An hour long documentary on contemporary Christian music on BBC Radio hits the airwaves in April. Tony Cummings brings the story behind MINISTRY OF SOUND.
April 14th will be a red-letter day for contemporary Christian music in Britain. For on that day at 7.00pm BBC Radio 1 - still Britain's most listened to pop/rock station - will be broadcasting Ministry Of Sound, an in-depth look at the world of contemporary Christian music.
Presented by popular deejay and committed Christian, Janey Lee Grace and produced by award-winning producer Michael Wakelin, the programme will be, for millions of listeners, their first coherent exposure of CCM while for its loyal clutch of supporters it will be further proof, if proof was needed, that the creative-credibility gap, so long the stumbling block in gaining Christian music mass exposure, has indeed been bridged. The programme will feature numerous interviews together with excerpts of, in the words of Janey Lee Grace, "the crème de la crème of CCM tracks."
For the programme, Janey flew out to Nashville where among the figures she interviewed were Susan Ashton, Margaret Becker, Billy Ray Hearn (the founder of both Myrrh and then Sparrow Records), DC Talk, CeCe Winans and Stephen Curtis Chapman. But the programme is far from presenting CCM as solely an American phenomenon. Said Janey, "We've talked to Chris Eaton, the World Wide Message Tribe, sanctified dance deejays like the Vinyl Preacher and Andy Payne, pop figures like Eternal and Simon Mayo, even UK CCM journalists like Francis Blight and Tony Cummings! We'll be showing the whole international sweep of the contemporary Christian music scene."
The genesis for the programme goes back some time. Producer Michael Wakelin takes up the story. "I'd always wanted to do something on contemporary Christian music as a phenomenon and a couple of years ago I did a programme on America for Radio 1 called In God We Trust - the phrase was written on all dollar bills. It was about why the Americans are so religious. So we went to America and this statistic came out that 10 per cent of all music sold in America that year would be Christian music. 10 per cent! I offered the idea of a documentary on contemporary Christian music to Radio 1, looking at why Christian music has such a huge part of the record industry yet in England they get no recognition at all, well virtually none. It certainly doesn't get played on Radio 1. So what's going on?"
As it has turned out, Michael has had a chance to ask his question on air, as the Controller of Radio 1 is among those interviewed!
Getting the okay from the BBC to make the programme was no easy thing. Explained Michael, "I actually pitched it last September but there is a problem pitching offers 'cos they can go out up to 18 months after the meeting and it can be very delayed getting a new idea across. By the time it gets across it's an old idea."
Why, Cross Rhythms asked Michael, was Janey Lee Grace, currently presenting a mainstream pop programme on Virgin FM, chosen for the job of presenting Ministry Of Sound?
"I had a very stimulating conversation with her. She came to see me and I think she's very well informed. I think she has quite a healthy cynicism as well as a very healthy respect and I think that is quite a critical thing because Radio 1 aren't going to think anything of contemporary Christian music at all so you want someone who knows what they mean as well as someone who thinks they're wrong if you know what I'm saying. I think Janey is perfect for the job because she knows a lot about CCM. She knows that some contemporary Christian music is awful and yet she also has a great love for it, thinks there should be more if it around. So she can agree with Radio 1 when they say, 'God, this is terrible' or when they say, 'Hey, hang on a minute, this is good.' Obviously, she has good contact and she's bright and works for a national radio station and I thought 'she'd be right for it."
What are listeners going to hear? "Hopefully, they'll get the very best of contemporary Christian music. We are going to try and cram in as many of the best songs, in obviously shortened forms, that we possibly can. We are also going to hear voices from the US and Britain. We are also going to go to the States and we've got lots of interviews. We're going to talk to some secular people as to why they don't commission it. Why don't they play it? We've talked to Matthew Bannister, controller of Radio 1 who gave us a very good interview and we will find out a bit more about why in America it gets so much attention and here it doesn't. I think we know the answer to that is that the franchise in America is so big. I think this is the real issue. In the UK if there are 30 university student unions and they've got two gig halls and the Manic Street Preachers are in one and you've got Phil & John in the other where would your average student choose to go and spend his evening? I think until Christian music has pulling power for the normal average student to compete with secular bands, then I agree with Radio 1 to an extent that contemporary Christian music shouldn't get any special preference. I don't think anyone involved in the industry, if they were really honest, wants to do that. Simon Mayo's point is if it's good enough we'll play it, there is no inherent veto on God songs - for instance, Joan Osborne's "One Of Us".
Responding to that point, I pointed out the fact that the vast bulk of Christian music never gets pulled off albums onto singles and therefore never gets considered by radio producers.
"Well yes, the plugging of Christian music has to be criticised. The pluggers from Virgin and EMI and all the rest of them that get the stuff on are seriously top-notch pluggers and the CCM scene just hasn't got that. They haven't got the ear of the Radio 1 producers. But, despite all these problems, if a song is good enough it will filter through I think, if it's given enough pushing."
This final word goes to Janey Lee Grace. "The fact that in the recent US pop album charts four albums - DC Talk, Audio Adrenaline, the Newsboys and Jars Of Clay can all chart - and all of them sound GREAT on radio is a very positive sign of where CCM is heading. This music carries a very powerful spiritual message and as a Christian I'm thrilled at the thought of bringing this music to the attention of a mass audience."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.