The radio industry is well attuned to the unique bond listeners have with their favorite stations and on-air personalities, but that devotion attains a different level for Christian outlets. While leaders in the format were early adopters of digital and social channels, they have also devised their own strategies for nontraditional revenue and events.
“These stations are just more focused on their listeners. More Christian stations ask why they listen, what songs inspire them, what programs uplift them, why they give,” says Chuck Finney, founder/CEO of Christian consultancy Finney Media. “As well, these listener-focused stations are asking great questions about their digital presence, with an eye to the future, knowing their listeners are rapidly adapting to new technology.”
And as Ted Kelly, founder of Christian radio and records site HisAir.Net points out, “While the audience may not be as big as many mainstream stations, it’s more loyal. How many mainstream radio listeners would support their favorite station with money to keep it on the air?”
Christian and conservative giant Salem Media Group has embraced digital “since before it was called ‘digital,’” according to Dave Santrella, Salem president of Broadcast Media “It’s a natural extension of the relationship we have with our loyal audience. When people look for Christian, family and conservative content, we want to be on the top of their list of digital sources. Wherever they are, we want to be there to meet them.”
The company boasts more than 40 million Facebook fans—although on an interesting note, its focus there is evolving. Since the platform’s changes in its newsfeed algorithm over the past several years, Santrella says it has become a less important marketing channel. Instead, Salem is now working to increase presence via mobile apps and smart speakers “as a way to grow audience and extend the conversation with our already engaged audience in an interactive, multi-dimensional way.”
Salem also takes full advantage of its multiple platforms to cross-breed revenue. “The landscape is constantly changing and providing us with additional channels for listener access,” Santrella says. “The digital dashboard is on every broadcaster’s mind, as is the mobile phone and the smart speaker. Salem is committed to providing listeners the opportunity to consume our content on any device they choose, when they want, how they want. We remain vigilant in our pursuit to be ubiquitous and multi-dimensional.”
Salem CFO Evan Masyr, speaking at the Noble Financial Capital Markets’ NobleCon14 conference earlier this month, noted that as well, the company’s multi-media infrastructure “enables us to cross promote hundreds of owned media properties,” including radio, digital and publishing. “This is why we’re different: synergies between divisions,” he said. “Our radio hosts drive listeners to our websites, our websites promote radio programs and books, and there is cross selling between radio and digital with larger advertisers. We hold pastor events that then promote digital resources, while our radio stations hold book signing events that grow book sales.”
‘Every Arena To Extend Our Ministry’
Fellow Christian leader Educational Media Foundation (EMF)—a nonprofit whose stations are listener-supported—is “watching every arena for ways to extend our ministry,” says CEO Mike Novak, whose national Christian AC “K-Love” format has 558 stations in all 50 states and contemporary Christian Air1 has 283 outlets in 44 states.
“The way I think of social media is like a building with 100 doors. Each door is designed a little different, the knob is a different color, and they’re all unique.” With social, terrestrial radio, MyKLove.com, its mobile app and streaming, “once people come inside the door, their experience should be the same. They know what to expect. That’s the reason we have many platforms and we believe in all of them.”
Utilizing all of those resources to connect with would-be contributing listeners, EMF also employs a strategy that is unheard of in the broadcast world and certainly unique to its mission as a ministry. The company has a stable of fulltime ministers that call listeners—yes, on the phone—that are in need of counsel and support.
“Yes, the digital platform is going to be more and more compelling, but everything we do is based on the ministry’s impact,” Novak insists. “God made us to be communal, so it is about human connection. We want people to know first and foremost our ministry is open all the time. It’s not our stage. Via these phone calls, everything we do is transparent.”
Events: All Aboard
And much like every other broadcaster, events have become a winning strategy for NTR for Christian radio entities. With Salem’s built-in stable of syndicated talkers—on both its 33 conservative news/talk stations and 41 Christian teaching and talk outlets—listeners are eager to interact with “celebrity” hosts. “Listeners to our formats want to engage with their favorite ministry teachers, talk show hosts, authors and music artists in person. It’s another natural extension of the engagement with our audience,” Santrella tells Inside Radio.
In 2013, Salem launched a National Promotions department to provide those kinds of opportunities more consistently. Its goal: to work with local O&Os to create additional forms of revenue for the radio division. Earlier this year, it renamed the division Salem Events and Marketing. “This refocusing strategically positions the department to continue to create and support events for Salem’s assets, as well as to expand their services by brokering partnerships with other media companies in other cities,” he adds. “Salem events are unique to the audiences we serve and now we can provide those events to like-minded media outlets outside of Salem’s existing markets.”
EMF, meanwhile, offers listeners countless local events—despite the fact that much of its programming is nationally fed. “About five years ago, we became really conscious of the fact that putting boots on the ground brings tremendous results in our communities,” Novak says. That became all the more clear when San Antonio K-Love affiliate KZLV won a National Association of Broadcasters’ Service To America award in 2017 for its “Share the Love” campaign. “The judges told us we were more local than most local stations. That showed me that that’s where it’s at. People want to see, feel and touch, and that’s our goal to have lives touched through Christ.”
EMF also has nationally branded events like the K-Love Fan Awards in Nashville, with a package that includes a dinner with on-air staff, a concert, Sunday worship service and awards show attendance. But its marquee is the K-Love Cruise—whose 16th-annual outing in January 2019 is already sold out. “Imagine when you have 3,800 of your closest friends with you for a week. It’s all word of mouth; we never push it,” Novak says. “As CEO, it’s been great for me to spend time and listen to the stories of our listeners—and the connection they have with our stations.”
The Fan Awards and cruise, mind you, undoubtedly bring those thousands of fans all the closer to K-Love. “It’s a value-add in the sense that if someone likes us and makes us part of their life and feels led by God, then perhaps they will make a donation to support us,” Novak says. “But more important to us, it’s about relationships. Everything we do here is based on the ministry impact and the human connection.”