By Errol Castens
TUPELO – It's a few minutes after 6 a.m., and from Mobile, Ala., to Montevideo, Minn., folks who've just wakened to a Christian anthem on American Family Radio are further animated by J.J. Jasper's “Gooooood morning!”
Before the hour is out, the Kentucky native will have asked the listener – the audience is nearly always addressed as a single soul, not a crowd – how the past weekend went. He'll have shared a handful of jokes, quoted a couple of scriptures and prayed for the listener's day to be “successful in the Lord.”
Oh – and he'll have played several more Christian songs, too.
With admonitions like “You hang in there this Monday morning; don't give up” and “Today's mighty oak is just yesterday's nut who held its ground,” Jasper and his fellow on-air personalities aim, he says, to “love on the listener.”
“We're a vehicle for the Lord. We're here to encourage, inspire, entertain. It's a ministry.”
On the grow
American Family Radio is something of a phenomenon in the radio industry. Before the first station came on the air in 1991, the Rev. Donald Wildmon, president and CEO of the American Family Association, had already envisioned a network that would carry Christian programming into small communities that weren't well served.
For the first several years, he spent hours many nights searching out frequencies to apply for.
Other Christian broadcasters often doubted those early plans for a sizable network, Sanders said.
“They would just kind of pat me on the head and laugh and say, No, that's not the way it works,'” he recalled. “I said, Look, I work for Don Wildmon, and if he says we're going to have 50, I believe him,' and sure enough, about a year later we had about 50 stations. From the industry's standpoint it's been a meteoric rise.”
The Federal Communications Commission eventually changed its rules, giving local groups and National Public Radio affiliates higher priority for new frequencies and slowing – but not stopping – AFA's growth.
“Local and NPR applications are ahead of us, and small organizations are ahead of us,” Don Wildmon said. “It takes us three to six years from application to going on the air.”
Even with one of the largest non-profit religious networks in the nation, AFR still predominantly serves small markets like Albany, Ga., and Baker City, Ore. A few medium-sized cities likeMemphis and Richmond, Va., also get its signals, and others are in process.
While Wildmon would not reveal specific numbers of stations in the network's future, Sanders said AFR will pursue every reasonable expansion.
“Honestly, the goal is to have a station that can be heard in every community in the country,” he said.
AFR has been a driving force in AFA's growth.
“AFA is necessary because somebody has to stand against the tide of cultural degradation,” said American Family Radio general manager Marvin Sanders. “I shudder to think what it would be in America if it weren't for people like Don Wildmon.”
Most of AFA's Web sites and publications are devoted to the “hard issues” that engendered the ministry. The radio network, which created much of the ministry's growth in the 1990s, offers doses of that same message, with hourly five-minute newscasts and two daily commentary programs – one anchored by Wildmon, the other by his son Tim, the ministry's president.
“The Mississippi Connection” joins Chuck Colson's “Breakpoint” to present still other “hard issues” on the network.
“Preaching and teaching” programs on the network also feature a host of evangelical perspectives such as James Dobson's “Focus on the Family,” the late Larry Burkett's “Money Matters” and Adrian Rogers' “Love Worth Finding.”
Because abrasive issues can wear on the listener – “You run into information overload after while,” Sanders said – AFR devotes some 70 percent of its 24-hour-a-day programming to Christian music in three distinct formats.
The inspiration or, as they call it, the “inspo,” format targets 35- to 50-year-olds, while “AC” is geared to a young-adult audience and “Christian Classics” features Southern Gospel and spiritual anthems that aim for more mature listeners.
“The 70-30 was pretty much Don's idea before I got here, the rationale being what's most important about what we do is the message we put out,” Sanders said. “We want people to listen to us and É stay with us.”
John Riley chooses music for the Inspo stations with one eye on the charts and another on the music's compatibility with AFA's philosophy.
“We look at the integrity of the artists,” he said.
Sanders noted that “the music they play is the message. We expect the on-air people to take the faith that's reflected in that music and make it real to the listener.”
And listeners do respond, both with financial support and with e-mails, letters and calls. Twice each year, scores of them also come in – some traveling hundreds of miles – to answer phones during “Sharathon,” the ministry's major fund-raising effort.
While its non-profit status does not allow American Family Radio to sell advertisements, business underwriters of its programming are allowed on-air mentions.
Not that AFR is all about either pounding the issues, the Bible or the ivories. Saturday mornings bring children's programs, while WAQB 90.9, AFR's local Christian Classics channel, broadcasts Saltillo High School football and Mississippi State University baseball (sans local commercials), and WAJS 91.7, Tupelo's AFR Adult Contemporary station, broadcasts Saltillo High School football and Mississippi State University baseball.
Cottom said many Christian sports fans chafe at profane or vulgar language found on some mainstream sports shows. “This gives them good, clean sports talk,” he said.