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Mike Couchman “Did We Stunt Our Own Growth?”

By now, unless you’ve sworn off social media, you’ve seen the “how hard has aging hit you” meme. A photo of you on the left from a decade or more ago, next to a recent one. How well is CCM Radio aging?  Some metrics suggest things have never been better. Twenty years ago, it was unheard of for a CCM station to reach the top of the ratings in most non-Bible belt markets. In 2019, it happens all over the nation. Yet the graying of the Christian AC audience has some wondering: have we peaked? While we’ve grown, learned, and gained, we’ve left a lot of people out. It’s time to invite them back.

A church I used to attend had a line I’m probably botching about how us humans tend to take good things and make them ultimate things. In our format, it began almost a generation ago (the picture on the left, if CCM was a person on Facebook). CCM radio hadn’t yet learned where our target audience sweet spot is. There were few Christian AC powerhouses. The template most of us use these days had little proof of concept a generation ago. Heck, even if it had, AC didn’t have the robust world of hit songs and singers we enjoy today.

Help was needed. CCM radio was a joke almost everywhere, despite our stations not sounding anything alike from one market to the next. We were all over the map with who we were targeting, who was actually listening, and (shot out to John Frost) what we were trying to accomplish.

Some stations found the will to wise up and ask questions. They spent money on research and marketing. 9/11 happened. Culture changed. All things worked together and by the early 2000’s, a consensus target demo and approach began to form. CCM Radio’s sweet spot was (and is) with Women 25-54. In mainstream radio, which format traditionally ruled that demo? Why, AC, of course! Using their model to reach the largest potential audience just made sense.

Ratings grew. Pledge drives grew. We doubled down on our shared target. Got more and more specific to, bless her heart, “Becky.”

Hold the flip phone for a second. Maybe you think I’m about to diss the “Becky” model. Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent! There was truth and pure intention to the concept. Put Becky or whatever her name was in the center of your target. Even if you missed her you’d still land somewhere on the target and reach more people than if you had no target to aim for in the first place. Ideally, Becky had enough in common with the rest of the target that you’d be achieving the missional, mass appeal aspirations at the heart of Contemporary Christian Music. It sure beat the old approach of Station A targeting people 18-54 (you’d hear them saying this without irony during GMA week), Station B targeting teens (but not reaching them), and so on. Experts told us if we did a great job at reaching Becky, these other folks would come along too. The teens. The 18-54 family reunion. And then some.

It was somewhere around here I contend we took “good” and made it “ultimate.” Instead of a serving a target listener who embodied the values of the whole audience, we became so relevant to the narrow space Becky occupied that we became irrelevant to everyone else on the target but not in the bullseye. I’m not sure Becky would have approved. She might have even felt pandered to.

The same could be said with research. Instead of using it to make us better at our original missions, we started allowing the research to redefine our purposes.

The result of this journey is a format that excels in the ratings among Women 45-54, or even 55+. The final, smallest slice of the 25-54 pie. This is definitely not the mass appeal, mission-minded heart behind why we were drawn to better targeting and research in the first place.

The sky isn’t falling though. If anything, we find ourselves at one end of a pendulum. Every mainstream format has gone through similar swings, going all the way back to the roots of Top 40. The answer/our future does not lie in swinging the pendulum back to no research and no target listener.

Where to, then? I wonder if there’s a way to combine the science our format has refined so well in the past decade or two, with the art and heart behind the wide appeal CCM had in the 90’s and early 2000’s. The moment just before we began perfecting our current formula. Right about when Neo took the red pill.

The 1990’s, as you might recall, was full of CCM hits that crossed over to mainstream culture. From multiple Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant pop hits early in the decade, to Sixpence None the Richer, Kirk Franklin, DC Talk, Stacie Orrico, Jars of Clay, and a handful of others into the early 2000’s. (And how could we forget “Butterfly Kisses?”)

As CCM became more precisely targeted, inward looking, and P1 super-serving, not as much of our music has broken through the Christian Bubble. We celebrate the ones who have. “I Can Only Imagine.” Lauren Daigle. Skillet. For King and Country. And just a handful more. There were stretches during the 90’s where it was happening every few months and it felt like just a matter of time before the next one. In our current era, what was the most recent crossover smash before “You Say?” Depending on where you set the bar, it’s been years. Possibly more than a decade.

Can you pick up on the large difference between what used to cross over and what’s made it through in more recent years? Diversity: Alternative. Rhythmic. Pop. AC. Fast. Slow. Complex. Simple. Lyrically vertical and horizontal. Much of it outside the walls AC had up back then.

The goal here isn’t to pine for more crossovers. It goes to accessibility. Crossover hits can be a reflection of how accessible we are (or are not).

When CCM put all our cards on a safe AC approach and decided it was the ONLY viable radio approach, we uninvited Christians who didn’t fit the template. We told outspoken Christian artists our listeners (and thus our lifestyle) didn’t want their art. Twenty One Pilots could have started with us. Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper could have been discipled by us (instead of criticized by us for their use of profanity. We could have shown them a better way.) Tori Kelly may not have attempted a reverse-crossover (super cool that she wants to though). Bieber might have avoided the tabloids! A Billboard article last year estimated that six of the top 10 mainstream charting rock acts were faith-based. It’s awesome God is giving Christians platforms in mainstream culture. It’s unfortunate they don’t feel welcome among their own.

Why does this matter now? Let’s grant the sweet spot for CCM truly is Women 25-54 (or some slice in this range). Not teens. Not people 18-54. Maybe it always has been and always will be, and we were too far from her a generation ago. Today’s AC listener is nothing like the one we built our format around. She grew up on Nirvana, Montell Jordan, Ice Cube, Spice Girls, Pearl Jam, Alanis, and N Sync. The next iteration of her, already aging into the young end of our target, grew up on Eminem, Britney, and Maroon 5. In fact, your local mainstream AC outlets play every artist and style represented in this paragraph. Your local “secular” AC ain’t yo momma’s AC. And while they may not dabble on the harder edges (Nirvana and Ice Cube), your local Classic Hits station will. (“Ice Ice Baby” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are to this AC generation the oldies that “Twist and Shout” and “YMCA” were to past AC generations.)

Stop. It’s not Christian Hammer Time though. Please don’t go wrecking your successful Christian AC brand to try and acknowledge this reality. We don’t have the right product to sustain such an approach. Labels stopped signing diverse rosters because we stopped asking for them. We’ve created a format she doesn’t want those textures from anyhow. There’s also the whole thing about tipping the apple cart over. I love my AC listeners. I love my AC station. To attempt some sort of pivot would be to alienate the only rabid fans we have. (There’s also a possibility that CCM radio is filling a Soft AC vacuum that mainstream AC left behind about the same time we started growing up.)

Going forward, consider three mindset changes:

  1. Stop defining of our flagship radio format as Christian AC. We already don’t sound anything like mainstream AC (apart from some imaging/branding/talent commonalities), nor should we. Let’s call it something along the lines of what our listeners already call it (“Christian Music”). Or just stick with the tried and true Contemporary Christian Music.

CCM is its own universe with a lot to offer the world at large, when we approach it from a place of creativity first and commerce second. Before we knew our format could pull ratings, we influenced mainstream culture a myriad of ways. When we split CCM radio into mainstream distinctions that just don’t match, our influence waned. P1’s will ride or die for us, but we are less accessible than we ever have been to everyone else. (Crossovers WE own are bridges to our own brands.)

  1. Think beyond target ages/genders and focus on shared values. Behaviors and psychographics instead of simple demographics. While we have decades of data proving CCM is an adult-oriented format/genre, there’s a difference between adult-oriented and adult-exclusive.

The top CCM projects of the 1990’s were VERY “adult.” Avalon. Steven Curtis Chapman. Smitty. Point of Grace. But not solely adult, and not as stylistically narrow as today’s top projects. Alternative, Hip Hop, and Gospel were all prominent flavors. (Kudos to DC Talk and Kirk Franklin for straddling ALL those fences!)

Do styles other than sugary pop, lite rock, and ethereal worship belong on your CCM station today? Doubtful. (See the tipping the apple cart over thing five paragraphs north.) But….

Picture our roles as gently changing the direction of a big ship. When we shifted our mindset to CCM instead of AC at JOY-FM in St. Louis a couple of years ago, we started naturally looking for songs that fit the listener’s lifestyle expectations of our brand instead of the industry’s genre border walls. (Hi Mr. President!) Here and there, it resulted in us playing Hot AC/CHR singles. Or even songs never singled to any format. Sometimes they worked and became part of who we now are. Other times they didn’t, we dropped them, and learned something valuable about our audience and ourselves.

That part about listener’s lifestyle expectations is key. Why do you exist and who do exist for beyond an age and demographic spread? Their shared values. Aspirations. And where you fit in their world? Answer that first. Make your answer research-proof. Filter your music choices through these lenses. Proper research will keep you from going too far off the farm. (Though a little careful, strategic straying to find your borders from time to time can be healthy. Careful and strategic being key.)

  1. Start a new brand. Changing CCM Radio (or Christian AC if you MUST) for the future will be slow and gradual. You can’t reach everyone in your market with one approach. And you don’t want to throw your current successful brand in the trash. You, your boss, your board, and your audience/supporters have invested a lot into it. So modernize what you have, but also expand.

In St. Louis, that’s why we started BOOST Radio. Beyond leaning younger than Christian AC, BOOST serves a whole different set of listener lifestyle expectations.

The Bible has been translated something like 3,000 times. Coke, Pepsi, Lay’s, Hershey’s, and dozens more launched new brands and flavors to reach more than their original brands ever could. It defies logic to believe we can reach every soul in our markets with one flavor of CCM. I can’t find a verse in the Bible where Jesus tells us to only target 39-year-old female souls who have been married twice, attend church three times a month, prefer Propel fitness water, and have 2.3 kids.

If you have the spare signals for another brand, but little in the way of resources, staff, etc., we’ll soon be offering BOOST Radio for syndication. You can put on a major market quality, solidly researched, on-mission 24/7 format for the cost of one high quality voice-tracker. (We’re in the final stages of building and testing, but I’m happy to answer questions you might have. Email mikec@boost1019.com)

In case it doesn’t go without saying, CCM Radio must continue adapting our non-music content, promotions, marketing, and fundraising efforts as time marches on as well. It almost seems like by 2010-ish or so, much of the format became so comfortable with the current recipe that we quietly agreed to lock it in for life. (Despite the reality of a world and even a Christian subculture changing faster and faster.)

Let’s end this on a hopeful note. If you agree (perhaps reluctantly) CCM has become too narrow for our own good and you’re left feeling despondent, don’t cash out quite yet. Nielsen Audio did a webinar on our format in late 2018, with one big takeaway: while the radio audience for our format continues to age, fans of the music are not. In fact, the average age of a CCM fan is a couple of decades younger than those who listen to our radio brands. If we can right the ship soon enough, imagine how much there could be to celebrate when the “how hard did aging hit you challenge” goes viral again in 2039!

Mike Couchman is the Program Director at KLJY/St Louis and BOOST 101.9 in St. Louis.  He also does  freelance work with the SOS Radio Network based in Las Vegas, Solution FM/Bangor, Maine, and Smile-FM in Michigan. Prior to all this he was part of many mainstream Top 40, Country, and Christian stations in Denver, Detroit, and most of Michigan. Reach Mike at mikec@boost1019.com

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