By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 15, 2007
At first it sounds like classic morning-zoo radio: A host plays ringleader, telling stories and jokes, while a couple of sidekicks chime in and laugh a lot. The banter is peppered with sound effects, like the noise of a guy vomiting. There are snappy jingles and lots of running gags.
The format of "Johnny Stone in the Morning," heard weekdays here on WAWZ, "Star" 99.1 FM, is familiar. The content -- to anyone accustomed to radio shows like "Don and Mike" or "Opie and Anthony" -- is not.
"I've got five phrases here, and you've got to tell us whether they're Bible or not," says Stone one recent morning, talking to a caller named Stephanie. She knows the rules and she's ready to play.
"The tree is known by its fruit," Stone reads aloud.
There's a pause.
"Bible," answers Stephanie.
A you-are-correct ding is heard, then a surprising amount of joy in the studio.
"B-I-B-L-E," sings Stacey Stone, Johnny's wife and the show's news reader, "yes, that's the book for me!"
"I stand alone on the word of God!" shouts David Dein, the show's self-described wisenheimer, who for the moment sounds like a very earnest cheerleader. "B-I-B-L-E, Bible!"
Once calm is restored, Stone reads another sentence.
"We can't all be heroes, because someone has to sit on the curb and clap as we go by," he says.
This does not fool Stephanie for a moment.
"Not the Bible," she says.
More joy. Stephanie gets three more right, acing the game and winning circus tickets. The crew congratulates her, and the show heads to a commercial.
"Johnny Stone, on the positive new sound of 99.1," a recorded voice coos.
A Christian morning-zoo show? The genre is known for stunts, bawdy talk and poop jokes. But Stone and Pillar of Fire International, the evangelical group that owns Star 99.1, have removed the racy content and replaced it with family-friendly repartee and the occasional bit of scripture. That plus local traffic reports, news and lots of Christian rock, which the station calls "encouraging music."
"We look at it as a way of reaching people," says Stone one recent morning in the Star 99.1 studio, which is on the second floor of Zarephath Christian Church. "Yeah, of course we want to make money, we want to be good stewards of this facility. But we also want to be real people who let other people know about the joys of Jesus Christ."
He checks the time.
"I have to do news now," he says, throwing on his earphones and then kicking it to his wife.
* * *
Until about a decade ago, when you ran across a Christian radio station you knew it right away. The programming was mostly recordings of preachers, and the music -- when there was music -- was sedate and reverent gospel.
"Entertainment used to be a bad word in Christian radio," says John Frost, a partner in Goodratings Strategic Services, consultants for religious broadcasters. "It was designed to appeal not merely to a small percent of people, but a small percent of Christians."
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."
* * *
Since 2003 the station has doubled its listenership, but it's still teeny compared with the ungodly radio available in Gotham. According to Arbitron, Star 99.1 is in 35th place in the New York City radio market, with about 230,000 in a good month tuning in for at least five minutes in a week. The biggest station here has an audience of more than 2 million.
Neither Stone nor his bosses are discouraged. As they see it, Manhattan and environs need the word of Jesus as much as anyplace, maybe more.
"There's not a lot of God here," says Stone of the city. "You would think a station like this would fail because of it. But that's exactly why we should be here."
For the most part, the show, which can be heard online at Star991fm.com, offers the gospel pretty gingerly. Much time is given over to Christian rock, here called "family-safe hits," which in recent years has become indistinguishable from the areligious stuff until you pay attention to the lyrics. There's also lots of jocular yakking, though with all the edge sanded off. One recent morning the subject was whether it's smart to wait in one line at the store or jump to another if it seems to be moving faster.
"Have you ever seen this strange phenomenon where the person will put their cart in line and then go finish their shopping?" asks Dein.
"We've seen that," says Stone.
"That's crazy!" says Dein.
"I've had people say, 'Can you just watch my cart. I forgot something.' Sure I'll watch your cart -- and they come back with an armful of stuff!"
You keep waiting for a Morning Zoo Insult -- "Who cares, moron?"-- but it doesn't happen. The show is high jinks with all the jinks snipped out. Religion pops up explicitly now and then. Like in an ad for a local OB-GYN who, we learn, invites patients to pray before each appointment. The prize for one call-in contest is a collection of hymns. And midway through the show, pastor Rob Cruver shows up for a segment called "Live Go for It." Cruver looks like a guitarist in a mid-career jam band and talks in dudespeak:
"Even today -- what day is today, by the way? -- even today, it's like, I want to do this, I want to do that, but I have to remember, wait, I have to go to the Lord first, say: Lord what do you want me to do?"
Sells don't get much softer. These are Christians concerned for your soul, but they're going to inquire gently about it rather than threaten it with eternal damnation. There are old-school religious broadcasters who have told Stone that they find his broadcast insufficiently pious. But what else will work for a station talking directly to the country's answer to Sodom and Gomorrah?
"Tomorrow morning," Stone says, signing off at 10 a.m., "I want to get into oil-change places." He plans to riff about how you always sense those car-repair guys are ripping you off. It's a topic that has the potential for snark and anger, but any hint of discouraging words vanishes when Stone says goodbye. "As you go through your day, remember to keep looking up, because" -- and here the whole crew suddenly yells in unison, " that's where it all is!"