because parking in Honolulu is “insane”. His friends biked everywhere, so Mike did, too. At first traveling by bike was terrible, because “Hawaii is uphill all the time”. He was young, however, so it didn’t take long before he adapted.

Since some of the most beautiful areas in Hawaii aren’t accessible by car, so Mike quickly got hooked on mountain biking. He discovered:

  • Cycling enthusiasts are super nice regardless of skill level
  • Biking’s physical demands are fun
  • Spectacular scenery is just a ride away

Honolulu is an expensive place, however, so Mike quickly ran through his money. The local bike shop, Island Triathlon & Bike, needed a salesman, so Mike got a job.

Island Triathlon & Bike used professional cyclists as salesmen; Mike was their first casual rider. The pros, focused on performance, related best to other pros, whereas Mike reached out to everyone. In the process, he discovered he was good at selling bikes and equipment to the casual rider. Mike stayed, became the manager of the shop, and learned more about sales in the process.

Mike was having a great time in Hawaii. Did he stay longer than a year?

Mike stayed true to his plan and left Hawaii at the end of that year. Back in Ohio, he traveled for a year between Dayton, Columbus and Cincinnati, working with secondary school bands. He hated all that driving.

But once again, Mike’s connections paid off. A friend in Hawaii called to ask him to come back to Hawaii to run it a new high-end bike shop, Momentum Multisport.

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Diamond Head, Oahu Island, Hawii

Mike returned to Hawaii. Since Mike was involved in all the promotional activities, he got a hands-on education in PR basics. But he didn’t have to learn how to how to make promotions lively. From his years of playing music, he knew that innately.

Mike continued to love mountain biking,

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Triathlete in training

but he also got interested in road biking. Momentum Sports provided training and support for triathlon cyclists. As the shop’s representative, Mike trained groups of triathletes, and led group rides. His “love of the bike grew and grew”.

Hawaii was wonderful, but family issues tugged at Mike. He was traveling back to Ohio every six or seven weeks, and, after a year, he decided to move back to Ohio.

When he returned to Ohio, did Mike chose teaching again or stay with bike sales?

Mike returned to his old job at Absolute Music, but this time he traveled to various school districts to serve their music needs. In that capacity, he reconnected with an old friend in the Beavercreek City School system. Since Mike had his Masters degree and was up-to-date with his licensure, he could easily to return to education. Beavercreek had a huge band program with a ready-made studio for teaching lessons, and Mike started teaching lessons.

After a year, he gained a teaching position in the band program, which led to his current position as the Assistant Director of Bands.

Mike said working with a high school band is a special type of teaching. Managing a band is like “running Fortune 500 Company on a teacher’s pay and with not a lot of resources”. The job requires skills in budgeting, short- and long-range planning, communication, and personnel management, as well as teaching. And it demands a lot of time.

Mike said playing music is always his first love. He said he’d be okay of he broke his leg, but would be devastated if he broke a finger. It’s so important that he also has found time to play in four local bands:

Now that Mike’s involved with music again, what happened to cycling?

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Mountain biking in Ohio

Despite the lack of mountains, there’s plenty of off-road biking in Ohio, but the weather makes trail riding tough. After it rains, mountain bikers have to stay off the trails for at least two days so they don’t tear it up. Unlike Hawaii, it rains frequently in Ohio. Mike noted that his fellow cyclists often talked about the thousands of riders in Dayton area who need an indoor park.

Finally about two years ago, Mike had heard enough. “I’m just going to be the guy. I’m not a pro rider, but I have sales experience, understand how to manage money, understand how to manage the business, and can bridge the gaps between all the riders who come in to use the facility”.

Mike envisioned Mike’s Bike Park, an indoor bike park with jumps, ramps and curves to challenge the most skilled mountain bikers and BMX riders while entertaining more casual riders.

Dayton’s never had an indoor bike park before. How does a music teacher make a bike park happen here?

Developing Mike’s Bike Park has been a challenge. Mike has devoted hours to researching, developing a business plan, and designing the experience.

Much of Mike’s research has included talking to others more experienced in the business. He traveled frequently to existing indoor bike parks, such as:

In addition, the Entrepreneurs Center in Dayton reviewed his business plan.

Once Mike had his business plan, his next steps were:

  • Find an appropriate building that wouldn’t bust his budget
    • Purchased an empty 70,000 sq. ft. factory building at 1300 E. First Street in Dayton
  • Secure funding
    • Convinced a bank to approve a loan by asking interested cyclists for money and initiating a Gofundme campaign
  • Obtain all the necessary permits from the City of Dayton
    • Passed a variety of soil and environmental tests and secured the necessary zoning variance from the City of Dayton despite being “a square peg, trying to fit in a round hole”
  • Renovate the building to make it useable

Mike’s next challenge: locate the right person to build the bike ramps, so they would be durable and exciting. Bryan Swinford, Links and Kinks Bike in Fairborn, helped Mike find Craig Billingsley, an international ramp builder based in Columbus. Check out photos and videos of Craig’s work.

Craig has technical ramp building skill, and the vision to design ramp’s function and place in the flow.

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Craig at work on the jumps

Mike said, “Every rider who has tested the park has been blown away by how rideable it is and how fun it is, regardless of the rider’s level. The complete novice doesn’t notice why the angles of the ramps work well, but pro riders can tell when and why the angles work”.

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One of the many truckloads of wood needed to build the features of Mike’s Bike Park

Mike wants the park to be for everyone, regardless of skill level. All riders will be required to wear a helmet, ride with the flow of traffic and obey the rules. Cameras posted throughout will provide constant monitoring, viewable on the big screen TVs in the lounge. All the staff members will have to be certified in CPR, know First Aid, and fully understand the park rules and concept.

Currently mountain bikers ask when they can buy a pass, and kids on BMX bikes wonder, “When can I have a place to ride where I won’t get in trouble?” The answer is: very soon.

Mike’s Observations:

  • Start planning as early as you can; “the best time to start planning is yesterday and the second best time is today”
  • Flexibility is important; “things are going to go your way and things are going to not go your way”
  • Don’t burn any bridges; “you meet people at one stage and then they come back into your life to help you”
  • Plan for the unknown; Mike included an “I don’t know what” fund in his budget
  • Planning is vital; Mike tells his kids “don’t be a 70% person” who puts 70% in and doesn’t know how to finish and fizzles out

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