Sampling the Translator-Mongers
Ever since FM translator station proliferation became a growth industry some 15 years ago, religious broadcasters have, by far, exploited the resource in a way that must be very fulfilling to those who place special importance on evangelism. Compared to the billion-dollar world of mainstream commercial radio, religious broadcasting is small potatoes, although its annual "commerce" certainly ranges in the tens of millions of dollars. Someone has yet to do the legwork to sketch out "the industry" and its size and scope.
But religious broadcasting as industry undoubtedly exists, and three examples are illustrative. EMF Broadcasting, the most mainstream of the three, is the mainstay project of the Educational Media Foundation. Using full-power FM stations in California, EMF feeds two Christian music formats to nationwide networks of translators. The first, K-LOVE, is a contemporary format carried on more than 100 translator stations in some 40 states. The second, AIR-1, is a more youth-oriented "alternative" format. It can be heard on more than four dozen translators in two dozen states. AIR-1 was actually an acquisition EMF made in 1999 - a move whose brainchild was EMF President Dick Jenkins, the 19-year veteran orchestrant of EMF's expansion.
Theologically, both EMF networks carry themes of reaching out to heal people through positive, uplifting entertainment. The primary point of each network's statement of faith/belief is that the Bible is the "infallible and authoritative Word of God," although the point is to teach this without being preachy. It is safe to call these networks major arteries when it comes to circulating the lifeblood of Christian evangelist popular culture.
Year-to-year financials provided by MinistryWatch and Charity Navigator bear out EMF's fiscal success. From revenues of $18.2 million in 2000 to $40.9 million in 2003, it nearly doubled its profits over the period. Those have probably crested the $10 million mark by now.
Another flavor of religious broadcasting is American Family Radio, a subsidiary of the American Family Association conglomerate. AFN feeds "Christian Classics" and contemporary music from a full-power station in Tupelo, MS to more than 170 translators in 28 states, with affiliate (unowned) stations extending the network's reach into four more. Tower space rental is also part of the AFR business plan.
The American Family Association is one of the most powerful religious lobbies in the country. Activism lies at its roots. Its inaugural project was a media watch division and only in 1987 did the media production begin, which now includes a news division.
American Family Radio's "about us" page begins thusly: "BACK IN 1987, THE VISION GOD gave the American Family Association Founder, Don Wildmon, was to use satellite and the latest technology to build hundreds of American Family Radio stations across America." The Association's "about us" page notes, "Don Wildmon and other AFA personnel have appeared on programs such as Good Morning America, The Today Show, MacNeill Lehrer Report, Nightline, The 700 Club, Meet the Press, Crossfire, and Focus on the Family."
AFA is convinced popular secular culture is the bane of America and are doing everything they valiantly can to hold back the forces of darkness, which include most anything rampantly leftist or gay. This includes demonstrating a propensity for frank biblical fundamentalism.
Our third and final religious broadcaster of interest is the Calvary Satellite Network, headquartered at the Calvary Chapel church of Twin Falls, Idaho. CSN was launched in 1995 and has demonstrated the most explosive growth of any religious broadcast network: it is now heard on more than 350 stations nationwide, with several stations supported by individual Calvary Chapel churches. Additionally, CSN/Calvary Chapel Twin Falls filed a petition for rulemaking with the FCC in 2002 asking for further expansion of satellite-fed translator stations (no action has been taken).
Its blend of "Solid Bible Teaching and Passionate Praise and Worship" underscores the evangelist message; the Calvary Chapel theologic "brand" is positioned as non-denominational. The network's home page contains a link to "CSN Partner" Prohpecy Update which provides "Prophecy News for the End Times."
Interestingly, Calvary Chapel is not listed as a charity in the research tools used here. The web site for Calvary Chapel-Twin Falls used to be a directory off the de facto "main" calvarychapel.com portal. That page is missing now and a replacement does not seem forthcoming. Additionally, Calvary Chapel-Twin Falls is not listed in calvarychapel.com's nationwide directory.
Religious broadcast executives don't necessarily believe in poverty. The perks of righteousness are somewhat unquantifiable.
Evangelizing on LPFM
Recognition of religious radio's sophistication set in following the FCC's low power FM rulemaking in 2000. The agency opened a series of five-day application windows for interested potential LPFM licensees, in groups of states staggered by date. According to the good people at REC Networks, who have a long history mining the FCC's licensing databases in support of LPFM policymaking, of the 3,223 LPFM license applications that were filed in the first round, approximately 560 of the 620 stations approved are now on the air.
Depending on whose estimate you believe, religious broadcasters account for anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of all LPFM stations. Many are independent, local churches that truly hope to be positive voices in their communities. But LPFM policy was also a point of concerted study at a regional radio convention in 2003.
Calvary Chapel churches applied for LPFM stations in droves. The FCC ended up throwing out several applications after questioning their "local purpose." Still, Calvary Chapel churches have at least two dozen LPFM stations licensed in their collective name today.
On the flip side, EMF Broadcasting launched a petition and publicity drive in protest of unsubstantiated "threats" of interference that LPFM stations would cause its translator networks (many of which operate with more than twice the power of the most powerful LPFM station).
2003: The Great Translator Invasion
As with the LPFM application filing windows, the FCC does not accept FM translator station applications at random. In fact, in order to introduce the LPFM service the FCC deferred opening windows for new FM translator station applications. This most definitely put a crimp in religious radio's growth mode.
Inexplicably, the FCC decided to open a short filing window for new FM translator stations in March of 2003. It was whomped with more than 13,000 license applications. Had the FCC approved them all, it would have doubled the number of licensed radio signals in the U.S. overnight.
A spectrum land-rush was on. It was a logical development: before the FCC introduced LPFM, the only low-power radio station game in town was the FM translator. LPFM stations represented competition for cheap yet effective access to the airwaves. The invasion of translators was designed to crowd out LPFM stations.
Of the 13,000 applications filed, more than one-third were traced to four organizations. Two were familiar: Calvary Chapel (and its derivatives) accounted for 385 translator applications while Educational Media Foundation filed 875. The two largest filers, however, were unknowns: Radio Assist Ministry (2,454) and Edgewater Broadcasting (1,766).
The plot thickened when it became known that Radio Assist Ministry and Edgewater Broadcasting shared mailing addresses - in Twin Falls, Idaho, home of the Calvary Satellite Network.
CSN Programming and Music Director Don Mills publicly disavowed any connection between CSN, Calvary Chapel of Twin Falls, and the two mega-applicants. Wrote Mills: