Three Christian pop stations in Atlanta battling for listeners with K-Love joining the fray

Originally posted Wednesday, October 9, 2019 by RODNEY HO/ on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

The Christian pop radio world is not by reputation known for cutthroat competition in the way perhaps pop or rock or hip-hop are.

But Atlanta has suddenly become a hotbed of Christian radio competition now that K-Love entered the fray in June on 106.7 (WAKL-FM), buying out what had been Cumulus’ talk station WYAY. 

Never before has the likes of the Casting Crowns, Third Day, Chris Tomlin and the Newsboys been given so much literal love on the Atlanta airwaves.

K-Love is owned by Educational Media Foundation, based out of Rocklin, Calif. Its radio networks are heard by millions on more than 500 stations nationwide. Most of its air personalities are based out of California with the morning show in Indianapolis.

It faces two very well-established rivals. Commercial station Fish 104.7, which covers most of metro Atlanta, skews a bit east and debuted in 2000. Then there’s non-commercial Joy 93.3, which favors the south side, but over the years has expanded its reach with additional signals in places such as Duluth with 92.5 in Duluth and Carrollton on 101.9.

All three stations are simultaneously running aggressive billboard campaigns. “Be Encouraged,” says one K-Love billboard on I-85. “Stay positive,” says another not too far way. Joy keeps it simple and to the point: “Helping you find joy.” 

The cheekiest of the campaigns is Fish’s “LOVE Happens Here,” a not-so-subtle response to K-Love’s entry into the market in June.

Photo: RODNEY HO/ This Fish 104.7 billboard is near Jimmy Carter Blvd. on I-85

The Fish has obvious home-grown advantages over K-Love, despite comparable signals.

Over its nearly two-decade run in Atlanta, the Fish has consistently drawn big ratings in town, attracting anywhere from 400,000 listeners a month to 1 million during Christmas season. The station had an unprecedented run earlier this year, landing at the top of the Nielsen ratings charts for four months before falling back to more normal ratings numbers in August and September.

Fish program director Mike Blakemore said he is concerned less with month-to-month ratings, preferably watching a 14-month tracking average. He noted that among its target audience of women 25 to 54, Fish is currently in the top five.

Bolstering the station is its unusually minimal staff turnover both behind the scenes and on air. Its morning show, led by Kevin Avery and Taylor Scott, has been on the Fish since day one and is now syndicated in multiple markets. 

It’s also all local talent, enabling the station to provide a reliable presence at Christian concerts, events and churches. Fish is part of a national for-profit Camarillo, Calif.-based company Salem Media Group, which generated $262.8 million in revenue last year

Blakemore said he tries to see the big picture, not the pure capitalistic viewpoint of the situation: “The more stations in this market playing this kind of music exposing more people to Christ the better,” he said. “It’s good for the listeners to have more choices on the dial.”

Photo: RODNEY HO/ The Joy 92.5 Duluth-based billboard off Steve Reynolds Blvd. near I-85. 

Joy , a non-commercial operation, has an advantage K-Love shares: no commercials. The trade-off: both stations rely on occasional on-air begging campaigns seeking donor dollars. 

It’s also the smallest of the three operations. Since 2011, the station has been owned by Lakeland, Fla.-based Radio Training Network. The company as a whole brought in $24.9 million in revenue last year. Joy 93.3 in Atlanta has some local jocks like Jerry Williams but many are based elsewhere, including its Florida-based morning show.

The station averages around 200,000 to 250,000 listeners in metro Atlanta, according to Williams, who has worked at Joy since 2011. 

Below is the Joy coverage area, boosted by translators and other signals in paces like Columbus, Macon and Athens. 

Photo: rickdavison

K-Love has been building its empire for 37 years, recently adding stations in D.C., New York and Atlanta. 

According to Guidestar, based on data provided by EMF, the network brings in about 500,000 donors a year and generated $192.8 million in revenue in 2017. 

After four months, K-Love’s impact in Atlanta has been minimal despite its billboard awareness campaign. According to Nielsen monthly ratings, K-Love has averaged about 0.3 share in its first four months on air with a weekly audience of around 20,000 to 25,000. In comparison, Fish brought in a 4.2 share last month. 

Bill Reeves, who just took over as K-Love president, said he isn’t worried about early ratings, knowing this is more a marathon than a sprint. 

Plus, as a non-commercial station, ratings are not as important as donations. And since K-Love is national, donors from Atlanta alone won’t make or break the station. 

“I wouldn’t sit here and say we don’t care about ratings,” he said. “It doesn’t drive us the same way as a commercial station. Higher ratings don’t mean more advertising money.” 

Ultimately, he said, “our goal is ministry based. We have a call center where we receive thousands of calls a day from people needed help and a prayer.” 

And he tries to stay in a positive Christian zone toward his competition.

“There’s always friend competition in our industry,” Reeves said. “We really appreciate the Salem guys and what they do. They serve a different audience in Atlanta.”

Reeves said the network plans to expand strongly into podcasting as well. 

He feels the format provides a palliative to all the ugliness in social media, cable news and talk radio. 

“I’m sick of the news,” Reeves said. “I’m sick of politics. I”m sick of everyone arguing with each other. I think Lauren Daigle has crossed over because her message is God loves you. That’s a message that transcends all that. When our economy hits a recession, Bible sales go up. Christian radio goes up when tragedy hits. Donations go up. People are searching for hope amid bleakness. God’s love is for everybody.” 

K-Love will have to fight hard to break  the loyalty of the Joy and Fish fans. “I listen to the locals and not the piped-in K-Love,” said Chris Giddens, a children’s pastor at Kennesaw First Baptist Church. “The Fish does some good things locally. I will hit K-Love only if I’m out of range of the Fish.”

Barbie Briggs, a group fitness instructor at East Lake YMCA and an office manager at a local realty, is a fan of K-Love and likes to have the third option.

 “I listen to them on the road elsewhere,” she said. “Their DJs are more professional. They also talk more about scripture, prayer and Jesus [than the other two stations].” At the same time, she likes how both Joy and the Fish support local artists more such as Pat Barrett, Jamie Grace and Crowder more than the national stations.

Buzz Brockaway, vice president of public policy at the Georgia Center for Opportunity who lives in Lawrenceville, has grown to really like K-Love: “K-Love has a broader playlist than the Fish so I've been listening to K-Love more and more.”

A cautionary tale for K-Love is the arrival five years ago of a second NPR station at 88.5/WRAS-FM. From 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, Georgia Public Broadcasting controls the station and airs similar programming to long-time NPR station owned by Public Broadcasting Atlanta 90.1/WABE-FM.

Despite consistent billboard ads, WRAS still lags far behind WABE in ratings. In September, WRAS had a 0.7 share (25th place) while WABE had a 3.3 share (12th place). 

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.