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A Signal From Above

Stone, a veteran of secular radio, started his Christian gig four years ago.
Stone, a veteran of secular radio, started his Christian gig four years ago. "We look at it as a way of reaching people," he says. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

In the mid-'90s Frost and others convinced dozens of religious broadcasters that it was time for an overhaul. Audience research and production values became part of the mix. Today dozens of Christian stations leaven their message with professional DJs and atmospherics straight out of the secular radio playbook. (In Washington, there's WGTS at 91.9 FM, a Frost client that promises "No offensive lyrics. No blue humor.") Some of these refurbished stations place in the top 10 in their markets.

The National Religious Broadcasters organization believes that Stone's program is the only Christian morning-zoo show on the dial. And it's a radical departure for WAWZ, which was all preaching, all the time for decades after its launch in 1931 as an AM station. With 50,000 watts of power, the station's signal has long been strong enough to span the 40 miles between Zarephath and New York City, an area that is home to a massive horde of godless sinners.

Four years ago, the board of Pillar of Fire -- an organization that sprang from the Methodists -- decided it was time to talk to those hordes. Which is why the station called Johnny Stone. Raised in a fairly religious home in Minneapolis, Stone, who is 54, spent most of his career in secular radio, on morning shows that were often so raunchy he can barely bring himself to talk about it.

"It makes me cringe," he says. "I did a lot of things that I really don't want to relive right now. But my mandate was to get ratings, and that's what I did."

He will divulge that a station where he worked in Atlanta suspended him on three occasions, apparently in an effort to appease the public and the FCC. Then, in 1997, he and his first wife divorced, an event that he calls "a personal tragedy" and one that left him in difficult financial straits.

"When you get in a low like that, you think, you know, there has to be more to life than pursuing money, pursuing an audience," says Stone. "And I just came back to having this relationship with Jesus Christ. I love to do radio, and I thought, how do I combine these two things?"

Stone is wearing a black turtleneck and black pants, and with his longish hair and blue eyes, he looks like a soap opera actor, the guy cast as a millionaire swain in a midlife crisis. Beside his mike is a patch of framed crochet stitched with the words "IT WASN'T NAILS THAT HELD HIM TO THE CROSS. IT WAS HIS LOVE FOR YOU AND ME."

There is modern equipment in the studio and offices, but the place has a homey, throwback feel to it, and everyone who works here is so smiley and friendly that you think for a moment that they're making fun of you. Station and church are separated by little more than a thin wall; if you take down a removable wooden plank that is tacked up in the DJ's booth, you will find yourself overlooking pews and a lectern.

When Stone first laid eyes on this modest operation, he nearly turned around and left. For years he'd worked in slick stations with a team of writers, lots of recorded bits and a tight schedule. "Johnny Stone in the Morning" is amateur hour by comparison, and he says he has come to like it that way.

"I now think radio is about being natural and being yourself," he says, cuing up the next song. "That's why I've got these guys on the show," he says, gesturing toward Dawn Wheeler, a 26-year-old producer and the show's on-air ingenue. He nods toward Dein, a 27-year-old who looks like a "Star Wars" nerd and is sitting two feet away.

"You mean, I don't sound like a professional?" Dein asks.

"No," Stone replies, with a little you-must-be-kidding in his voice. "You're definitely not a professional."

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