M88 may be the biggest radio station you never heard of. And they're playing to a huge audience that, likewise, may be completely off your radar.
At 88.3 FM in Albuquerque, M88 is one of the largest FM stations in New Mexico. The broadcast originates on the campus of Calvary Chapel. From there, 16 translators spread its signal around New Mexico and into southern Colorado.
Any broadcaster would envy M88’s geometric growth. In the past two years, according to the station’s program director, Matt Gentry, listenership has quadrupled. He’s coy about specific ratings, but lets on that in the Albuquerque market they're pulling down some big numbers, and continuing to climb. Their rock festivals and website, M88.org, have also taken off.
M88 plays the music of the "Disciple Generation,” a phrase coined by Lauren Sandler, author of Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement. “There’s a youth movement afoot in this country,” she writes. “It’s a counterculture of politics and pop, and it’s taking over a high school near you. Like the waves that came before it, it’s got passion, music, and anti-authority posturing, but more than anything else, this one has God.”
How big is this movement? Andrew Beaujon, author of Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock, argues it's too large to be considered a subculture. “Christian rock culture is booming, not only with bands but with extreme teen Bibles, skateboarding ministries, Christian tattoo parlors, paintball parks, coffeehouses, and nightclubs, [each] encouraging kids to form their own communities apart from the mainstream.”
Sandler and Beaujon are alarmed by the advance of the Christian rock movement. When I listen to M88, though, I come away with an opposite reaction.
The station’s sound can be as aggressive as any heavy metal band. M88 plays “thrash” bands as well as groups with sounds described as “metalcore,” “metalrap” and even “death metal.” But the words of M88’s songs put its music into a completely different category.
Beauty, adore, marvelous, peace, hope, honor, wonder, joy. We don’t frequently hear such words on hard rock stations, but they crop up in almost every song I’ve heard on M88. I reflexively turn off rap music because too much of it shouts hateful, despicable things about women. When M88 plays rap (and there’s a huge library of Christian rap), the overwhelming theme is love.
I will leave real music criticism to the experts, but one thing about M88’s music stands out. It’s not canned. They’re trying new stuff, unlike the Clear Channel stations that take their playlist from a bean counter in Houston who doesn’t really care about music. On one morning I heard M88 playing ska, indie, pop, heavy metal, industrial rock, reggae and something that sounds like Jefferson Airplane. The lyrics of that song—imagining an end to all war—could have been written by John Lennon. Some songs worked for me, some didn’t. The overall experience was refreshing, like catching a good set on KUNM’s Free Form. Except on M88, God is in all the songs.
M88’s DJs also set it apart, particularly the morning lineup, known as The Three Amigos. Gentry, Steve-O and Joey play music they like and discuss the songs. I once heard them criticize a band for being “seriously extreme but not vertical.” I eventually figured out they meant the band was musically adventurous but short in the sincere faith department.
The preaching is there between songs, as you would expect. But it’s unobtrusive. You don’t realize it’s coming when one of them begins: “There’s this dude, man, who was super-down about totally everything ...” and slips smoothly into a passage from Ecclesiastes (translated into dude-speak) to explain why bad things can happen to good people.
These guys are also funny. When Pluto lost its official planetary status, they ad-libbed a hilarious interview of the former planet portrayed as a kvetching New Yorker afraid to relocate to the rings of Saturn. No one else on local radio would risk such a skit, let alone pull it off.
I won’t likely become a fan of Demon Hunter or Thousand Foot Krutch. They may be vertical, but they're too seriously extreme for my ears. Then again, I’m not a teenager on a skateboard staring into the universe with a heart full of questions. The intense, positive energy of M88 and its solid sense of identity and community explain why Christian rock is exploding as a cultural force.
A recent Three Amigos program detoured into an impromptu debate about the importance of passion in life. They settled on a proclamation applicable to their music, their radio ministry and to all of us, regardless of faith: “Anything you’re passionate about, you should share with the world.”
To that, we can only say, “Amen, dude.”