EDMONTON RADIO: Onward, Christian music at Shine FM
The very existence of Edmonton’s Shine 105.9 FM is a miracle. So is the fact there’s enough Christian music to sustain it. More than enough. Name another religion that comes with an entire music industry.
If one doubts there’s an audience for Christian rock in this town, witness the flocks of young people expected to descend on Rexall Place May 25-27 for the Young Christians Alberta conference, better known as “YC Alberta,” with concerts by such bands as Switchfoot (right), Thousand Foot Crutch and others secular music fans have never heard of. Slogan this year: “Surrender.”
The main complaint about Christian music, from a strictly critical standpoint, is that it’s a pale imitation of the real thing. This can happen when something, anything, comes before the music: Christian music, Christian first, music second.
Indeed, a lot of what one hears on Shine FM sounds like Matchbox 20 power ballads with more strings. Other artists sound a little like U2, one or two like Rihanna, some like Elton John, a couple of artists like Nickelback lite, and the odd rapper who sounds like Fresh Prince. Many come off like homage to comparable secular artists, if not outright plagiarism (compare the melody lines in the verse of “I Refuse” by Josh Wilson with Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” – eerie)
And yet, after a month-long immersion into the world of Shine FM – a parallel universe of alternate radio reality if there ever was one – I discovered that Christian music is no more formulaic or derivative than mainstream top-40 radio. There’s about one worthy artist out of 10 who shines through, which is about the same for mainstream radio. For every Gotye or Black Keys in the secular world, there’s a Greg Sczebel in the Christian one. Except on Shine, there’s no sex, drugs or drinking. Not much real rock ‘n’ roll, either. Here’s a rare instance where a radio slogan is at least half true: “Safe and fun for the whole family.”
The profusion and passion of Christian music is remarkable considering such a narrow topic – not to imply that narrow means unimportant. It’s Jesus we’re talking about here, after all. A recent sample of 14 songs aired in a row on Shine reveal six direct references to Jesus, two in the titles, including “Jesus Rides the Subway” by Trevor Morgan, which sounds like Tim McGraw minus the twang. There were six implied references to Him where He is not named, along with five direct references to God, four songs that deal with being “saved,” four that refer to the Last Judgement – a worrying one in particular by a band called Building 429 – and at least two passing mentions of ingesting the body of Christ. With the exception of the last Catholic thing, the songs played by Shine FM expound a mainly Protestant philosophy. Jesus Saves.
You have to listen to everything to get a true sense of the reality of any radio station. Shine announcers are uniformly chirpy, the little in-between sermonettes are inspirational without shoving anything down anyone’s throat, and a few of the songs don’t actually suck. This is the highest compliment one can pay any commercial radio station anywhere.
So why is the very idea of Christian music so disturbing for some people? Maybe they’re atheists.
“I always find it interesting that atheists spend a lot of time trying to prove that God doesn’t exist,” says Hollie Taylor, Shine FM’s bright and sunny music director, and host of the morning show she shares with program director Johnny Rocket. We won’t be doing that. The three of us didn’t talk about the existence of God at all during a recent interview at Shine’s Southside studio. The existence of music about God was the true wonder.
“A good song is a good song, it doesn’t matter if it’s Christian or not,” says Johnny Rocket. “A lot of people think than anyone can write a worship song: holy, holy, holy, put some music behind it, there’s your worship song. Done. But that’s just not true. You can hear if it’s real.”
“I would say the music has come a long way,” says Taylor on the state of the modern Christian music industry.
“Gosh, yeah,” adds Johnny.
The 28-year-old announcer has never watched South Park, so is unaware of a memorable episode where Cartman bets Kyle he can sell a million records by pretending to be a Christian rock superstar, simply by changing the subjects in popular love songs from girls to God or Jesus – and he pulls it off. It hits pretty close to the bone when you consider a real love song like “Paper Planes” from Amanda Falk, an electro-poppy, Lilith Fairian sort of artist (one of the very few female artists getting played on Christian radio), who sings, sweetly, “I’ll sleep well tonight knowing you who never sleeps is by my side.”
The music on Shine FM tends towards the adult contemporary side of the genre (which accounts for all the strings) – leaving the Shine FM Rocks Internet station (a radio sponsor of YC Alberta) to heavier stuff like that guy from Korn who found Jesus (right). It’s all “faith based” in the end.
“It’s supposed to be encouraging and uplifting,” Taylor says. “We have all different denominations and different people who want music that’s uplifting. Whether you are a ‘believer’ – I’m using air quotes – or not, we all go through bad times. We’re all going to have the breakups, the deaths, along with the joyous occasions of the births and weddings, and so that’s really where I think the music speaks to: The heart issues.”
Shine FM is more than just a radio station. It’s a ministry. Taylor, who used to do promotions for Power 92, explains, “What we’re doing is actively living out our faith in a way that’s tangible to the rest of the world. We’re not just sitting in our homes reading our Bible and trying to stay in a bubble. It’s going out in the community and doing what we feel God would want us to do.”
Johnny Rocket has the same drive. Hired straight from the Canadian School of Modern Broadcasting at Shine FM Edmonton when it launched in 2005 (there are also Shines in Red Deer, Calgary and Grande Prairie), he was studying to be a nurse in B.C. before he made the switch to broadcasting.
“I wanted to be able to help people that way, but being there when kids are dying is just not something I was comfortable with. So I thought, what can I do to still be who I am and still try to do something positive? And here I am.”
It’s inevitable we get to the issue that trips up the Christians every single time – that whole “homosexuality is a sin” thing. The media obviously isn’t going to leave this one alone, and the politicians won’t get anything done. The suggestion that the Christians just strike that part out of their Bible isn’t taken in the spirit it was intended (and they don’t have a Pope to make a unilateral decision for them), but we move on from a potentially awkward moment.
“We don’t really talk about it on air,” Taylor says. “We focus on our mission. If our job is to encourage people, it doesn’t matter what you believe, what your sexual orientation is, what colour you are. It doesn’t matter. We really do feel that God loves everybody and everybody fully. Our goal is just to show people love.”
These Christians really are just as nice as can be.
Johnny says he even has friends who are homosexual, which leads to this exchange:
“Do you wish they weren’t?”
“It makes no difference to me. I love them for who they are.”
“Do you think they’re going to hell?”
“I think it’s up to them and God, and what’s in their heart. I can’t make that decision.”
“But if they commit the homosexual act to their grave, according to the written Word, they are doomed, correct?”
“According to the written Word, yes.”
“And you believe the written word?”
“So you wish your gay friends weren’t gay!”
“But again, when it comes to the time of judgement we don’t know what’s going to happen. We can’t judge.”
“Doesn’t the written Word give you a clue?”
“It also says that people you think are going to go to heaven may not be the ones who go to heaven. We cannot judge. We don’t know. All we know is what we are doing. We are called to be Christ-like and love our neighbour as ourselves, so that’s what I’m going to do. It’s the only thing I can do.”
This conversation could loop forever (or until the Second Coming, whichever comes first) – and here we were having such a nice chat about music.
Just how popular is Shine FM? Answer: Unknown! The station does not participate in the BBM, and does its own research, sharing information with a network of Christian radio stations across North America. Edmonton is just over 60 per cent Christian (more Protestants than Catholics), according to the 2006 census, so there’s a market here. Shine’s Facebook page has 2,100 “likes,” which can tell us something, but that may be skewed because maybe Christians use Facebook more than non-believers. Who knows?
What is clear is that the Christian music and radio business has grown since 9-11, for obvious reasons, and that means competition has increased, which means the bar for the quality of the Christian music has been raised.
“Artists are getting more resources, trying to figure out who to connect with and how to make a better song,” says Taylor, “because ultimately it’s the song that matters.”
As long as they stay on message, of course: Jesus Saves. There’s a song in there somewhere – by an artist named Jeremy Camp, as it turns out. He sings, lustily, “Sing it out and shout ‘til the whole world knows His name!”
That one’s in “high” rotation.