They’re Taking Over!


Classic AM radio (photo by Vic Brincat)This last weekend saw me riding the driver’s seat of our Corolla for long stretches of time as I cruised north and back. Searching for some music to imbibe, I cruised the dial, the seek feature on our car’s radio stopping every 0.3 MHz to land on a different station.

Here’s what I discovered: about a hundred Christian radio stations, each and every last one playing “i Can Only Imagine” at the same exact time.

Okay, so maybe the “I Can Only Imagine” comment is an exaggeration—though not by much.

And each of those stations is “kid-safe” or “family-friendly.”

A decade or two ago, I would have welcomed those stations gladly. Now I wonder if all they’re producing is milquetoast believers whose idea of a spiritual challenge is choosing the right two-tone cover for their TNIV.

Worse, all these stations seem to be owned by the same conglomerate, so it’s not unusual to find two or three stations on the dial playing “I Can Only Imagine” at the same exact time because some “DJ” is sitting in a booth in San Antonio spinning that disc, pumping it out to thousands of subscriber stations across the country. Why? Because a lot of local stations obsessed over demographic figures, switched their programming to be mostly (bad) music, gave up their distinctive voice, and saw their audiences shrivel up. Or the stalwart audience went elsewhere, leaving the station to the new masses, masses who had no intention of financially supporting that station. Big conglomerate swoops in and the next thing you know, new ownership, and a DJ who sounds suspiciously like Ryan Seacrest.

I used to listen to Christian radio primarily for the teaching. I suspect that most Christian radio stations don’t even have teaching anymore. And what teaching remains seems about as stale as year-old bread.

There’s something tremendously sad about witnessing the dynamic Christian radio I knew in my youth distill down into this lowest-common-denominator slop we have today.

I find it disheartening, too, that the most challenging teachers out there are either gone from the airwaves or have dumbed-down their messages to be more appealing and easily grasped by an audience with an attention span of a paramecium.

I also find it discouraging that an artist like Derek Webb, one of  the few contemporary musicians I listen to, can’t get airplay. Then again, a line like “I am a whore, I must confess…” ain’t all that family-friendly, now is it?

So instead of dancing a jig over the juggernaut of contemporary Christian radio stations taking over the radio dial, I’m nostalgic for what once was.

Are you?

23 thoughts on “They’re Taking Over!

  1. Personally, I am not missing it. Some would say because I’m a latter comer to the table. Or maybe it is just that music of any kind stopped being top priority in my checklist? I heard someone saying that music can become either our god, our enemy or our friend. I’d like to think my case it’s more closely to the latter. True. Having internet connection allows you to be more selective about the music/sermons you get to listen. For that, I’m grateful.

    When I lived in America, I owned a car and like many used to listen to the Christian stations for the first two years (that changed when I stumble across CS while looking for info about a guy named Keith Green!) The last three years I didn’t listen to radio stations at all. Maybe I was too loaded with research and needed silence to come up with a good idea for the dissertation! But I’d like to believe, a big part of that solitude was rooted in a growing desire for more of God that the music I used to listen wasn’t meeting.

    Now, that I am back to my country, I still got internet connection. But I no longer own a car so I can’t choose the music I listen to. Instead when I need to commute to Lima, I hop in public buses whose drivers put the music THEY want and at the decibel level THEY want. Sure, if it is too loud you can ask them to lower the volume. But then you may clash with some people who ride with you that like THAT music: they would be give you the look if you request the guy to turn it off, something that the guy is not likely to do. (only a couple of times I guess, I heard Christian music. Oh, yes in spanish). And just in case you’d like to know, I don’t own an ipod either, so I can’t make my own comfortable bubble while riding on those buses.

    Last but not least, I’m not complaining. I’m glad to be down here. If you read this, pray both for the people who make music their god and for those who think it’s their enemy. May the Lord be merciful to us.

  2. I’ve been lamenting this since 1991… Dick Staub has a great book with a lousy title called “The Culturally-Savvy Christian”. In it he connects the demise of popular culture with the exodus of Christians from popular culture. Makes sense – if we aren’t being salt and light in the world, what’s left to prevent decay and illuminate it? Of course we’ll wind up with what the movie “Idiocracy” depicts as the future of this kind of America. I’m grateful that the CCM industry has collapsed on itself and that the real artists who happen to be Christians never entered it or escaped to create their art for the world at large (Switchfoot, P.O.D., Lifehouse, etc.). Whether or not you agree with their theological fine points, they are at least making a positive contribution and paving the way for hopefully a cultural renewal that has more in common with the kingdom of God than the plastic Walmart quasi-Christian crap marketed to unthinking, sentimental, lazy churchgoers.

  3. Thankfully, there is still teaching on WMBI (Moody Bible Institute) radio in Chicago. Still, I don’t care for much contemporary Christian music. It’s even worse, it seems, on the Black gospel music stations where most of the teaching and much of the music is infected with the widely popular health/wealth/prosperity “gospel”.

    When I actually want to hear music on the radio, I prefer to listen to the classical music station.

  4. Seriously, anymore I bought an ipod and loaded it with what I want and download podcasts. I used to jockey on WVMM Messiah College Radio and we got away with more because of being a college station but I was pressed (back then, I”m giving away my age here) to play more Carmen and Michael W Smith. I was known for playing REZ and Idle Cure and Whiteheart endlessly because the words were REAL… granted I only lasted a year there because of that.

    I do miss some of the teaching, but I’m finding even a good part of the teaching is the same old same old watered down “I refuse to lose my audience by teaching the truth” theology that has invaded america.

    I’m tired. God is not an american. He doesn’t care what kind of coffee you drink, and he isn’t impressed by how much “Christianese” you use or bumper sticker on your car. He cares if you are living holy and representing him truthfully. Are our airwaves? No.

    I’ve found songs that theologically were so off I would double take.

    *sigh* I thought about working in radio ago a few years, approached a local station here about it but found that those who had the real heart to do it… could barely make it. Unfortunately that is the reality in most aspects of the Church.

    God help us.

  5. Wow. I remember when he was on every station. It seems Satan is filtering truth even among the sheep. *sigh*.

    Wonder if there is a podcast? Hrm…. Oh if you ever want to hear my pastors stuff, I’m hoping they podcast soon. Incredible… pure truth too. But I’ve hosted a few online, and thinking of putting up more. Just let me know I’ll send you the links.

  6. merry

    I started listening to secular music stations when I realized that most of the songs I liked on the Christian stations either were covers of secular songs (sometimes changing just one word to make it slightly Christian), and when I realized that they were playing songs by secular artists that were vague enough that it could be Christian (we’ve all heard those “You” songs that aren’t clear who the song is referring to).

    I also quit listening to my local Christian station when the DJs quit the devotions and started in on celebrity gossip. (I really do not care to hear about Brad and Angelina when I want to focus on God.)

    It’s all gotten a bit too commercial for my taste.

  7. Aaron


    Hate to say I agree with you here, but it is so very true. Even the local Cincy Christian stations have changed rapidly. There were a few “teaching” programs I used to listen to late in the evenings, but those are now gone – but I can at least got those same programs through iTunes now (and commercial free)!! Now it is usually my iPod that gets the air time in the vehicle, at least with that I get to choose what I and the family listen to. I’d rather have decent music and other programming with a non-watered down gospel than this new-fangled family-friendly crud that is being pumped out today.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this, I was beginning to think I was the only one who noticed this!

    • Aaron,

      I was driving from my place to Wilmington for three days, scanning the FM dial, and I swear I encountered twenty distinct Christian radio stations coming out of SW Ohio (Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus, Wilmington). (That’s a huge number compared with the past.) Most sounded identical. Several were subscription stations, so they were playing the same songs at the same time. Only a couple featured any teaching during the morning and evening times I was driving. Several times, I encountered two or three stations playing different songs by the same artists. And in every instance, the artists played were the same strictly limited set of “approved” performers singing highly innocuous songs that were neither challenging nor all that memorable–the word lukewarm comes to mind here..

      It’s like I’ve been saying. I keep requesting Keith Green’s “Asleep in the Light,” but none will play it. 😉

  8. gitarcarver

    The fact of the matter is that radio stations are commercial interests. Like it or not, the station is there to make money. The question then becomes whether a station makes more money to pay its bills (and the bills at even a moderate station are huge) playing what some consider “watered down” songs or songs that they consider “true gospel messages.” Does a station make more money playing the songs they play, or do they make more money with blocks of so called “teaching?”

    If they make more money playing the things that someone feels is wrong or “lukewarm,” is that their fault? Or is it our fault for not supporting the station when it played what we wanted? Is it the fault of the station for playing songs as opposed to teaching when the teachers won’t pay more for the air time or attract the same number of listeners?

    Why is it that we feel that “true” Christianity means that the singer, the songwriter, the publisher, or the station must live in squalor, hoping every month to make their bills?

    Christian radio in its “old form” needed our support. The fact that it went in another direction indicates that we didn’t support the format as well as we needed to for it to survive.

    We can blame the record companies, the stations, the programmers, the singers, the artists, and anyone we want but it bothers me is that when we look around for those to blame, we avoid all mirrors.

    • gitarcarver,

      No one is asking anyone to live in squalor. If you read some of the series that Christianity Today did a few months ago on Christian radio stations, no one is living in squalor.

      In fact, if anything, greed is largely responsible for the demise of many good, old stations. Record distributors in the Christian music field charge exorbitant amounts to stations to play the songs from their stable of artists. Frankly, I would tell those distributors to get lost and play more indie Christian music that doesn’t have the stupid “pay to play” restrictions.

      Also, the same demographic studies that have ruined Evangelicalism (think the megachurch model here) have ruined Christian radio. Stations live and die by what the consumer supposedly likes. Problem is that you can’t raise the bar when you shoot for the lowest common denominator, resulting in the blandness and sameness you see out there in Christian radio. The better model is to shoot for a higher level of artisanship and bring in an audience looking to be surprised from time to time by something they didn’t expect. That idea is driving secular alternative stations and is creating a new style of contemporary secular radio that reflects a much wider style of music from a wider range of years. It’s curious to see that the secular stations in my area are doing just this and the result is far more interesting listening that gets me wondering, “Who was that? That’s a pretty cool song.” That higher standard and riskier programming style is what truly draws in an audience, not this formulaic one that seems to possess Christian radio today.

      Christian radio in its “old” form DID need our support. And it got it because each station had its own style. Today, all the stations sound the same and each wants our money. That won’t work. It’s why even juggernauts like K-LOVE are in financial trouble.

      I don’t agree that the old format couldn’t survive. The old format isn’t around because secular radio companies started buying up Christian radio stations because they WERE successful. Clueness as to how to operate those stations, the secular owners drove a lot of them into the ground. This coincided with the growing greed of Christian media companies looking to make even more money than they were making with the boom in Christian music that hit in the mid-90s.

      If I were running a Christian radio station today, I’d tell all the folks with their hands out to take a hike. I’d work with other likeminded owners and start boosting the careers of indie artists who are just happy to get airplay, cutting out the middlemen who are squeezing the blood out of the industry. This is already happening through iTunes and the shakeup elsewhere in the secular market. Same with the bookselling industry. If the conglomerates get greedy, cut ’em off entirely. The means exists to do so now.

      Heavens knows I’d listen to Christian radio more if more indie artists got airplay. Like I said, Derek Webb can’t get airplay to save his life, but I spent most of this afternoon listening to his The Ringing Bell. Time spent listening to Casting Crowns and Mercy Me? Zero.

      Maybe someone out there will figure this out and do well. I’m still waiting, though.

  9. gitarcarver


    No one is asking anyone to live in squalor.

    You must be privvy to information that is beyond my scope of experience. In my dealings with artists, churches want them to come play but will not pay a fair wage. People want to hear sermons on the radio, but churches don’t want to cover the cost of the air times.

    Stations live and die by what the consumer supposedly likes.

    Correct. It is called “the free market.”

    Record distributors in the Christian music field charge exorbitant amounts to stations to play the songs from their stable of artists.

    Last time I looked (about 3 years ago) the rates for playing a “Christian song” on a Christian station were no different than playing a secular song on a secular station. That being said, I think that you are making my point about “living is squalor.” The acceptable rates of the industry are “exhorborant” to people such as yourself. Think about what that means.

    Problem is that you can’t raise the bar when you shoot for the lowest common denominator, resulting in the blandness and sameness you see out there in Christian radio.

    Why do you think there is a “sameness” out there? Could it be it is because that is what people want? You and others have talked about the dearth of “teaching” on Christian radio these days.

    “Teaching” helped kill Christian radio. When people were traveling to work via a 20 minute commute, they could turn on their local station and hear a 50 minute sermon or teaching. It didn’t work. Where I live one of the biggest CCM radio stations on Saturday night used to broadcast teachings from 8 PM to 12 AM. No one wanted to listen. No one wanted to be out with friends, going to a movie, dinner, or anywhere and have to listen to and concentrate on teaching. It was suicide for the station.

    That higher standard and riskier programming style is what truly draws in an audience, not this formulaic one that seems to possess Christian radio today.

    I suspect that you are equating “different” with “higher standard. That is not always the case.

    Like I said, Derek Webb can’t get airplay to save his life,….

    And you and I both know the reason for that.

    However, even if he was on air, do you know how much different his compensation would be as an indie as compared to a “signed artist” with a major company?

    Maybe someone out there will figure this out and do well. I’m still waiting, though.

    The masses and the market will figure it out. I think that you have failed to take into consideration that over the air radio is dying. We can long for the days when it was full of life and vibrance, but those days are gone. There are too many alternatives now. You mentioned a few such as iPods and subscription services.

    You and I are close enough in age to remember the fight amongst Christians conderning “Christian rock.” The furor over “Christian rap” was even worse.

    Christianity survived those fights. People still write and sing songs.

    This too shall pass.

    • Aaron

      It seems sad to me that you have such a negative opinion of what Mr. Edlen has been expressing here. I don’t think it is so much that all of Christian radio/record companies/management companies are bad, however, more and more of them tend to go the same way as the secular ones. I once heard Peter Fuhrler comment on just this issue. He said one of the reasons he wanted to start his own record label was so he didn’t have to play/write music that others wanted, but rather what he wanted. Much of what is played “on air” these days, you can listen to about 25 – 30 minutes, and here the same play list over and again. Few of the artists that get played are highly talented. When I listen to the secular industry’s latest thing, it is even worse. Only 10 years ago I did not have a difficult time finding a band that had multi-talented artists within; guitarists could do more than a few power chords and vocalists could do more than sing. Today, it is more and more difficult to find someone that can sing without the aide of high-quality mixing to make them sound remotely decent, much less sing and play an instrument. People may still write and sing songs, but are they really worth listening too?

      Teaching has not killed “old” Christian radio. This may be a problem that lies further beneath the surface. Many “church” people today hardly pay attention to what a pastor said fifteen minutes after a sermon is over, much less turn to a Christian station to hear music or more teaching. I should know, I used to be one of those “church” people. Little faith, little knowledge, little willingness to subject myself to a deeper Christian life; in that regard, I am certain I was not a loner. Many people in my own church never come to anything beyond Sunday morning, even when a small challenge is presented to them. It is sad when some of the teens from our youth group see this and ask elders questions about some of the other members, “Why doesn’t (so and so) stay to help out with (such and such)?” The “I go to church Sunday morning will get me into heaven” thing bugs me, and it seems to me that such attitudes by many “professing Christians” today are what is leading to the demise of not just the radio/music industry, but the American church as a whole (cross-denominational). Maybe a better question should be, where have all the real Christians gone?

      Personally, being an early 30’s person, I truly enjoy listening to good teaching/preaching; regardless of how long a sermon might be. If the speaker dishes out the Truth from Scripture I could, and sometimes do listen, for more than a few hours at a time. Try loading an 8GB iPod with six hours a day of Christian teaching, see how many people would stand to listen to more than 15 minutes of it. I do it five days a week, and when I turn on the radio in my car for my 15 minute commute, each day I hear the same songs by the same artists. Rarely do I get anything more than the “Sharing Minute” or some such nonsense between two songs. I have and will continue to support stations that carry teaching, knocking each other out here doesn’t help the problem. Sharing Truth found in Scripture, sharing the Gospel, getting people beyond simple “Sunday faith” is what we should be discussing.

      I found this quote recently that might help us to better understand where I’m going with this. “We are called to learn and develop faith because this is the most essential and of the utmost importance for every aspect of the Christian life. Without faith, we can do nothing! As Christians, especially those who are responsible for the education and care of others, we are called to build our spiritual formation from the solid foundation of the Bible (Rom. 10:17; Heb. 11:6).” (

      Building our faith, allowing ourselves to be obedient to the Holy Spirit, and sharing what we have is much more helpful than squabbling over the amounts artists receive from radio stations. I would agree that even Christian artists seem to have been sucked into the void of greed, and their parent companies only promulgate this further by continuing to charge equal or higher amounts for CD’s and concerts. Bag on some of these guys all you want, but when WinterJam comes around each year I doll out my $10 to see at least five bands live! It is difficult many times to see an individual artist for less than $25.

      Over all point to this: Let’s not just look at radio and the music industry overall. We need to focus on “Christians” and their true connection to Christ.

  10. gitarcarver

    It seems sad to me that you have such a negative opinion of what Mr. Edlen has been expressing here.


    I once heard Peter Fuhrler comment on just this issue. He said one of the reasons he wanted to start his own record label was so he didn’t have to play/write music that others wanted, but rather what he wanted.

    Ever talk to Peter or just listen to a comment he made? Trust me when I say that you are taking this way out of context.

    People may still write and sing songs, but are they really worth listening too?

    Okay, you don’t feel that they are worth listening to. But SOMEONE does. Every generation thinks that the music of the current generation is worse than theirs. Tastes are subjective.

    Teaching has not killed “old Christian radio.

    And yet you go on to say how people don’t want to listen to teaching on the radio or in church. That kind of defeats your own point, doesn’t it?

    Secondly, I did not say that “teaching killed the ‘old’ Christian radio.” I did say that teaching helped kill it.

    knocking each other out here doesn’t help the problem.

    Thankfully, we are not doing that here. Dan and I have a disagreement on some issues. Nothing more, nothing less. If the bond between Christians cannot stand this type of disagreement, that says more about our faith than the issue itself. I would lay dollars to doughnuts (or at least dollars to an after church meal at Denny’s) that before, during and after this conversation Dan and I could sit down and not bat an eye about what was said here.

    sharing what we have is much more helpful than squabbling over the amounts artists receive from radio stations.

    And then you go and squabble over amounts of ticket prices for concerts and seeing bands.

    Perhaps you didn’t realize that bands bear the entire cost of concerts. That’s right. The bands bear the costs of the set, the production, transportation, etc. The venues will bear accomodations and catering as well as people knowledgable in the venue / arena itself for such things as electrical hookups, rigging points, etc. (You don’t even want to get into riders for union personnel.) The venue will also get a percentage of ANYTHING sold by the artists. Sell a tee shirt? At least 20% goes to the venue. Sell a CD? At least 20% goes to the venue, and the remaining money is distributed normally with any additional profit going to the artist.

    So in actuality, the reason a single band at a single venue costs more because the artist has more associated costs. At venues with multiple bands, the costs are spread out more.

    And in case you are wondering how I know this, I have signed many contracts for venues.

    We need to focus on “Christians and their true connection to Christ.

    Sorry, I am going to disagree with this as well. Although I get the general meaning of what you are saying, your point might be lost or watered down in the difficulty of communicating on the internet. I don’t need to look at “Christians” to see anything other than to discern whether they are Christian. Notice I said “discern” and not “judge.” While my fellowship may be with other Christians, my example and focus is Christ.

    • gitarcarver,

      I’m a teaching guy. I’d much rather listen to good teaching than music, if given a choice.

      That said, I think a Christian station should be able to balance both. Some used to have teaching in the mornings and evenings, and I think that’s a good mix. The station I used to listen to most did just that.

      Then that station, which had been around for 50 years and had done well, killed most of their teaching and replaced it with music. They said because their listeners wanted more music. Within eighteen months that station, which for years had met their goals on telethons, couldn’t raise half of what they needed to keep going. A couple months later and they were bought out.

      It was astonishing how quickly they went from financially stable to desperate to sold. And what changed? Their format.

      Aaron’s familiar with that station, too.

      And as for this conversation, I have a pretty thick skin, so disagree. I can take it!

      BTW, if your username reflects luthier skills, my brother-in-law works for this guy.

  11. We’re working with almost 1000 independent artists to help them reach people with their music. We started a radio show featuring our members music and it has been well received by independent stations. So far, the large chain stations havent grabbed the show, which by the way is free to broadcast and non-commercial. We’ll keep hammering away at the walls around Christian radio.

    Now is a great time to be independent, but you still need to produce compelling content that enriches the lives of people.

    Great discussion here!
    Keith Mohr

    • Thanks for the info, Keith. I tried to check out your Power Praise Radio site but the sample MP3 links would not load through the built-in player. The little timer just kept spinning.

  12. Steve


    I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of the corporatization of Christian radio, and Christian music. I can’t even stand to hear 99% of Christian music or radio anymore.

    I was lucky enough to come of age at a time (the 1980’s) and in a place (Southern California) where there was a vibrant Christian music scene (artists like Undercover, the Altar Boys, LSU, Vector, Charlie Peacock) were doing something really new. It was always a small minority of what you’d hear on Christian radio (which was dominated by the Amy Grants, Sandy Pattis, and Michael W. Smiths of the world), but it was there. It’s definitely grown even harder to find in the years since.

    If you want a good read about the Christian music industry and its relationship (or lack thereof) with the Christian faith, try Charlie Peacock’s “At The Crossroads”. He’s one of the most creative Christian artists out there, and his range of genres is absolutely incredible. Anyway, he became very disillusioned by his first decade in the music business. Now he just records what he wants. Not too commercial, but excellent nonetheless.


    • Steve,

      To show you what kind of geek I am on the old school LA Christian band scene, I own a “No surfing in Hell” T-shirt and the Undercover CD boxed set, the only thing I ever bought on eBay was a rare CD version of The Altar Boys’ Gut Level Music, and—and this is the real killer—the song my wife and I danced to for our first dance at our wedding was Charlie Peacock’s “No Place Closer to Heaven.” So try to outdo that!

      I’d have to say that if it wasn’t for Charlie Peacock and Steve Taylor, the entire Christian music scene would’ve died a horrible death by now. I’m a big Keith Green fan, and Peacock offered the only risky cover on Green’s tribute CD; in fact Peacock’s version of “I Can’t Believe It” was one of those rare covers that is better than the original. Needless to say, the man knows his way around an arrangement. If he stops producing for other artists, we’ll lose a huge source of imagination.

      One of the few popular Christian bands making consistently fine, genuine pop music is Newsboys, produced by—Steve Taylor. Of course, Taylor rocked everyone’s world with his brand of quirky humor and knife to the gut lyrics back in the 80s. Now he’s directing Michael W. Smith in movies. Ain’t it a weird world? When will Randy Stonehill run for president?

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