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Christian music hits mainstream radio

By CRYSTAL CAVINESS   |   July 8, 2003 at 2:37 PM   |   Comments

NASHVILLE, July 8 (UPI) -- Bob Catania has his work cut out for him.

As the vice president of pop radio promotion at Curb Records in Los Angeles, his job is to convince Top 40 radio programmers, whose playlists are front-loaded with songs by the likes of rapper 50 Cent, "American Idol" winner Kelly Clarkson and rock band Matchbox Twenty, to play on the air a melodic song about Heaven that is frequently performed in church worship services.

There are no apologies as the latest megahit-in-the-making, "I Can Only Imagine," breaks all the rules as it climbs up the Top 40 radio charts.

Yes, the song is from a Christian band, MercyMe. Yes, the song lyrics contain a reference to Jesus. Yes, the record is two years old.

Did Catania also mention that the single has won 100 percent of song battles at the Top 40 stations currently playing the melodic tune, regularly beating out songs by 50 Cent and Good Charlotte? Did he say that with one spin of the song, the phone calls and e-mails flood in? Did he say that the song is No. 37 on the syndicated "America's Top 40 with Casey Kasem"? Did he add that KOST, a station in Los Angeles, the second largest U.S. radio market, has just added the song to its playlist?

At a time when Top 40 radio is as extreme as ever with obscene lyrics and off-colored themes, accompanied by no-holds-barred deejay antics, music with a Christian message is seeping in, with listeners embracing the songs and demanding to hear more, according to radio programming directors around the country.

"'I Can Only Imagine' had the largest response ever in a record that I have tested," said Steve Matthews, programming director at WZNY in Augusta, Ga. "I played the song one time and my phones were solid for the next 20 minutes. The calls were not asking me who the artist was, but to thank me for playing the song. I received calls from surrounding markets begging me to call other markets to tell them to play it."

At WXXL in Orlando, the station put the song up against 50 Cent night after night, according to Pete DeGraaf, music director at the station. "After 'battling' it against 50 Cent, MercyMe blew it out of the water and 'I Can Only Imagine' was retired as a five-night winner. I checked my records and no song has done this in 12 years, except for Kelly Clarkson in 2002."

"I have received the most e-mail about this song than any I can remember," said Wendy Gatlin, music director at WKZL in Greensboro, N.C. "The studio lines are jammin.'"

Music by artists known primarily for their Christian music is not new to mainstream radio. Amy Grant leads the pack of a number of artists considered crossover, including Michael W. Smith, Kirk Franklin, Sixpence None The Richer and Caedmon's Call. Of course, few will forget the "Butterfly Kisses" phenomenon of a few years ago when Christian singer Bob Carlisle's ode to his daughter became a No. 1 hit at Top 40 and adult contemporary radio.

The difference with "I Can Only Imagine," according to many close to the song, is its unapologetic lyrics about Heaven that include lines such as "Will I dance for you Jesus or in awe of you be still?" and "Will I sing hallelujah? Will I be able to speak at all?"

"I don't want to take anything away from Amy or Kirk or Smitty (Michael W. Smith)," said Jeff Moseley, president of INO Records, in a phone interview from his Nashville-area office. (INO Records released the song.) "(But) this is one of the most overtly evangelical songs that there is. The reality is that it's an impact song, it drives emotion...It reaches the spirit inside all of us. We want to believe in heaven, no matter what faith you are."

Catania agrees.

"A lot of Christian artists are on the radio right now," Catania said recently from his Los Angeles office. He named teen Stacie Orrico and band P.O.D. as current examples, both with songs on mainstream radio. "Those songs texturally and sonically fit those formats. The challenge of MercyMe is sonically and texturally, they don't really fit."

Catania, a 25-year veteran of pop radio promotion, is the first to shake his head at the power of "I Can Only Imagine," a song by a self-professed Christian praise and worship band.

"I wish I could tell you that my staff and I were so brilliant at predicting the future that we saw this as an obvious Top 40 hit," Catania said, "but I don't think anybody could."

He is equally amazed at the lack of protest about the song.

"Any record that has a Jesus reference in it is going to be problematic for some people, especially in a major market like New York or L.A., especially where there's a diverse population," Catania said. "What we've been telling is it's really a song about loss, one day I can only imagine what it will be like in heaven...Since this record has come out, we have never received one call from a radio station asking for the 'Jesus-less' version. No one seems to be having an issue with that."

The story behind 'I Can Only Imagine" is as unbelievable as its resurrection from a back catalog bin at the local Tower Records, an actual occurrence in that the record sold 11,500 units last week, according to Catania. (The two-year-old project was selling approximately 1,000 units per week before its revival in early Spring 2003, according to a record label spokesman.)

MercyMe released the single in 2001 on its INO Records debut, titled "Almost There." Band lead singer Bart Millard had written the song years earlier in response to his father's death due to cancer, saying that imagining his father in heaven comforted him in his loss. The song went on to be a No. 1 single at Christian radio, resulting in a song of the year award at the 2002 Dove Awards, the Christian music industry's version of the Grammys.

The band released a second project, "Spoken More," which also yielded a couple of hit songs at Christian radio, including the current No. 1, "Word of God Speak." Life was good for the Dallas-area band.

One morning in January 2003, at Dallas station KRBV, the outrageous morning team of Fitz, Tony and Big Gay Steven on Wild 101 FM's "The Fitz Show" played "I Can Only Imagine" on a dare after Tony asked "Are you crazy enough to play this song," knowing the song would be different from anything on the show's current playlist. One spin on the air and the callers started phoning the station. When the Dallas station began playing the song regularly, one of Catania's colleagues told him about the single, resulting in the current situation in which Curb Records and INO Records partnered to promote the single to mainstream radio and revive its record sales as a pop record.

"I Can Only Imagine" is only one example of a Christian-themed song hitting it big at mainstream radio.

Randy Travis, who for years has been a hitmaker at country radio, recently scored a No. 1 at country radio with a song off of his second gospel record, released by veteran Christian label, Word Records. The song, "Three Wooden Crosses" is a ballad about redemption with a cast that includes "a preacher, a teacher, a farmer and a hooker," as the song goes. Never promoted to Christian radio, the single went straight to country radio, where it immediately took off.

The combination of Travis as artist and the power of the story song resulted in the hit, according to Michael Cruise, program director at KKBQ and KTHT in Houston, the 7th ranked major market in country radio. Having such a blatant Christian message was never an issue at their stations, Cruise said.

"I think country is one of the last refuges where it's OK to say we're patriotic, we believe in God," he said. "I think people come quite often to this format as a refuge for family values, for faith...Country, except for a few cases, is not really worried about being very hip. We're more concerned with resonating with the average person out there...The content of the dj's is not blue, it's positive. There's very few places in mainstream (radio) like that."

While mainstream radio, specifically pop, Top 40 and adult contemporary playlists, contain songs that may be more controversial than country radio, Catania maintains the formats are designed that way.

"Top 40 traditionally has been a format of extremes and reaction records," he said. "There are so many records with so many extremes in one direction. I think a lot of the messages are uncomfortable to a lot of listeners. A lot of these songs are very reactive to a certain constituency. What we're trying to sell is ("I Can Only Imagine") is an extreme message with a different message. We know it will elicit a response...People are anxious for a positive message...I think the challenge for radio is not to skew too far to one side. A lot of the hip hop records are just so explosive from a sales and reaction standpoint. You cannot ignore what's going on with 50 Cent (a relatively new hip hop act with top record sales and radio hits). The challenge is to find that balance."

Moseley contends that even with the listeners who prefer raucous hip hop, the majority of mainstream listeners want songs with a faith-based message, a realization that is flowing over to retail.

"There is a huge overlap audience between the pop and A/C audience and Christian radio market," Moseley said, basing his information on Christian industry statistics. "Wal-Mart has realized a huge percentage of their buyers consider themselves people of faith and Wal-Mart has started catering to that in the products they provide. We're seeing Wal-Mart, we're seeing Target, Best Buy, are really doing that."

While industry experts scratch their heads over why the song is successful, band members of MercyMe have no doubt.

"To me," said Mike Scheuchzer, the band's guitarist, "the biggest part of it all is that our record label could have put a million dollar budget behind this song and this wouldn't have happened. It's something that obviously has God's hand in it and something that He's promoting."

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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