God may not be dead, but he doesn't earn his keep like he used to.
That's the word from Bill Gudelman, general manager of Anaheim-based Christian radio station KPZE. Having devoted itself entirely to Christian broadcasting since 1985, the station saw its revenues hit hard after the Jim and Tammy Bakker scandal and is opening up to more secular programming to shore up profits.
"Our summer revenues dropped off 10% to 15%, and we're finding that we have to make changes," Gudelman said. "Like some investors after the stock market crash, we're diversifying our portfolio. We're selling off some stocks and buying others."
What they "sold off" exactly is 2 1/2 hours out of the four hours of evangelistic programs (as opposed to Christian related health, music and other programs) that provide about 90% of the station's income. Most of that air time was occupied by nationally syndicated programming by lesser-known radio preachers who paid KPZE out of the donations from Christian listeners. Even though Orange County is what Gudelman calls "a bastion of Christianity," donors' generosity has been on the wane since the Bakker scandal last spring.
Gudelman said the station's owner, Anaheim Broadcasting Co., decided in September to aggressively seek alternative income by selling spot radio ads for consumer products just like regular commercial stations. "Spots once represented 10% of our profits, and I'm hoping that it will go up to 50% or 60%," Gudelman said.
To attract the kind of audience that attracts advertisers, the station has started several news and sports shows and, on Jan. 9, will launch a weekly, two-hour talk show hosted by Joe Ortiz, who Gudelman said will "talk about anything and everything."
"He's not there to talk about God," said Gudelman, in a business-like tone that showed nobody is above the limiting reach of market definition. "But Joe is a 'born-again' Christian, and the plan is for him to talk about some subjects with a Christian perspective. We're not changing our format, only our direction."
Gudelman thinks it is too early to say how far in this direction the station will go, but he made it clear that he believes the Bakker scandal may well have provoked a lasting skepticism among Christian radio audiences nationwide. "I think that there will probably be some lasting effects. I think that Christian programming is going to come back some day bigger and better than ever, but who knows when that will be? I think the stronger ministries will flourish eventually and the weaker ones will fall by the wayside."
Ben Armstrong, executive director of the National Religious Broadcasters, an association of 650 Christian radio stations and 600 television stations, said that many radio stations are increasingly diversifying their fare. In fact, he said, diversification will be a "hot topic" at the association's annual convention in Washington, Jan. 30 to Feb. 3.
Still, he said, the number of Christian radio stations continues to increase. While some other stations are experiencing a revenue drop similar to that at KPZE, it is not a national trend, he added.
"We had what you would call a setback as a result of programs last March, but the ones who were really adversely affected were the television stations," said Armstrong, from the association's headquarters in Morristown, N.J.
Gudelman, when asked if some listeners might not see the dilution of the station's Christian content as a somewhat mercenary compromise of its commitment to Christian principles, said that would be a misreading of the change. He acknowledged that the idea of a radio station toning down its religious emphasis to maintain profits was a little at odds with the sweating, swaying fervor with which some preachers proclaim their unshakable faith.
And he said he expects a backlash from KPZE fans who tune in for the word of God and hear the words of Joe Ortiz, or activist attorney Gloria Allred, one of the guests Gudelman said Ortiz will have during his 1-to-3 p.m. slot on Saturdays. "I think there will be some controversy," said Gudelman, who said he is a "born-again" Christian. "Hey, look, this is a time when we've all got to broaden our horizons."