Contemporary Christian music is reaching an audience beyond the pews, a top broadcasting executive says.
“There is no question that we’re dealing with a world that is not going to church, [they’re] not running out buying Bibles, but they are leaning into their faith,” veteran Christian broadcaster Bill Reeves said.
In 2019, Mr. Reeves became CEO of the Educational Media Foundation, whose radio networks K-LOVE and Air1 blanket the country and have outlets in the Washington market.
He acknowledges that over-the-air stations, known in the trade as “terrestrial radio,” face growing competition from Sirius XM satellite radio and the playlists found on many streaming services such as Spotify.
But he asserts that ear-catching music presented by upbeat, personable hosts overcomes that competition, saying that what is said before or after a song can have an impact.
“Between the songs is really where — especially as a faith-based broadcaster — we really connect with our listener,” Mr. Reeves said. “Whether it’s the morning show, sharing a story of hope, or whether it’s the afternoon show, taking a minute to pray with their listeners, we are connecting in a way on terrestrial radio that that, frankly just doesn’t happen when you’re just listening to a playlist.”
“There’s still something about that personal touch between the songs that, for us, connect with our listeners,” he added.
Mr. Reeves said K-LOVE and Air1 have a combined weekly audience of 14 million listeners, according to Nielsen ratings. Add in streaming services such as TuneIn, and the total weekly listenership jumps to nearly 18 million, he said.
“We are still getting to the bottom of what that looks like,” Mr. Reeves said of the streaming market, “but that’s a big number for us as well.”
There are other measures of connection as well. The Christian stations respond to 400,000 listener prayer requests annually and have a staff of pastors who counsel those seeking spiritual guidance.
Of Educational Media’s 1,100 licenses, about two-thirds of the stations carry the K-LOVE brand and one-third are Air1 outlets. No denomination sponsors broadcast operations, Mr. Reeves said. Instead, “most of our revenue comes from donors who give uf $20, $30, or $40 a month — we don’t have big corporate sponsors. Our donor list is hundreds of thousands of regular donors,” he said.
The stations aim for “positive and encouraging” programming, their on-air personalities don’t shout at listeners and there is no political debate.
The stations don’t air the half-hour sermon-style programs popular on many Christian stations; instead, they offer periodic “thoughts” shared by well-known preachers or a Bible verse read by a disc jockey who is known by listeners as a person of faith.
“Our nation is hurting, they’re lonely,” Mr. Reeves said. “They’re scared, they’re isolated. And I think we have been intentional about staying away from those [negative] narratives and focusing on the hope that leaning into your faith can bring in your life. I just think it’s that simple.”
That “leaning” comes as overall radio listenership for motorists has returned to pre-pandemic levels, offering another venue for the two networks. According to the Rado Research Consortium, the fourth quarter 2021 Nielsen survey shows in-car listenership at 43.6% of radio listeners, higher than the March 2020 level of 43.3%.
What are Christian radio listeners looking for? Sharon Geiger, assistant general manager and outreach manager at KCBI-FM in Dallas, says they’re seeking stability in highly unstable times.
“They’re coming to us for hope. They’re coming to us for an understanding that God is still in control, and that He is very active in these events,” said Ms. Geiger, who also chairs the radio committee of the National Religious Broadcasters.
The Christian broadcasting trade group assembles this week in Nashville to assess the state of the industry and look forward. (The Washington Times is a sponsor of the broadcasters conference.)
Ms. Geiger said her station rallied listeners to pray for Ukraine and donate to help shelter refugees.
This is “the role Christian radio can play, which is the ability to understand that there is a God who loves us, and who is who wants to have a relationship with us,” she said. “And, that He calls us to help others and to reach out to others in their time of need, and to be His hands and feet.”
According to Chuck Finney, a veteran Christian broadcaster who runs the Finney Media consulting firm, audiences are responding to evangelical programming.
“We’ve seen amazing audience reaction to Christian stations since the start of the pandemic,” he said. “In the past two years, we’ve seen quite a few Christian stations become the most listened to stations in their markets.”