GRAPEVINE, Texas — Representatives of the nation’s more than 4,000 Christian radio and television stations gather Monday to note a year of advancement in the face of a pandemic whose lockdowns have decimated tens of thousands of secular businesses.
After 16 months of video-conferencing meetings, members of the National Religious Broadcasters will gather in person in this Dallas suburb to hear from former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; actor Dennis Quaid, who is starring in a faith-focused movie about Ronald Reagan; “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson; and Dallas Jenkins, creator of “The Chosen,” a hit streaming series about the life of Jesus.
The broadcasters also will survey an industry that faces potentially crushing music royalty fees and threats of social media deplatforming for airing messages out-of-step with an increasingly woke culture.
The workhorses of Christian media are the thousands of radio stations that direct a Gospel message to commuters and people at home — a category that expanded during the 16 months of a pandemic-induced lockdown.
Radio station WAVA-FM has served the D.C./Maryland/Virginia market for decades with its Christian talk/teaching format. Owned by Salem Communications, WAVA is estimated to have more than 300,000 listeners each week.
WGTS-FM, a nonprofit contemporary Christian music station based in Takoma Park, Maryland, reached about 400,000 weekly listeners last month in an area stretching from the District to Baltimore, according to Nielsen Audio ratings reported by HisAir.net, a Christian broadcasting industry news website.
Those who listen to Christian radio, research indicates, show their loyalty in a way that would warm any station manager’s heart: They are more likely to recommend their choices to others. A 2021 survey published in RadioWorld magazine said 80% of Christian radio listeners make such recommendations, with public radio listeners second at 75%.
By contrast, only 34% of listeners to news/talk stations make positive recommendations of those outlets to others.
Bill Reeves, CEO of the nonprofit Christian ministry Educational Media Foundation in Rocklin, California, said Christian broadcasting’s positive message provided a welcome contrast to much of 2020’s bad news.
“We are hopeful we picked up some new listeners during the pandemic, as we were offering hope instead of fear,” Mr. Reeves said via email. “We have also continued to increase in our domestic streaming numbers, and hold a strong Top 10 audio-streaming position in the U.S. We also launched our podcast platform, AccessMore, in May of 2020 and have had a very strong first year.”
Mr. Reeves runs Christian networks K-LOVE and Air-1 Radio, which have about 1,050 stations.
“I think that the pandemic brought Christian radio a lot of opportunities to step up and really be there for their listeners,” said Doug Hastings, vice president of Chicago-based Moody Radio, a network of 38 Christian radio stations across the nation that is affiliated with the evangelical Moody Bible Institute.
Mr. Hastings said donations haven’t flagged despite 2020’s bumpy economy.
“We have seen our listeners be so generous over the last 16 months that we have not faced any serious financial setbacks because of the pandemic,” he said in a telephone interview. “And I believe that that’s [partly] because of what we delivered to our listeners throughout that whole time,” he added.
Phil Cooke, CEO of Cooke Media Group in Burbank, California, said the pandemic forced churches to move into the media space, which was good for religious and even secular outlets.
“I think if there’s anything good that came out of the whole pandemic, and the church shut down, it’s that pastors and ministry leaders really woke up to the power of the media,” said Mr. Cooke, who has advised televangelists Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyers. “And it’s interesting that we actually have three churches that we’ve been working with over the last year and a half that went on broadcast television during the pandemic.”
Among the issues the Christian broadcasters will address are efforts to seek congressional protection from plans to impose “new performance royalties” every time a radio station plays a piece of music.
“A performance royalty would financially cripple local Christian radio stations, thereby jeopardizing local jobs and harming local radio listeners,” said Troy Miller, CEO of National Religious Broadcasters (NRB).
Daniel Darling, NRB’s senior vice president for communications, said that pressures on social platforms such as YouTube could harm Christian media outlets seeking to reach new audiences.
“One of the things that is causing some measure of concern is the power of Big Tech. All of our [members’] ministries are platform-dependent in some way, where they need Vimeo, iTunes, payment processors, all those things. There’s increasing pressure on these platforms to rein in free speech and we want to protect” access to those services by Christian broadcasters, Mr. Darling said.