April 28, 2000 Volume 14, Number 02
Christian radio expads its frequency
Many stations content with low watts to get message out
By Kevin Heinrichs | ChristianWeek Staff
Scott Jackson (right) with his Life 100.3 team during their initial broadcast in Barrie last year
Just six years ago, most Canadians had to tune in to American stations to listen to Christian music on the radio. With the exception of a station in Newfoundland and one in Vancouver (that has since changed formats), there were no Canadian stations dedicated to Christian music, largely because of onerous CRTC (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission) regulations that all but forbade it.
Today there's more than a dozen Christian stations up and running and a handful more with applications in process for licensing. Since the CRTC relaxed its regulations in the mid 1990s, stations have sprung up in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta.
Many of the newer stations, like CJOA in Thunder Bay, are low wattage, largely volunteer-run efforts. Faith FM in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario has a similar structure and currently has an application pending for a five-watt station.
Kitchener Faith FM representative Rachel Wallace-Oberle says the CRTC relaxed its transmitting power regulations in the past year, all but encouraging small wattage community stations. This, she says, has made it much cheaper to start a station. Initially Faith FM anticipated a budget of $1 million. Now it should require a fraction of that.
FREQ (pronounced "freak" as in Jesus freak) FM in Winnipeg is a 22 watt station with a Christian rock format that began last year. It reaches the city limits but no further. Still, its potential audience is over half a million.
Part of the advantage of starting small, says program director Dan Kern, is that existing secular stations didn't view FREQ as a threat, so no one opposed their CRTC application.
He calls it "flying under the radar." With their foot in the door of Winnipeg's broadcasting world, staff are eager to see the ratings to know what kind of market share they have attained. Meanwhile, FREQ is applying to increase its wattage to strengthen its signal in Winnipeg and reach into the suburbs later this year.
But a rival Christian station (though both say they are mutually supportive) might beat them to it. CHVN is readying the launch of its new Christian adult contemporary station by the end of May. It is starting out with 100,000 watts, the industry standard, and will broadcast in Winnipeg and a 100 km radius around it.
CHVN president and general manager Wade Kehler, an accountant, says the station is partnering with Trinity Television, also in Winnipeg. Trinity's building will host the radio studio and share some technical staff. Kehler says partnerships like these and between radio stations will be the key to the long term success of Christian radio in Canada.
"If we can tie all the Christian stations in Canada together, and join to promote Canadian artists, then we'll see some real growth," he says.
Those kind of partnerships seem still in their infancy. A website that purports to be a listing of Christian radio in Canada listed only some of the stations currently running, but did have many of the upcoming ones.
Donald Mabee of Saint John, New Brunswick is hoping a licence will be granted for his 50 watt station called New Song at 96.1 FM. Like many stations, it covers a wide swath of Christian music.
"Our station has room for just about anyone who wants to sing about our Lord," says Mabee.
Wide, not deep
But not everyone agrees with the small station approach.
Al Hunsperger, who owns and runs two stations in Alberta, Shine FM in Calgary and AM 930 in Edmonton, is a relative veteran of the Christian radio industry. He traces the growth of the radio industry to the fact that it's so cheap to set up a radio station with all the computer technology.
While he welcomes a greater Christian presence on the airwaves, he doesn't think that a string of low-wattage stations are good for the industry long term.
"These small wattage stationsI'm not in agreement with them," he says. "If you can't do it right, don't do it at all. The smaller stations won't last. The guys that come in with the full wattage are the ones who will dominate."
He says that stations ought to take a harder look at whether their station will have long-term financial viability to avoid the fate of The Bridge, the Vancouver station that changed format from Christian adult contemporary to secular classic rock in 1998 because it wasn't making money.
Jim Houssen, who is one of two 50-watt applicants in Moncton, disagrees. He calls starting a large-watt station "dangerous" because "you're in danger of becoming a puppet of the people paying your bills."
Among the broadcasters facing stiffer competition for a CRTC licence is Andy McNabb. He has applied for two radio stations in Canada's biggest broadcast marketToronto. One of them would be a 50,000 watt AM station, the other an FM music station. There were 15 competing applications for the frequencies.
"The CRTC now knows that the Christian market is the largest unserved radio audience in Toronto and area by a 2:1 margin over the next closest competitor," he says. "With over 4,500 churches within a 50-mile radius of Toronto, that's more than all the nightclubs, bars, taverns and cultural halls put together."
McNabb expects to have a CRTC decision by May.
Regardless of approach, all stations agree that getting a positive Christian message on the airwaves is a worthy goal.
"We're saying, Let's give [listeners] an alternative to Britney Spears and 'Hit Me Baby One More Time,'" says FREQ morning show host Amber Anderson. "Let's have the same quality of musicianship but with a good message."