Trying to Get Christian Music Fans to Tune To the Left

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 19, 2008

Fans of Christian music, listeners to Christian radio, watchers of Christian TV -- you're very attractive, did you know that?

After years of living in a quiet, monogamous relationship with the Republican Party, you are being courted by the Democrats. These leftie operatives say it's not enough to be the de facto political party of Hollywood, with its nudity and violence. Now Barack Obama's supporters have a new frontier in their sights: Nashville.

In addition to being the home of country music, Nashville has long been the literal and metaphoric capital of the gospel and contemporary Christian music industries, as well as a hot spot for Christian radio and TV. This, industry folks say, is a land populated by GOP-voting listeners.

Sure, anyone who's been paying attention knows the Democrats have ramped up their outreach to religious voters in the past few years, but a concerted effort to reach into Christian Medialand has intensified recently and will continue beyond the November election.

We're talking rallies against global warming and capital punishment, at Christian music concerts. Obama ads on Christian radio. Consumers of gospel music getting bombarded with campaign literature from Democratic candidates.

That means the good people of Ohio will be peacefully listening to a radio preaching out of the Book of Revelation when suddenly -- " J esus said, inasmuch as you did unto the least of these, you have done it to me" . . . calming instrumental music in the background . . . "As a Christian," says pro-life Democrat and former Ohio congressman Tony Hall, "Barack believes God calls us to care for those in need . . . "

That's a new radio ad scheduled to air on Christian radio in Ohio next week.

"We have people calling every Christian radio station; we want to know about their newsroom, what news services they use, how can we communicate with them. Oftentimes, they'll say we are the first Democrats to ever call," drawls Burns Strider, a Mississippi native who led faith outreach for Hillary Clinton. Strider launched a partnership this summer with Rick Hendrix, a major Christian music promoter, to connect Christian music fans with Democratic candidates. At any given time, listeners to Christian talk and music radio make up about 2.7 percent of all listeners, according to Arbitron.

While consumers of Christian entertainment are predominantly conservative, those in the business long have been more politically diverse than listeners realize.

"I think it would be shocking to a lot of people if you interviewed Christian artists, the split would be pretty even" between Republicans and Democrats, says Grant Hubbard, vice president of promotion for EMI Christian Music Group, one of the biggest labels. "The consumer, on the other hand, is about 80-20."

The biggest evangelist for Democrats is Hendrix, a 38-year-old schmoozy North Carolinian who was behind the marketing of religious blockbuster "The Passion of the Christ." Despite being a player in the Christian Media Kingdom, he thought -- until recently -- that he had to stay in the political closet.

Until Hillary Clinton.

"My grandmother was born the year women got the right to vote, and I was raised by a lot of strong-willed women. I just got passionate about her," says Hendrix, who gets a strangely dreamy sound in his voice when he talks about meeting Madeleine Albright at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Hendrix has demanded that his musician clients let him stage rallies or set up informational tables for Democrats, at or near their shows, whether they like it or not. About half his artists are fine with that, he says, while the others agree somewhat reluctantly.

But how does this cultural crusade go down with fans? If Hendrix's experience is a barometer, it may be a mixed bag. He says he staged hundreds of Clinton events at concerts before she dropped out, including Young Harmony at Ole Country Church in McDonough, Ga., and the gospel group Heirline at Victory Baptist Church in Dallas. There were repercussions. Someone tried to run over a volunteer (yes, with a car) in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Coffee was thrown in Hendrix's face in Raleigh, N.C. A few radio stations he worked with sent back his CDs, cracked.

"He could have possibly lost his business," says Angie Hoskins, a "lifelong Democrat" who has won multiple awards with her gospel band, the Hoskins Family.

The scene for a Democratic performer is "tough. It. Is. Tough," she says. "We have to be really careful how much we say, because in the industry we work in, it can pretty much kick you out if you're not careful."

Derek Webb, an award-winning contemporary Christian musician who considers himself politically independent, says many churches stopped inviting him to play after he came out in 2005 with "A King and a Kingdom," which included these lyrics:

There are two great lies that I've heard

"The day you eat of the fruit of that tree, you will not surely die"

And that Jesus Christ was a white, middle-class Republican

What chances does this campaign have? Alan Mason, a programming consultant for contemporary Christian radio stations, says he tells clients to pay attention to the Democratic outreach because the next generation of listeners may have somewhat different views. "There is a real change going on," he says. "It's important we understand."

And Hendrix said he found 100 people eager to talk Democratic values with him in Louisville, at the National Quartet Convention, a Christian singing event.

That may be an anomaly, suggest other industry insiders. Listeners are "unmistakably" conservative, particularly on issues of when life begins and of marriage, says Joe Davis, president of the radio division for Salem Communications, the country's largest Christian radio broadcaster, with shows going to 2,000 affiliates.

Amy Sullivan, a journalist who recently wrote "The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap," said yesterday at a convention of religion reporters that her book title may have been overly hopeful. "The playing field isn't terribly different than it was 2004," she said.

Some industry insiders say performers should keep their yaps shut about politics or risk alienating customers. No one has forgotten the Dixie Chicks, who temporarily lost a large swath of their audience -- and got death threats that the FBI took seriously -- after criticizing President Bush in 2003.

Hubbard, the promoter from EMI, contends that Christian artists have loftier things on their minds, anyway. "The majority of our artists look at what they are trying to accomplish as much bigger than who will be the next president," he says.

"I want to tell a story that transcends politics," says Sara Groves, a singer who performed before the Republican convention. "A lot of [Christian musicians] I'm talking to are talking about what's wrong with both parties, and we're dreaming about, wouldn't it be great if there was this common human goal?"

Meanwhile, Tom Tradup, who oversees national syndicated talk shows for Salem Radio Network, says Democrats' absence on Christian radio is their own fault. "Senator [John] McCain has appeared on virtually every show on my network at least a half-dozen times since primary season began. We have a red carpet out on every Salem show since Obama announced, and so far we've seen neither hide nor hair of him," he says. At the Denver convention, he says, he repeatedly tried to nab Obama or his religious outreach staffers to go on air, to no avail.

A spokesman for the Obama campaign said yesterday that the focus has been on local radio, including some Salem stations.

But the Democratic machine's drive toward Nashville (and California, home of Salem, and Colorado, home of the massive Focus on the Family organization) seems likely to eventually reach Tradup.

Hendrix and Strider have formed a consulting group and are building a massive mailing list of Christian media consumers that can be used by Democratic candidates and those promoting liberal issues, such as global warming. And Hendrix might want to use that list himself: He recently announced his plans to run for the U.S. House from North Carolina in 2010.

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