The 95.5 FISH Challenge, Upstream or Mainstream?
by Editor Jon Hanna
||The FISH line-up; Dan Deely and Robin Swoboda in the morning (pictured here), also featuring Mark Rein on News and as our morning show producer, Elizabeth Grattan-Middays, Len Howser-Afternoons, Rob Schuler-Evenings, Daniel-Late Nights.
Since the summer of 2001, the airwaves in Northeast Ohio, have been blessed with songs for the King - King Jesus that is - and songs for His church. But these aren't your ordinary seventeenth-century church hymns, these songs are contemporary enough to capture the attention of the un-churched. It's called Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) and it's one of the fastest growing music genres in America.
The 3,000 watt WZLE, out of Lorain Ohio, once salted the Greater Cleveland region, although not too well, with CCM in the 80's and 90's. WZLE went off the air in 1999, after being purchased by Clear Channel. Coincidentally - or God-incidentally - the sale was all part of a divine plan that had to happen in order for the 33,000 watt, 95.5 FM, FISH radio to grace the dial. Today, the FISH averages 84,000, to as many as 103,000, listeners each week with virtually the same brand of Christian music, yet with over ten times the power that WZLE had. (Listeners described by Arbitron as all those listening at least five minutes in one day over a 7 day period.)
FISH Program Director Sue Wilson is no stranger to radio. Her career includes helping to transform WDOK into Cleveland's soft rock radio station. After eight years as program director at WDOK, Sue was later offered the opportunity to help build the FISH from the ground up. At that time in her life she worked her home based business and had just received the terrible news that her husband, Phil Cordle, was dying of cancer. Initially, she wasn't prepared to accept any offer, anywhere. She just didn't feel emotionally prepared for the task with Phil facing a life or death ordeal.
Explaining the Christian format of this new radio venue, General Manager, Earl Dengler convinced Sue that working in the atmosphere of Christian Music would be the perfect place for her, in spite of her pain. Sue eventually conceded and was there when the new 95.5 FM first hit the airwaves. Sadly, Sue's husband Phil did pass away about a year later, but Sue is quick to point out that although the loss of her husband is painful, being at the FISH has helped her. "My faith has actually gotten stronger and stronger," she said.
"The FISH is called to serve the saved and the seeking," Sue told Connection Magazine." "All of us want to enlarge the Kingdom (of Jesus) and spread the Gospel, but there are many ways to do that. There's a life saving message in the music we play."
||Program Director, Sue Wilson
Sue claims that a lot of Christians told them that Christian radio wasn't relevant to them, which prompted the FISH to use a 'very seeker friendly approach'. However, some listeners think they may be so 'seeker friendly,' they're afraid to say the name of Jesus. Sue makes this challenge, "We say Jesus' name all the time. Listen for three days in a row and you'll see. We never say 'don't say this'. We tell our Deejays to say whatever's on their heart."
As FISH program Director, Sue is responsible to select music but admits that she is guided by the CCM format. "We always get requests for Gospel music or alternative Christian but we're a CCM station", she explained. "Asking us to play other styles of music is like asking a soft rock station to play hard rock."
Being a Christian format, the FISH understands that they are held to a higher standard regarding the music and artists they choose to play. Helping them to stay the course is a healthy dose of listener comments and complaints, which they welcome and take very seriously. Sue is willing to make changes whenever necessary, and has done so on many occasions.
"We've pulled Amy Grant's pop hits like 'Baby Baby' and 'Big Yellow Taxi'. We've chosen only to play songs that are redemptive or positive," Sue proudly declared.
The character of the artist is also important to the FISH. "We don't want to appear to support wrong behaviors." Sue claims. "We ended up pulling Lee Ann Rime's song since we've seen her in an ad with practically no clothes on."
However, most of the listener comments received by the FISH are about their commercials. "Some things we've decided to run and we've still had complaints. We make tons of mistakes. Sometimes things slip through," Sue explained.
Commercial mistakes have included subtle and sometimes hard to catch messages that are contrary to the Bible. Examples of the not so family friendly commercials have included the following sound bites; 'make your neighbor green with envy', 'image is everything', and 'it's not how you play the game, it's all about winning'.
"The most difficult thing I've been challenged with has been television ads, " explained Sue. "We'll call the TV stations and ask for generic commercials. Sometimes they'd say they couldn't do it and we've lost a ton of money."
Some decisions for commercials come from corporate and others are made locally. "We got an order for 'Crossing Over', (a show that promotes talking to the dead which the Bible declares is a sin called necromancy), and said 'we can't do that'."
When the decision to run or pull a spot is not so easy to make, Sue resorts to prayer, "I believe in the power of prayer. I bring people in and we pray on it." Sue explained. "When we realize that there's an inappropriate ad, we will pull it, and have many times," she added.
The FISH is obviously working hard to be more than just money-changers. Like a salmon seeking the higher and calmer, life nurturing waters, the FISH is working harder to swim upstream rather than mainstream.
"I want to make it so that teens, to over 50's, can come in and hear the message, but not so mainstream that we're doing the world," Sue told Connection Magazine. "We have a responsibility to preach the Gospel (of Jesus) through the music and through us," she added