Dennis Benson: Always on the Cutting Edge

My just-turned eight year-old grandson has been into Queen for a couple of years now. He can sing along with everything from “We Are the Champions” to “Fat Bottomed Girls.” This is not necessarily to his credit. But when I had heard that Ryan was a Queen fan, I figured he was ready for my “Celebration Rock” show featuring Freddie Mercury and company. No harm in his hearing my theological reflections on Queen’s music, I thought…though I don’t recall any deep thoughts connected to “Fat bottomed girls rule the world.” When I asked Ryan what that line referred to, he said he had no clue. Of course, that was back when he was seven. Now that he’s eight, I’ll have to ask him again.

The next thing I knew, Ryan was singing “School’s Out Forever.” He had added Alice Cooper to his repertoire. Aha! I’ll give him a copy of my Alice Cooper special. And I did; and I never heard any response. So I think it might have been a bit over his head. It featured Alice Cooper’s music and included commentary by my media friend and mentor Dennis Benson. Dennis, at that time a Presbyterian minister in Pittsburgh, had actually toured with Alice Cooper for a short time. Somehow Dennis had made the right contacts, talked his way into the Cooper entourage, taped interviews, and took extensive notes. As was his way, Dennis became a trusted member of the tour, and gathered enough information to write a book. (I don’t think he ever did the Cooper book, though, but used the material in a myriad of other helpful ways. Dennis had his own radio and TV programs in Pittsburgh, much of that time working for the ecumenical group Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania. I think one of his early efforts was a “coffee house” format rock show called “The Place.”)

Dennis enjoyed picking up important cues from the youth culture, and then using them as springboards for ministry to and with that culture. He traveled with Alice Cooper not because he was a fan or because he liked tagging along with the rich and famous, but so that he could, pardon the expression, demythologize the rock culture of arena concerts, international tours, and the billion dollar baby called the recording business. By stripping away the public persona and fan-fed pop idolatry, Benson was apt to find…a real person, an artist, yes, but a human being, who drew energy from audiences, but tired of tours…who would thrive on attention, but crave privacy…and who would put on one hell of a theatrical show, but wipe off the make-up and share in a quiet, heart-to-heart conversation. All this said, however, Dennis Benson did have some wild experiences at some Cooper entourage parties.

Dennis and I had met at a conference in Florida, and finding that we were on parallel vocational tracks, we kept in close touch for many years. Dennis was quite encouraging to me in my media ministry, and if I ever sounded discouraged, he’d say something like, “But imagine if you could…” Always a new spin; ever the media guru for me.

Some of Dennis’ books were published by the Presbyterian publishing house in Richmond, so when he came to the city to visit his editors, I booked him on a WRVA talk show where he spoke of creativity in media, youth culture, rock music, and his many experiences in broadcasting. When I heard that he had toured with Alice Cooper, I asked Dennis to tape some reflections on his experience so I could weave that commentary throughout an hour filled with Cooper’s music. Turned out to be a great show (unless you are 8 some 25 years later). 

Another  terrific “Celebration Rock” program a few years later was based on one of Dennis’ latest books, entitled Making Tracks. Running for fitness was all the rage, and Dennis, always on the cutting edge of what was happening culturally, started running…seriously. As he ran, he looked at the surrounding environment, he meditated and prayed, he made friends, and he gathered material for a book which had the subtitle, “Meditations Along the Jogging Trail.” (Or, was that the subtitle of my CR show on his book? Maybe both.)

Again, always needing material to fill 52 hour-long programs a year, I seized the opportunity and asked Dennis to send me a tape of his meditations. Instead, he took a small tape recorder with him and ran his route on a cold Pittsburgh afternoon. It was a great idea! He huffed and puffed his way along the trail, called out to some people he frequently encountered as he ran each day, and told part of his personal story. Naturally, he wove some theological threads through the running commentary (pun intended), and when I got his tape I went right to the record library and easily found numerous songs to fill the hour. “It Keeps You Running” by the Doobie Brothers, “Running on Empty” by Jackson Browne, “The Long and Winding Road” by the Beatles, and you get the idea.

I also added to that program two phone-in comments that had come into the live call-in program we produced on Sunday nights in the old “Showcase” slot on WBBL/WLEE. Both callers testified to the spiritual value of running/jogging as daily exercise. When the “Making Tracks” CR program was finished, it was a fun show to listen to! Enough to move you to do some running. You. Not me. Tired knees. But the music works for walking too, so put on that MP3 and let’s head out!

One more thing about Dennis Benson. As I mentioned, he was on the cutting edge..always. Back when churches had coffee house ministries, Dennis used that format on radio and then TV. Simulation games? Dennis wrote a book on how to use them in ministry.  When Star Wars was released, Dennis wore a Darth Vader costume as he theologized the Gospel According to Star Wars. When WWF pro wrestling became big, Dennis exploited that. Dennis is still producing a long-running radio series “Passages” through the Presbyterian Media Mission, based in Pittsburgh. The program has won numerous awards, including five Gabriels. Always the innovator, Dennis knew that radio stations had different needs and various levels of commitment to public service programming, so “Passages” is available in a variety of formats, from a half-hour show to short PSA’s.

Dennis has outlasted me in media ministry. He knows promotion, he always was far more ambitious than I, and he continues a deep commitment to help people from all walks of life, from superstars to the least of our sisters and brothers, to tell their stories. Dennis Benson is a gifted communicator. And a valued friend. 


4 Responses to “Dennis Benson: Always on the Cutting Edge”

  1. Lafayett Richardson Says:

    Dennis and I worked together for ten years on much of his PSA material in Nashville at United Methodist Communications. I learned a lot from him and consider him a friend today. He is a one of the Church’s great electronic media ministers and communicators. He cares deeply for the church and how it ministers in the 21 century to people. I hope one day we (church communicators) can do something special for him. He is so special and highly favored of the Lord. I only hope he realizes it.

  2. Bud Frimoth Says:

    Sounds all too familiar as another who learned from bro. Dennis and will long remember a visit he had when my late wife and I were at a conference at Rocky Mountain Nat’l park. He came to our room and we chatted for a lllooonnnggg time while he drank as much ice tea as we had ice for…. later he mentioned that he should have slept in the bathtub where he was staying he’d had so much tea! Many other marvelous moments of fun, inspiration and lots of encouragements in the ministry I developed called Open Door which likewise ran on stations all over…often following or before Passages. It was a most memorable time to be in his company and still to have contacts. God’s grace works through creative folk who often are at odds with the groups from which they live and move and have their being.

  3. David Felts Says:

    I met Dennis in the late 70’s at a seminar to Pittsburg’s Duquesne University. Very knowledgeable, helpful, open friendly and encouraging. I went on to host and produce a contemporary Christian music program for a local hard rock radio station.

  4. Barry Specter Says:

    I was a student producer on WQED Pittsburgh’s “The Place” TV show where Dennis served as host. He was quite talented. He autographed a copy of his book “The Now Generation” for me. The show ran on several other educational TV stations across the state.

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