Why I Started an Internet Radio Station (and How it Could Shape a Better America)

I promise you, this title isn’t just clickbait. I really did start an internet radio station, and I really believe it can help make things better in these (barely) United States of America. But to explain how and why, I need to start at the beginning.

 


 

First, for about as long as I could remember listening to music, I wanted to have a career in radio. I have vivid memories of being a kid and huddling up at night with a blanket and a handheld transistor radio, listening to the radio at night. It wasn’t just the music itself — although the music was definitely a huge part of it — but it was also hearing the voices of the DJs as they called out the songs and spoke to callers and whatnot. It was like I felt like by listening in, I was included in their informal gathering, getting invited into a party that I could attend anytime I was feeling lonely or like an outcast. Listening to the radio became an important coping mechanism, and when you’re nine years old and you’ve just moved to a new city, you need as many healthy ways to cope as possible.

As I grew older and moved through middle school and then high school, I continued to appreciate the way that local radio stations helped to define the shared language and culture of my generation. The songs, the stories, the slang, it was all tied to what radio station you listened to. And because I grew up in a city with a smaller black population, the radio helped me learn how to code switch. When I was with my white friends from school, it was all Z100. With my black friends, it was 1480 KBMS. The music and culture gave me a shared experience with which I could, through the awkward fits and starts of adolescence, find ways to fit in.

For a time, this worked really well. But I ran into problems when it came to expressing my faith.

Specifically, I found that when it came to expressing my faith identity through music, there was very little shared experience from which I could draw, that could help me to fit in. The simultaneous dividing lines between sacred and secular music and between black and white culture meant that I was constantly feeling like an outsider. The white kids I knew in high school who liked some of the black music I listened to (Stevie Wonder, New Edition, Public Enemy, Digable Planets, etc.), had no exposure to gospel music or other faith-based music that was vibrant, rhythmic, or creative. What they associated with Christianity was whatever dusty piano or guitar hymn arrangement they’d heard at church, if they even went to church.

And even the black kids that I knew that went to my church, they might have listened to gospel if their parents played it around the house, but that was it — they had no exposure to Christian rap at all.  Even though by the early 90s there were plenty of people doing Christian rap, the movement as a whole was still in its infancy, and without internet distribution tools like email distribution lists, message boards, blogs, and YouTube, even the best Christian artists doing hip-hop could only get regional followings. The only way I was able to get my hands on any kind of Christian rap was to frequent my local Christian bookstore, where I would buy tapes and CDs based off of the cover art or a few brief snippets I was allowed to preview.

So when I would talk about Christian rap with my friends — especially my white, private school friends — they literally thought I was joking. They had no idea that kind of music could even exist, much less be worth listening to. During my high school years, I could count on one hand the number of friends who liked listening to my favorite Christian rap artists — SFC, Dynamic Twins, T-Bone, and later (in early college years) Grits.

Compared to now, it was a brutal, primitive situation.

Fast forward a few decades, and many things have changed — but the sense of cultural separation has remained. Most commercial radio stations just play the same twenty songs on repeat, and the ones that do play hip-hop, play only the most mindless, repetitive, commercialized hip-hop, devoid of the kind of cultural or political commentary that made hip-hop such a vibrant source of cultural import in the late 80s and 90s.

Meanwhile, most Christian radio stations have become enslaved to the Tyranny of the Becky — attuned almost exclusively to the demographic tastes of divorced suburban soccer moms attending megachurches, where descriptors like “positive,” “encouraging,” or “safe for the whole family” are really code words for “nothing scary, threatening, or excessively ethnic or urban.”

There’s a certain sameness to all of it, and while it may be unfair in some ways to attach the word “racist” to the format because I’m sure these station managers and other gatekeepers have no intentional racial animus, the net result is the same — very little of the typical Christian radio format addresses, includes or prioritizes the voices, experiences or tastes of people of color.

The only people color that I know who find themselves at home listening to Christian radio are those who have already been assimilated into White evangelical culture.

In our current political climate, I’ve found that culture to be at best indifferent to our interests, and at worst, openly hostile.

 

Now, it would be naive of me to think that one internet radio station can change all of that.

But here are two things I believe it can do, and these things are critical ingredients we will need to bridge our current cultural divide and find solutions to our intractable political stalemate.

First, FLIP RADIO exists to emphasize, amplify and prioritize the voices, experiences and tastes of Christian artists from non-dominant racial groups: African-Americans, Latinx peoples, Asians and Pacific Islanders, etc. These are the folks who are typically ignored by Christian radio stations, and much of the CCM (contemporary Christian music) industry in general. Not only do these folks represent a massively under-served audience for mass communication and entertainment (as TV executives have recently begun to figure out), but they are also massively influential when it comes to music in general. So even though you’ll find plenty of artists in our rotation who would identify as White, most if not all of them are people who have been influenced by black music or other forms of non-dominant culture. There are a few artists and/or songs in rotation that you might also hear on a typical Christian radio station, but those are the exception, not the rule. In that sense, we’re taking the typical Christian radio format and flipping it on its head.

But secondly — and this is just as important — we’re providing an alternate picture of what Christianity can look like for people who automatically associate faith in Christ with white evangelicalism. So much of what today’s culture wars hinge on is the idea of what is considered normal, and the biggest difference between today and when I was coming up is that hip-hop has finally achieved a level of market penetration that means plenty of regular people across the racial, ethnic and political spectrum enjoy it. Beats and grooves like this have become, for lack of a better term, normal. 

In contrast, so much of what has turned off many millennials and people of color to evangelicalism (and the Christianity it purports to represent) is the stranglehold of cultural hegemony that so many white churches exhibit. The lack of diversity feels decidedly unnatural, foreign to the lived experience of most people who live or work in urban environments.

FLIP RADIO has the potential to serve as a counter-narrative to the fears of white evangelicals — namely, that plenty of black and brown people love and serve Jesus, too. We just have different needs, stories, and histories, and those have been unaddressed in dominant culture for far too long.

And even though FLIP RADIO is not an explicitly political station, I hope that as its popularity spreads, it can help bridge the cultural gap by normalizing a feeling of solidarity between white people and their black and brown brothers and sisters of the faith. The more we can see and hear each other culturally, the more we can listen and relate to one another in ways that matter.

Now as I wrap this up, I must acknowledge that ours is not the only station attempting to bridge this divide. There are and have been terrestrial radio stations with significant black populations that serve their audience well, such as NGEN Radio 97.1 FM in Houston.

But if you don’t live in Houston, how would you know that?

The good news about the internet is that it doesn’t have to be separated by barriers like race or geography. And the good news of Jesus is that we don’t have to be separated from God because of our sins.

All I want is for more people to experience both of those truths at the same time.  That would make our nation a better place.

 


 

So that’s why I started FLIP RADIO, and that’s why I want you to listen to it and share it with your friends. Even if it’s not your personal cup of tea, I guarantee you — you know somebody who would love it.

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