Eric Zorn, Radio writer March 4, 1985
You can still read the words, once written with a stick in wet cement, that changed Jim Channell`s life. He saw them for the first time while walking north on Dearborn Street near Wacker Drive in March, 1979, his head down and his heart gloomy, suffering one of those dark nights of the soul so familiar in religious testimonials.
''Faith Jim,'' said the sidewalk.
inRead invented by Teads
Not exactly a wonderous apparition, but it did the trick. Channell kept the faith from that day forward and resisted the temptation to go back to his wild days as ''Captain Whammo,'' the dirtiest deejay on WMET. He can now see that fateful spot on the sidewalk if he stands at the window of his office in the Marina City complex, where he serves as program director and early afternoon air personality for WCFL (AM 1000), this area`s newest, most powerful and most controversial Christian radio station.
Channell dropped out of the local picture in September, 1978, when he left a lucrative position at WMET to take a radio job in Las Vegas, where he planned to make a living gambling. He has been down and back up again since then, but as far as the mainstream Chicago radio community is concerned, he is still out of the picture.
Christian broadcasting is a world almost totally unto itself: Its goals are different from those in secular radio, its method of financing different, its pay scale different, its employees different and its style of competition different.
Around Thanksgiving, for example, Channell`s station asked its listeners to pray for the success of other Christian stations in the area. At the same time, mainstream radio stations were, as ever, carefully plotting and hoping for one another`s destruction.
Such differences and the lack of understanding they engender were the primary cause of alarm in the local radio community when Statewide
Broadcasting Inc. purchased WCFL for $8 million last May and turned one of this city`s fabled 50,000-watt stations into a Christian beacon. Concern was and still is that the once-proud voice of the Chicago Federation of Labor and erstwhile rock and roll giant would be reduced to a nettlesome outlet peddling glow-in-the-dark figurines as sold by preachers with RFD numbers in their addresses.
Christian radio is a lot more than excesses and exhortations these days. It has become, in some cases, at some times, as well programmed and smooth as secular radio. Those in the industry say that religious broadcasting is still in its formative years, and will continue to diversify and grow along with the burgeoning field of Christian entertainment to the point that it will seem positively mainstream and not a peculiar sideshow.
Until then, even Jim Channell admits, we are stuck with the reality of stations such as WCFL, which half of the day is a tightly executed, full service, contemporary music station and the other half of the day is an uneven patchwork of brief, taped sermons and solicitations with names such as
''Truths That Transform'' and ''Manna For Today.''
The combination of tapes and tunes has proved quite profitable for the station in its first nine months, but exceedingly unattractive to listeners, who have made it the lowest-rated full-coverage station in the city.
''Our goal is to sell enough commercials that we can go with 19 hours of music, including morning drive time, every day,'' says Channell. ''The last five hours we would use for the finest teachings (taped sermons) available.
''That vision,'' he adds quietly, ''is still being realized.''
Indeed, for all its wattage, WCFL has made only a slight impact on the other major religious stations in the area, despite the early fears of these stations that it would steal huge shares of their business.
''If anything, WCFL has helped us by providing more awareness of Christian radio in Chicago,'' says Taft Harris, manager of Hammond station WYCA (FM 92.3), a 26-year-old commercial outlet that features taped programs in 70 percent of its broadcast day. ''It seems to have made more churches think about opportunities in broadcasting, and when they see what it costs to get onto WCFL, they come to us.''
Because WCFL`s signal carries several hundred miles during the day and across 25 states at night, the station is selling time on its airwaves for up to $1,000 an hour, which seems like a stiff price when the metropolitan ratings are so low until you consider that an effective preacher can realize many times that expense in donations from each program, even with a relatively small audience.
''Tapes are the easy way out,'' says Bob Stevens, former program director at Dundee station WCRM (FM 103.9). ''You just flip a few switches. You don`t even need an audience. The problem is that all these guys screaming at the audience to get saved, gives Christian radio a bad name that hurts all of us in the end.''
WCRM represents the progressive end of the spectrum in local Christian radio. It plays 19 hours of contemporary music every day, including an evening block of leading edge Christian rock that, if you don`t listen too closely to the lyrics, sounds as jacked up as mainstream pop rock on WLS-FM or WBBM-FM.
The four-year-old station`s new slogan is ''Our music does all the talking,'' and it tries to attract the under-34 listener with something of a soft-sell approach. According to general manager Jim Burkhardt, young listeners ''like songs with a positive message and not a lot of preaching. Taped programs tend to attract older listeners and music attracts younger. Mixing the two is very tricky.''
Daytime-only station WEAW (AM 1330) also programs a heavy lineup of contemporary Christian music and considers itself closely aligned with WCRM. Both stations are caught between the desire to attract larger ratings by playing a certain amount of ''crossover'' music--mainstream artists performing songs with an appropriately wholesome message--and the desire to please members of the audience who, in the words of WEAW program director Ray Woolsey, ''criticize any music that doesn`t talk about Jesus directly.
''At least 95 percent of our audience already believes,'' says Woolsey, who allows that much of religious radio is simply so much broadcasting to the choir. ''A big question these days is how much Christian radio should compromise its message to reach different listeners. You hear different answers at every station, but everyone acknowledges that we need to put a strong emphasis on quality programming.''
One of the pacesetters for quality Christian broadcasting has long been the Moody Bible Institute, which has operated noncommercial WMBI (now at FM 90.1 and AM 1110) out of Chicago for nearly 60 years. Competitors describe WMBI as ''the WGN of Christian radio'' because of its wide reach (it is the nation`s only religious ''superstation'' and distributes its programs to 101 other stations via satellite) and hammerlock on the 35-plus adult listening audience.
''They do a terrific job with the older demographics,'' says Channell of WCFL, who says he was once denied a job at WMBI because of his unsavory past. ''The rest of us have to program alternatives to what they offer.''
Both the music and theology on WMBI are conservative. The station airs selected taped programs submitted by evangelists, but because it does not charge for its air time, solicitations for funds are carefully edited out. Both AM and FM stations are consequently quite consistent and listenable throughout the broadcast day, contrasting sharply with stations such as WCFL that program a hodgepodge of material throughout the day.
''WCFL is like two different radio stations,'' says Tom Sommerville, general manager of WMBI. ''The music segments go after young listeners and their taped segments go after older listeners. People end up using that sort of station the way they do TV; tuning in for individual programs. That serves a legitimate purpose, but it`s no way to build an audience.''
Jim Channell takes a more optimistic view: ''No matter what Arbitron tells you, if we bring 100 people a month into the kingdom of God, we are doing our job.''
This is the critical difference. Although they operate in many ways the same as mainstream radio stations, Christian stations are, at heart, ministries. Employees are members of the faith and, as missionaries of a sort, earn less than employees at comparable secular stations.
''Management takes advantage of the fact that God wants you to be there,'' says Bob Stevens. ''I remember one of our full-time announcers was on food stamps. We see tremendously high turnover in the business because it`s such a difficult way for a person to make a living.''
But for all that they are underpaid, many Christian deejays have extensive experience in secular radio, usually in years before a deepening of their religious commitment, and are as good on the air as jocks you hear on the frontline Chicago stations.
As Captain Whammo on WMET, for example, Jim Channell was voted in 1975 one of America`s top four air personalities by Billboard magazine. He was then the highest-rated evening jock on FM in Chicago and devoted himself, in his off hours, to decadence.
Shortly after his brief fling with gambling in Las Vegas, the high-flying Captain crashed when a love affair went sour. He turned to religion for solace and took a job teaching at a Chicago broadcast training school. The crisis in his love life would not resolve, and he spent hours standing on the strand of Lake Michigan and pleading with God to bring his departed sweetheart back.
He didn`t. Channell decided that religion wasn`t working and that he would be happier if, at age 32, he returned to life as Captain Whammo, the man with the telephone numbers of 130 eager young women in his little black book. It was while walking down the street telling a friend of this decision that he saw those fateful words in the sidewalk.
It`s a good salvation story, and he tells it well: In 1980, he met a Sunday school teacher from Oak Park who became his wife the same year he started a successful radio ratings company that measured automobile listenership. In 1982, he took a job spinning the gospel during afternoon drive at WCRM and last year he kicked off the syndicated ''Christian Countdown USA'' (at 6 p.m. Saturdays on WCFL), which airs in close to 50 cities.
He took the program director`s job at WCFL, which pays him in the neighborhood of $20,000 a year, in June of 1984. It was a difficult move. He was content at WCRM and, like many people in the local broadcasting community, wary of the motives of Scott Ginsberg, who purchased WCFL and turned it into a Christian station.
''I liked Ginsberg and trusted him right away,'' says Channell. ''He`s very misunderstood. I have a feeling that it`s just like the Lord to raise a Jewish businessman to bring out the Christian word.''
Channell remains optimistic, despite WCFL`s unimpressive debut in the ratings and the temporary suspension of his plans to cut back on tapes and proceed with an expansion of his daily music programming. Financial reality is financial reality. Music is a hard road to travel.