Key Take-Aways from 5 Hours of Religious Radio

Every month I make the 6-hour drive from the south shore of Lake Superior to the southern tip of Lake Michigan.  Except for Marquette at its northern outset and Milwaukee to the south, the route runs through rural country.  I usually travel with an audio book, but on the last trip, my Great Course on How Jesus Became God was turgid and dull.  I refocused on basic FM radio.

South of Marquette, the NPR station got scratchy, patchy and then dead.  Left to my own devices, I decided to give God and Jesus another chance and dedicated my car ride to religious FM radio.

My knowledge of religion is scant to nil.  Church was not part of my childhood.  I can recite the Lord’s prayer, but that’s about it.  I consider myself a “blue domer” who finds spirituality under an expansive blue sky, my venue for pondering wonder and awe, but what the hell, I thought, I’ll give religion a big chance, be a willing captive for the next five hours.  Bring it on.Here’s what I learned:

1.  It’s everywhere

Religious radio dominated the 100 empty miles between Marquette and Escanaba, the next town to the southeast.  Evangelic radio waves pulsed through the ether, ranging from Bible thumping sermons to peppier Christian pop music.  Even with the radio turned off, I felt their silent presence seeping into my brain.  A disturbing kinship with paranoid schizophrenics emerged.  Could a tinfoil hat protect me from the subliminal effects of pervasive radio waves?

2.  There is only one religion

Don’t expect any diversity, at least in rural Michigan and Wisconsin.  It’s all evangelical Christian palaver; there’s no recognition that there could be any other “true” religion.  Evangelicals are one confident lot.

3.  My car radio helpfully labeled the stations as country, pop, soft, R&B, info, religion, top 40, oldies.  However, when instrumentals obscured the lyrics, the cross-over between country, soft and Christian music made it difficult to confirm the genre.  In one song, the only lyrics I could discern were “Your love sets my heart on fire.”  This could go either way, either a paean to JC, or to the saucy waitress at the A&W with the sculpted ass.

With a little practice I had it nailed.  Here are my tips:

If the singer is male and singing about a “he” and the station is labeled “country,” then that’s a Christian song.

If the singer is female, or a male or female is singing to a “you,” you’ll have to concentrate on the lyrics.

o   If you catch the words “fire,” “dark,” “lift me up” “flesh” or “weak,” then you’ve got a religious channel.  The combination of “flesh” and “weak” eliminates any doubt.

o   The words “stand by me” suggest a religious channel, with the exception of everyone’s favorite song “Stand By Me,” from the movie of the same name.  Don’t worry, this distinction is easily made once you hear the chorus sing “darlin’” over and over.

4. I didn’t hate the music

The pop tunes were palatable with a steady, toe-tapping beat.  No screeching, no dissonance, no rap, right in the wheelhouse of an aging baby-boomer.  One unwelcome interruption was the rasping noise of a practice alert for the emergency broadcast system (which fortuitously jolted me awake).

5.  Key changes are powerful emotional hooks

Churchy religious songs started with a soloist, soon joined by a soaring chorus.  The climax was often heralded by a change in key that nudged the song up a notch, thus increasing its intensity.  I recognized this as a basic strategy for any patriotic song.  I have always loved the Canadian anthem, O Canada, sung at hockey games.  Now I realize the extra ascending C sharp thrown in at the end makes all Canadiens swell with pride and patriotism.

One of the key-changing choruses reminded me of the song The Stag in the Forest from the movie Cabaret.  It starts as a simple pastoral song sung in an outdoor beer garden.  The music grows and swells as the patrons sing along.  The key changes and the singing becomes more fevered and passionate.  The key changes again and everyone stands up.  In the final chorus, the young soloist gives a Heil Hitler salute.

I have learned to be wary of the subtle power of key changes.

6.   There are very few ads, an unexpected upside.

Stations labeled religious alternate music with Bible study, but there were no ads.  Covertly religious country stations would alternate music with call-in testimonials about the healing power of prayer, or pleas to pray for some poor soul or someone’s pet.

7.  The choice between religious radio and the local rural channels was a draw.

There was still no NPR in Escanaba, but now I had the option for local channels.  I decided to take a break from soul-saving and tapped into an interview with a woman who breathlessly charted the evolution of salad recipes for the community picnic.

“In the 1980s, we had lots of pasta salads, and it wasn’t just spaghetti.  The pasta came in all sorts of different shapes, elbows, corkscrews, trumpets.  And then in the 90’s we had lots of fruit salads and then different kinds of rice.  Now we have something called quinoa.” 

I stopped for a snack, but the potato chips were paper thin and greasy.  No kettle chips.  I decided that easy access to NPR and good potato chips were inversely related to the abundance of religious radio, and also a good litmus test for red and blue communities.

8.  The self-righteousness and intolerance were scarier than I had imagined

One minister railed against a school reading list that included books with LGBTQ themes.  He frothed with religious fervor – I could picture him spewing forth droplets of spittle.  He quoted Leviticus, which seems to be the go-to Bible passage for intolerance.  He urged listeners to boycott the summer reading program.

Finally, I arruved within reach of Milwaukee and Chicago stations.  NPR was fund-raising and the classical music station was playing a whiny string concerto.  I turned to another slice of life experience.  Sports radio.  The male-dominated ads were briefly entertaining – pajama-grams to surprise the wife, bizarre treatments for baldness (something supposedly painless called “total follicular extraction”), no-scalpel vasectomy (again supposedly painless), and most prominently an easy fix for low testosterone levels, with treatment discreetly mailed in unmarked packages.  The talk show hosts introduced a segment called (wink, wink) “master debaters,” which discussed whether the long and unruly hair of pro athletes was disrespectful to the sport.

My experiment was mercifully over.  The experience reinforced that like chocolate and bacon, a monolithic diet is ultimately unhealthy.  I wanted to nurture an open and questioning mind, but religious radio was not the right venue.  But damn it, I really did want to address the cavernous gaps in my education and learn how Jesus became God.  When I got home, I rummaged under the seat and extracted the audio book from the mélange of pine needles, crushed potato chips, a plastic spoon, an Arby’s curly fry and other detritus of long car rides.  I placed the book on the passenger seat, ready for the next trip.





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