Religious programs taking over radio waves in region

September 2, 2009

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Religious programs taking over radio waves in region
Wednesday, September 02, 2009

There's satellite radio and commercial radio. There's secular radio and religious radio. The latter may not be a ratings giant, but Christian radio is growing -- at least in terms of sheer volume.

Yesterday, a successful syndicated contemporary Christian music format called K-Love launched here at 98.3 FM. And when St. Joseph Mission, the new owner of Sheridan Broadcasting's three Pittsburgh stations takes over, it plans to debut Catholic religious programming in the market.

That would give Pittsburgh nine religious stations in a mid-size market of about 40 stations. It also brings in an infusion of new Catholic programming, mirroring growth in other cities.

"I've never seen a time in any market where the Christian format has become so highly sought after, and where the competition has been so fierce. I think it's going to heighten," said the Rev. Loran Mann, president and general manager of gospel station WGBN (1150).

"It's a very interesting time for Pittsburgh radio and for the gospel market in particular."

The dominant player here is WORD-FM (101.5), a ministry/talk format with a focus on Christian and conservative talk programming. It's owned by Salem Broadcasting, which has a presence in 23 of the top 25 radio markets (Pittsburgh ranks 24th among U.S. radio markets, according to Arbitron). On the AM dial, there's WPIT-AM (730), sister station to WORD; WGBN-AM (1150); WWNL-AM (1080); WZUM-AM (1590); and Sheridan's gospel station WPGR-AM (1510), which is one of the three stations, along with WAMO-FM and AM, scheduled to shift to Catholic programming.

Most radio markets across the country have multiple stations featuring Christian formats, with the full spectrum of music (contemporary Christian, gospel) and ministry stations.

There are several factors fueling the proliferation of Christian radio formats.

In the current economic climate, selling smaller stations with lower frequencies and less market coverage has been a challenge. This has also proven to be a boon for religious broadcasters.

"Right now it's difficult to find a buyer for any radio station, really," said George Reed, managing director of Media Services Group in Jacksonville, Fla. Still, he says, "Christian operators are actively buying stations. Part of the reason is they can get them at a bargain."

"It's a buyer's market" for these kinds of stations, said Robert Unmacht, a consultant with IN3 Partners, a media and business consulting firm in Nashville, Tenn. "And they're buying."

And while they may not be ratings grabbers, Christian stations can still manage to succeed. "You can have a significant audience, and if it's a commercial station, do a fair amount of commercial business," Mr. Reed says. "Or if it's noncommercial, you can generate donations without being a major player in the ratings book."

Smaller operators can opt for syndicated religious programming and avoid competing directly against a secular music or talk format programmed by a Clear Channel or CBS station.

The popularity of contemporary Christian music is also driving the radio format, Mr. Reed says.

K-Love is a rapidly expanding contemporary Christian music format in radio markets in 44 states. It fills a void here in terms of giving Pittsburgh a full-time contemporary Christian music station.

Part of its appeal is that it follows the model of the traditional adult contemporary format -- a format aimed primarily at young women. "It doesn't get preachy. The music's good and it appeals to that group of women," Mr. Unmacht said.

It will compete directly against WORD, which offers regular weekend contemporary Christian music programming with its own locally produced program hosted by WORD air personality Kenny Woods.

WORD operations manager/midday host Gary Dickson is taking a wait-and-see approach to the growing Christian broadcasting marketplace. "I think diversity is probably a good thing in most cases. We'll see," he said.

Because WORD is a "teach and talk" format as opposed to contemporary Christian format, he feels the two won't duplicate one other. Because much of WORD's programming is local he feels that it has an edge over syndicated programming imported from across the country.

In gospel programming, the three local stations (WGBN, WPGR, WZUM) -- soon to be two -- have been competing for a relatively small slice of the listening audience.

"Gospel radio historically has been a hard sell, but it is one of the fastest growing formats in radio," the Rev. Mann said. "Given its popularity, it makes the sell a little bit easier."

The Rev. Mann believes the arrival of new players here presents new challenges -- and new opportunities. "The Christian community will profit as a whole. It gives the audience more diversity.

WGBN, which has been around since 1992, is also looking at the exit of a direct competitor -- Sheridan's gospel station -- and is looking to pick up some of Sheridan's programming and to expand its role in serving the local African-American community.

The influx of Catholic radio programming here mirrors a trend that's happening across the country, said Pittsburgh media broker and consultant Ray Rosenblum. "That's significant, especially since Pittsburgh has a large Catholic population."

"The Catholic Church has had a push to increase its radio holdings. They feel they've been behind the Protestant stations in their share of radio," Mr. Unmacht said. It's not an organized push in the part the Catholic Church itself, he added, but more of grassroots effort. "A lot of different groups have responded."

And he doesn't view the incoming Catholic format as a threat to the current players, either: "When a Catholic station comes on, it's serving people who are under-served."

Adrian McCoy can be reached at 412-263-1865 or

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