An observer of life who chooses joy and gratitude, leads with purpose, loves from the heart, and feels called to share light with his fellow man
It doesn’t happen all that often, but every now and then an interview almost writes itself. Sitting down with Hallerin Hilton Hill was one of those magical moments. But considering the wealth of talent this man has, that is to be expected. Not surprisingly, the first thing he did was express his gratitude for being asked to participate. That fits well with the man I know, who always seems grateful for everything in his life.
Despite the fact almost everyone has listened to Hallerin’s radio show on 98.7, this man is far more than just a talk radio host. His list of roles includes author, songwriter, producer, public speaker, life coach, musician, artist, family man, businessman, and believer. “I’m a collection of gifts and talents that were given to me by God,” he once told me.
He has a voracious appetite for learning and consistently seeks ways to share that knowledge with the world around him. He’s a kindred spirit that I am proud to call my friend and brother; Hallerin is truly a Renaissance man.
When I first took over Cityview, Hallerin had already been going strong for close to a decade. Ever since my own talk radio show back in 1993 in Nashville, I have enjoyed the banter of talk radio. I was especially drawn to his positive approach to storytelling, something that was parallel to the approach I was planning for the magazine. After a few years of publishing, we interviewed him for Cityview, and he landed on our cover as “King of the Hill.”
That was in 2003, and we have since sought Hallerin’s input many times. As of this printing, he will have appeared on four of our covers and was responsible for introducing us to Chris Blue just after he won The Voice, giving us the first full interview to be done with Chris after he won. Hallerin happily conducted the interview, illuminating parts of the story that might have never made it into the public eye.
Through the years, I’ve learned much about Hallerin, and he has been very kind to me, most recently featuring me on his television show, Anything is Possible.
As I sat in his studio being interviewed, I had a feeling of deja vu all the way back to 2003. My mind flashed to the different versions of Hallerin that I had experienced over the years, and I knew right then that it was time to share the story of the man who has spent his life amongst other things, sharing other people’s stories.
So we sit down together over a cup of coffee in Cityview’s new studio at the end of the year to talk about the elements of Hallerin that we don’t often get to see. I remember from my own time in radio the incredible amount of preparation it takes every day to create a successful broadcast. I wanted to drill down and understand the formula that has created this immensely successful program. You seem to have great intuition for what will engage your audience; what’s your secret?
“I had a great friend that said, ‘Great talk show hosts are great observers of life.’ There is a definitive way you think about topics, monologues, writing themes, guest clips you’re going to use on the show. There’s definitely a framework that I have to put a show together. But being a keen observer of life keeps you in continual prep mode. And that’s probably my best preparation, just paying attention to what’s going on around me all the time. I find myself insanely curious. I’m always listening and watching. And now, more often than not, I’m not listening and watching the news. I’m listening to and watching life. So honestly, my formal prep is to do a survey of national, regional, and local news to see what’s going on in the world, to see what people are talking about, see what’s hot, see what’s trending.
“I have things that are on my radar, on my mind, and on my heart. I’m going to look at what’s going on in the world. These things will be on my radar. Then I’ll have things that I’m thinking about; that’ll be on my mind. And finally I have things that are just on my heart that have nothing to do with whatever the trending topic of the day is. I try to give a little bit of each.”
Emotionally solid and heartfelt, I like that. I often wonder while listening how much he depends on the caller to drive the direction of some of his topics. It’s a common theme in talk radio for the host to say things to shock the listener. You often stir the pot enough to get the listeners to share their opinion. Why?
“I do. But I’m not trolling. And that’s the one thing that throughout my career, I just haven’t done. I haven’t gone, ‘Okay, this will make everybody talk, and I’m just going to do whatever would be sensational or salacious.’ That’s never my motivation. Although sometimes if you talk about what’s hot, that’s what’s going to happen. But I’m driven by something deeper than just conversation.
I want people to have hope. I want to throw light into the world. I want people to flourish. I want people’s lives to be better. And so somewhere in the back of my mind, that’s always pulsing. It’s always there.”
I know for a fact that Hallerin doesn’t just talk about spreading hope; he walks the walk. Just like the day he gave the keys to his new truck to Chris Blue so he could make it to his audition in Atlanta for The Voice. There are many other stories like this, which leads me to my next question. Why do you choose to give back so freely?
“Yeah, that’s a true story, but, Nathan, that’s why we’re here. Right? When it’s all said and done, we belong to each other. And we ought to help each other succeed. And I think that’s part of the challenge of civilizations and societies around the world—figuring out how people can live together.”
I first met Hallerin in 2003, but it wasn’t until 2019 that I learned about his men’s Bible study group. A friend suggested that I should attend. It was an enlightening experience as I sat around the room with men from all walks of life and listened to Hallerin. What compelled you to take the Book of Proverbs, create a text, and start a Bible study group?
“I was having, what I call, a ‘yes week’ with God. And this was a week where I just said, ‘Whatever God tells me, I’m just going to say yes to.’ Don’t ever do that if you’re not serious about it because it’s crazy. I was in the habit of journaling, and I had been a student of the Book of Proverbs for a long time. And the reason that I was a student of the Book of Proverbs is because of Solomon’s story. Solomon was maybe 13, or 14 when he became king of Israel. And he didn’t know what to do. And so the biblical record is that he offered 1,000 sacrifices at the high place at Gibeon. And God showed up and said, ‘Okay, you got my attention. What do you want?’ And he said, ‘Look, I’m just a kid. I have no idea how to lead the people that you’ve assigned to me. I need wisdom.’ God says to him, ‘So you don’t want a Ferrari. You don’t want a palace. You want the skill to accomplish what you’ve been called to?’ And he says, ‘Yeah, not only do I want it, I need it.’ And God says, ‘Well, you can have that right now.’ And he gives him wisdom instantly.
“And so here Solomon is, and what’s in front of him is bigger than what’s inside of him. And he had no idea what to do. As a kid growing up, I always felt less than. I always felt like I wasn’t good enough for what was in front of me. I wasn’t big enough, strong enough, fast enough, smart enough. I always felt diminished in some way. And when I first heard that story, I thought, that’s me. That’s what I need. Because I have great things that I want to do with my life. I have no idea how to get it done. And I would certainly love to be connected to an infinite ally that could help me do that. That’s what attracted me to Proverbs was this notion that God could give you wisdom. Chokmah is the Hebrew word. It means skill. Chaim Potok said it is ‘the mannered calculated use of one skill in the attainment of success.’ My definition of wisdom is that it’s highly developed skill, applied at the right time to produce the right result for all the right reasons.
“I needed that. I’m broke. I’m not connected. I don’t have any name or fame to help me climb any kind of ladder. And so this notion that God would involve himself with me and give me what I need to make it, and to do something that’s bigger than me, that resonated with me. So I heard that if you read the Book of Proverbs, that there is wisdom for life in it. And maybe there’s some cheat codes in there to help you live. So I just started reading the 31 chapters of Proverbs. So what I would do is I’d read the chapter that corresponded to the day of the month that it was, and I read it over and over and over, and I started journaling. And I started studying deeply. And there were so many different life lessons that were unlocked. And I started to see fruit in my life.
It helped me tremendously. I’m writing in my journal one day, and my pin lifts up, and I write, ‘Start a Proverbs study group.’ And I’m like, back to writing, and God taps me on the shoulder and goes, ‘No, I meant that.’
“So I said, I’ll call Central Baptist Bearden. Great church, great pastor, great southern Baptist congregation, and I know they have committees on top of committees. If I call and say, ‘I’m just some stranger. I don’t even go to your church. I need to use a room at your church.’ It’s gonna go to their facilities committee, and it’s gonna die in committee, and God got canceled. So I call the church and oddly, the pastor answers the phone—he never answers the phone—and goes, ‘Hallerin. What’s up?’ I tell him, ‘I’ve been writing in my journal, and God, I think, is telling me to start this Proverbs study group.’ And he kind of hesitates. And I’m like, yes, it’s fading. God is about to get canceled. He says, ‘Give me a minute.’ He comes back on the phone: ‘When do you want to start?’ I said, ‘Next Tuesday,’ and I thought yes, now he’s canceled. He comes back on the phone, ‘I think I got it figured out.’ And I said, ‘What figured out?’ He said, ‘Well, we normally feed lunch to our staff on Wednesday, but we’re going to move staff lunch to Tuesday; you not only can have the room, we’re going to provide food as well. See you next Tuesday.’
“I started the Proverbs study group because I wanted a deeper understanding of Proverbs. And I knew that if I engaged other people in this journey of learning how to do life well, that’s what it was really about more than it being deeply over-the-head religious. I wanted to have people join me in that journey. And it was connected to my higher purpose, which is helping people flourish, helping people get better at getting better. So we started that. And I had one specific assignment with that which was—and I know this might sound weird—but God told me to teach the Proverbs study group for a decade, for 10 years, without any pay, praise, or promotion. Nothing. Don’t promote it, don’t build a website, don’t tell anybody about it, whoever comes, comes. And if the room is empty, I want you to teach the empty room.
“Which was interesting because about four years in, I come one day, and nobody’s there, room’s empty, put my handouts out, put my presentation up on the screen. And at the stroke of noon, I started teaching the empty room. And I taught for about 20 minutes. And finally a guy walking down the hall at the church, looks in, and he says, ‘Bro, are you teaching an empty room?’ I go, ‘Yeah.’ He walks back out. He finds one of the other guys that works at the church. And they come in and for the last 20 minutes, they sit as a mercy audience.
“So I finish, and I’m in the parking lot and I did not feel like a failure. I felt what real commitment feels like. I felt really good. There didn’t have to be any money. There didn’t have to be any fame. There didn’t have to be any anything. I was satisfied doing what I was supposed to do. That was more than enough.
“And it released me from the need to be famous or to have money. I could just do whatever I was called to and try to do it to the best of my ability. And then people started coming, and it started growing.”
Through the years, Hallerin would from time to time casually mention something he was working on, but often the details would be limited because he’s really not one to boast about what he is doing. But this is the perfect time, and he is in the mood to share. I understand you are writing a screenplay, can you tell us about that?
“I started writing this musical called The Butterfly Machine. And I came up with this concept of music as fuel, versus music as commerce. What I mean by that is this, I had a decent career as a songwriter and producer…but I understood the music business. But music makes me really happy.
“So in my office, I have a studio next to my writing office, and now I use music differently. I use music as fuel. I’ll go in, and I’ll work on the musical or write a song or I’ll create a groove. And I will create, sing, or play myself happy. I get so excited as I’m creating that my energy shifts, and I get excited, and I get happy. And when my happy tank gets full, then I turn back to whatever I’m working on, and I use the energy from the music as fuel for all the other creative endeavors that I have. To me, it’s a very efficient way to get myself inspired to do great work. So the payoff is not in dollars, the payoff is in the energy that it generates.”
I had never really thought about music that way and couldn’t wait to experiment with the idea. But while I was on the musical thread, I wanted to hear the full story about what I call “the great song writing challenge” that he had with Chris Blue. Tell me about the time you challenged Chris Blue to write a song in one hour.
“That’s a great story. Whenever you’re pursuing something, you should focus on your skill development, before you think about commerce. Pursuing mastery of that skill is more important than marketing that skill. If your skill set is really strong, now we have something to market. So whenever I would write with songwriters or creative people, I would say, ‘Writers write.’ You need to write hundreds of songs in order to really, well you know, Nathan, you do this creative stuff. You’ve got to shoot hundreds of 1,000s of images to really learn how to dial it in, to get that eye. So Chris was hanging out with me a lot, and we’re writing music. And so he calls me one night and he’s like, ‘Man, every time I call you, you’re writing.’ And I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m a writer. I’ll write a song within this hour. Like I’ll finish a song, start to finish, melody, chord progression, finish the song and do a little demo and send it to you within an hour.’ And so he said, ‘Well, I’ll take you up on that’. I said, ‘Okay, call me back in an hour. Let me hear what you got.’
“So we separate for an hour. He calls me back. He’s like, ‘What you got?’ I’m like, ‘I got a finished song. Here it is.’ He said, ‘Well, I got a finished song. Here it is.’ So we finished those two songs. And so he’s like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy. I did a song in an hour.’ I said, ‘Why don’t we do it again?’ He’s like, ‘I’m down. I’ll call you back in an hour.’ We call each other back in an hour. So he’s like, ‘Man, that was two songs in two hours.’ I said, ‘Why don’t we do it again?’ He said, ‘Okay, I’ll quit when you quit.’ So we go, call each other back in an hour. Now we’re six songs in, and it’s three or four o’clock in the morning. And I said, ‘Why don’t we do it again?’ He said, ‘You gotta be kidding me.’ I said, ‘Let’s go. Writers write.’ By the time the sun rose, I think we had written eight songs. Eight complete songs. What’s the value of that? Get your reps in.”
Has this ever happened in real life, where you’ve been called on to deliver a song in a very short time frame?
“That’s how I ended up with a song in the movie, The Preacher’s Wife, with Whitney Houston. A friend of mine called me and said, ‘Disney needs one more song for this movie. I’ve got to turn it in in the morning’—it was six o’clock in the afternoon—‘so we need a finished song tonight by midnight. So I can go in the studio all night and do the demo that I can present the next morning to Disney.’ I said, ‘Let’s go.’ And it’s only because I had made that decision. I said when I started writing music, it’ll take 10 years—once again—for me to develop a level of skill that will allow me to produce when I want to. And so I’m always encouraging people to get your reps in. Because it makes you available to lead, love, and serve. When you’re highly skilled, then you can step into the world of service at a different level. So that if they say, ‘Hallerin, I need your help with X,Y, or Z,’ if my tools are refined, I can come to you, and I can humbly serve you and produce a great result for you.”
At this point, I wonder if my friend ever sleeps. Sometime back I knew that Hallerin was traveling doing public speaking. I truly don’t see how he fits it all in. On top of everything you are doing in the community, why add public speaking to the mix?
“It’s not about me. It really is about having this ability to use storied narrative teaching to add value to somebody else’s life. So what I enjoy the most is when someone is inspired. They hear something, it triggers something, and it makes them want to do something better for their life or for someone else. That’s what really turns me on. When I have somebody say to me, ‘I needed to hear that. That added some value and it makes me want to improve my life or it improved my life.’ As a speaker, I feel like I failed if you’re impressed with me. If you’re like, ‘Oh, man, he’s a great speaker.’ I feel like I’ve succeeded if you’re driving in your car when you leave and you’re thinking about what you’re going to do with what you just heard, and how it’s going to add value to your life.
So we’re talking about whatever it was and you tried whatever is was and you’re on your boat and you’re having a great experience, because you tried something that you heard from me, and your life is measurably better. That’s the golden ticket for me. It’s not, ‘Oh he’s a great speaker. He’s in front of all these people.’ That’s not what it is. The purpose is to throw light into people’s lives so they can see further and better.”
Hallerin is a student of positive psychology, much like myself. So while you may see or listen to him on his shows and think he’s an extrovert, that’s not his claim. You are so engaging on the show and in person, I can’t imagine why you say you’re introverted.
“I’m telling you, I’m shy. I have to push myself beyond my comfort zone all the time, and so I practice it because I don’t want to. That’s the irony: I don’t want to, I have to.”
To me, this is profound. I feel that way because this mirrors my own beliefs. So many people will so often tell you why they can’t, but every once in a while you meet somebody who makes it happen, no matter what. Where does that need and drive come from?
“I had a dream. And in this dream, I was throwing light. These balls of light were coming out of my hand, and they were hitting people in the chest. And they were lighting up, and their lives were filled with joy. And they would reach into their chest and grab that light, and they would throw it on all the other people that they ran into. And ever since I had that dream, I’ve wanted to be about that. I’ve had to be about that. I want my life to have that kind of meaning and purpose. So when I say, ‘I have to,’ I don’t know why. I don’t know why God tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘I want you to use your life in that way.’ But it feels right, Nathan. It feels like that’s what I’m supposed to do.”
There’s no question that understanding your life’s calling is important, but I really wanted a deeper answer. So I ask again. What’s your why?
“Grow and help others grow. My why is how do I leverage what I’ve been given to give people some light and some hope? You’ve got to remember, I hear all the bad news. You know, in the world that I’m in, and in the context I’m in—and especially talk radio—it’s just bad news. The rage industrial complex is real. And people are entertained by their rage, which is very dangerous, because if rage becomes your drug of choice, then you’re going to have to have more rage in your life. That’s dangerous. So I’m always trying to figure out how do I help people have just a little bit of hope. And so that’s what I want to be about. It feels right. It feels like you could go through this life journey and if you tried to help a few people have some light and hope, it’s a better way to finish your story.”
So you believe God gave you the goal of helping to bring joy into people’s lives?
“First of all, somebody helped me. And I remember very distinctly what that felt like. If I got my phone out right now, and I showed you pictures of myself as a kid, you’d see a picture of me as a little boy, with this big, radiant smile. And then you’d see pictures of me from about 11 years old, on to 26-27 years old, and you would not see a smile on my face. I just realized that I was an angry, introverted young man. I didn’t know that I had this great horizon before me. My brother gave me a book by Zig Ziglar called, See You at the Top. And that book was transformational. I must have been about 14 years old when he gave me the book. Later on, I became a friend of Zig Ziglar and he wrote the blurb on my book and he actually was teaching a Bible study at his home church using the book about Proverbs that I wrote, which is a crazy story, but somebody turned on a little light there. And then I had teachers and I had mentors that saw something in me that fed that thing in me and that put light into my life. And I remembered the transformational effect that they had.
“James A. Dick that owned these radio stations in Knoxville, when I walked into that radio station, I had lost everything in Hurricane Hugo living in the Virgin Islands running a radio station there. I was wiped out. I came here with nothing, $300, riding the bus every day, looking for work. I didn’t have a car. I didn’t have clothes. I didn’t have furniture. I had one suit. I walk in. I talk myself into a temporary job. He hires me to work during the holidays at a little more than $6 an hour. And that guy saw something in me. And he literally was like, ‘I will never stop what your potential is. I’ll do everything I can to help you.’ And he did. He opened so many doors. There was this grand, silent conspiracy going on in this town to make sure that I succeeded. I didn’t really know about it until later in my life, but people helped me. And I remember what that felt like.
“I remember what it felt like when Hundley Batts, one of my great mentors, when I was 18 or 19 years old, and I was general manager of a small radio station and this guy owned some radio stations in that city and just would take me to Chamber of Commerce meetings, and he would take me to Rotary Club meetings, and he would take me to bank board meetings. He put me in the room so that I could see how business operated, how people operate it, how to talk to people at different levels. I could talk to people in the C suite, and I could talk to people in the hood. He exposed me to things. That guy was intentional about pouring some light into my life. Those were just a couple of transactions, but the people who affected me like that, I wanted to affect people that way.”
What is the driving motivation behind it all?
“It is my driving motivation to help people flourish, help people get better at getting better. That’s when I’m happiest. That’s what I know I am. You came to the Proverbs study group. You felt the energy in that room. You saw what it was and you saw how people left the room, like, ‘Wow.’ It was unbelievable. Create a safe space where people could explore how they could be better and hopefully when they leave that moment, they go and say, ‘I want to have that same effect on somebody else.’ When you strip away all the success or failure, we’re all human, and at the level of humanity, that’s where everything is negotiable. If I see your humanity, if I see the real human being that you are, if you see the real human being that I am, it transcends race or culture. It transcends all of it once I connect with your humanity…I’ve always been excited about those moments in spaces where people feel felt, and they feel safe. Because when you feel safe, that might be your opportunity to grow.”
How would you sum up our conversation for the reader?
“You can have a life full of joy-infused, purpose-driven, peak performance. You can have a good life. The beginning of that is a deep sense of gratitude. Gratitude is where it starts. And that hope happens. Hope is possible. And I want people to have hope. If there was anything I would want to communicate more than anything it’s that you can have hope. It’s not all bad. We may go through some bad days and bad times, but you can have hope. And you can flourish. You can live well, you can be well. I think that’s what’s in my heart.”
Hallerin was recently inducted into the Tennessee Radio Broadcasting Hall of Fame, a well-deserved honor after 30 years of telling the stories of our community. He also celebrates his 20th season of Anything is Possible this year. He is living proof that if you put your whole heart into your life’s mission, the impact will affect the world in marvelously positive ways.