July 21, 2008

In Search for Souls, Christian Radio Finds Its Niche

By Julia O'Malley, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska

Jul. 21--Skip Hurst grew up on hip-hop, on beats and rhymes and flowing hooks, on lyrical confessions from the street about girls and guns and getting high.

But then on his 21st birthday, he found Jesus. Soon after, the flavor of his hip-hop changed.

Mark Guy, who's worked at popular stations in Anchorage since 1982, got into Christian music 27 years ago, when he was trying to impress the woman he wanted to marry. Now he rarely listens to anything else.

The two men don't go to the same church or have the same taste in music, but both dee-jay at KAFC-FM 93.7, Anchorage's local commercial Christian station.

KFAC is part of a religious on-air niche that's growing in Alaska and across the United States. It's called "contemporary Christian."

It's not old-school religious radio. It doesn't rely on gospel tunes, dial-in prayer requests, doomsday sermons or even bible readings. Instead, the playlist is a polished, eclectic collection of mainstream-sounding hits -- rock, pop, punk, metal, even rap -- that carry messages of salvation.

Multiple surveys show that Alaska is one of the least religious states in the country, with the number of people unaffiliated with any church about equal to the number of evangelicals. Still, KAFC is growing in a time when many radio stations are losing audience to the Internet and other media.

Since the station streamlined its programming two years ago to focus on a wide variety of contemporary Christian music, it's been drawing in listeners, especially teens and adults in their 20s and 30s, capturing a growing though still relatively small slice of the ratings pie. And that's making it more attractive to advertisers.

KAFC has also caught national attention. It was named small market station of the year by the national Christian organization Focus on the Family.

Dee-jays see their work as a subtle, persistent reminder of Jesus, a musical ministry to an audience they estimate is 40 percent "unchurched."


Early on weekday mornings, Guy, KAFC's program director, dee-jays "The Morning Wake Up Call" in a warm studio on the second floor of the Anchorage Baptist Temple, spinning out Christian hits from "the '80s, '90s and today."

Though he's been involved with the station for years, Guy is fairly new as a program director. He's worked at a number of secular stations, including KOOL, KFQD, KWHL and KENI.

Under his direction, KAFC slowly ascended from the very bottom of the Arbitron rankings, edging out its main competition, KAKL (known as K-Love), a Christian station with programming piped in from Outside, according to Solutions Broadcast Media, a media survey group.

In the studio with Guy, pictures of Christian bands decorate the wall. Artists lean over guitars, pursing sultry lips, they wear hipster outfits, black eye liner and spiky hairdos.

It used to be that Christian bands tried to copy secular bands, Guy said, but it's not like that anymore. They're as talented and original as anyone out there, and their Christian message isn't obtrusive, he said.

"It's got a good beat. It attracts their attention without making them feel like they are subject to a Sunday school lesson."

Guy's show combines popular music, news and some conservative political talk. On a recent morning, his co-host, "Aida B" Brown, read a news script he'd written: Sarah Palin was pushing a gas plan; Don Young had spent campaign funds on legal fees; and Barack Obama was "waffling on yet another issue: the war in Iraq."

"Palin, Obama and Young!" he said to Aida B. "You're trying to provoke me!"

The next track was "All Around Me" by the band Flyleaf. The single has more than 2 million hits on its MySpace.com fan site.

Lead singer Lacey Mosley's voice sounded vaguely like rocker Avril Lavigne: "My hands are searching for you/ My arms are outstretched towards you/ I feel you on my fingertips/ My tongue dances behind my lips for you."

It was the kind of song that might have been written for a lover, but in this case it was aimed at Jesus.


Though ratings in Anchorage may still be modest, the reach of Christian radio of all kinds in Alaska has never been greater. Missionary zeal and donated Outside dollars free it from dependence on local advertising, and it has colonized the airwaves in rural Alaska.

Sometimes it's the only station that can be heard, the station that announces school closures and high school basketball scores.

Nationally, Christian contemporary music is one of the top three fastest growing genres, according to National Religious Broadcasters, a Virginia-based trade group. In a review of Arbitron ratings over the last decade, religious radio shows steady growth, while other formats, such as classical, oldies and even rock, declined.

One of the biggest misconceptions about KAFC is that it's a monolithic mouthpiece for the iconic East Anchorage Baptist Temple. It isn't. It started in 1999 and is owned by Christian Broadcasting, a nonprofit that also owns its sister station, the more traditional KATB.

Anchorage Baptist Temple's Rev. Jerry Prevo is on the board of Christian Broadcasting, but there are no budgetary ties to the church, said KAFC manager Tom Steigleman. The majority of the station's dee-jays attend church elsewhere, and their beliefs range from nondenominational to Baptist to Pentecostal. Guy pastors a Christian church in Eagle River.

Steigleman started in radio when he was asked to fill in for a missing volunteer. Now he manages both stations. People tune in to Christian radio because they're curious, he said. They are looking for encouragement. Maybe they want to listen to something with their kids but don't want to hear the messages promoted by mainstream rock and pop.

"You don't know who's out there listening," he said. "Some people who call in are in their darkest times. Their marriage is falling apart, they're considering suicide."

Guy sees tremendous potential for KAFC, both as a ministry and a player among commercial stations. A few Christian stations are seating themselves in the top 10 market spots in cities around the country.

"I always feel that Christian radio can compete with any secular station, if you approach it right."


Hurst settled into the studio on a recent Saturday night, leaning into the mic to introduce a song by Christian hip-hop artist Flame. Lyrics bounced from the speakers into the small room: "We've got truth that you've gotta notice/ to split seas like God and Moses/ best believe He's watchin' motives/ examine yourself then hand Him yourself."

Hurst's show, "The Filter," targets teenagers and young adults. Hurst, 31, is a youth pastor and youth director for the Church of God in the Anchorage metro area. He mainly works out of the North Anchorage Church of God on Bragaw Street. He deals one-on-one with a group of 15 teenagers.

Hurst gets along with teens in part because adolescence wasn't easy for him. He became a father very young, got involved with drugs and crossed with police. Music was a lifeline. He dee-jayed underground parties and listened obsessively to hip-hop artists like A Tribe Called Quest, Big Daddy Kane and De La Soul.

With every year, his life got more dangerous. By his 21st birthday, he'd been homeless, overdosed more than once and been shot at during a fight.

"There is nothing that any of my teenagers have experienced, done or gone through that I don't understand," he said.

The night of that birthday, he came home from Chilkoot Charlie's to the place he shared with a girlfriend in the Alpine Apartments. He turned on the television and flipped to Black Entertainment Television, where televangelist Creflo Dollar was giving a sermon. Hurst stared into the glowing screen, entranced.

"It was like he was talking to me, just me," he said. "And then -- this is the part where everybody freaks out -- God came into my living room. He talked to me."

God's message? Hurst had to stop taking risks with his life because God wasn't going to protect him from the consequences of his bad choices any more. Hurst began to weep and pray. A year later, he was a Pentecostal youth pastor.

Contemporary Christian music, hip-hop in particular, speaks to people of his generation and younger, he said. Concerts that KAFC sponsors with popular Christian artists routinely draw between 1,000 and 2,000 people, many of them teens. Hip-hop is a transcendent genre that crosses ethnic lines, he said.

"Some of the older generation have trouble with hip-hop, but we're trying to minister to cultures," he said.

Part of the success of contemporary Christian stations is that they aren't about going to church. Instead, songs are about people's personal relationships with Jesus. For some, especially the unchurched, that individual message resonates, Hurst said.

The music, like late-night cable TV, has the power to transform if the listener is open, he said.

"All we want to do is help people find their way back to God."


Find Julia O'Malley online at adn.com/contact/jomalley or call 257-4591.



FLAME (hip-hop)


FAMILY FORCE 5 (crunk/hip-hop)


FLYLEAF (rock)



KAFC's ratings

--KAFC does best among teenagers. Between 6 a.m. and noon on weekdays, it ranked fourth, tying with KWHL and KBFX, according to fall 2007 Arbitron ratings.

--Among adults, a much larger sample, it's only captured a tiny group, ranking 19th out of 22 stations, tying with the country-leaning station KXLW, according to Arbitron ratings for weekday mornings in the fall and spring of 2007.

--Solutions Broadcast Media put KAFC at sixth with men and women out of 24 ranked stations in Anchorage during the spring of 2008.


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