Christian music is experiencing unprecedented exposure thanks to Britain's national radio station UCB EUROPE. Tony Cummings spoke to the station's music manager Steve Blake.
With the medium wave radio launch of UCB Europe, Britain's Christians can now nightly enjoy the sounds of Christian music. But what KIND of music? 'Inspirational' and 'Contemporary' are today's radio parlance to divide Christian music into two main categories. One, 'inspirational', indicates a softer approach to music taking in pop (Michael W Smith), country (Jeff Silvey), soft soul (Anointed) and most recordings of worship from Graham Kendrick to hymnody. The other, 'contemporary', covers a harder, more rhythmic approach taking in rock (Delirious?), funk (Kirk Franklin's God's Property), rap (ETW) and dance (World Wide Message Tribe). The man at UCB Europe who holds the key role in deciding which of the thousands and thousands of tracks arriving on his desk make it onto the playlist is Music Manager Steve Blake. If that time-consuming function isn't enough Steve also manages to produce and present (with Jill Crocker) UCB Europe's popular weekly kids programme The Loft and present a weekly specialist music show Soul, Jazz And Blues.
But it was his function as the man with his finger on what precisely constitutes an 'inspirational' track which brought Cross Rhythms to talk to the 25 year old broadcaster-cum-manager. "Inspirational music definitely has a softer, less aggressive, sound than contemporary. You WON'T hear very loud snare and snarling guitars on inspirational. You WILL hear an emphasis on melody and with words that every listener, young and old, can hear!"
So is inspirational music solely aimed at over 40s? "Not at all. One of the records on our 'A' list at the moment is the new single by Michael W Smith, 'Live The Life', which definitely will appeal to some young people. Inspirational is a sound rather than a clearly defined age group. But it is the kind of contemporary music that those of an older generation can relate to as well as young people."
Though talk of 'A' lists and 'B' lists are seemingly the jargon of all music broadcasters, the phrases mean precious little to Joe Public. I asked Steve to unravel the mysteries of the radio station playlist. "On UCB Europe we have various music policies. One is that a third of our output is praise and worship music. The other two thirds is the inspirational music. We operate an 'A' list of the absolute best album tracks. There are nine records on this 'A' list (currently Jim Bullard "Nothing Else"; Michael W Smith "Live The Life"; Christian Outreach Centre "Lord Of All The Earth"; Kevin Prosch and Bryn Haworth "When This Passing World"; Fernando Ortega "Children The Living"; Nanette Welmans & Ben Castle "Always Christmas"; Pam Thum "I've Got The Victory"; Helen Shapiro "Let Us Exalt His Name" and Stuart Townend "How Deep The Father's Love"). The 'A' list records would normally be heard around three or four times in any 24 hours of programmes. So regular listeners become familiar with those tracks."
Okay, so those are the 'turntable hits' that theoretically turn passive listeners into would-be-consumers demanding from their Christian bookshop the album with THAT track on. So what's the 'B' list? "After a track has been on the 'A' list say four or five weeks it will move down to the 'B' list, that's a list of 11 tracks which have been on the 'A' list. These will get about one play a day. After that they will move down to the General Play, that's currently just under 1,000 tracks which will come up for play say once a fortnight."
As well as the inspirational/worship playlists, each week UCB Europe designate both a new inspirational and praise and worship record 'Album Of The Week', playing a different track each day. Says Steve, "This gives profile to all the new music coming out."
A task recently undertaken by Steve Blake in his seven months in the job was with three colleagues going through 4,000 songs on the old UCB playlist. "At one time records were being added to the playlist rather indiscriminately. Now we try and play the best Christian music which fits the style of the station and which have lyrics in line with Scripture, though a song doesn't have to be a Scripture Memory Song to get on the playlist!"
One of the endearing things about UCB's playlist is that it isn't limited to the Big Three UK Christian companies and takes in the best from the smaller companies (ICC - David And Carrie Grant, Robin Mark; Spirit Music - Jim Bullard: Little Misty - Ian White), tiny independents (Jackie And Terry Mills) and even unreleased albums ('Burning Ember' by Steve Bell). Says Steve Blake. "We'll audition anything on its musical merits and if, in our opinion, it's good it will get UCB Europe exposure. Sometimes we know that we're creating a demand the UK bookshops don't currently meet - for instance people have inundated UK Christian bookshops trying to get the Morgan Cryar song "What Sin?" which has been unavailable since his US company folded. But far more often we're creating a demand for music - where there wasn't a demand before - and the record companies and bookshops are benefiting. I'm certain the market for Christian music is going to grow in the UK as more and more believers find UCB on medium wave and make the discovery of the musical riches God is giving to his Church."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.