By Mike Kinosian
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief
LOS ANGELES — First things first: To clear up the headline’s alphabet soup, a guess that what is about to follow will be a feature pertaining to either Clear Channel Radio or Credence Clearwater Revival would be incorrect.
In this case, “CCR” is shorthand for Contemporary Christian Radio and unless you are an active P1 listener to it or are directly associated with the format, it is most likely wonderfully different from what you imagine.
Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of contemporary Christian outlets are deeply, music-intensive, many people erroneously believe the format is highly-religious, Bible thumping, and accompanied with a lot of heavy-handed talk about the evils of sin.
One might say that the likes of tele-evangelists Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard and Jim Bakker – all of whom have nothing to do with contemporary Christian radio of course – did little to enhance the format’s image.
There are misconceptions aplenty with contemporary Christian. Numerous “religious” stations and many “gospel” outlets exist; “contemporary Christian” is not the same thing with a different name.
In the next three days, we will examine the format’s strengths, false understandings, and – quite candidly – some of its very real limitations.
Spoiler alert: Occasional redundancy expressed by our panel of experts only serves to reinforce that those in contemporary Christian share the same basic convictions and that some onetime indispensable radio basics are still prevalent in this format. Perhaps the great takeaway is that contemporary Christian is one of the seemingly rare formats where radio people are still having legitimate fun, satisfaction, and enjoying the challenge of connecting with listeners on a daily basis.
More than 17 years later, it has become a multi-faceted facility and has grown its audience to the extreme, in that, it is #1 (6+).
Owing to its impressive ratings numbers, “Z88.3” has enjoyed expansion in other areas as well, namely funding and personnel. “If you take Arbitron cume and divide it out, about 3% of our audience writes out a check to us,” founder-president-chief executive officer Jim Hoge points out.
Typical annual yield from such listener contributions is approximately three million dollars; another one million dollars is generally raised through underwriting. “We now own our tower site, so there is rental there,” Hoge notes. “There is also rental at the studio tower and studio complex, so we have about a $4 million budget.”
Cash flow is the crucial element. “If you look at the big three radio companies in Orlando – Cox, CBS Radio, and Clear Channel – a serious amount of money goes to corporate to cover their overhead,” Hoge remarks. “They get to spend whatever is left. They could do $12 million a year to our $4 million, but we get to keep the entire $4 million, and we are able to direct how it is being spent. We pay salaries; we have an incredible outdoor showing that we fly 365 days a year; and we buy local television.”
When Orlando was a diary-measured market, “Z88.3” occasionally ranked #1, but since WPOZ is a non-commercial station, its stellar accomplishments did not appear in the printed book. Other Orlando radio outlets and agencies were the only ones who could see what it was doing.
Ever since Orlando transitioned to Arbitron’s electronic-measured PPM ratings methodology though, all stations notching numbers are revealed, and “Z88.3” vice president-general manager-program director-afternoon talent Dean O’Neal states the data indicates there is phantom cume that diary information did not detect. “Being a Christian format, we are not top-of-mind even to those who were listening to the radio station,” he comments. “We now get credit for all the listening that the meters pick up and we have seen a significant jump in our cume. We suspected it was there, but the diary never showed it.”
It is Hoge’s contention that when “Z88.3” operated in the previous methodology days, diary-keepers had trouble recalling contemporary Christian and oldies formats. Conversely, he explains, “Talk, urban, and Hispanic stations did very well. You had quarters and quarters of hours logged to those stations that were phantom, so we went up [in PPM] and they went down. The biggest competitor we have though is the phone – and not necessarily the ‘smartphone.’ While people are in their cars, they yak on the cell phone. When they hang up, you have to have something there to remind them to turn up the radio again. The watchword is ‘relevant.’ That is what the station has to be to its listeners.”
Several central Florida facilities on the dial share target listeners with “Z88.3,” but O’Neal maintains that WPOZ is not really in a competitive situation. “The audience goes to those other stations for completely different reasons than why they come to us,” he emphasizes.
There is no denying that Clear Channel-owned adult contemporary WMGF (“Magic”), CBS Radio hot AC WOMX (“Mix”) and Clear Channel CHR WXXL (“XL 106.7”) are on WPOZ’s radar, however, O’Neal explains, “Those are basically music destinations, while we are a full-on, personality-based, full-service radio station, which also happens to play a listener’s favorite music. There are certainly a couple of small stations that cover a portion of the market that may play several titles on our playlist but, by and large, we have the library exclusively to ourselves.”
Last week, the industry witnessed what Hoge describes as “a major blood-letting” when Clear Channel made another significant round of nationwide layoffs. “It was absolutely brutal in Orlando,” he declares. “They are people we know. The market manager there [Clear Channel, Orlando market president Linda Byrd] was able to wrestle control of the station back from corporate and had [program director Ken Payne lead] the station, which was finally getting some traction. In fact, we were getting scared [but Payne] was among those who was let go.”
In addition to conducting three auditorium music tests a year, WPOZ utilizes San Diego-based Mark Ramsey (Mark Ramsey Media) to oversee its perceptual research. “What came out of his last project was that we had become our own genre,” Hoge notes. “People are not putting on their ‘Church Lady’ hits to listen to us. This is their life. It is just as natural for them to listen to us as it is to country, CHR, or AC.”
When those findings regarding contemporary Christian (or “Christian AC” as some refer to it) were first presented to Hoge and O’Neal, they were shocked. “Mark had never seen ‘Christian AC’ music have the impact of any other mainstream format until what has happened in Orlando,” O’Neal contends. “In the industry, ‘Christian AC’ might be a better identifier [since] ‘Contemporary Christian’ could mean anything to anyone who is unfamiliar with our industry. Listeners have many different names for the format. There is no way that I could pin it down to one and accurately represent it. We call the station, ‘Positive Hits.'”
Finding a station that played “positive hit music” intrigued many research participants and WPOZ’s initial perceptual study produced several eye-opening results. “Things that tested off-the-chart were safety, particularly for the ears of our listeners’ children,” explains Hoge. “That is where our ‘Safe for the Little Ears’ campaign, handle, and branding came from. Parents wanted to be sure no one from the backseat would ask a question that they were not yet ready to answer.”
Another element that tested well was, “Weather Warnings First” and Hoge – who earned degrees in Electrical Engineering Technology from Bluefield State College, and in Business Administration from Marshall University – comments, “The whole idea of being proactive when it came to severe weather in the area was very important.”
Fully committed to being Orlando’s weather station, as well as its primary traffic outlet, “Z88.3” has gone to great lengths to own those two brands with O’Neal proudly proclaiming, “They are firmly ours. We are the [Emergency Alert System] LP1 for the 10 counties that make up our EAS area. We were asked by the other stations to be the LP1 in 1998. It is something that we were already doing on the air [so] it only made sense that we take the baton and run with it. One reason why we are #1 is that we took opportunities like that and it allowed us to reach people who would never even try our radio station.”
Some have a pre-conceived notion of what they are going to get from contemporary Christian but O’Neal maintains, “They are usually pleasantly surprised when they arrive to find a radio station that meets the needs of women who are 40+.”
A severe tornado struck Orlando in September 1998 and “Z88.3” was one of only a few local stations to be “live” that particular weekend night. “Other stations were voice-tracked or in automation,” O’Neal recalls. “A significant number of people wandered the dial as they sought information and they found it when they got to us. When the hurricanes came in 2004, other stations were simulcasting television. We were live with our entire staff locked down inside the building for days. We always had a two-person team on the air.”
Not only did WPOZ provide information that its listeners needed, station personalities were compassionate as they talked listeners through the situation. “We tried making things bearable for people who had no power,” O’Neal explains. “We were able to offer people companionship.”
Known as one of the world’s premiere tourist attractions, Orlando nonetheless is prone to having severe weather multiple times a week from June through October. “Orlando residents have come to know that we are the go-to station when there are thunderstorms going on,” O’Neal states. “WPOZ has not forgotten what made radio magical – every other station in town has. We are focused on what has always made radio great. Other stations have to deviate from it in order to save a buck, but we can run and embrace it. We are supposed to serve the community and that is exactly what we do. Other stations have to do less of that just to stay alive.”
Recalling that radio was “very important” when he graduated from high school in 1983, O’Neal harkens back to what was on the air then, compared to what he hears today, and he opines that, “It is so radically different. The unique experience we have had is the fact that we have been able to walk in the other direction.”
Many “Z88.3” on-air hires have come from mainstream radio and O’Neal underscores that he would put his morning show up against any other similar program in Orlando. “Two of the three people on it came from [cross-town] Cox Radio,” he explains. “They were very successful over there. We were able to secure their services and added them to our very competitive staff. Finding on-air talent overall is just as hard for us as it is for anyone else. People who have never used the product do not understand it and that same thing applies to the on-air community. We sometimes have to educate them regarding what the radio station is about and how they would fit into it, if they were to join our staff.”
Along with producer Sierra Allmand, the station’s wakeup team consists of Ellis B. Feaster, Tyler McKenzie, and Tracy Leek. “Ellis was the #1 morning person in the market on [Cox Radio’s country WWKA] ‘K92’ and they let him go – go figure,” Hoge notes in pleasant disbelief. “His comment to me was that he didn’t know what to do with himself – he didn’t have to sell soap anymore. He was so geared that way that it took him several months to let his hair down [after joining our station in February 2008].”
For the sixth successive year, “Z88.3” is the middle of playing all-Christmas music, which it kicked it off the day after Thanksgiving. “I have an interesting view of this,” declares O’Neal. “We are probably the one format that is not stunting when we step into the all-Christmas realm. When our station does it, we are simply being relevant to our target listener at the time of the year when she would expect us to be focused on Christ’s birth. It is [WMGF’s] calling card. They know that when they do it, their numbers are going to explode. In spite of that, our numbers explode as well. It is definitely worthwhile for us because we are always looking for ways to have people who would normally not try us to sample us. We usually see a nice cume ‘kiss’ during the December and ‘Holiday’ reports.”
A particular years-ago misconception concerning contemporary Christian stations was that they sounded “preachy.” The feeling then might have been of a narrow, our way or no way, here is our faith, and we are shoving it in your face.
Today though, it is noticeably less judgmental. “We are more community-minded and accepting,” observes KSBJ, Houston president/general manager Tim McDermott. We are trying to do ‘good,’ and we want to impact our city for a positive transformation. We have changed so much and we are a more relevant radio station. In the political arena, people tend to marginalize Christians and their faith. They put them on the far right wing [but] I think it is a much broader audience than some expect. Part of our growth here is that Houston is a very diverse city.”
One of KSBJ’s television campaigns was actually a spoof of a heavily made-up tele-evangelist, who was singing an old-fashioned, religious song. “Our bridge line in the commercial was, ‘Fortunately, Christian music has moved on to a better place,'” recounts McDermott. “People have the wrong idea that we are standing in a pulpit somewhere, but we are much different than that.”
Growing up outside of Philadelphia when Christian rock was just starting, McDermott has been doing contemporary Christian radio at KSBJ Educational Foundation-owned KSBJ the past 22 years and he acknowledges, “It is pretty amazing to be in one place for that long in radio. That has been pretty neat.”
While his fellow classmates’ favorite music consisted of tracks by artists such as Aerosmith, Grand Funk Railroad, and Bachman Turner Overdrive, McDermott leaned more toward “The Cossack Song” by the group Love Song. “That is where it all began for me, as I wanted to share my faith through music,” he explains. “I thought it was a medium that people were open to and could get the life-changing, and transforming message.”
Most of those in McDermott’s situation, he contends, have a similar story. “We want to impact a person’s life for good. Something inside of us compels us to do that. My Christian faith is important to me and I want to be used by God to impact a person’s life.”
Non-commercial KSBJ went on the air in July 1982 and now boasts some 60 fulltime staffers and another 20 in its concert ministry, and ticketing.
Some believe the KSBJ calls stand for “Saved By Jesus,” however, former owners Robert & Linda Gonzalez started a group “Something Better Jesus,” and their Houston newspaper is the Something Better News. “We have never embraced that [branding] on the air,” McDermott points out. “In fact, our biggest ratings success was in 1992. We felt people in Houston didn’t know that we even existed. We talked with our board about getting the word out and a creative genius we work with brought us the ‘God Listens’ idea. We kicked it around and the board thought we should give it a shot.”
Immediately following the outdoor display with the “God Listens” verbiage plastering metro Houston, the station’s cume more than doubled from 119,000 to over 240,000. “That really became the launching for what we are mostly known for,” McDermott comments. “A popular Houston columnist wrote, ‘God listens – talk about your celebrity endorsements.'”
This past April (2012), KSBJ ballooned to a 6.8 (6+) and placed second in the market. By July and August though it dipped to 4.6 (#5 in July, #7 in August), but KSBJ has bounced back to a 6.0 (6+, November 2012) and ranks third. “Once Arbitron went to PPM methodology, we saw a definite jump up – which is what they said would happen,” McDermott remarks. “It wasn’t through the roof, but rather one step at a time. When that came, we saw a three-step jump in our cume. It has been steady growth and we have continued. We look at any [other] Christian station in town as the body of Christ and we are not out to compete against them.”
Nevertheless, the station employs a complete marketing effort, as it aggressively attempts to get more people to listen. “We understand that people punch around the dial but we want to be one of their choices and eventually be the primary choice,” asserts McDermott. “I love all sorts or radio. We do not put anyone else down – we are all in the same field.”
Financial gifting to the station has been very strong. “Non-profits that rely on a few major donors to support them have really had a difficult time during the ups and downs of the stock market,” McDermott states. “The key for us is that we only have a handful of people who give $10,000 or $5,000.”
Instead, thousands typically donate $25 to $35 a month and McDermott remarks that when a station has that sort of broad-base support, “It makes everyone feel like part of the ministry; it is a much more stable base. You are not as subject to the economy’s volatility, as you are when only a few major donors support your organization. As far as giving is concerned, we always say that we want people to give to their church first because the church is definitely number one. When we do our fundraising, we point out that we want people to make sure that they give their tithe to their church.”
Importance of all-inclusion
Four core values that the station stresses are a passion for Christ; love of people; serving others; and the notion that people are better when everyone is working together. “I love being able to connect with people but I have learned the lesson that my job as president is to make my staff a success,” remarks McDermott, who worked at his high school radio station. “I used to think my mission was to make KSBJ great, but I have learned my job really is to pour into the people I work with.”
Two weeks after asking his programming team what they needed to improve, McDermott returned for their answers. “One wanted a talent coach; another wanted to go to a seminar; and the other wanted a production tool,” he recounts. “I said, ‘Done.’ It is so much fun in this role to make others successful. When you do that, you make the entire station successful.”
Locating great communicators was among the greatest tests McDermott originally faced in this format, but with all the consolidation in secular radio, he found that, “Many Christian people who worked in mainstream broadcasting no longer have jobs. Some time ago, our weekend programming did not sound very good, but now we have some amazingly talented people on the air. We sound really good because we have found people who love radio. Once you get bitten by the radio bug, it is a disease for life.”
Operating a 100,000-watt class C1 at 89.3, McDermott has KSBJ focused on Houston’s Gulf Coast Area and he boasts, “We are one of the few stations in Houston that is live and local. I hear all the stories about how important that is, so we have personalities on the air all the time. We talk about community events and we are entwined with our audience. That is what has made us a success. With the exception of having people live in morning drive, some Houston stations are voice-tracked in other day-parts. One of our strengths is to be the way in which radio was designed.”
Within Houston’s listening area are three of the country’s largest churches – Lakewood Church, Second Baptist Church, and Woodlands Church. It is therefore probably not much of a surprise that a city with mega-size places of worship has a significant contemporary Christian radio audience. Even so, McDermott is careful not to associate KSBJ with one particular area church. “If you do that, you tend to narrow your audience and your reach,” he explains. “One of our secrets of success is that we want to bring people together.”
Native Texan Joel Osteen is Lakewood’s pastor and has fashioned a high-profile, national following. “Some think highly of him, while others question him,” McDermott mentions. “We want to let people know that we are here for everyone. Many pastors of the churches are 35+ – and they are all men.”
Noteworthy though is the fact that contemporary Christian stations generally target female listeners. Years ago, McDermott found that pastors are the last ones onboard to support the radio station. “The people in the pews are the ones who really love the station,” he explains. “Our success doesn’t come with getting pastors of the big churches to support us, although when we first started in 1982, Joel’s dad – John Osteen – was on our board. After a few years, folks like that stepped aside. Now, our board is a cross-section of leaders from Houston, but they are not necessarily big names. They are people who love God, love the station, and want to give back. [Living Proof Ministries founder] Beth Moore loves the station and supports us. On 9/11, she was on the air helping our listeners process what had happened.”
Most Christian stations are members of Christian Music Broadcasters, a national group that founding chairman McDermott launched 10 years ago. “We have a conference every year,” he notes. “These guys and gals are great friends and we are in constant communication. We want to make our craft better, so we go the NAB to learn how to be better broadcasters.”
Contemporary Christian artists regularly visit KSBJ and 16,000 people turned out in May to see Grammy and Dove-award winning Casting Crowns perform at a station-sponsored concert at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. “We are great friends and partners with the musicians,” McDermott accentuates. They love us and encourage listeners to support the station. There is a deep connection because of our faith.”
Prior to his arrival in Houston, McDermott worked in broadcasting in Tulsa and Waco. With managerial aspirations, he enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin and he ultimately became a CPA.
Over and above that, he can claim being a former IRS examiner. “When I came to Houston, I got to combine my business knowledge with my love for radio,” he declares. “The key to getting a job where you make decisions is sales and business, so that is the route I learned. Anyone who is a manager has to know business. I encourage those thinking about going into broadcasting to learn the business side as a skill. You can sell doughnuts or insurance, but get that business skill because it is so important whatever area in which a person enters.”
Numerous contemporary Christian stations can be found across America, but as KCMS, Seattle vice president/general manager Stan Mak points out, most big radio companies do not have it as a natural default format. “Those companies do not want to invest in it, so contemporary Christian tends to be on independent stations,” he remarks. “They usually [land] at – let us say – inferior signals; tend to be underfinanced; and operate on a shoestring budget. Those realities usually limit how big you can become as a radio station in your community. This is not an indictment of the format or the people involved in it – it is just the lay of the land.”
Unlike adult contemporary, CHR, or country, contemporary Christian has not generally been looked upon in the radio world as a highly-viable, commercial format, although Mak maintains that is changing. “Salem has stations in some major markets and those stations do very well,” he points out. “I am pleased to see that. It tells the industry that, when run well and when the right resources are put behind it, contemporary Christian music stations can be competitive.”
The first year Seattle segued from diary to PPM methodology, KCMS (“Spirit 105.3”) placed in the top five among Women 25-54. “Then we hit a patch when ratings really became a challenge for us,” Mak concedes. “We put a lot of thought into what the problems were and how to solve them. Our assignment as radio operators is to figure out the problems and come up with solutions. In management, we are here to solve problems and elevate the station’s performance.”
Seeing a resurgence in its PPM performance, the Crista Ministries-owned facility has strung together four successive up trends. Its July through November line score reads: 2.7 – 3.0 – 3.7 – 4.0 – 4.5 and it ranks #4 overall (6+, November 2012). “Strong ratings puts you in the game,” Mak comments. “When you have competitive numbers, you get invited to the dance, but it is not an ‘automatic buy,’ since many stations are competing for advertising dollars. The appeal is that the format is not replicated in the marketplace. Approximately 70% of Americans consider themselves to be Christians – so it is not like this is a small life group. The great recession though spared no one. It has been a challenge for us, just as it has for many other stations. PPM has created a super-compression on ratings and it makes it harder for stations to drive rates.”
“Making” a difference
Previous management of a major market country station Mak once managed paid a considerable amount of money to hire away a cross-town CHR’s morning team. “They are funny, highly entertaining, and that is why they were so attractive,” he confirms. “The station was floundering and I came in to fix the problem.”
In the process of ascertaining why the station was underperforming, it became evident to Mak that the morning team was not in the country music lifestyle. “Not only that, they made fun of it,” he comments. “They did not understand what their listeners were going through and what was important to them. If you are not into the format, you cannot fake it. It has to come from you. If you do not like contemporary Christian, you should not try to make a go out of being in this format.”
It has been nearly five years since Mak joined KCMS but many in the business remember him from his 12-year tenure running Portland’s eclectic KINK, or for his association with Seattle’s classical music KING.
There has also been managerial expertise for him in talk, smooth AC, rock, and country. “These are not jobs but important assignments,” he stresses in his own low-key, yet extremely effective manner. “I live it, I breathe, and I try to understand it. I have grown in my understanding of what makes this contemporary Christian format tick because I am in it and not looking at it as an outsider. I am a radio geek and I like all radio formats because they have their own unique attributes and challenges. A station is not going to be a franchise player just because you wish for that to happen – you must sink your teeth into it. There is no shortcut to do anything well.”
Thirty-five stations are listed in Seattle’s November 2012 PPM report and, aside from KCMS, the only other contemporary Christian is KWPZ (with a .1, 6+), so KCMS has the arena to itself. “Our biggest challenge every day when we wake up is to make it matter for our listeners,” Mak emphasizes. “They are not part of the pop vernacular, but imagine Casting Crowns, Tenth Avenue North, MercyMe, Chris Tomlin, and Third Day cranking out music for secular stations. They would be very significant. [The Nashville-based contemporary Christian record labels] should be recognized for what they have done in nurturing these type of artists – they are really good at what they do. It reminds me a little of the country music situation. Crossover artists really gave country a big boost. Unquestionably, the quality of music has improved significantly in contemporary Christian.”
Listeners to contemporary Christian stations generally can be moved at an exceptionally deep level and Mak contends it is a cut above other formats. “We get so much [feedback] from listeners telling us what the station means to them,” he remarks. “It is a lot more than playing their favorite songs. We don’t hear about the great contests or our wonderful website. It takes your breath away when someone says your business means the world to someone’s family. That is so much better than someone saying that a restaurant’s coffee ‘tastes pretty good.’ People can feel very down in the dumper, and may not know what to do. They say when they tune to us, something happens to them. They tell us they feel better and sense there is hope for them.”
Read part two of our contemporary Christian special highlighting programming perspectives and a discussion with one of the format’s high-profile on-air talents here.