Last month, Relevant Podcast listeners heard a familiar voice in their earbuds: founder Cameron Strang, returning to the show’s lineup—and to leadership at Relevant Media Group—six months after stepping away due to public criticism from former employees.
Though Relevant promised to be transparent with its efforts to address Strang’s alleged racial insensitivity and difficult leadership style, it did not bring up the process again until the April 10 update announcing his return as CEO.
In the meantime, the bimonthly Christian magazine had not sent out an issue to its 27,000 paid subscribers since Strang left in September, leaving fans to wonder about its future.
Strang told listeners that he’s “excited to be back” for a new era at Relevant as it prepares to revamp and expand its podcast offerings, transition to a yearly print publication, and relaunch its website, all under an advisory board newly enlisted to oversee leadership of the 10-person staff.
Relevant’s loyal followers, some of whom have been around for its entire 20-year history, are excited to hear Strang’s voice again. But as much as they hope to see the kind of progress the company has promised and prayed for, a few have questioned the lack of communication.
“When the print issues stopped coming, I was disappointed but figured the company was trying to figure out how to move forward. I suspected they had lost a lot of advertisers & revenue,” wrote Erin Bird, an Iowa pastor, in a Twitter thread responding to the April update. “I’ve patiently walked thru this w/ you, actually prayed for you guys (& those hurt), & was hoping to see a repentance from Cameron that would show the world how to truly apologize.”
Bird, who subscribed to Relevant for 17 years, echoed what other fans said: He likes Strang and Relevant, which makes it even more disappointing that their response has fallen short and ultimately led him to stop reading and tuning in.
“Hearing an update that shared nothing about seeking relational reconciliation broke my heart,” Bird told CT. “All I heard was how difficult this season has been to Cameron, but not how grieved he was about the hard season he put others through as their boss.”
Strang’s sabbatical was prompted by accounts of racial insensitivity and poor leadership that previous editors, including Andre Henry and Rebecca Marie Jo Flores, say they experienced while working with the small staff at Relevant’s office in Orlando, Florida. Within a week of their criticism making headlines in late September 2019, Strang issued an apology and took a leave of absence to “engage a process of healing, growth, and learning.”
Strang, whose father Stephen Strang is the publisher and CEO of Charisma magazine, launched Relevant in 2000. He was 24 at the time, setting out to reach Christian 20-somethings and 30-somethings in a departure from cheesy or “culture wars” content targeted at young adults.
Its magazine, website, and podcasts—which now receive over 690,000 downloads a month, according to the company—offer a hip but faithful take on the world of pop culture and Christian life, with celebrity-clad cover stories and interviews with figures like Lecrae, Jim Gaffigan, and Lauren Daigle.
Strang declined to be interviewed for this article and instead directed CT to an April 17 podcast episode, in which he discussed his return with outgoing editor and producer Jesse Carey and writer and editor Tyler Huckabee. Carey, who served as publisher during Strang’s absence, did not respond to multiple requests sent by CT over the past two months.
“I decided to go away to handle this in a private way,” Strang said in the 23-minute podcast discussion. “I tried to learn from this. Honestly, whether I succeeded or not, I tried to set an example of humility and leadership and teachability.”
Strang’s reflections echoed points raised in his September apology, where the 44-year-old CEO lamented his own “unhealthy” and “toxic” leadership, as well as the recent update posted by Relevant, which cited the pace and workload of running the company as major stressors.
“As a small, independent company with big goals in an always-changing media ocean, Cameron often led RELEVANT like a constantly redlining speed boat, going fast and making quick turns with little margin,” the company’s statement said. “This recent season opened our eyes to how that approach led to stress and a lack of health in our organization, and for that both Cameron and the RELEVANT executive team wish to extend a sincere apology.”
On the podcast, Strang did not mention former staff members by name but said he was “deeply sorry for hurting people that were close to me” and asked concerned listeners “for the grace to walk this out” in the long term.
Right after Strang left last September, Carey assured listeners that they would “be transparent about how things are going and who are the leaders that are speaking into Cameron and speaking into Relevant.”
That didn’t happen over the sabbatical period, and the April updates don’t share specifics about how Strang has addressed the concerns raised or whether he has pursued reconciliation.
On the podcast, Strang brought up weekly counseling as a primary means for addressing the “core issues” that led to his unhealthy leadership and referenced taking to Christian leaders during his months away, but did not name any particular leaders, curricula, or programs he learned from.
With Strang’s return on April 15, the company’s announcement said, “he and the team have worked hard to internally address the criticisms in substantive and tangible ways.” Relevant Media Group appointed an advisory board to provide accountability and receive human resources complaints, which the company lacked before.
The board includes Carey (who recently left the staff but continues to appear on the podcast); author and activist Christine Caine; pastor Dharius Daniels; nonprofit leader David Docusen; and Bible Media Group president Tessie Guell Devore.
While Strang said on the podcast that he did not follow Relevant articles or podcasts during his sabbatical, he spent the time thinking big picture about his company’s future, including the decision to put the print magazine on hiatus because it had become unsustainable financially.
Relevant’s promotional material claims “in a recent survey, our readers say they keep the magazine on their coffee table for over 9 months.” Lately, though, subscribers haven’t had much choice; the most recent issue, featuring Malcolm Gladwell on the cover, came out eight months ago.
Several Relevant subscribers told CT they received no notification of the decision to pause the magazine, despite getting regular emails from the company and even having their subscriptions continue to auto-renew.
“The unplanned disruption to the magazine left some advertisers and subscribers unclear what the plan was, and where the magazine was, and we sincerely apologize for our lack of communication while we worked to sort everything out,” Relevant said in its April update.
And though Relevant confirmed that its print publication has been halted, users can still buy annual subscriptions online for $14.99. An email confirmation for the subscription reads, “Your first issue will arrive in 6-8 weeks!”
Relevant joined a slew of magazines, big and small, that have had to reduce their publication frequency or stop putting out print issues altogether due to rising production costs and slumping ad revenue. To maintain agreements with subscribers, these publications typically offer an equivalent perk, such as access to a member’s only site, said Caysey Welton, content director at Folio, which covers the industry.
Relevant subscribers will be transferred to an upcoming “Relevant+” membership for a new site slated to debut this fall and will have the option to request a refund.
Over the past several months, disappointed subscribers have requested refunds or cancellations of their subscriptions over the skipped issues, and they report receiving responses after complaining on Twitter. Depending on how an agreement is worded, there may not be legal liability for failing to deliver issues. (The bigger legal concern in the magazine world these days are fraudulent third-party auto-renew practices, now the subject of a string of lawsuits and crackdowns.)
Besides the financial constraints, the current restructuring allows Relevant to better target the audience they’ve been going after all along. “What would I do differently if was launching Relevant from scratch?” Strang wondered out loud on the podcast. “I probably, in 2020, wouldn’t be mailing paper to people’s houses if I’m trying to reach 25-year-olds.”
Welton at Folio agreed that publications skewing toward younger readers cannot rely on print, and Relevant has been moving that direction for years with its expanding lineup of popular podcasts. “If you’re trying to reach Gen Z to young Gen X, then if you’re leading with print, you’re probably already doing something wrong,” he said.
Particularly in light of the challenges accelerated by the coronavirus crisis, the new model of a single issue a year for a special-interest publication matches where the industry is going. Relevant describes its new annual print edition as “Relevant, but coffee table size like Kinfolk.”
“That’s what the future of print looks like,” Welton said. “That’s the kind of thing we’re going to see a lot more of. … Nicer paperstock, thicker book, fewer ads, if any, with just really good, engaging, evergreen content inside.”
The new business plan at Relevant, including more changes to address the concerns that emerged last year, will unfold over the next six months. The company said it plans to form additional advisory boards focused on mission and ministry, justice and diversity, and business strategy and culture.
On Easter this year, days before resuming his position as CEO, Strang posted on Instagram for the first time since last October, sharing pictures of his son and the puppy they got at the start of his sabbatical. More than a hundred people commented to say they had missed him and welcomed him back. They said they had been praying for Relevant and were excited to have him return.
Similar replies from subscribers rolled in when the publication shared an update on Twitter.
“This is an example of a Christian organization doing it right. He owned his stuff, stepped down, got counsel & accountability, and now huge, lasting changes are in place,” one person responded. “Super bummed about the print mag, but I understand consequences, & growth takes sacrifice. This is good news.”
Others still want more. When Strang left, Huckabee told Relevant’s audience that “We plan on doing everything we can to be an example of how to handle a situation like this. Lord knows we’ve tried to hold other institutions to the fire when they’ve done something wrong—both in what they did and their response to it—and now it’s our turn.”
Some expected that would mean more openness about the leadership and cultural change. “The @relevant team was not transparent throughout the process as promised. That is a massive problem in terms of trustworthiness,” one critic posted. “The statement essentially blames Camerons’s mistreatment and abuse of his employees on exhaustion.”
Another said, “there has been nothing about any of this that makes me want to give Cameron a second chance.”
Strang said he came back at the prompting of the new board, many of whom he’s known through Relevant or other channels—Devore, for example, used to be the executive vice president of his father’s publishing company, Charisma House.
Strang said in addition to rejoining the podcast lineup—now with popular podcaster Jamie Ivey and hip hop artist Derek Minor in the mix—his focus will be new partnerships for Relevant, including expanding devotional content.
“All I ask for people who have been concerned or even skeptical hearing my voice is for the grace to walk this out,” Strang said. “I can’t snap my figures and make everything right; this is a long-term process of healing and restoration and reconciliation.”