I’ve enjoyed a 40 year journey of witnessing the maturing process of the art form of Contemporary Christian Music and its partnership with radio. This has been my journey both as a consumer and a life long radio executive.
Yesterday, I started sharing my earliest remembrances of this union. Today, I’ll try to bring my thoughts full circle.
I studied broadcasting in college because I wanted to become a sports play by play announcer ,but the path of my career changed early on. As my faith began to deepen, I felt called to get involved in Christian broadcasting and jumped at the first chance to do so.
I graduated with a degree in Radio/TV/Film from the University of Kansas in 1975, worked in secular radio for 18 months and got married in December of 1977. Soon afterward, my wife and I moved to Kansas City where I went to work for a brand new AM radio station that aired religious radio talk programs 24/7 with the exception of afternoon drive time when they played Contemporary Christian Music quite honestly, as an experiment.
Our CCM listeners were incredibly loyal to what we were doing, and vocal too! KCNW was the hot topic of conversation in many of the larger evangelical churches in KC from the time we went on the air. Back then, the lyrics to these songs as I mentioned earlier, were largely evangelistic in nature. Bands like Dallas Holm and Praise, the Imperials and the Bill Gaither Trio were most popular. BJ Thomas left his life of profound drug abuse, found faith in Christ, and soon after recorded a CCM album. Well known pop artist Amy Grant got her start by performing CCM during this time. However, most of the artists played were relatively unknown.
I occasionally would find it ironic that the best research available taught us that our core listeners had already made a commitment to Jesus. That said, the lyrics to most of the music of that era were slow to adapt to its Christian fanbase. Most of our core audience had already experienced a conversion but the themes of many of the songs were being written to evangelize. It was rare to find a song addressing a topic relevant to a church looking to grow in their faith. Be that as it may, Contemporary Christian Music continued to thrive and grow. Eventually it did change.
By the late 80’s/early 90’s, CCM was declared to be the fastest growing radio format in America. Still, Christian music was a fairly new staple to religious radio nationally. Syndicated “teach/talk shows” like Back to the Bible, Insight for Living with Charles Swindoll and most notably Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson anchored religious radio station formats. Yet even though Christian radio was best known for relevant teaching that addressed key issues in faith and life, most religious radio formatted stations continued to make Contemporary Christian Music a part of their programming to a growing number of listeners.
The maturing of Contemporary Christian Music was earmarked by a diversification of musical styles. The number of artists performing CCM increased, and a few pop artists crossed over and released singles categorized as CCM – much to the delight of its growing fanbase.
Not surprisingly, at the same time the lyric content changed as well. Slowly at first, the lyrics adapted to suit the needs and tastes of the “church-attending radio listener.” Most notably it became more vertical than horizontal as leading artists often sang to God rather than about God. Raising hands in response to God speaking was not just a Sunday morning thing, it became part of the CCM concert experience more often than not. Musical writers and performers used their influence to turn live performances into venues of worship.
There was another type of lyric on the rise. More and more Contemporary Christian Music became instructional focusing on topics of how to live as a Christian in an increasingly secular society. Some of the lyrics proclaimed the attributes of God. Artists were writing songs that were more and more relevant to a Church looking for encouragement and instruction in their music.
By the late 90’s, an increasing number of FM radio stations in America were thriving by playing Contemporary Christian Music exclusively as “teach/talk” programs migrated mostly to AM stations. In the last decade, many of these programs have found other successful distribution platforms such as on-demand applications, podcasting, and the like.
The CCM format was now generating significant ratings in listeners as a leading adult format. Case in point: nearly a decade ago, a radio station in Texas reached a watermark that few radio professionals believed would ever be possible. In just a few short years, KLTY FM became the most listened to station among all formats in the Dallas/Fort Worth radio market (according to Arbitron)! This station had more listeners than any Rock station in town, more than any Country station, more listeners than any other radio station in the market!
A perfect storm of several factors – including domestic economic uncertainty, instability abroad, and crossover musical artists testifying to their faith on TV and radio had a lot to do with CCM becoming mainstream. All the while, something was happening that may have been equally significant to growth. Church worship services of all persuasions – including mainline denominations such as Methodist and Lutheran – were singing songs of worship first introduced to their members and attenders by Christian radio. It appeared that churches and Christian radio stations had become partners in the discipleship process. This as it turns out, was most significant in making a difference in the life of the American Church.
Perhaps the biggest “shot in the arm” that has sparked the rise in listenership to Christian radio has come from our secular radio competition. Over the last decade and a half especially, raunchy and suggestive lyrical content of rock, country, and hip hop music – combined with inappropriate and often embarrassing live banter by radio DJs from coast to coast has pushed millions of radio fans to look for other places to land on their radio dials. CCM radio stations that were formatted as “safe for the whole family” became havens for these listeners, even though research continues to show that many of these listeners that have become some of CCM’s newest group of listeners don’t consider themselves to be “Christian.”
The growth and development of Life 101.9 is simply a microcosm of what has been happening nationally. As we’ve stayed in lockstep with changing listener preferences, needs, and desires, we’ve also seen our audience grow considerably.
In the 35 years between 1980 and 2015, the CCM radio audience market share in eastern Iowa has grown ten fold. The influence of this highly popular format has made its way into evangelical churches in Iowa towns all over the map. Today, hymnbooks are rare. In their place, words of familiar choruses heard first on Life 101.9 projected on the “big screen” continue to speak to heart issues that the Church needs to hear.
I witnessed this just last Sunday where I attend church. Our pastor was teaching from Col 3:17. This familiar passage reads as follows:
“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.”
In his sermon, he mentioned specifically by name some of Life 101.9’s most popular music. Songs that have become “songs from the Spirit” that the Lord has used. Songs like “Redeemed” by Big Daddy Weave and “Flawless” by MercyMe have become instructive to him to deepen his faith and growth as a Christ follower.
I sat there with a smile marveling at how Life 101.9 has become tool of the Holy Spirit to bring real love, hope, and family to God’s people. Being a tiny part of the Church’s maturing process is truly humbling and gratifying.
Something to thing about.