Redemptive Radio?

Today on a local “safe for the whole family” radio station, I heard the song “How to Save a Life” by The Fray.

My first thought was, “Cool,” because The Fray is a cool band and I think their music is pretty decent.

But then I got to thinking: why is “How to Save a Life” suddenly a feature on the Christian radio station? I don’t know much about the spiritual history of the band members, but I do know that The Fray does not claim to be a “Christian” band. They worked their way up through the alternative rock radio ranks in Denver. They write songs that are broadly appealing. They didn’t release their album on a Christian label or distribute it in Christian trinket I mean book stores. When The Fray played Sokol Hall, they weren’t running ads on Christian radio trying to get an audience.

And what’s more, “How to Save a Life” wasn’t being featured on Christian radio a year and a half ago, when it first hit the charts and became a feature song on Grey’s Anatomy. So I got to thinking: what changed? Why is the song now worthy of Christian radio airplay, more than a year after it found major commercial success?

I’m interested in your thoughts on the comment thread. Here’s my two cents: “Christian” radio, which started out as a vehicle for biblical preaching and teaching, has become primarily a “safe” (i.e. “subcultural”) alternative to major commercial radio. So what qualifies a song to be played on the Christian station has almost nothing to do with the faithful witness of the musicians, or the style of the music, or the biblical worldview of the lyrics. Rather, the simple criteria are: 1) is this song commercially attractive to the masses, and 2) are its lyrics “safe for the whole family?”

In applying these criteria, occasionally Christian radio is out front with a Christian artist who has solid commercial appeal (a la Mat Kearney). But more often, Christian radio is behind the ball, suddenly discovering that yesterday’s commercially popular songs also happen to be safe for the whole family (a la “How to Save a Life”). Since people are listening to such songs on secular radio anyway, why not play them on the Jesus station once we’ve confirmed that they’re indeed “safe”?

Some Christian radio defenders will undoubtedly spin this as a faithful attempt to engage culture. But I contend that it is not. Rather, it is another example of picking up the culture’s scraps and slapping a Christian label on them. If God’s people would seek to shape culture in a redemptive way, we’ll have to do more than figure out which songs qualify as both “cool” and “safe.” We’ll have to encourage and promote artists who sing about the complexities of Creation, Fall, and Redemption – including even the ugly parts – and who spur us to think more deeply about such complexities. Such artists are neither neatly “Christian” nor plainly “secular.” They are simply human.

Your thoughts? (Especially if you work in Christian radio, you’re entitled to a rebuttal. Fire away.)


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  1. Bob,

    In my opinion, this is an inconsistent criticism of this radio station. It seems like you are trying to pick a fight just to pick a fight.

    You say:
    “We’ll have to encourage and promote artists who sing about the complexities of Creation, Fall, and Redemption – including even the ugly parts – and who spur us to think more deeply about such complexities. Such artists are neither neatly “Christian” nor plainly ‘secular.’ They are simply human.”

    But the lyrics seem to suggest just this very storyline. It expresses regret, helplessness, pain, etc. Thanks to the wonderful world of wikipedia we can find out exactly what Isaac Slade was trying to express in the composition of how to save a life (sorry i must consult if because i don’t really know anything about the fray). Of his experience at a camp for troubled teens, Slade recalls, “One of the kids I was paired up with was a musician. Here I was, a protected suburbanite, and he was just 17 and had all these problems. And no one could write a manual on how to save him.”

    This song is about the fall and the world’s misguided attempts to find redemption. If this doesn’t display a tremendous need for the gospel, then I don’t know what you more you could want.

    I must admit that I barely know this song. I don’t really enjoy the Fray too much. So, I could be way off, but it just seems to me like a pretty frivolous criticism. With all respect intended.


  2. Bob, I feel this criticism is unnecessary.

    A couple random thoughts I had :

    I don’t thimk they claim to be a “Christian” station, they are a “positive” station.

    What is the difference between a “Christian” station playing a secular song that presents a story showing a need for hope and redemption and CD hosting a secular concert with songs that also speak about life and it’s challenges?

  3. Man I have been trying to think about all those things for weeks. And I am still not sure. My inclination is to wards your same views, Bob. That they just slap a Jesus fish on something and then it is okay to play it. But isn’t the radio station part of our roots, kind of like the big churches here in town? I mean, this radio station was once a part of the college that is letting us use their chapel for worship. And it’s the same radio station that has been broadcasting Sunday morning services from our “mother church.” Most of the worship songs we sing on Sunday mornings we wouldn’t know the words to had then not been popularized on these stations first.

    I am with S and Derrick on this one.
    Did we do it right with the Alex DuPree concert? I think so. So how was that different? Half of the time I get really angry with the Christian radio stations, but the truth is, it is probably because I just don’t prefer the style of music they play. If I don’t like them, it is probably because of something wrong or sinful on my part, not theirs.

  4. patrick,

    these kind of stations are programmed to appeal to women in their 20’s – 50’s. so it would be normal for you to not like them much, certainly not wrong or sinful. nick buras

  5. Derrick – I think you’re reading me wrong. I’m saying that the Fray’s song IS a decent example of a redemptive song. What is suspect is the fact that Christian radio did not recognize it as such until after it achieved broad commercial success.

    As a side note, we all know that I would never pick a fight just to pick a fight. Seriously.

    I’m certainly not saying that “Christian music” as such is a bad thing. I like some of it. What I am questioning is the criteria these stations are using to qualify and justify the music they will play. Had any of them picked up on “How to Save a Life” last year and made a case that it had redemptive themes, that would have been cool. Playing the song a year after its heyday suggests that maybe, just maybe, Christian radio promoters figured out that women in their 20s-50s liked the Fray’s music. 🙂

  6. I recall hearing “Jesus Take the Wheel” on Christian radio as well. Does the message have a “Christian” point – yes, but Carrie Underwood isn’t exactly Sandi Patty (too 80s), Amy Grant (too late 80s), Twila Paris (too 90s) – Super Chick? I don’t know, I’m almost 40 and feel the least hip I’ve ever felt.

    Anyway, as a mom who drives a van to soccer (actually karate) practice, I’m just thankful there are more christian stations to choose from then when I was a kid.

    I think Christina Radio has the same failings of the secular industry – it is driven by record labels and popularity, and they don’t necessarily promote artists who are not in the mainstream.

  7. You can actually buy the Fray at most Christian retailers nowadays, when Sony (their label) realized that this former youth group worship band could easily be packaged and sold to the religious crowd too. That’s why you hear it on Christian radio, because the band did it backwards, they were secular, then went CCM-crossover.

    I wonder how the band feels about that. They had an interview on a year or so ago where they talked about how they desired to impact the world as Christians, and that’s why they write vague yet hopeful and redemptive songs. They realized that music on the “Ark” (Christian subculture), didn’t appeal to the masses, as they don’t speak Christianese. It’s why this band, that started as a worship band in a youth group, signed secular, instead of religious.

  8. I find it interesting that while the broader culture is listening to and enjoying a song with some redemptive themes in it, we Christians seem to be telling them that such songs are OK with us primarily because they are “safe.”

  9. Christian radio is no worse than secular radio. They are trying to stay fresh with trends and current things. In this case they were late,. . .but hey,. . .so was secular radio with Mercy Me’s “I can only Imagine”.
    By the way, I don’t think this is a good thing,. . Christian radio could be really groundbreaking and thought provoking (since we do have the most to write about, right?)

    But, the whole “christians are ripping off culture,. . it’s mostly Jesus junk” is a straw man. . it’s an easy target.

    Sure, it has happened,. . but this blog doesn’t have enough room to list all the secular ripoff bands. Why do the pop stations play Nickelback? Because the sound like the former Christian darlings (ugg) Creed.

    my two cents from Fray-land,


  10. Agreed on the “safe” thing.

    I think alot of the larger, corporate Christian radio is guilty of fear mongering.

    John 16 “I do not ask you to take them out of the world”

  11. mass appeal songs such as The Fray’s “how to save a life” and Daughtry’s “home” are songs that are yes “safe” “family friendly” songs, and the artists are researched on to make sure that they check out… One of the major reasons Christian Radio felt comfortable playing The Fray is an interview they did with Christianity Today proclaiming their faith and sharing their perspective behind their songs. Chris Daughtry also has been vocal about his faith. When research is done with christian audiences, these songs are found to be liked strongly, that factored into the fact that pretty much everyone can recognize those songs and you can increase your listenership with all audiences, not just the christian audience. The most popular songs equal a bigger audience with equals more dollars.

  12. You guys are bringing up some good points. I do hope that these baby steps will lead Christians to more intentional engagement of culture. And yeah, Aaron, fair point on the whole “straw man” thing. I think the tension I’m trying to draw out is that, as you said, “Christian radio could be really groundbreaking and thought provoking since we have the most to write about,” and yet we are settling for “The most popular songs equal a bigger audience equals more dollars” (jeremiah). Christianity has succumbed to niche marketing (“safe for the whole family”) instead of broad cultural influence. And because of the trends we’ve set in the last 50 years, much of the culture could care less about our niche, so they’re not listening.

  13. Yeah, I wish things were different in the whole music industry, Christian included. But, my ideal radio station would a) not make alot of money and b)not be safe for the whole family. . . . apparently 🙂

    It’s the biz. It’s a bummer that the Christian marketplace has settled for niche marketing. . .but I can’t blame them, just because I’m not in their niche. They are trying to run a successful business by being the “safe” alternative. The problem is, the gospel is being watered-down and downright misrepresented at times.

    The best quote on all this came from David Wilcox, a Christian musician who isn’t in the Christian music industry. He said, “I listen to Christian radio until I feel like they’ve lied to me. . . . I usually get through about two songs”. amen.


  14. David Wilcox also wrote a song called “After Your Orgasm,” which would certainly not be a title which is safe for the whole family.

    Good quote.

  15. I wish Christian radio could appeal to our generation, the coveted 18- to 30-year-old demographic, instead of just playing adult contemporary music all the time. I think the variety of music on the stations really leaves something to be desired since I hear Mark Schultz at least once every time I listen to the station. If Christian radio really wants to make a positive difference, I think it should be trying to reach youth instead of pushing the “safe for the whole family” thing. The fact that they played “How to Save a Life” could be viewed as a step in the right direction, but I somehow doubt that they will continue to play popular music. I think it’s just a symptom of how they’re confused and don’t really know what they’re trying to do.

    Another thought about the concept of “safe” is: where does that leave artists like Derek Webb, who are Christian but also controversial? A lot of artists who have something important and relevant to say would probably be left out because of a bad word or a challenging lyric. It makes me wonder why we would even want safe, sugar-coated music. Those are just some of my thoughts . . .

    Matt VanEpps

  16. I understand that christian radio is ran as any other business, to make money. They play music that 40 year old moms will like because they know that advertisers will be able to put commercials on that people will hear that have money to spend, not us 18-30 year olds. I never listen to christian radio. However, why is it when a radio is on scan, without paying attention to what radio station you are on, you just know when it comes to the christian station. Their is just something in the music that is so….substandard you know it must be christian.
    If KGBI plays The Fray, then are they going to start playing MuteMath, who actually sued their label for putting them on a christian imprint. Or Derek Webb who refuses the “christian” music label, I liked what he said at Coram Deo a few months ago about Christian music. They won’t play it because it isn’t poppy enough, not because the artist shed the “christian label”

    At the foundry we try our best not to have “christian” artists, because we know the crowd that will come along, and we aren’t really that interested in reaching out to other christians, but to those who have a different worldview than us. When “christian” bands know that we are christians that run it, they don’t understand why we would rather not have them play.

    We would rather explore Truth through other ways that culture is already using, and finding stories of redemption and pointing it out to those who miss it. We like to say “we would rather have a R-rated Truth instead of a G-rated lie.”

    Anyways, I am not a fan of “christian” music and don’t understand it, but don’t fault some christian business people who knew that they could make money by having a radio station. That might not be why KGBI started, but christain radio in general.

  17. Jeff:

    “We would rather have an R-rated truth than a G-rated lie.”

    That is a great line. Props to you guys for keeping it real over there @ the Foundry. We love y’all.

  18. “There is just something in the music that is so….substandard you know it must be christian.”

    Aaaaaah, so true! I have to say that is my biggest issue with “Christian” music. I have a hard time honestly faulting the radio stations, since pretty much all radio can suck. Even the stations that claim to have a ton of variety still overplay new and old, depending on the format of the station, popular songs.

    It bugs me that “Christian” music tends to be so substandard. Should not Christian be among the most creative artists? I mean, if the Gospel is really working in Christian artist’s lives, shouldn’t they have some great insights, instead of lame platitudes? Shouldn’t Christian bands be among those on the forefront of trends rather than jumping on the coatails of not-so-current trends?

    I know there has to be some decent music on the “Christian” stations, but I can never make it through more than one or two songs before I have to change the channel. It’s just like when I hear a band like Nickelback starting to play on another station. I know there should be some good music after it, but I just don’t find that to be good enough motivation to listen to crap first!

  19. I have to disagree on Christian music being substandard. I think Secular music is just as (if not more) derivative, poorly mixed, and poorly written.

    David Crowder Band won MSN artist of the year up against Christina Aguilera, Nickelback, etc. . .everyone else who was on MSN music.

    It’s not Christian music that has a distinct production flavor as much as it is “nashvhille music”. Music made in that town has a certain vibe to it at times. If you listen to alot of modern country, you’ll notice it sounds like Klove.

    Christian music is an easy target. . .there’s definitely some derivative music and boring stuff on Christian radio. But, turn on your local pop station and prepare to be underwhelmed.

    Basically, as it relates to pop music, we like what is cool, and right now it’s cool to not like Christian music, and call it sub-standard. It’s also cool to like pop music that won’t be memorable in 3 months like,. . my chemical romance, All american rejects, Amy winehouse, .etc. . . . .

  20. aaron,
    i think that david crowder band won that award, because he is in a christian band, and many christian music fans spread word that he was in contention. i have been on christian music message boards and seen the types of messages that are on there. especially during the voting period of david crowder msn music competition.
    there were statements like “this is what we need as christians to have our music stand out for being the best, so please vote” and I think that is how he won, people felt like this would help defend christian music for being “cool” and “good”
    I like david crowder band, they are one of the bands that makes quality music.
    if the inspiration for our art comes from our Creator, then lets not make poor music because our influence is so great.
    In many ways I think that some artists that are “christian” are using the Lord’s name in vain, to make money.
    They know they can stay in the christian market and stay alive and sell many cd’s and get paid thousands by churches to play, were if they were in the mainstream they wouldn’t sell as much and only receive the door money as compensation for playing gigs.

  21. Jeff,

    You’re partly right. We should hold the standards high for Christian music to be always good,. . and the best music in general. I totally agree.

    But, when we’re making these cmparisons, we’re comparing Christian music to secular music. . and I guess what I’ve been getting at is that secular music ain’t so great either. For every Mark Schultz or Avalon on Christian radio,. . there’s Tonic, or Clay Aiken on pop radio. Why do we think we have it worse?

    I know using the DCB as an example is like saying that the NBA is good because “look at the Spurs”. But, I genuinely feel like folks are piling on Christian music. There is alot of quality out there. The modern worship scene has produced some of the best music of any genre the last few years. . . . . Christian radio darlings, Leeland, have broken completely new musical ground with their release. And, this is a subjective issue anyway, there isn’t a global criticism to make because you can’t criticize something globally that is to evaluated individually.

    Sure, Christian radio has knock offs and other things that should be criticized. But, what are we criticizing them against? Nickelback?


    ps. the money issue you bring up is true some of the time. . the most famous example being the Jars of Clay taking less money to play clubs. But, a) the radio royalties are far, far less for Christian acts because KLove and the like are quite often Non-profits. b) Publishing money is always a part of Christian record contracts (in other words. . the label gets some of your songwriting royalties) and almost never part of secular record contracts.

  22. I’m not quite understanding Bob’s criticism of the “safe for the whole family” concept. Certainly, most of actual life is not “safe”, but out of a radio dial of about 30 stations, shouldn’t there be a few that the whole family can listen to without worrying about something dirty or borderline coming on.

    If you like the style of music that’s not broadcast and maybe a little off the mainstream path, there’s internet radio, ipods, and CDs.

    I’ll admit that I can’t comment on the quality of “Christian” or “secular” music on the radio because I almost only listen to talk radio.

    I just wonder if people’s criticism of Christian radio on these postings is because they don’t happen to enjoy the style of music that’s being played. Men in their 20s or 30s aren’t the target of Adult Contemporary stations (and that’s what the Christian music stations in Omaha are).

    nick buras

  23. Isn’t it true that if, time after time, apples grow on a tree, it’s safe to call it an apple tree?

    KLove is a Christian station. ALL their songs are about Jesus. But they are also “safe”, which puts the two qualities into heirarchy. Borrowing from CS Lewis (or Churchill, or somebody), if Klove is more interested in being “safe” than being Christian, then they are neither safe nor Christian.

    I agree that the issue boils down to honesty. The virtue of secular music is that they don’t hesistate to address the ugly parts of life. Christians, because we must “rejoice in all things”, tend to sugar-coat our feelings of despair in tragedy. Or, we deny our feelings entirely. I suppose that results in many peppy, optimistic songs about Creation and Redemption. This is an incomplete represenation of the world we live in. Without the fall, there is no conflict, and without conflict, there is no art.

    (Just let it be known, that before I knew she was married, I was in love with Nicole Nordman. Now she is like a comforting aunt)


  24. Also let it be known, that art and worship aren’t always connected. Tone deaf people should still worship God in song, as should talented musicians. In the end, it is about the intention of our hearts. Klove does a great job at putting worshipful, if not always artful, tunes on the radio. And that may be a more worthy action than the best musicians self-exalting tracks. I’m thinking of 1 Cor. 13: 1-3.

  25. Evan,

    Does secular radio present a true view of redemption? Are they being honest, or just trying to make a buck?


  26. I’ve also heard Martina McBride on the christian station. Being a mom of 2 (and not in my forties thank you) it’s comforting to listen to songs that I don’t have to worry about my girls singing. My daughter started singing Avril Lavine’s “Girlfriend” the other day. She heard it on the disney chanel. I’d rather her sing a song she heard off the “christian” station even if it is “sub-standard”, or “PG lies” or even “safe”. There are a lot of great artists out there and I don’t really care what radio station they play on, but it is nice to have something to listen to beside Hannah Montana everyday!

  27. “Klove does a great job at putting worshipful, if not always artful, tunes on the radio.”

    Evan, that cracked me up!

    Anonymous mother of two, your post reminded me of a blog I read over at The Resurgence website about movie ratings. It’s here if you want to read it.

    Greg Wright makes a good point I think. What we consider to be safe art (ie: no swearing, sex, or violence) can still be dangerous material. A “christian” song heard on klove KGBI will certainly be safe, and honestly there’s a lot to be said for that, but it could also be filled with horrible theology. And what we believe tends to dictate our actions. I’m not saying we should or should not listen to Christian radio because of possible bad theology. Obviously that would mean not listening to any music. I just think it would be wise for us as Christians to be more critical of what we listen to and watch.

  28. I think these “Christian” radio stations are just like any other business, and it’s wrong to assume that they will make decisions based on what is morally right. They are going to make decisions based on what makes them the most money (this requires not offending their target audience).

  29. From Ivan Lovegren:

    Some thoughts –

    My first inclination after reading Bob’s initial post was to want to mention how ironic the entire cycle is – the moment I heard the Fray I couldn’t decide whether they were the first “secular” Lifehouse or Switchfoot product of the studio system. It is funny that those two clearly Christian bands (Lifehouse started out playing churches in high school) should “spawn” a group that Christianity wouldn’t pick up on until well over a year into their secular radio success, when they were a clone of originally Christian bands who had found pop success.

    In response to some (most) of the other comments –

    To begin with, I think in any kind of discussion like this, we need to avoid labeling any particular band or style as “bad music.” Just because Nickelback doesn’t appeal to us, and those with any knowledge of guitar, rock music, or memory of their last three radio songs can recognize the simplicity and repetitiveness of their music, they still do appeal to a certain (dominant) niche of music listeners, and therefore should be viewed as a power rather than a waste of time. We should be finding ways to make the average listener more aware of quality music instead of bashing on anything unoriginal or formulaic. Heck, The Fray themselves are (as mentioned) a simple amalgamation of Switchfoot, Lifehouse, Five for Fighting, and even John Mayer. So if we are going to discuss these issues of “pop” versus “meaningful” music, we should speak ABOUT, not AGAINST, any particular style (i.e. don’t bash Tonic!).

    Yes, Christian or “Safe” radio is a business. I love what Kris M said about the driving forces behind the industry being the same as in secular radio. Why do we expect them to be different? Do we expect the Christian business directory plumber to charge us less than the secular plumber, or to do a perfect job? No, we call him because we are choosing where to place our business, not because we think he or she is going to pander to us in any way. Business is business, and radio is a business, even non-profit radio. Some one realized their dream of being a salaried radio producer or dj by selling to a niche market that was untapped at the time, even if the company itself doesn’t earn money.

    That said, I like the track of the person who asked Bob what he would play on his own radio station. I think that is a good start. However, the real question is, why doesn’t someone with the time, resources, and calling do just such a thing? We spend so much time complaining about the state of things without taking responsibility.

    Anyone who has taken a simple marketing class or read an issue of Fast Company magazine knows that the greatest demographic to sell to is males 18 to 40 years of age. Don’t try and pass the buck for KLOVE’s existence on mothers who are doing their best to nurture, protect, AND strengthen their children into young adults with a passion for Christ.

    I think (no statistical basis, but I bet stats would back me up) that too many Christians, especially men in their prime, have revolted against the “Christian” music industry. I do not approve the industry as a “subculture,” but if we stand by and ignore it, allowing it to be a “subculture,” we are reinforcing the world’s stereotype. To incite change, call your local “Safe” station and request on a regular basis artists like Sufjan Stevens, Anberlin, Bless the Fall or ________________ (fill in the blank with YOUR unique, skilled, and truth-inspired artist). When we as a community push for quality, we will get quality. As long as we settle for Sandi Patty, that’s what we will get.

    (Case in point – how often do you hear Sandi Patty on the radio today?)

    I apologize for the pontificating produced by discussions of art and spirituality while drinking too much coffee, and thank anyone who is still reading.

    -Ivan, male, 23, partially responsible for the success of Creed

  30. Ivan,

    I’m not still reading, but one thing you said makes little sense to me:

    “Business is business, and radio is a business, even non-profit radio.”

    Huh? Isn’t what makes a business a business the fact it exists to make a profit?

    Just wondering… don’t answer, though, because I won’t be able to read the entirety of your next post… 🙂

  31. Ivan,

    sorry that I knocked on some bands that you liked. I guess I hoped that folks would pick up on exactly what you said. . . . that it’s a bit dubious to make strong value judgements on a subjective medium like music. And,. . ironically, that’s what alot of folks do as it pertains to Christian music. Sometimes, it is judged only because it is “christian”. So, that was my intent,. . sorry about coming across judgemental. I actually agree with you. . let’s cut out taking a broad brush against Christian music just because we don’t like Avalon (oops I did it again)


  32. haha – sorry bob, that was definitely the coffee talking. i even proof-read my post and still missed it. =)

  33. I am not familiar with the band, but I would like to take this opportunity to express some dissatisfaction in our local stations. 660 (I hope I am allowed to talk on specific stations), has some very very good teachers and teachings on throughout the week. However there seems to be an increasing amount of word of faith teaching. Such teaching goes against the core of the gospel. They are as stated a business. A business, however, that needs to hold itself at a higher level if it is going to broadcast it’s message across the airwaves and try to represent the Christian community. I even recall hearing commercials for a prophecy event, and it didn’t sound like the Word of God to me. Glad to run across the website Bob!

  34. I think you’re right about the safe. It’s become more of a “Anyone who doesn’t drink, cuss or chew (or go with girls who do)” is a Christian artist.
    And while that’s troubling, what is perhaps more troubling to me is the lack of originality of Christian artists.

    I’ll confess I don’t listen to much Christian music any more because it seems to be a bad imitation of the secular genre. There are few Christian artists who are putting out original material. Or perhaps, those that are are being squelched by the “Mainstream Christian Media.” For a group that should have an excellent understanding of beauty and an incredible desire to express their emotions, what often comes out are artists that “Sound like Pearl Jam, but with the gospel” or “Got Jesus?” t-shirts.

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