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.
"Becky" is not one person, of course. She is the representative persona of the target audience of almost every Adult Contemporary (AC) Christian radio station in existence today. Station directors expend considerable effort identifying who she is and what she likes. Her tastes affect what's played on radio, and not just the music. She is the target of the ads, the promotions, even the morning show banter. Consequently, she is essential to understanding how Christian radio works.
The fact that Becky has a name is indicative of the dogged desire of stations to focus their efforts on a narrowly defined target, generally described in the industry as the 35-to-44-year-old female demographic. The focus has paid off. Many credit the decision of several stations, including and possibly led by Salem's "Fish" stations, to cater to this particular target audience as responsible for the unprecedented growth in Christian radio over the last decade.
Still, not everyone who listens to Christian radio is a Soccer Mom, and the ones who aren't tend to be the ones who question why Christian radio has lavished all its attention on Becky.
Becky = prime audience
The choice of a target audience is the result of many factors, and in this particular industry, the typical economic factors are mixed with the ministerial and the evangelical. Becky is certainly a good audience from the perspective of dollars and cents. She is in the car a lot, which means she listens to the radio a lot, which means she hears a lot of commercials. She also has buying power, creating a pleasing combination for advertisers.
Non-commercial stations like her too, because she recognizes the ministry of the station in her family's life and is quick to support it financially. Mainstream data support the choice. For example, during an average week, radio reaches 96.9 percent of women in Atlanta, far exceeding the reach of newspaper and television.
Still, some are dismayed that this singular attention to one demographic limits radio's ability to reach others for Christ.
"The gospel has no target demographic," notes Derek Webb, who has admittedly given up efforts to get his songs played on Christian AC radio. He further suggests that because radio is targeting Becky, songwriters are too. "Anything Jesus is Lord of, our artists should be writing songs about it. We're only covering about 2 percent of it."
Shaun Groves, another artist who has experienced more radio airplay in the past than now, fears the approach of non-commercial stations in fundraising efforts might even be hypocritical. "The bulk of listeners are Christians," he says. "This is music by Christians for Christians, and that's great. It's a valuable ministry. The trouble is, Christian radio tells stories to make you feel they're evangelistic, but they're not. Say what you are. Don't lie to me and tell me I'm saving teenagers."
Another consequence of this target audience is dangerous. "Christian radio is a microcosm of the church, and often reflects the racial segregation that's present in the church," says veteran radio promotions executive Chris Hauser.
Hauser recently helped promote the debut release from Ayiesha Woods, and had that perceived segregation in mind when developing a release strategy. "We circulated the single with no name and no photo, and simply called it the first single from the newest Gotee Records artist."
That song, "Happy," became the most added song on Christian AC radio on April 18. Although it is impossible to measure the impact of the promotion strategy, Woods is the first black female to hit with a non-ballad in recent memory.
Perhaps the most visible effect of Christian radio's choice of a specific target audience is the branding of radio stations.
"The 'Safe for the Family' message had a huge impact when the Salem stations adopted it a few years ago," notes an industry insider who wished to remain anonymous. At its most basic level, stations realized that Becky is often carpooling with the kids, so they made a point to ensure that she understands that nothing she hears on that station will offend her or negatively influence her children.
Salem's trademarked slogan for their Fish stations is "Safe for the Whole Family." K-LOVE calls itself "Positive and Encouraging." Air 1 is "The Positive Alternative," Tulsa's KXOJ is "Your Choice for the Family," while KCMS is Seattle's "Family-Friendly Radio Station."
KCMS Vice President and General Manager Tony Bollen was quoted in Billboard Radio Monitor describing the approach: "We don't want to shelter our listeners from the reality of life, but we position ourselves as safe for the whole family, so there has to be a certain amount of decorum."
A voiceover on Fish stations defines the stance this way: "What does 'Safe for the Whole Family' mean on The Fish? It means the music is always positive and encouraging."
The implications are broad. Advertising dollars are turned away when the content or the company might be questionable, DJ dialogue is sensitive to the possibility that young ears might be listening, and song lyrics are chosen to match the adjectives in the slogans: safe, upbeat, encouraging, uplifting, positive.
Profaning God's name?
While many listeners applaud the unwavering shelter in what has become a dangerous radio landscape, it is the lyrical content implication that riles some in the industry.
Groves has no qualms about stations that are safe for the family, but notes particular dissatisfaction with other branding.
"'Always upbeat and positive,' that's profaning God's name," he says. "Much of the Bible in neither upbeat nor positive. We can never make a station as big as God is, but we shouldn't limit him."
Webb is equally outspoken. "'Safe for the family' is a terrible and counterproductive slogan. If anything, artists are called to radical truth-telling, which can be very subversive, very dangerous. Artists should challenge what we believe. We can't be safe any more than Jesus was safe."
In reality, AC radio may not be all that saccharine. A random sample of midday content from one of the country's largest Christian AC stations suggests that while content is certainly safe from profanity or vulgarity, it might not in reality be always upbeat and positive. The midday sampling certainly included positive, uplifting songs, but these were interspersed with other lyrics about a person lost, distant from God and seeking to return to the fold, or about regret over missed opportunities for evangelism.
Indeed, the occasional radio hit in the past has asked tough questions. Natalie Grant's "Held" asked how God works in the midst of terrible tragedy. BarlowGirl's "I Need You to Love Me" contrasts God's love with our human shame and sin. Still, AC radio won't touch Webb's latest CD, Mockingbird, which is at times neither safe nor positive.
Chris Rice worries about the evangelistic potential of a station that's branded as safe and upbeat. As he has stepped beyond the Christian AC boundaries with a mainstream single, he has encountered a more diverse audience and been reminded of how insulated Christian circles can be.
"I've been surrounded for so long with narrow categories that must be palatable and won't offend," he says. "I feel like we've dumbed down the gospel so much that it only makes sense if kids hear it."
Rice preceded his foray into mainstream radio with a call-to-arms of sorts for the comfortable Christian and a thinly-veiled inside joke in the form of the 2003 song "Me and Becky." When asked if Becky refers to the name of radio's target audience, Rice replied, "Absolutely!" The song's Becky, who lives "in a house on Abundant Life Boulevard," has "butterflies in her yard … a Bible by the bed, a prayer journal, and a fish on her car." The song compels Becky to take some risks to reach a world that we've left behind. Certainly "safe for the family" does not imply the sort of safety that causes Becky to stay in her comfortable confines, but the reminder still resonates today.
If Becky has influenced the branding of Christian radio stations, then she certainly must influence the choice of songs that get played on those stations. The next article in this series will address how singles are chosen for radio, and how the possibility of airplay influences how songs are written and promoted.
Next week in Part 3: How Becky—and others—influence the decisions about what songs will be played on the radio.
Mark Geil is a freelance writer andthe director of the Biomechanics program at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He lives in Kennesaw, Georgia with his wife and three daughters.
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