by Dave Trout
If there is one brand promise that has trumped all others in Christian Radio over the last 15 years, it’s that it is safe. In more ways than they’d like to admit, the CCM Radio “industry” puts their loyalty of being safe ahead of all other ministry values. In other words, 99 times out of 100, a radio station would much rather their morning DJs making dad jokes or talking about the top 5 most returned items this Christmas, rather than reading a passage from Isaiah 1 or Psalm 88. While offering “safety” is not all that bad of a thing, it can also get in the way of good things too. I wrote this following piece for UTR’s website almost exactly 10 years ago (in UTR’s first year of ministry). I was asking myself questions about why some deeper, richer songs would never be considered for airplay on CCM radio. See if any of these thoughts still ring true a decade later. I’ll follow this up with a few 2019 reflections below.
Originally posted September 2009
I was at a Christian radio conference earlier this month where there was a lot of discussion about the slogan “Safe For the Whole Family” and it’s multiple variations (Uplifting and Kid Safe, Family Friendly, Safe for the Little Ears). Why does it seem like a huge chunk of Christian music radio has chosen monikers like these? Yes, it’s something that can be a distinctive for a radio station in a saturated marketplace. Both nominal and mature believers find common ground in a radio station that chooses to keep their jokes clean and music even cleaner.
One speaker at this conference brought up a great question: “Have our radio stations become so safe that we’re actually boring?” True. Show me something completely void of risk, danger, and uncertainty, and I’ll show you something as exciting as dial-up Internet. Really.
Before you tune me out – let me ask a question of my own. Why would we brand our radio stations with a slogan that we would never give to our Bible or to our local church?
If all you desire is a safe Christianity, then you’ll become best friends with Mr. Fiskars, given all the verses you’ll need to cut out of your Bible. And who among us would say that their local church is “safe”? A church at its worst is filled with gossip, divisions, failed leadership – and at its best is confronting, convicting, taking risks, leading boldly.
The good news is that I’ve never met a radio manager who has hacked up his/her Bible. However I’ve met many who are quick to keep a song off their airwaves because it doesn’t fit their “safe” image. They take a song of spiritual conviction and label it as “controversial.”
Certain songs we play on UTR tend to put me in very unsafe place. Sometimes unsafe is exactly where God wants me to be.
If you want to be progressive about your station’s music ministry, or if you want your station to be an on-air Church community, you can contact me and I’ll share a list of unsafe songs that will challenge, convict, & inspire.
Looking back over the last 10 years, the way we watch movies, listen to music, read the news, play video games, book hotels, transfer money, and get around cities has all changed dramatically. Yet, stumbling upon this decade-old post today, I realized that almost nothing has changed in Christian Radio. If anything, the playlists have gotten even narrower, the dad jokes even worse, and song repetition is at an all-time high.
I’ve been in or near Christian Radio for 25 years. Here’s what I know…
* There are good (I mean, really class act) people in Christian Radio. Some of these people are bright thinkers and creatively-wired. It IS possible that change can happen from within.
* Overall, Christian radio listenership is decreasing in size and the median age is getting older quickly. This has caused a bit of a panic from those on the inside.
* Christian Radio is a small club in a way. The reward comes by following the big trends that tend to keep ratings (and listener donations) up. Taking risks is NOT rewarded. Most CCM radio sounds the same in every city in every city in the US, because a small number of stations/networks have decided what the successful prototype is, and the rest of the stations follow… sometimes blindly.
My hope and prayer for Christian Radio is the same today as it was 10 years ago. Be bold and daring when it comes to the ministry you offer – even at the risk of being unsafe. Find songs that will deeply stir the souls of listeners, not just songs that “test well” (which is a common phrase among radio professionals). And when the mic goes on, think about how to engage the audience with heartfelt, authentic, and Biblically-minded words, not just filler content (e.g. stupid criminal stories).
Revolutions always start with a revolutionary. Will someone within the CCM Radio Industry take some big risks and find success in a way that it disrupts the industry as a whole? I hope so. I want Christian Radio to be a beacon of radical ministry that helps people process all facets of life. Songs of worship, yes. Songs of encouragement, yes. But why stop there? Let’s hope that radio starts to embrace songs of doubt, lament, conviction, triumph, heartache, finding love, and losing a loved one. Just having a “safe” place on the radio is so 2009.