Thursday 8 December 2016

Christian Radio: Airwaves to heaven

Christian radio has come to Ireland -- but there are no Bibles being bashed in Spirit FM, writes John Meagher

Published 30/05/2011 | 05:00

Front, from left: Anne Clarke, Carole Brown, Ronan Johnston,
Wendy Grace. Back, from left: Garvan Rigby, Bernie Jameson,
Aine Carvill, Dave Redmond. Photo by Dave Meehan
Front, from left: Anne Clarke, Carole Brown, Ronan Johnston, Wendy Grace. Back, from left: Garvan Rigby, Bernie Jameson, Aine Carvill, Dave Redmond. Photo by Dave Meehan

Morning Ireland -- the country's most listened-to radio programme -- offers a steady diet of news stories so gloomy one wouldn't be blamed for staying in bed and under the covers.

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Every day the country's financial predicament seems to be getting worse, and RTÉ1's flagship show does not shirk from reporting the grim, gory details.

Those who long for good news stories may have found what they're looking for. Just up the dial, and before you hit 2fm, you will find a radio station where good news stories are the stock in trade.

Spirit Radio -- the country's first Christian station -- accentuates the positives, pushing feelgood, optimistic stories rather than dwelling ad nauseam with our pesky financial crash.

Spirit, in its own inimitable fashion, tries to salve the soul of the listener with the sort of life-affirming reports that just don't make it to the rival radio stations.

Spirit Radio can be found on the third floor of the grimly impersonal Hume House office building in Ballsbridge, Dublin. There are no religious pictures on the walls.

There's not a crucifix in sight. And anybody hoping for a stack of Bibles rather than the day's newspapers on the coffee tables will be disappointed.

But there is a good chance that Spirit is the only station in Ireland to feature a prayer room where staff meet in the early afternoon to give thanks to God, or visit individually for personal reflection.

And Rob Clarke may be the only station chief in the country who has a large Bible sharing shelf space with a Winston Churchill biography in his office.

But to the casual visitor, Spirit Radio is just a jumble of small studios and dull office space that used to be home to the recently relocated FM104.

Yet, anyone who listens to Spirit's broadcast for even a few minutes will be under no illusion that this is a radio station quite unlike any other. Broadcast in Dublin and the Republic's major cities between 89 and 91 FM, it's a world away from commercial stations with their cheesy morning shows, late night shock-jocks and identikit pop music.

For one, roughly two-thirds of the songs played are culled from a fast-growing American genre called Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) -- also known as "inspirational music" -- and comprises names largely unknown to an Irish audience including Luminate, Chris Tomlin and Kutless.

Just as striking is the tenor of the news and topical discussions. Rather than focusing on the all-pervading gloom of a recession-devastated Ireland, Spirit accentuates the positives. It seeks out good-news stories and largely leaves discussion of our economic woes to other media.

"We aim to broadcast a positive, uplifting message rooted in the Christian gospel," says Rob Clarke, a New Zealander who has lived in Ireland for 24 years, "We are not as full-on as some of the American Christian radio stations. Our broadcasts are subtler, less dogmatic."

Christian radio stations have existed in the US for decades, with some of the bigger ones commanding audiences of millions.

In Europe, the phenomenon is also well established and before the launch of Spirit in January, it's thought that Ireland was the only country in the EU without a dedicated Christian station.

Spirit had an online presence before being awarded a full radio licence. Ratings are not yet known as the station has only been on air for four months, but Rob believes the figures are healthy.

"We have almost 2,000 followers on our Facebook page," he says. "That's considerably more than some of the longer running niche radio stations in this country."

Listeners, Spirit insist, are likely to span generations and backgrounds, but when pushed for a notional listener, several staff members suggest a female professional in her late 20s/early 30s.

A Christian faith is an obligatory requirement for all those who work at Spirit, Rob says. "Different denominations are represented, but we're singing off the same hymn sheet," he says, cheerfully. "And we have people from all walks of life, many with inspirational stories to tell."

Among them is David Williamson, a former RUC policeman from the Protestant tradition who works as sales manager.

He was injured in a terrorist explosion and his faith was strengthened when he managed to retain his arm despite medical advice urging him to have it amputated.

And then there's Aine Carvill, a former travel industry manager from Rostrevor, Co Down, who combines news-reading duties with ad sales. Aine is heavily involved with the Second Chance movement in a Dublin Catholic church.

"It reaches out to people who felt the church didn't speak to them. It's much more participative and engaging -- much like this radio station."

Wendy Grace (24) from Killiney, Dublin, presents a chat-based programme between 10pm and midnight from Monday through to Thursday. She rediscovered her Catholic faith while studying journalism in Griffith College, Dublin.

"I'd always had a strong faith, but it dipped somewhat in my teens. When I was a bit older, I realised just how important it was to me. And my brother, Nick, also rediscovered his faith. A few years ago he was managing a bar in Ibiza, now he's studying for the priesthood in Rome."

Wendy is adamant that pre-conceived notions might go out the window once people listen to the station. "Spirit Radio is not about Bible-bashing, but about positive, uplifting stories instead. I focus on younger people's issues. There's been a really good response to it because, like much of the coverage on the station, it's not preachy."

That's a view shared by Ronan Johnston, presenter of RoJo in the Morning. The record producer and sometime mentor on the short-lived reality TV series, You're A Star, has his work cut out for him being on air as the same time as the country's most listened to programme, Morning Ireland, but he believes there is a sizable market who would appreciate a programme "with a lightness of touch" and one whose songs are "life-affirming".

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"About a third of the music I play is stuff you might hear on any radio station," he says. "But we're very careful about what we actually play. There's nothing about killing cops or smacking your bitch up." The latter words refer to a notorious song (and video) from British electro band, The Prodigy.

Dubliner Garvan Rigby is the head of programming on the station. It is his job to select suitable songs and he does this by painstakingly analysing the lyrics. "Anything with sexual references or violence or out-and-out consumerism is never played, obviously. This is a Christian radio station, after all."

Unsurprisingly, you will never hear such disparate fare as Kanye West and Pussycat Dolls on Spirit FM. Nor will you hear Katy Perry, the former Contemporary Christian Music singer whose strange mix of sexually provocative and straight-up spiritual songs have made her one of the biggest acts on the planet.

"'Firework' is a life-affirming song, but we don't play Katy Perry's version because it doesn't fit with the sound of the station. We play Chris Sligh's rendition, instead."

Sligh, to the uninitiated, came to prominence on American Idol, and Garvan points out, is well worth investigation.

Besides reams of CCM, Garvan says a typical day might see the station playing "the biggest Christian rock band in the world", Bob Geldof, Bell X1 and local, unsigned bands such as Lost in Flight.

"All these acts are the right fit for us. Metallica might decide to write spiritual, uplifting songs in the morning but we wouldn't play them because their sound just wouldn't be right for Spirit."

With the Irish listener spoilt for choice with any number of niche radio stations operating, Spirit Radio faces a tough future. "We are a not-for-profit organisation with charitable status, but we have to generate an income in order to meet our overheads and pay wages for 20 or so staff," Rob Clarke says.

"That's difficult in this economic climate when all radio stations are finding it hard to sell advertising."

Irish Independent

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