Christian radio tries to go mainstream

Johnny StoneDavid Segal's nice feature in Thursday's Washington Post on edgy Christian morning radio shows falls into the same trap that a lot of journalists trip into. A feature story can be as well reported as a Bob Woodward book, but if the writer fails to vigorously challenge the thesis that his subject is putting forth, what you have is a bunch of fluff. To challenge that thesis, a reporter has to know his subject as well as, if not better, than the person being interviewed. And reporters like that are hard to come by, especially in this age when news organizations are looking to hire younger reporters who lack the level of experience needed to deliver stories that get to the heart of an issue.

That is not to say David Segal isn't experienced. It's just that in reading his piece I got the sense that some of the assumptions presented by the story's subjects could have been challenged more strongly.

Here is the nut of the story:

Until about a decade ago, when you ran across a Christian radio station you knew it right away. The programming was mostly recordings of preachers, and the music -- when there was music -- was sedate and reverent gospel.

"Entertainment used to be a bad word in Christian radio," says John Frost, a partner in Goodratings Strategic Services, consultants for religious broadcasters. "It was designed to appeal not merely to a small percent of people, but a small percent of Christians."

In the mid-'90s Frost and others convinced dozens of religious broadcasters that it was time for an overhaul. Audience research and production values became part of the mix. Today dozens of Christian stations leaven their message with professional DJs and atmospherics straight out of the secular radio playbook. (In Washington, there's WGTS at 91.9 FM, a Frost client that promises "No offensive lyrics. No blue humor.") Some of these refurbished stations place in the top 10 in their markets.

The National Religious Broadcasters organization believes that Stone's program is the only Christian morning-zoo show on the dial. And it's a radical departure for WAWZ, which was all preaching, all the time for decades after its launch in 1931 as an AM station. With 50,000 watts of power, the station's signal has long been strong enough to span the 40 miles between Zarephath and New York City, an area that is home to a massive horde of godless sinners.

Segal goes on to profile Johnny Stone, who spent a number of years on secular morning radio shows, where his antics resulted in multiple suspensions. Now Stone does Christian morning radio that is more edgy and fairly indistinguishable from secular morning radio shows, minus the raunch, and that apparently is the way of the future. Or is it?

For the most part, the show, which can be heard online at Star991fm.com, offers the gospel pretty gingerly. Much time is given over to Christian rock, here called "family-safe hits," which in recent years has become indistinguishable from the areligious stuff until you pay attention to the lyrics.

Stone is going for edgy material that will supposedly draw in listeners, but are they getting what they are seeking? It's clear from the article that the show is nowhere close to the technical sophistication of secular radio. Why is that the case? Is radio that happens to be Christian destined for a programming ghetto?

For a brief section of the story Segal explores criticism of this programming, but in no way is it taken as genuine criticism. It's those old guys who don't know anything who think that this is not the way to do things. Segal even fails to present the argument. Whether the argument is valid or significantly behind the times, it deserves to be heard, I think:

You keep waiting for a Morning Zoo Insult -- "Who cares, moron?" -- but it doesn't happen. The show is high jinks with all the jinks snipped out. Religion pops up explicitly now and then. Like in an ad for a local OB-GYN who, we learn, invites patients to pray before each appointment. The prize for one call-in contest is a collection of hymns. And midway through the show, pastor Rob Cruver shows up for a segment called "Live Go for It." Cruver looks like a guitarist in a mid-career jam band and talks in dudespeak:

"Even today -- what day is today, by the way? -- even today, it's like, I want to do this, I want to do that, but I have to remember, wait, I have to go to the Lord first, say: Lord what do you want me to do?"

Sells don't get much softer. These are Christians concerned for your soul, but they're going to inquire gently about it rather than threaten it with eternal damnation. There are old-school religious broadcasters who have told Stone that they find his broadcast insufficiently pious. But what else will work for a station talking directly to the country's answer to Sodom and Gomorrah?

I can't complain about Segal's writing style. It's appropriately edgy and gives this former avid talk-show listener the feeling that he is actually hearing the voices of Stone and those like him. I just wished some of the ideas presented by his subjects had been more thoroughly explored and challenged. A very cool feature included in the Post's website is audio from Stone's show.

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