Is Christian Radio Meant For So Much More?

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

In mid-July, Switchfoot’s “Meant To Live” was a top 5 record at mainstream secular CHR. It was a top 10 hit at adult top 40. It had already been a top 5 alternative rock hit, and the follow-up, “Dare You To Move,” was already top 10 there. “Meant To Live” was getting 9,000 spins a week at various secular formats with a combined reach of 60 million listeners and had gotten 75,000 spins at CHR overall. After a year on the charts, Switchfoot’s “The Beautiful Letdown” is a platinum album and has gone top 20.

So you’d think “Meant To Live” would be a major event for Christian radio—one of those records that reinforces the appeal of Christian music, and helps draw potential new cume to the format. But it isn’t exactly. Even though “Meant To Live” has become a much less edgy sounding record over the last year, and even though 90% of the secular Hot AC panel is playing it, it’s still a record that most Christian ACs are giving to Christian CHR, a format without the same reach.

A few PDs, like WAWZ (Star 99.1) New York’s Johnny Stone, have done what most of their secular AC/Hot AC counterparts usually do with songs that were too hard for the format initially—they’ve thrown “Meant To Live” into research to see if their audience will accept it. (He’s now giving it some dayparted airplay). But for the most part, “Meant To Live” is following the path of “Hanging By A Moment” and Creed’s various hits—huge, Christian-themed records that the biggest Christian stations couldn’t play. In Creed’s case, that may have been because they never declared themselves a Christian act. With Switchfoot, it’s entirely a texture issue.

Then there’s the issue of Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” a top 5 urban and top 15 rhythmic top 40 record with a reach of 80 million this week. “Jesus Walks” is a record that would scare even Christian CHRs for a variety of reasons. West is the most critically acclaimed hip-hop artist/producer in years. His lyrics are incisive and primarily pro-social. But he’s also a secular artist whose other lyrics include edgy language; even “Jesus Walks” has language that’s edited out in places. That said, the song’s intent is clear:

I’m not here to argue ‘bout his facial features
Or to convert atheists into believers
I’m just trying to say the way that school needs teachers, the way that Kathie Lee needed Regis, that’s the way I need Jesus
So here goes my single, dawg, radio needs this
They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus
That means guns, sex, lies, videotape, but if I talk about God, my record won’t get played—huh?
But if this record takes away from my spins
Which will probably take away from my ends,
Then I hope it takes away from my sins, and brings the day that I dream about:
Next time I’m in the club, everybody screaming out, ‘Jesus walks.’

The question “why can’t Christian radio play _?” is hardly a new one. Most programmers coming into the format have asked some form of that question, whether it was about rhythmic material at Christian AC or songs with positive—but not specifically Christian—lyrics. They found out that the most successful stations have spent years establishing an expectation that’s hard to redefine now. And those stations that are able to do research have a pretty firm sense of what their audience will accept.

And many readers will undoubtedly feel Christian radio is doing just fine without pushing its boundaries. KLTY Dallas and KXOJ Tulsa, Okla., have long shown that the format can operate in the 4-5-share range, not just the 2s and 3s. Salem’s wave of station building with its Fish FMs has been followed by Susquehanna’s venture into the format at WGRL (the Song) Indianapolis. For many supporters, all Christian radio has to do is to continue to find good operators to bring Christian AC to a larger number of markets. And if that happens, Christian radio as it exists will undoubtedly grow.

Targeting a younger audience with more active music helped turn Spanish and alternative rock stations from niche players into market forces.

But history suggests that there’s an opportunity for something else that might also expedite the genre’s growth. It’s hard to imagine now, but a little more than a decade ago, Spanish-language radio wasn’t as much of a force in New York or Los Angeles. It wasn’t the demography—the Spanish-speaking population was already large enough to support at least one winning radio station—it was the programming. In those markets, the Spanish-language FMs were broad-based AC stations, while other types of music – salsa and merengue in New York and “regional Mexican” in L.A. – were found only on AM.

Finally, in the early ‘90s, WSKQ-FM New York flipped from Spanish AC to salsa/merengue. Its sister station, KLAX Los Angeles went from a similar format to a younger targeted regional Mexican format spotlighting the “banda” phenomenon of that time. The results were instantaneous. WSKQ-FM became a major factor in the market. KLAX shot to No. 1. Both, notably, were playing younger targeted music than what Latin radio had been known for. Until then, it was often believed that younger Hispanic listeners were more assimilated and less interested in Latin radio.

Similar things were happening in other formats:

Country radio underwent a well-documented boom that was due, in large part, to the infusion of younger demo-friendly artists and more rock and roll energy. Country, which drew listeners both from Top 40 stations which leaned too heavily on rap and those that knee jerked too far to the AC side, saw both its numbers and record-selling clout increase until the mid-‘90s when PDs became concerned about protecting their upper demos. It’s taken the format nearly a decade to come up with viable music that helps rebuild its young-end as well.

In 1990-91, many urban stations—having fought off the first wave of “churbans”—were more concerned now about urban AC. Many dayparted all but the biggest rap records to after 6 p.m.; the smashes started at 3 p.m. Then WOWI Norfolk, Va., began playing undayparted rap, followed a few years later by WQHT (Hot 97) New York. Hot 97 had a galvanizing effect on the industry, forcing most urbans to go younger and some that could not to opt for urban AC instead. You can draw a line from that format shift to the boom in R&B and crossover radio stations and hip-hop’s prevalence in the pop world.

Finally, in the early ‘90s, mainstream rock stations were still trying to hold off classic rock by leaning adult themselves. When “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came along, it created a stylistic rift that many stations would no longer be able to span. It also forced the handful of alternative rock stations that existed at the time to make a commitment to younger skewing music.

Targeting a younger audience with more active music helped turn Spanish and alternative rock stations from niche players into market forces. And when a format was already established, such as urban or country, it was still the difference between 8-share success and double-digit domination. In country and Latin radio, it also helped shatter the preconception that the format was automatically not relatable to younger listeners who either had to reconnect with their Hispanic roots or have certain types of life experiences before they could be interested in Latin or country radio respectively.

So while it’s not hard to understand how the current Christian AC template took hold, it’s still a format that texturally sounds a lot like Spanish-language AC in 1991. Christian stations may be effectively marketing themselves to parents as safe for the whole family, but there are more listeners waiting to be garnered by music that actively appeals to daughters as well as moms.

Ironically, when other Spanish language formats exploded, Spanish-language AC benefited as well. Demonstrating the 12-plus oomph of any Spanish-language format not only helped Latin radio’s national clout, but it also set off a search for formats that could be used in station cluster strategies. Seeing markets that have Spanish AC, Spanish CHR, Spanish oldies and several types of regional Mexican radio, it’s easier to envision a day when as many Christian formats are represented on significant signals in one market.

How best to take advantage of the audience still left for Christian radio raises many questions: Should owners and consultants be putting the same effort in to building new Christian CHRs as now goes into Christian AC? Could new Christian ACs, which don’t have to deal with existing listener expectations, target slightly younger and have an easier time acknowledging a Switchfoot or Lifehouse? With many Christian CHRs texturally resembling secular Hot ACs, will it take an even younger skewing format to bring 12-to-24-year-olds to Christian radio? What we do know is that format booms often start with records that are selling but aren’t on the radio. And we know that the history of so many other formats should provide Christian radio with the incentive to keep asking questions.

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 edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.

1 reply
  1. Francis Rose
    Francis Rose says:

    Christian ACs will grow at an even faster pace when they become aware (as KLTY, WAWZ, and others) that they are competing against the secular Hot ACs and soft ACs in their markets instead of against Christian stations in other markets or against the other Christian stations in their markets. No matter the format, you cannot let your competitors take away your core titles and artists.
    The other key to success for Christian ACs is identifying and executing programming elements (talent, formatics, etc.) that are on a comparable quality level to the secular stations in your market. The music is not enough to compete on the level on which Christian ACs are capable of competing. The sweepers, talent, and all the other stuff “between the records” has to be of the same quality that listeners will hear on the secular stations in your market, or the Christian station will sound amateurish.

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