Thinking Out Loud

March 20, 2018

What’s Wrong With Christian Radio is Purely Intentional

For those of you who don’t know her, meet Becky. Becky is the fictional target audience for Christian radio stations. Christianity Today helped define her back in 2007:

Her name is Becky.

You probably know her. She’s recently turned 40, but is not quick to admit it. She’s a Christian and a devoted wife and mother. She drives a mini-van. Half-melted crayons roll around on the floor as she stops at a light en route to her daughter’s Tuesday night soccer practice. She laughs sometimes, chagrined that she is the very “Soccer Mom” they talk about come election time. Becky lives in the suburbs, likes to read, enjoys the women’s retreats at church, is struggling to remember algebra so she can help her son with his homework, and is a regular volunteer at the food pantry.

One more thing about Becky, a very important fact for this discussion: she listens to the local Christian music station almost exclusively…

We’ll get back to her in a moment.

On the weekend my wife pointed out something that the more I thought about it, the more profound it seems. She said something like, “There’s more variety on any given contemporary Christian music album than what is played on Christian radio.” In other words, the songs chosen to be the single off the albums tend to get chosen because they all match the station sound and therefore they all sound alike.

In my mind, I envisioned the following diagram where each line represents the range of the songs on any given artist’s album — some exploring a greater number of musical genres — and the dots representing the songs selected to be featured on the radio.

Wouldn’t you like to hear some of the songs from the edge of each artist’s collection?

I owe a lot of my spiritual nurture to Contemporary Christian Music, but I’m not a fan of what it has become. A year ago 20 The Countdown Magazine did a special show on the Best of Christian Worship. It could have been called Chris Tomlin’s Greatest Hits. There was a song which we knew by Robin Mark where they chose to play a Chris Tomlin version, again either because it matched the sound of that show, or because… well we won’t go there. Any possibility for musical diversity was eliminated. (Listening to how many times the host said “Chris Tomlin” during that two hour show became a bit of a drinking game.)

Not everybody likes Becky. In a January, 2012 article in CCM Magazine, Matt Papa, not sparing the use of Caps Lock, wrote:

I love Becky. I really do. That’s part of the reason I’m writing this. Becky needs to be ministered to just like I do and just like everyone else does. But Christian radio/industry people: please MINISTER TO HER!! Stop giving her what she WANTS….GIVE HER WHAT SHE NEEDS and that is the GOSPEL….or stop calling yourself “christian”. There is NOTHING “christian” about telling someone who has cancer that they are OK. Stop tickling her ears. Becky is a human being who needs to hear the truth of Christ, not an object to use for your financial gain. Woe to you. And here’s a novel idea: Why not target other people besides Becky?!?! The gospel has no demographics! Christ shed His blood for all people everywhere and you have misrepresented Him. I pray with all my heart that the money tables in your temple would soon be overturned.

Pastor Gabe Hughes, who apparently has some insider knowledge wrote this in the summer of 2016:

Like most radio and television programming, Christian radio caters to a specific demographic, and that demographic is women between the ages of 20 and 50 (give or take). Whether or not Christian radio is doing it on purpose, that demographic is also mostly white.

It gets way more specific than that: this target woman lives in suburbia in a house with a mortgage, drives a mini-van, has three kids, a dog and a cat, a husband who works full-time, she also works but it’s probably part-time, has a household income between $55 and $70K, vacations in July, doesn’t have enough time to read her Bible but she has enough time to journal, loves Beth Moore and Joyce Meyer, and goes to church about 3 times a month. This woman even has a name — Becky.

Some radio stations will put up a mock picture of this woman in the studio, and the DJs are told to look at it and know that’s who they’re talking to. I’ve attended seminars where this was the whole focus of each session: Becky, Becky, Becky. The entire radio station is programmed for her — not her husband and not her kids. Giving glory to God is incidental, or it’s presented like this: “By reaching Becky, you’re giving glory to God.” Becky’s name is mentioned more often at these conferences than God’s name is.

This is unofficially referred to as Becky Programming or the Becky Mentality. The gospel-minded might recognize this as exactly how not to evangelize. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for we are all one in Christ, right (Galatians 3:28)? But rather than giving an audience what they need to hear, Christian radio sections out a particular audience and gives her what the research says she wants to hear…

Why do so many of the songs sound alike?
Because radio is about producing the least number of negatives. Technically a radio station is not actually trying to give you something that you like. They’re trying to give you something you don’t dislike. As long as they can remain as even as possible without too much variation or fluctuation, they’re more likely to keep you on their radio station and not flipping to something else.

When the radio station maintains a continuous blend of sound, it just kind of melts into the background and you become oblivious that you’re still listening to it. You know how when you drive the same route to work every day, sometimes entire stretches of the trip will go by, and you’ll wonder where those miles went? Listening to the radio is kind of like that…

Even when it comes to production quality, songs have been equalized to be at the exact same volume level. Put on your headphones, find a song from the late 80s or early 90s, and give it a listen. Then pick a song from within the past decade and listen at the same volume. Notice the difference? The older song has more dynamics, highs and lows, crescendo and decrescendo, and the more current song is a lot louder and dynamically consistent throughout.

The reason why every single Christian recording artist sounds like they’re recording the exact same song is because they know K-Love won’t play it unless it sounds like every other song. Yes, Christian radio is the very reason every Christian artist sounds the same. It’s not necessarily the artist’s fault. They just have to play along (pun implied).

(There’s a lot more; I’ll be honest, I just wanted to copy and paste Gabe’s entire article, so click here to read more.

The early Christian music radio hosts were typical of FM radio guys in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There was no single off the album, they just picked a song they liked. They exposed and celebrated the things creative Christian songwriters and performers were doing across North America, and if you got lucky, some of the things from the UK (which even today we rarely get to hear, everything being so Nashville-centric.)

There are still some great songs being written and great albums being recorded, but I must say I feel sorry for the kids today who only know Christian music’s after and missed out on Christian music’s before. Fortunately for them, broadcasting is not the primary means of transmission in their generation. Indie artists survive and even flourish on alternative media, such as Fresh Life Radio which itself provides balance by playing some of the CCM fare, or the notable broadcast exception, Project 88.7 in Boise and Twin Falls, Idaho. 

Full disclosure: The business I own also sells Christian music. Sales are down. I am increasingly convinced that downloading or online sales of physical product are not blame. Many in the next generation are not hearing anything that captivates them. Groups are recognizable, but it’s increasingly difficult to differentiate one male solo artist from another.

The push for homogeneity is killing Christian radio.

Blogger and Pastor Gabriel Hughes posted this Becky collage in the article linked above. Maybe you know her.

 


Related? This was posted yesterday in conjunction with a new book release. The headline says it all: The founder of Christian rock music would’ve hated what it’s become.

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1 Comment »

  1. We’re fortunate to have a local station in Calhoun, GA that’s not part of K-LOVE or WAY FM. They might play a brand new song but then toss Awesome God, Butterfly Kisses and What if Cartoons Got Saved? into the mix.

    Comment by Clark Bunch — March 21, 2018 @ 11:08 am


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