The lyrics of an old country gospel song advise: "Turn your radio on, get in touch with God."
That's suddenly become easier than ever to do in Orange County, where the number of religious radio stations has tripled from one to three in less than one month.
The county's oldest Christian station, City of Orange-based KYMS (106.3 FM), a Christian station since 1975, is now joined by San Clemente's KWVE (106.7 FM) and Anaheim's KPZE (1190 AM).
On Monday, KWVE began broadcasting religious programming in consummation of the station's recent purchase by Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa.
The launch of KWVE's new format comes only two weeks after KEZY-AM (1190), also under new ownership, went through yet another change of format and call letters to become KPZE (K-Praise) radio as of April 1. The principal owner of KPZE-AM (as well as KEZY-FM) is Tim Sullivan, former general manager of Los Angeles station KMGG (105.9 FM). He previously worked at KHTZ (97.1 FM) and KHJ (930 AM).
"I think there's an audience for all three stations," said Richard McIntosh, general manager of KPZE. "I worked in markets before like Dayton (Ohio), which has less than one million people, and there were six religious stations that all seemed to make it. So in this area where there are 2 to 3 million people, I think three stations can make it."
Both KPZE and KWVE at this stage are emphasizing spoken word programming over religious music. In recent months, KYMS has dramatically increased the proportion of air time devoted to contemporary Christian music and has also expanded its play list to include records with religious overtones by such popular rock acts as U2, Donna Summer, Michael McDonald and others, KYMS general manager David Toberty said.
This cutback of preaching at KYMS has, according to KPZE's McIntosh, reinforced the owners' decision to adopt a Christian format.
"There were a lot of teaching ministries who previously had air time on KYMS but suddenly didn't have air time any more. We are serving as an outlet for them," McIntosh said.
Another contributing factor, he said, was the perception of Orange County as a hotbed of Christianity.
"That certainly made our decision a lot easier. Orange County is an active evangelical Christian community. While there have been other (religious) stations that do reach into this area, really there has only been one headquartered here. We saw this area as a good opportunity for us," McIntosh said.
McIntosh said that KPZE will offer approximately 60% to 70% spoken word programming and that 90% to 95% of all programming will originate locally. "Right now, we only have one program that originates outside Southern California," he said.
KWVE is also generating the majority of its own programs from its San Clemente studios. Although KWVE has been on the air less than one week with its new format, operations manager Brian St. Peters said the station has already been contacted by Christian stations in other parts of the country that are interested in receiving some of KWVE's broadcasts of sermons by Calvary Chapel pastor Chuck Smith.
St. Peters said no decision has been reached over whether the station's new owners will continue sports broadcasts under KWVE's long-term contracts with such teams as the Los Angeles Kings hockey team and the Lazers indoor soccer team as well as USC women's basketball.
"We've talked about it, but it hasn't gone beyond that. But we are open to sports programming," he said.
Unlike the cutthroat battle for ratings that often rages among commercial secular stations, officials at Orange County's Christian stations have voiced only words of brotherly love for their competitors.
"We are all headed in the same direction," KWVE's St. Peters said. "We've all got the same message. I don't view them as competition at all."
KPZE's McIntosh said, "I would second that opinion. I think that's a very good statement."
KYMS's Toberty added, "I feel real good about having them in the market. There is a vast audience out there, and they are fulfilling needs we aren't. We're all doing something different, and I think we'll work well in cooperation with each other."