The numbers tell one story about K-LOVE, the Christian radio network that started at a single station in Santa Rosa 40 years ago and has mushroomed into a coast-to-coast service that reaches a reported 20 million listeners per week.
They speak to a broadcasting juggernaut, fueled in part by the demand for contemporary Christian pop and rock music, which amazingly took root in what Lifeway Christian Resources says is the least religious market in the country. Today — on Easter Sunday, 2022 — it is the largest Christian radio network in the country and the second-largest radio network of any type.
But to the officials and on-air personalities behind K-LOVE and its sister service, Air1, it’s the personal stories that are even more important and help define why they do what they do.
Those stories include Eric, a man who fled his family and his problems in North Carolina and, seeing no way out, had driven to the Golden Gate Bridge in 2016 to end his life. But before that could happen, he discovered K-LOVE on his vehicle radio and, even though he’d never listened to the station before, called into the “Scott and Kelli Show” to share his story on the air. The result was a huge outpouring of support from Bay Area listeners, with many calling in to invite Eric to their church. Tragedy was averted.
“It was just unbelievable — only something God could do, and it is nothing we could ever take credit for,” recalled Scott Smith, a longtime co-host of K-LOVE’s midday show with Kelli Caldwell. “But that’s how God uses this ministry.”
Although K-LOVE’s on-air programming is dominated by the latest hits from such multiplatinum music acts as Chris Tomlin, Lauren Daigle, TobyMac and Lecrae, on-air personalities and staffers spend a lot of time taking calls from a wide array of listeners, many of whom are referred to what the network says is a fulltime ministry staff that deals with an average of 1,000 prayer requests and at least one potential suicide situation a day.
“We have seen everything from marriages saved to suicides avoided to just basic professions of faith, where people’s lives changed because they listened to a 3-minute song on K-LOVE,” says Bill Reeves, CEO of Educational Media Foundation, which operates the K-LOVE and Air1 radio networks.
The combination of music and ministry has paid off handsomely for K-LOVE, which is now based in Rocklin, outside Sacramento, but is planning to eventually move near Nashville, the capital of the contemporary Christian music world.
The K-LOVE family includes nearly 500 stations in the United States, according to Insider Radio, and it is in growth mode. The network recently acquired San Jose station KRTY-FM 95.3, which had been one of the area’s few remaining country stations.
That’s in addition to the plethora of spots on the FM dial where K-LOVE can already be heard in the Bay Area, including 97.7 (San Jose), 107.3 (San Francisco), 88.9 (Berkeley) and 90.7 (Tracy). It can also be streamed online at klove.com as well as through its free app and other platforms such as iHeartMedia.
While listenership for terrestrial radio is on the decline overall, contemporary Christian music is the medium’s No. 2 growth area — just behind classic rock.
“I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” says Reeves. “I think we are living in a time where people are just hurting. When all the things that promise fulfillment don’t fulfill — you turn to the thing that does, which for a lot of these folks is their faith. And we are trying to encourage that and feed that.”
Part of it also has to do with the emerging quality of the music, says Kelli Caldwell, who has worked at K-LOVE for 16 years and co-hosts the mid-day show with Smith. Contemporary Christian music production is remarkably more sophisticated than in past years and matches what you hear in other formats.
“They have brought the quality to a level that is just mind-blowing,” she says.
And having a big star sing about vulnerability and faith makes the genre accessible to fans in ways that many other genres can’t match.
Longtime Bay Area Christian music promoter Jon Robberson, who runs Celebration Concerts, says K-LOVE and the Contemporary Christian pop industries are two forces that feed off each other.
“Christian radio like K-LOVE is the ‘gas in the tank’ of music awareness,” he says. “You can have the most talented singer or band singing the most awesome song, but if it can’t be heard, it’s like the most expensive exotic sports car sitting with no gas — it ain’t going anywhere!”
Educational Media Foundation was founded in 1982 by Bob Anthony Fogel, a former DJ at San Francisco powerhouse pop station KFRC who was looking to start a Christian music station. The station’s first broadcast went live on KCLB 91.9 FM in the Santa Rosa area on Oct. 15, 1982. Forty years later, K-LOVE can still be heard at that spot on the dial.
The station, which gets a substantial portion of its revenue from listener donations, relies on another asset, says Reeves. At a time when war, political partisanship and anger dominate the media landscape, K-LOVE promotes positivity — literally. The network’s slogan is “positive, encouraging K-LOVE.”
“We were trying to be a place of light for them,” he says. “I think that is what drives the strength of Christian radio today.”
As Educational Media Foundation and K-LOVE celebrate the 40th anniversary, plans are afoot, Reeves said, to expand the media footprint of the network. The organization has already produced the films “The Jesus Music” and “The Case for Heaven,” published several books, started a K-LOVE On Demand content platform and hosted numerous live events.
“We just think that there is a gigantic hole in the entertainment market for serving this audience,” Reeves says. “And we’re jumping in feet first to help fill that need.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with feelings of depression or suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free, round-the-clock support, information and resources for help. Reach the lifeline at 800-273-8255.
NorCal-born K-LOVE radio celebrates 40 years of music and ministry