Leave it up to the outspoken Derek Webb to sum up the complicated politics of Christian radio—what songs get played, and for what audience—in a one-punch sentence:

Related:

• Part 2
• Part 3
• Part 4

"The gospel," says Webb, "has no target demographic."

The only-slightly-less outspoken Shaun Groves takes his own swing at Christian radio, especially when it comes to commonly used fundraising tactics:

"The bulk of the listeners are Christians," says Groves, "and this is music by Christians and for Christians. The trouble is, Christian radio tells stories to make you feel like they're evangelistic, but they're not. Say what you are. Don't lie to me and tell me I'm saving teenagers."

Strong words. But then, say the words "Christian radio" to anybody who loves music—artists, fans, and even those in the radio business—and you're likely to encounter a strong opinion on the subject.

Depending on who you ask, Christian radio is either better than it has ever been, or it has sunk into a dull morass of sameness. Opinions range as wide as the unprecedented reach of stations and signals across the country. More listeners than ever are tuning in, and Christian radio listeners in particular are among the most loyal in the industry.

Curiously, though, few of those listeners understand how Christian radio works, how it has gotten to its current state, and where it's headed in the future. So we decided to look into it—deeply. This is the first of a four-part series on Christian radio, where we'll examine everything from an overview (Part 1) to its "target demographic" (Part 2), from how its songs are chosen (Part 3) to what the future looks like (Part 4).

So pull up a chair, tune in—for this and the next three weeks—and listen up . . .

subhead>A brief history

The "Jesus Music" movement of the 1970s spread the gospel in a new way: with guitars and drums and vocals that sounded like the stuff of album-oriented rock radio. Pioneers like Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, and Phil Keaggy developed a style of music that was able to communicate messages of grace and love to the Woodstock generation.

But radio was not the initial conduit for that communication.

In its earliest days, Jesus Music was spread primarily through record sales and live concerts and festivals. As the sound gained popularity and acceptance, radio stations sprang up in random markets, sometimes playing Christian music only part-time. An example is The Scott Ross Show, broadcast in the early 1970s on a network of radio stations in upstate New York by the Christian Broadcasting Network. Ross strove to reach an audience of college-age students in the post-'60s drug culture with a show called "Tell It Like It Is," but found talk was readily available while music was not.

As the music eventually found its way on the air, several regional live radio shows developed. Then, like now, there was a demand for Christian radio beyond the confines of the local broadcast, and deejays like Ross, Jerry Bryant and Paul Baker began syndicating their shows, shipping copies far and wide on reel-to-reel tape. By the mid-'70s, fulltime Contemporary Christian stations sprang up, devoted to playing the gospel set to then-radical instrumentation.