As More Listeners Feel The Spirit, How Should Existing Formats Respond?

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

The $213-million that “The Passion of the Christ” earned in its first 12 days might have put a fine point on it, but radio programmers have long had plenty of opportunities to see how potent spirituality can be when it surfaces in the mainstream. Whether it’s “Three Wooden Crosses” by Randy Travis in Country, Creed’s initial success at Rock radio, Mercy Me at the Top 40 and ACs that were willing to play “I Can Only Imagine,” or a succession of Gospel-to-R&B crossovers that began nearly a decade ago with Kirk Franklin, those songs have always resonated with a format’s core as well as the secondary listeners who emerge from out of nowhere to thank a station for playing them.

By contrast, the power of Christian radio is only starting to be felt in the secular mainstream. Well-programmed Christian ACs such as KLTY Dallas have been around for decades, but they’ve only recently started existing in quantity and regularly posting 12-plus numbers that rival their AC and Hot AC competitors. In many markets, the Christian AC was or remains non-commercial, and thus off mainstream broadcasters’ radar. Meanwhile, FM Gospel has exploded with successes in Atlanta, Raleigh, N.C., Columbia, S.C., Memphis and others that have made a few group owners blow up more “mainstream” formats to get to the franchise before a rival does.

So far, Christian AC and Gospel’s incursion into the ratings of their mainstream rivals has been relatively small. Arbitron’s national audience figures show all religious formats up 2.1-2.9 over the last five years, vs. a 15.7-14.0 drop for all AC formats and a 9.5-8.8 move at Country. And many Country and R&B stations, unlike their AC rivals, still have the sort of boxcar 12-plus numbers that aren’t as easily dented. In Greenville, S.C., Christian AC/Country hybrid WOLI/WOLT (the Walk) debuted with a 2.2 share. While Country rivals WESC and WSSL lost 1.3 shares between them, they were still No. 1 and 2 in the market with an 8.0 and 7.3 respectively.

But with well programmed Gospel and Christian AC outlets showing up on more viable sticks every month, the formats are increasingly likely to become an issue for other broadcasters. “Christian formats of all kinds are obviously making a surge in many markets,” says Clear Channel regional VP of programming L.J. Smith, a longtime fan of Christian music. “Christian music has moved from second-rate producers and musicians to some of the most accomplished writers and producers in the business,” he says. “As the product of any format improves, it stands to reason that the appeal of that format will strengthen.”

Country [lyrics have] has a tradition of embracing [both] sins and sermons.

So how should mainstream programmers respond? An Airplay Monitor survey of AC and Hot AC programmers last year found that, even in markets where Christian AC was leading its secular rivals, pop PDs tended to view it as a separate universe. Some programmers could acknowledge the effect of the format on secular shares, but many saw it as appealing to an audience that would never again be available to them.

For Country PDs this year, the issue is a little more top of mind. Even before “The Passion” drew new attention to all things spiritual, it was hard to ignore several years of religious-themed hits from “The Little Girl” to “Streets of Heaven” to the current “Long Black Train.” At a time when Country hits take 6-10 months to break, Music Row has learned that adding a spiritual element to a song can help it cut through faster.

Like their AC colleagues, few Country PDs see themselves as able to compete directly with Christian AC, but most are cognizant of trying to at least protect the “family friendly” image that has become a calling card for those stations, something that is becoming harder these days in Country.

WSM-FM Nashville PD Lee Logan is definitely watching new Christian AC WFFH/WFFI, now programmed by AC veteran Vance Dillard. “If the trend continues, they could be significant by the end of the year,” he says. But, Logan adds, “I think for us to change our approach to specifically target them would be a mistake, especially because we are embroiled in a direct format battle of our own. If we were the only Country station in town, we might spend some energy looking for ways to stunt their growth. I think the best defense in these flanker attacks is to be the best station in your own genre you possibly can be during the assault.”

Country PDs also have a steady enough stream of appropriate product that they don’t have to seek it out. “The relevant ones will rise to the top of their own accord,” says WGNA Albany, N.Y., PD Buzz Brindle. “If you do a good job of exposing and positioning the hits you have, then those songs that are positive or spiritual will receive their fair amount of exposure. If you are really convinced that this type of music is important to your audience, then create a feature or program out of the music and promote it as destination listening,” says Logan.


KEEY (K102) Minneapolis PD Gregg Swedberg has a non-commercial rival, KTIS, which has, he notes, done as well as No. 2 25-54. “Since it does not show in the ratings, I’m not sure how we would compete with it, but there’s little question that when it over performs, stations like ours who compete for that same demo don’t do as well.

“I think the only thing you can do is not alienate the shared listeners,” Swedberg continues. Citing Montgomery Gentry’s recent Top 5 Country hit, “Hell Yeah,” he worries that “some of the cursing that is sneaking back into our music might drive some people away who just don’t want their children exposed to it. What percentage? I don’t know yet, but I intend to find out as soon as I can get a research study done.”

At least one major Country group PD kept his stations off “Hell Yeah” and has the same concerns about the line, “Let me get a big ‘hell, yeah’,” in Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman.” But Keymarket VP of programming Frank Bell says, “I don’t think we’ve had one complaint about Toby Keith’s ‘sticking a boot up your ass’ or ‘Hell Yeah.’” Country Radio Broadcasters president Ed Salamon adds, “Country [lyrics have] has a tradition of embracing [both] sins and sermons . . . Since both co-exist well on the radio, I’d see no benefit in excluding one for the sake of the other.”

As for the larger “family friendly” image, “It’s important, and it’s kind of restrictive,” Swedberg says, noting that K102 won’t “oversell our family friendliness, since when you break that promise, it’s worse than never making it in the first place.” Likewise, Brindle says, “We don’t really go too far out of our way to reinforce or protect the image.” For the most part, he says, “Our jocks perpetuate the notion just by being themselves.”

But consultant Joel Raab still sees being family friendly as “very” important. “Country will become even more of a safe haven for listeners looking for a station they don’t have to explain to kids, or feel embarrassed about. Smart stations will reinforce that image.”


Country broadcasters can take some encouragement from their Adult R&B counterparts, which have long been getting away with Gospel crossovers and “Sexual Healing” on the same radio station. The boom in Gospel FMs in recent years has fragmented Urban AC audiences, but hasn’t demolished them. Notably, even Urban AC stations that have a Gospel sister in the same cluster continue to embrace Gospel crossovers. Smokie Norful’s “I Need You Now,” for instance, is a power on Clear Channel’s KJMS Memphis and Radio One’s WFXC Raleigh, N.C.

If there’s a difference, it’s that Gospel has become the province of large secular operators in a way that Christian AC has not, thus far. While the first Gospel FM success story, WFMV Columbia, S.C., was entrepreneur-owned, it’s been the enthusiasm of Radio One and Clear Channel that have contributed to its growth spurt. Last year, Clear Channel was willing to blow up the only Oldies FM in Memphis for Gospel. This year, they did the same with their Top 40 FM in Jackson, Miss.

By contrast, Clear Channel made a short-lived foray into Christian AC in Tulsa, Okla., while Entercom owns Greenville’s Christian/AC hybrid, but the format’s growth has come more from existing religious broadcasters, such as Salem. For some Country and AC broadcasters who feel they can adjust their own stations only so much, the notion of adding Christian AC to the cluster seems logical, but few have done so, at least for now.

If the big groups have overlooked religious formats, it’s partially because those formats, Christian AC in particular, came out of very tight-knit musical communities that only sent an occasional representative to the outside world: a Michael W. Smith here, a Bob Carlisle there. Christian AC has also operated under tight codes of what’s appropriate that have made it a little disconcerting for outsiders—both in the industry and the audience. What has changed in recent years is more the format’s professionalism than its parameters, but as the rest of radio becomes more fragmented, even that tightly drawn format now attracts a large enough share in many markets that other broadcasters should take notice.

Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or