Monica Miller, general sales manager of Radio One Inc.'s gospel station in Atlanta, remembers how hard it used to be to sell advertising for 97.5 Praise FM. Three years ago, few groups except churches were willing to buy time on the station, although it was the fifth most popular spot on the FM dial in the market. "It was frustrating," said Miller, who would watch advertisers in search of black consumers flock to urban media while ignoring gospel.
But these days, says Miller, corporate America has set its sights on the black Christian market. As a result her station's revenue grew 35 percent last year, and about 90 percent of the station's advertisers are now supermarkets, apparel retailers, automotive manufacturers and other large companies.
Major corporations have long marketed to large demographic groups including women, Latinos, blacks and youth. But as companies search for new ways to slice the demographics, black Christians -- and their middle-class money, their education and their families -- have attracted increasing attention.
There are 36 million blacks in America and their buying power has risen substantially in recent years, from $318 billion in 1990 to $585 billion in 2000 and to $723 billion in 2004, according to the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth.
For years advertisers targeted this market through ads in magazines like Ebony, Jet and Essence. More recently they looked to magazines, radio and cable TV channels focused on urban music and entertainment. But those advertisers began worrying that some of their target audience, like Leesha Hall, 26, a public relations professional who lives in Springfield, were not being reached through these venues, and they began focusing on reaching black Christians.
Deborah Gray Young, a vice president at the E. Morris Communications Inc. ad agency in Chicago, conducted focus groups of black consumers for Tyson's Food Inc. and found that the social activities of many black women, like Hall, centered on their churches.
An estimated 53 percent of blacks regularly attend church, according to a 2002 study by religion research firm Barna Group Ltd., a percentage point higher than that of the nation overall. Although only about 15 percent of blacks tune in to gospel stations, according to the research firm Arbitron Inc., among those listeners, more than 70 percent own their own homes and 17 percent have household income of more than $75,000, according to Interep National Radio Sales Inc., a radio marketing firm.
"There's been a growing interest in this faith-based market from mainstream corporate America. Initially there was a lot of hesitation due to the religious nature of it," said Max Siegel, president of Sony's Zomba Gospel, a major gospel music label. "A lot of companies liked to stay neutral, and no one could say exactly what the benefit would be. But the federal government has made faith-based initiatives acceptable."
Siegel added that sales of gospel music have proven that "the consumers are loyal, and they have a lot of disposable income."
African American gospel music stars sold about $140 million worth of CDs last year. Just last month, the latest CD of platinum gospel artist Kirk Franklin, whose music weaves together R&B, hip-hop, pop and gospel, sold more than 150,000 copies in three weeks.
Siegel said that in the past, the advertisers most interested in reaching this market were small church-based entrepreneurs -- Christian book authors and small-time recording artists. But as the genre evolved from Mahalia Jackson singing sweet hymns in a choir robe to singers performing holy hip-hop for sold-out concerts in huge sports arenas, corporations noticed.
Hall, a gospel fan who is an active member of Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church in Northeast Washington, said she is more inclined to read Xii Magazine or Gospel Today than Vibe, a magazine that covers hip-hop culture, or Ebony, which was launched 60 years ago. And she says she notices the ads. "When companies advertise in these publications that are geared toward the Christian community, it piques your interest," Hall said.
Ford Motor Co. hopes to reach families, a big target market, through black churches and gospel music. Last summer, Ford representatives traveled with officials of the Gospel Music Channel to seven cities in the South and Midwest. The media executives pitched their channel, which began airing last year, to pastors and their staffs over prayer luncheons. Ford followed with a video touting its history of supporting black civil rights, said Marc Perry, a Ford multicultural marketing manager.
Ford is also running commercials on the Gospel Music Channel, featuring the Ford 500 Sedan and Explorer. Those are vehicles that Ford generally markets to families, and its marketing studies concluded that most gospel consumers are middle-class families.
Perry said Ford does not market to other Christian groups. Its use of gospel media is intended to help the company better reach black consumers, not a particular religion.
"Many African Americans consider faith an integral part of their lives. These are people that fit our target demographic really well in terms of income, age and lifestyle," Perry said. Ford did not make commercials specifically for the gospel channel but used some of its African American-targeted ads that have run on regular broadcast television.
Ford also co-sponsored MegaFest this summer, a conference hosted by Bishop T.D. Jakes, pastor of a Dallas mega-church with about 30,000 members. Ford displayed vehicles during the event, which drew 200,000 attendees. Corporate sponsors, which also included Bank of America Corp., American Airlines Corp. and Coca-Cola Inc., contributed tens of millions of dollars in return for the right to hold seminars and display products.
These dollars have helped fuel growth in the gospel sector. For example, Tyson's Food recently bought full-page advertisements in two magazines targeting black Christians -- Gospel Truth and Precious Times. The ads, targeted to black women ages 24 to 54, feature a black family having a picnic. The parents are grilling and the children are playing tug of war. Tyson's Food also began running commercials featuring African Americans on the gospel shows on TV One, a cable channel focused on African Americans that was launched 22 months ago, and Black Entertainment Television.
Kerry F. Douglas, a gospel industry veteran who started Gospel Truth magazine six years ago, said the corporate focus has helped his magazine. Ad revenue has increased 20 percent in the past six years, thanks to buys from big companies like Toyota Motor Corp. But the attention has also attracted new competition. A recent conference of aspiring black magazine publishers drew attendees that fell into two camps. Half wanted to start hip-hop magazines. The other half were planning to launch gospel magazines -- far more than in past years, Douglas said.
More gospel radio stations are appearing. Radio One of Lanham, the nation's largest urban radio network, has programmed about a dozen of its 67 radio stations with gospel music in the past five years. Nationwide there are nearly 300 black gospel radio stations, compared with 80 a decade ago.
Investment money also has been easier to find, say some in the gospel industry. The year-old Gospel Music Channel, which is based in Atlanta, is backed by venture capital firms -- Bear Stearns' Constellation Ventures Management LLC, Alpine Equity Partners LP and InterMedia Partners.
Entrepreneurs closer to home are trying to benefit. ChristianHangSuite.com, an Internet portal targeted at black Christians, has received advertising from the Sony pictures movie "The Gospel," gospel recording artists and a travel agency marketing to black Christians. It hosts monthly social gatherings in hopes of getting more Web site viewers and thus more ads. The events, called First Sundays, are held at H2O, a nightclub in Southwest Washington that pumps hip-hop music and serves up cocktails on Saturdays.
Kevin Parker, 33, founded the site with his father last year after he was born again and stopped partying. It mimics other popular portals marketed at young adult African-Americans in the District, including www.eviplist.com and www.flowinsiders.com, which promote nightclubs and parties and display party photos.
"When I used to party, those were the sites I would access," Parker said. "I wanted something just as flashy for Christians." Parker said his site receives 40,000 to 45,000 visits daily and has about 20,000 unique visitors.
ChristianHangSuite.com believes advertisers want to reach people like Janese Woolridge, who sat on a purple sofa, sipping fruit juice and swaying her head on a recent Sunday afternoon as a deejay played a song by Mary Mary, a gospel duo with an R&B sound. Woolridge, 21, is a social work master's student at Howard University. She said she would rather hang out with other Christians than go to a nightclub. And she supports companies that support her lifestyle.
"Christian events allow us to fellowship together and uplift our walk," Woolridge said. "I would be more likely to see advertisers in a place that is supporting things like this."
Kevin Parker, co-owner of ChristianHangSuite.com, started the site with his father. Unlike other sites promoting social events, the site is geared toward Christians.