Friday, April 17, 2009

Christian Payola

Today is the final day of the "Air 1 Revolution," a drive to raise money to cover the station's operating expenses. Listening to the radio the last couple of days made me feel like Homer Simpson in Missionary: Impossible, who pledges thousands of dollars to PBS to stop the pledge drive so he can get back to his favorite show. When he welshes, he has to flee to a South Pacific island and become a Christian missionary. (Save me Jeebus!) But I digress. I'm not meaning to knock Air 1, it is their choice to be ad-free. I only want to bring to light the challenges faced by Christian radio.

To give perspective, as of this morning they were 68% funded, increasing about a half a percent an hour. Over this hour, they marked off between 30 and 50 supporters committing a dollar a day. Extrapolating gives a total need on the order of $2 Million a year. Where does all this money go?

The obvious answer is advertising and promotions, but these more or less pay for themselves. The less obvious answer is licensing their stations. Back when radio first started to be broadcast in this country, the decision was made to offer this service free to consumers (notice all the "free music" ads on the radio to counter the popularity of outlets like Pandora or iTunes). But that service still costs. The provider has to pay for the license ($2900), the station frequency (auctioned up to tens of thousands), the tower and equipment (hope one exists, otherwise it's another $600,000) and this is before labor costs, licenses and fees for the music you're playing, and you can see how this adds up quick! To hammer the point even more, this is for a single station- imagine a nationwide network. (For more information than you would probably ever want, go here.)

So why reference "payola", the scam of pay-to-play on the radio, in the title of this post? I showed you how tough it is to be a station, now imagine you're a half-hour preaching ministry. Because of the costs above, oftentimes ministries have to pay these stations to be on the air. Here, the costs are daily, per station, costing hundreds of dollars a single day for a half a sermon to be broadcast nationwide on multiple stations. If it was illegal for music in the 60's, (and for third-party promoters more recently) why isn't it illegal on Christian radio? Because the stations mentioned above are non-profit. Worse, they generally operate, like Air 1, with little or no advertising. There's simply no other way to make up the costs.

You can decide for yourself whether this actually hurts spreading the Gospel. But to put it in real dollars for a listener like you or me, I recently purchased a lesson series from a particular ministry. I also bought the study guide to go along with it. By the time it was all said and done, including shipping, it cost me $90 for an 8 CD set. If I wanted to buy last Sunday's sermon at my local church, it would cost me a little over a buck.

After hopping in my car and turning on the radio, I remembered a couple of points I left out. First off, I'm not against "listener supported radio". My "Homer Simpson" reaction above is just my human nature. Instead of being flippant, I simply wanted to bring attention to the nature of the business and pray that it would change to enable these ministries to thrive without the stress of wondering how to stay on the air.

Some numbers from Air 1 that I forgot to mention above: For every 100 people listening, only three financially support it. In other words, 97% listen without any personal investment. Also, to run enough ads to cover the cost, they would have to broadcast the equivalent of 78 days worth of advertisements a year. To the station, that's 78 days they're not pursuing their ministry.

Only a couple hours left for Air 1 and they're now almost at 80%.

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