In discussions with others in the Christian Radio industry, we've been trying to discern what Christian Radio will look like a few years down the path. It's always very difficult and dangerous to make linear projections from the present to the future, because non-linear forces that may seem insignificant at present soon dominate the prediction in unforseen ways. This is commonly called the Butterfly Effect (See Chaos by Gleick). Nonetheless, we'll give it a will try.
Brief Historical Perspectives on Christian Radio
In the past, Christian radio had music and preaching interspersed. Some stations were all-music, a few all-preaching. The popular preaching format was 15 or 30 minute daily programs airing at the same timeslot every day. Currently, the landscape is changing. Music is becoming more prominent. More stations are all-music, and many more are programming a larger segment of the broadcast day with music. The time slots for preaching are being reduced. Even five-minute features are being deemed too long, and a new field of ninety-second programs are being produced. The old bastion of Moody is hurting. A new force in the industry is Salem Communications. They have taken advantage of relaxed FCC rulings and centralized labor-saving administration and production to reduce costs. This is much the same as Clear Channel has done in the secular realm. At the same time, the Internet and Satellite radio such as XM and Sirius are starting to be players in the market.
So what is the future of Christian Radio?
This is probably the wrong question. It is akin to somebody in 1940 asking "What is the future of railroads?" The better question would be "What is the future of transportation?" This would give a clearer picture: it would include airplanes and interstate highways. So let's ask a better question:What is the future of Christian Listening?Why is this a better question? As the railroad question above shows, the better question is to ask about the item that won't go away: the constant, the basic concept. Transportation will still be around, railroads may or may not. In a similar vein, listening is the essential human endeavor, the specific medium will change. So on to: What is the future of Christian Listening?Specifically we'll ask this not in terms of music production, but as it affects what we'll call the Speaking Ministries. These are the ministries that produce spoken-word material for the Christian Listening market.
As technology gives us more options listeners will take advantange of them. One hundred years ago the mode of Christian Listening was: Live. Fifty years ago, the modes of Christian Listening were: Live, Vinyl Records, AM or Shortwave Radio. Today those options include: Live, CD, AM, FM, Shortwave or Satellite Radio. Soon Digital Radio will be added. Add to this cassette tape, media-neutral compressed digital (MP3, AAC, Ogg, Real, Windows Media, etc.) delivered via the Internet or personal audio player (such as the Apple iPod), Cable Radio, and Wireless Digital. From this list of options we can make a fairly safe prediction that the Christian listening market will become more fragmented. Each medium will have a smaller market segment. The total Christian Listening market size will probably remain fairly constant or grow slightly. Another fairly safe prediction is that the Speaking ministries that will prosper will be those that do two things: 1) provide their audio over as many different media as possible and 2) do this as cost-effectively as possible. In other words, produce a program once and have it available via many different delivery mechanisms with next to no additional expense.
Listening will become much more listener-scheduled than provider-scheduled. Many of the delivery mechanisms are that way already: cassette, CD, digital media. Only live and radio are provider-scheduled. Recently television has become more viewer scheduled via Digital Video Recorders (DVRs such as TiVO and Replay TV). Soon TiVO-like boxes for digital radio will appear. These will allow listeners to time-shift radio broadcasts and mix them with their favorite music tracks.
Ministries will become more multi-media and new-media. This has already taken place to a degree in the migration of the major Speaking Ministries from straight audio into video. In other words, from radio into television and cable. Rev. Herbert Armstrong the senior became the leader of one of the largest churches in America through the outlet of television. In the 2004 American Presidential campaign, Howard Dean became a force through extensive use of the Internet. Soon a major national ministry will arise that has the Internet as its major outlet. This will probably happen within the next five years. Speaking ministries may stay primarially speaking, but will add on other media such as web sites that have study notes available, combined audio/video streams that may not have full-motion video, but do have outlines, sermon notes and scripture references in sync with the audio. Again, the ministries which produce these multi-media streams in a timely and cost-effective manner will be most successful.
Speaking Ministries' programs will become shorter, with more interspersed production elements. This is a result of the Sesame Street/ MTV/short-attention-span (almost ADHD) popular American mindset. (If you skipped down and read this paragraph out of order, my point is taken.)
Speaking Ministries interaction with their supporters will become much more "new media" to keep in step with their message. The traditional monthly appeal letter for fundraising will be augmented by personal audio appeals to select groups, delivered via CD or the Internet. The scheduling of the appeal will be driven less by the calendar and more by current events and the activity of the ministry supporter. Example: a person downloads a speaking message over the internet for a low fixed price ($0.99?). At the start of the message, they're encouraged to go to a given page within the ministry's web site to download a pdf of the message outline and study notes. At the end of the pdf file is a brief appeal letter with a link to a web page where they can make a financial gift to the ministry. If the person follows the link and makes a gift, an e-mail will be automatically generated thanking them and offering them the opportunity to join a live webinar with the ministry's speaker on a given date, and perhaps to interact with the speaker via instant messaging. A later followup appeal may be made via email with a link to an audio version of the appeal, or by mass-mailed CD or DVD. Again, those ministries that make effective use of these new media interactions will make better connection with their partners and have more opportunity to prosper than those who don't.Another result of these changes will be the way ministries track their interactions with their supporters. Since there will be a number of ways for the supporter to interact with the ministry, and these ways will largely be scheduled by the supporter, the ministry will have to give up a large measure of its control over when and how the supporter and ministry make contact. Tracking these interactions with supporters will become a much more complex task. Since the straight-line interactions of the past (listen to this week's message, order the tape, get the tape, get a magazine, etc.) will give way to much more dynamic, user-defined paths, new types of information systems will have to be developed to track these interactions. New ways of segmenting the ministry's supporters will also have to be developed. More flexible databases will be required to track these interactions. Because these new databases will track many more types of interaction data than current databases, sophisticated statistical tools will have to be used to provide meaningful segmentations of the supporter base.