Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Christ Channel

If Clear Channel and all its radio-consolidating, automating and homogenizing brethren are the death of American radio, what does it say about us when the Christians are worse?

Love it or (more likely) hate it, at least Clear Channel has tiny local staffs of local people at some of its allegedly local radio stations. But what of K-Love, which seems to be K-swallowing the K-dial K-whole?

Radio veterans like Jerry Del Colliano refer to Clear Channel and its corporate wannabes as "repeater radio." And that's true, as far as it goes.

BUT IF Clear Channel, Citadel, Cumulus, Entercom and the other megaliths that control the radio dial fairly can be called "repeater radio," that must make the non-profit, non-commercial K-Love (and a heavenly host of national operators just like it) something akin to a North Korean radio set -- it can tune in but a single station programmed from a central location by the central committee.

No local voices.

No local programming.

No local people.

No local focus.

RIGHT NOW, the Educational Media Foundation runs K-Love on 412 stations and translators in 44 states. It runs the younger-skewing Air 1 service on 200 stations and translators in 40 states. All told, that's 612 stations and translators for EMF.

In the world of secular, commercial radio, Clear Channel still is the Big-Though-Shrunken Kahuna, with 900 stations from coast to coast. Cumulus has 310, by way of comparison, while Citadel has 223, Entercom 110 and Cox 86.

The difference between these big commercial players and the non-commercial, religious "Christ Channel" is that -- though most of their stations have been comparatively gutted over the last decade or so -- the commercial operators still have some local on-air staff. EMF stations don't.

As a matter of fact, because EMF is non-profit and, based on that, the Federal Communications Commission granted it a waiver, not one of the K-Love or Air 1 stations is required to have actual studios in the community it serves.

Not that anyone would be there if they did, however. All programming originates from the EMF studios in Rocklin, Calif. -- a Sacramento suburb.

Of course, you could level the same charge at any number of radio ministry-operated Christian stations around the country, which consist mainly of a computer, an audio interface, a satellite dish and receiver . . . and a transmitter and antenna.

APPARENTLY, when these Christian radio folk asked themselves "What Would Jesus Do?" the came up with the answer "Hold the people at arm's length." Or continent's length . . . whatever.

Right about now, you may be wondering "So what?" After all, the local has been disappearing from "local radio" ever since deregulation came in 1996. Not surprisingly, listeners have been disappearing since 1996 as well.

But some remain, and what Christ Channel has to do with anything is Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh?

Pittsburgh. From the Post-Gazette earlier this month:
There's satellite radio and commercial radio. There's secular radio and religious radio. The latter may not be a ratings giant, but Christian radio is growing -- at least in terms of sheer volume.

Yesterday, a successful syndicated contemporary Christian music format called K-Love launched here at 98.3 FM. And when St. Joseph Mission, the new owner of Sheridan Broadcasting's three Pittsburgh stations takes over, it plans to debut Catholic religious programming in the market.

That would give Pittsburgh nine religious stations in a mid-size market of about 40 stations. It also brings in an infusion of new Catholic programming, mirroring growth in other cities.

"I've never seen a time in any market where the Christian format has become so highly sought after, and where the competition has been so fierce. I think it's going to heighten," said the Rev. Loran Mann, president and general manager of gospel station WGBN (1150).

"It's a very interesting time for Pittsburgh radio and for the gospel market in particular."


In the current economic climate, selling smaller stations with lower frequencies and less market coverage has been a challenge. This has also proven to be a boon for religious broadcasters.

"Right now it's difficult to find a buyer for any radio station, really," said George Reed, managing director of Media Services Group in Jacksonville, Fla. Still, he says, "Christian operators are actively buying stations. Part of the reason is they can get them at a bargain."

"It's a buyer's market" for these kinds of stations, said Robert Unmacht, a consultant with IN3 Partners, a media and business consulting firm in Nashville, Tenn. "And they're buying."

And while they may not be ratings grabbers, Christian stations can still manage to succeed. "You can have a significant audience, and if it's a commercial station, do a fair amount of commercial business," Mr. Reed says. "Or if it's noncommercial, you can generate donations without being a major player in the ratings book."

Smaller operators can opt for syndicated religious programming and avoid competing directly against a secular music or talk format programmed by a Clear Channel or CBS station.

The popularity of contemporary Christian music is also driving the radio format, Mr. Reed says.

K-Love is a rapidly expanding contemporary Christian music format in radio markets in 44 states. It fills a void here in terms of giving Pittsburgh a full-time contemporary Christian music station.
Part of its appeal is that it follows the model of the traditional adult contemporary format -- a format aimed primarily at young women. "It doesn't get preachy. The music's good and it appeals to that group of women," Mr. Unmacht said.
IN THE CASE of Pittsburgh, K-Love only got one of three stations broadcasting "Froggy" country to the area. The Catholics, however, took out 61 years of Three Rivers history to broadcast, in all likelihood, satellite programming from EWTN. And the "local" studios won't even be in Pittsburgh, but 40 miles away in Latrobe.

St. Joseph Missions bought heritage black stations WAMO-AM and FM, as well as a third black gospel-formatted AM station, from Sheridan Broadcasting for $8.9 million.

WAMO-AM went on the air in 1948 and had served the city's African-American community since 1956, adding an FM signal on New Year's Day 1961. With the takeover by St. Joseph Missions -- which follows the failure of a previous Catholic format on another area AM station -- 35 employees lost their jobs.

Ironically, Joseph is the patron saint of workers.

I USED TO WORK in Catholic radio, so I can tell you how things likely will go. The vast majority of the stations' programming will come from EWTN Radio in Ironwood, Ala. -- near Birmingham -- via satellite. There may be some local programming, but probably not much.

The vast majority of Catholic radio puts the low in "low budget." And with St. Joseph Missions already shelling out $9 million, I can't see significant money going into facilities or programming -- the focus will be on fund raising, which will be directed toward keeping the stations on the air, covering administrative expenses and staging religious conferences.

It is not a good sign that the little-known ministry is located outside the Diocese of Pittsburgh. It is a worse sign that St. Joseph Missions also blindsided local diocesan officials with the purchase, which brought serious African-American heat upon clueless local clerics.

But the worst thing about all this is that three stations will be Catholic -- but not catholic -- and without any sense of real solidarity or engagement with its potential audience. It's really quite simple: Rich Catholics in Latrobe will be beaming traditionalist Catholics in Birmingham into the ether over Pittsburgh in an expensive exercise of preaching to the choir.

To which none of the "broadcasters" belong. Because they're in Latrobe and Alabama -- or, in K-Love's case, northern California.

AND THAT'S the story in Pittsburgh. It also is the story in communities all across the United States. It may well become the story on Long Island in New York, where the only public station is up for sale and no one knows whether you can outbid K-Love's (or some other religious broadcaster's) fat wallet.

Let me emphasize that I'm not against religious broadcasters -- I used to be one. I'm just saying religious broadcasters suffer from many of the same pathologies that afflict commercial, secular ones. And in some respects, those pathologies are even more pronounced.

As I said earlier, you haven't seen "repeater radio" until you've seen what passes for much of Christian radio nowadays. And I don't know how Christ Channel serves the public interest -- or that of the Almighty -- any better than Clear Channel.

The God we serve sent His only Son -- Who not only was from God but was God -- to live, teach, laugh and weep with His creation . . . and then ultimately to die for His creation.

Jesus never phoned it in when it came to the salvation biz. In this age of "economies of scale," He wouldn't have lasted a second at Christ Channel.

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