Radio is a newer medium than television. It has unrealized potential.

Christian radio is growing up, because it is waking up to the fact that it is an untapped medium. Strange as it may seem, radio is a new medium, even newer than television. It existed before television, but in the mid-fifties TV took over the format that developed in radio. Radio had to start all over again. The result is news, weather, and sports wrapped up in music. It reaches 96 percent of all individuals twelve years old and older. Yet from a Christian perspective, it has unrealized potential.

Christian radio appeals to those whose hearts have overindulged in sentimentality. William James says that there are basically two types of people, the toughminded and the tenderminded. If a Christian radio station planned its program with both in mind, it would have an integrity that reflects the gospel itself. C. S. Lewis did this in his appeal to the toughminded in Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, God in the Dock, Miracles, and so forth. The tenderminded he touched with The Chronicles of Narnia, the space trilogy, and The Great Divorce, for example.

But who has done this with Christian broadcasting? Rather, Christian stations are part of the “gospel ghetto,” that will support bland, unpretentious, programming. The programmers as a whole are satisfied with that.

A textbook for radio broadcasting pinpointed a way in which the medium is misused. “Too many broadcasters still are looking for the cheap buck. They are getting by with the minimum of programming service that they can provide and still sell. These people seemingly have no sense of pride, no concern for the public, and no sense of responsibility. They hire their staffs primarily on the basis of who works the cheapest rather than who can do the job best.” This is a nail-on-the-head description of much of Christian radio practice. If the right hand knew what the left hand was doing it would certainly slap it.

How has Christian radio allowed this to happen? It began with an honorable motive to fulfill the great commandment. From that came the preaching show. The radio station airs it, the preacher pays for it when he buys the air time. The station doesn’t need good ratings (a large listening audience) because it doesn’t need to sell advertising. Selling time is one method for Christian stations to stay on the air. It’s lucrative. It’s easy. But is it effective? Recently three preaching programs were aired consecutively on a Christian station. The first two were clearly aimed at a Christian audience, the second being an in-depth discussion about a controversial spiritual gift. The third began by proclaiming that it was “reaching the unsaved for Christ.” This was a clear display of in-group language on an in-group medium going to an in-group audience. It probably reached none of those it was intended for. It never left the ghetto.

Article continues below

Nevertheless, Christian radio is waking up. Some people see the ineffectiveness of the industry and have tried with varying measures of success to move into new areas. But most of the innovators are station managers and program directors who are less concerned with income than station owners. It takes time to change a radio format and build up a new audience. Most owners, Christian or not, are unwilling to wait. Owner displeasure with creativity is directly proportionate to the decrease in profit.

Christian radio uses an in-group language on an in-group medium going to an in-group audience.

Yet there have been stations willing to make Christian radio competitive with secular stations. One such station is WEIV of Ithaca, New York, a CBN radio station. Station manager Dave Morrow has seen the potential for Christian radio for some time. “Christian music producers, record companies, and radio people can make the new popular trend in music in America Christian music if they really want to sacrifice to do it. But they can’t do it by bowing to the almighty dollar,” he says. The church has a tremendous opportunity for ministry and evangelism or preevangelism. But it will take time, energy, and money.

Morrow uses the term, “Christian music radio,” when he talks about the potential. Traditionally, music is what Christian stations play to fill up the time they don’t sell to preachers. The type of music played—called “Southern Gospel” or “Inspirational”—has no close counterpart on secular radio. But music changes as cultures change. Difference is not synonymous with the demonic, as any missiologist will tell you. (And just because music is gospel doesn’t make it righteous. Ask any studio musician out of Nashville.) Many Christians were not raised in the gospel ghetto and are unsatisfied with its music. The church has been given the art form of music and the medium of radio. Many new Christians were raised on the musical creations of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, or on the lyrical incisiveness of Dylan, Baez, Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. In comparison, most Christian music has a lyrical listlessness surpassed only by disco—high in predictability, low in creativity. Above all, such music preserves the in-group mentality which makes it that much harder for artists whose work falls outside the formula. There are artists who are doing for Christian music what the Inklings (Lewis, Tolkien, Sayers, Williams) did for Christian literature in this century. Their work is musically creative and lyrically stimulating, and is appreciated by a growing segment of the church. They take their vocation seriously and their work shows it. Several substantial recording companies have emerged as a result of this wave that began swelling in the sixties. The music is now available as a functional substitute for those who grew up on Dylan or the Stones. Now, if radio would only participate.

Article continues below

Christian rock music is a bone in the throat of those who are foreign to the culture that produced it. On the other side of the fence, Southern Gospel seems stagnant to those whose social background was filled with Kent State, Vietnam, the bomb, and the avowed loss of an ethical framework. I don’t advocate that every Christian radio station play sophisticated or progressive music. Only some. On both sides we must be careful lest we become aesthetic Judaizers—expecting others to fulfill our cultural law that we ourselves don’t adhere to completely and that is not essential to Christian life. We need to leave the gospel ghetto—not relinquishing the faith once delivered to the saints but taking that same gospel into the marketplace of the media.

Jim Pennington is a radio announcer in Portsmouth, Virginia.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.