February 12, 1996

Number of Religious Broadcasters Continues to Grow


INDIANAPOLIS -- To judge by the numbers, these are expansive days for Christian radio. Two decades after evangelical Protestant voters emerged as a new force in national politics, conservative Christian broadcasters are continuing to carve out a greater share of the radio market.

Last year, the number of radio stations broadcasting 15 or more hours of weekly religious programming rose 10 percent to 1,463, said the National Religious Broadcasters, a trade association in Manassas, Va. That total was nearly double the number 15 years ago.

Roughly half those stations are commercial and they find that the economics of religious broadcasting are markedly different from those of their secular counterparts, those purveyors of raucous call-in shows, golden oldies, pop music and round-the-clock news.

Religious broadcasters have to select advertising that does not offend their moral precepts or those of their audience. National advertisers find them less attractive because of their demographics. The religious stations are trying to make a virtue of necessity, by selling that niche audience very heavily to a select group of advertisers.

In interviews at last week's National Religious Broadcasters' convention in Indianapolis, people who work either in or closely with Christian radio stations agreed that to compete in the secular marketplace, the broadcasters needed to promote their special audience.

Gary Crossland, president of Soma Research Inc., a Dallas-based company that does demographic research for religious broadcasters, said of the audience that "Christian radio has the greatest concentration of women of all radio formats."

Soma, which draws its data from the Simmons Market Research Bureau, reported last year that 60 percent of religious radio listeners were female.

Since his company began its work 10 years ago, Crossland said, he has seen evidence that the average income level among listeners and evangelicals in general, has gone up.

Last year, Soma reported that 55 percent of those listeners had annual household incomes of $30,000 or more, 59 percent were married and 63 percent owned a home.

But Soma's data show that many other formats have audiences with higher income.

Dick Sickels, the avuncular, bearded general sales manager at WBRI-AM and WXIR-FM, Indianapolis, estimates that 59 percent of his stations' audience is female.

The two stations -- the former with a religious talk format, the latter oriented to contemporary Christian music -- broadcast to 18 central Indiana counties.

In a remark echoed by other broadcasters, Sickels said the typical listener is loyal to her Christian station.

"When she hears it on the radio, she takes it to the bank: 'That car dealer must be a Christian, because he advertises on my radio station,' " he said.

Salem Communications Corp. said that its 35 stations nationwide, including WMCA and WWDJ in the New York area, reach a weekly audience of 5.5 million people. Stations broadcast teaching and preaching programs to encourage "traditional family values," Stuart Epperson, the company's chairman, said.

Given that goal, certain potential advertisers have been ruled out: "Any type of tobacco product," Epperson said. "Certainly, R-rated movies, certain types of books that are considered risque, alcoholic beverages, lottery ads, gambling advertisements." A medical service that provided abortions would also be out of bounds.

"A large chunk of potential advertising dollars is eliminated right up front," Epperson added. "So we have to make up for it in very aggressive spot sales to local advertisers and national advertisers."

He offered a brief list of likely advertisers: clothing stores, department stores, car dealerships and food companies.

"The issue is not only what works, but is it offensive to our basic audience?" he said. "We want to build as large an audience as possible."

Advertising rates generally reflect both the size of a radio audience and its demographics. Salem sells time on its KKLA-FM, Los Angeles, for $130 to $150 for a 60-second spot, compared with $1,200 to $2,000 for a minute's advertising on Howard Stern's top-rated morning show in New York, broadcasters estimated.

Sickels in Indianapolis said he tried to take a "positive approach," aiming for companies whose products or services would fit the needs of a socially conservative audience, "instead of blacklisting businesses." "We go to them," he said. "They don't come to us. Because they don't know what we have to offer."

The two stations have about 120 advertisers, including car dealerships, real estate brokers, household-service companies, banks and churches.

Advertisers who approach Christian radio stations tend to be self-selecting, said Joe Davis, Salem Communications' vice president and also general manager of WMCA in New York.

"They're as sensitive about us as we are about them."

The station he oversees broadcasts to a heavily urban audience divided fairly equally among blacks, whites and Hispanics, Davis said. Advertisers include businesses that sell health and nutritional products, legal services, insurance agencies, mental health care providers, Christian bookstores and charities like the Salvation Army.

Davis spends a certain amount of time visiting the stations' natural constituency -- New York's churches. So far, he said, he has visited 154 congregations, turning up on Sundays to meet and talk with members.

"We do it for two reasons," Davis said. "One, we're seeking listeners. But two, we're genuinely interested. This is more than a format to us; we care about the people."

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