Right Of The Dial

Christian radio used to be just a blip on the dial—a few sermons sandwiched between Top 40 and country-and-western tunes. But religious programming now reaches more than 20 million people on 1,648 religious stations, an increase of almost 500 stations in the past five years. These days, you have a 1-in-7 chance of landing on a holy spot on the FM or AM dial. Buoyed in part by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which removed the cap on the number of stations one company can own nationally, religious programming has boomed. In fact, it is now the third-largest radio format in the nation.

The president of National Religious Broadcasters, E. Brandt Gustavson, thinks this is divine. “It’s because we have a nonpolitical message, a spiritual message, a Bible message,” he says. “What we try to do is lift up Christ and make him known.” He says that one of NRB’s goals since it was formed in 1944 has been “to protect access to the airwaves of America for our message.” But Tom Taylor, news editor for the M Street Journal, which tracks radio trends, offers a less mystical view: “There really is a lot of money in this field,” he says.

Evangelists aren’t the only ones cashing in on this craze, which has spawned whole companies devoted to selling ads and airtime on religious radio. Mike Listermann, founder of one such business, Kentucky’s Morning Star Communications, says his company has grown 86 percent every year since he started four years ago. He says religious radio sells because of listener loyalty: “They tend to want to believe messages they hear on the radio and to want to support the station.” Christian radio is about “eternal matters,” Listermann adds.

But not everyone is ecstatic about the growth in Christian radio programming. A 1985 Federal Communications Commission decision that allowed religious programmers to qualify for educational space on the FM bandwidth has increased competition for spots on the lower, noncommercial end of the dial. People like Curt Dunnam, who tried to start a public radio station in Ithaca, N.Y., believe they are being frozen out by well-heeled evangelicals, such as Family Life Ministries, which filed for the frequency Dunnam wanted—and won it. “They have the collective, rather awesome, power to step on people who are trying to start community radio stations. It’s the guy with the most dollars who wins the game,” Dunnam says.

Meanwhile, Gustavson and others are celebrating the conversion of radio. Will the trend continue? Says Listermann: “I’m praying it will.”