Vermont might seem an unlikely place to find a thriving Christian radio chain. For starters, the Green Mountain State memorably tied New Hampshire for least religious in the nation in a 2009 Pew Research Center survey. Just about a third of Vermonters told pollsters that religion was “very important” in their lives, and almost half said they didn’t believe in God with certainty. Plus, the antigay and pro-life preaching that tends to accompany Christian programming would seem unwelcome in liberal Vermont — which has twice led the nation in establishing legal rights for same-sex couples.
But, from a modest studio in downtown Essex Junction, a locally owned Christian radio chain has been defying the odds for more than two decades. Since 1986, the Light Radio Network has been broadcasting contemporary Christian music and evangelical “teaching programs” to Vermont and New Hampshire — the two most secular states in America — as well as New York and parts of Québec.
Any Vermonter who has scanned the low end of the FM dial has probably stopped on the Light or its sister station, the Wave. It’s where you hear syndicated Christian programs such as “Focus On the Family” and “Turning Point,” along with contemporary Christian artists you could easily mistake for John Mayer — until, that is, you realize they’re singing about the body of Christ, and not the body of a naked woman.
With 11 frequencies stretching from Burlington (91.5) to Brattleboro (91.9), and Newport (96.5) to Woodstock/Rutland (91.7), the nonprofit Light Radio Network occupies more real estate on the FM dial than any other station except Vermont Public Radio. Next week, the network will close on a deal to purchase its 12th frequency, 90.5 WFTF-FM in Rutland, which it is buying from a church that has owned the frequency for 25 years. WFTF will broadcast the Wave, the network’s all-music station, because the talk-heavy Light already reaches the Rutland area on 91.7 FM.
The network has grown so much, says general manager Ric McClary, that it’s getting hard to fit the name of every frequency into the 30-second station-identification breaks.
McClary credits God with allowing the chain to expand, but shrewd business moves have certainly helped. In 2006, the station agreed to sell one of its frequencies, 90.9 FM, to VPR for a whopping $1.1 million. Though McClary says some conservative-leaning Light listeners viewed that as “selling out to the devil,” the proceeds from the sale allowed the station to rebuild some of its transmitter facilities and begin broadcasting in high definition.
“Some people said, ‘How could you sell a Christian station to that evil organization, Vermont Public Radio?’ And they call it Vermont Propaganda Radio,” McClary recalls. “And I say, ‘You know, it’s purely business.’”
VPR may dwarf the Light in terms of broadcast power, audience and fundraising capacity, but the fact that a Christian chain survives at all in this market is noteworthy, says Jim Condon, executive director of the Vermont Association of Broadcasters.
“There are so many radio stations in the Burlington/Plattsburgh market that there’s a lot of competition. It’s not easy to turn a profit,” Condon says. “You’d have to consider them a radio success.”
What is now the Light Radio Network was founded in 1986 by Essex real estate developer Alex McEwing, then a 26-year-old college graduate. With help from investors, including his parents, who owned a heating-oil business, McEwing purchased a small FM station in Waterbury and started airing Christian music and talk programs under the name Family Broadcasting. The station’s call letters were WJLY — for “Jesus Loves You.”
“The heart of what we were trying to do was bring Christian radio to Vermont in a way that hadn’t been done,” says McEwing. “We wanted to make it relevant to people’s lives so that when they tuned in, it was like, ‘Wow. The music means something. It hits home. My faith is restored so that I can move forward with the day and whatever struggles I might have to address — whether it’s dealing with the toddler or the teenager.’”
To reach more people, McEwing eventually migrated the station to two high-powered commercial frequencies, including 103.3 FM. But he says it was “incredibly difficult” to sell enough advertising to support the station, so in the mid-’90s he established a nonprofit network of stations under the name Christian Ministries Inc. That chain later became the Light, funded by listener donors and underwriters such as the Fold Family Ministries in Lyndonville, a Christian residential care facility for troubled teens.
By 1998, McEwing was forced to sell the commercial stations to repay his investors — primarily members of his family. With its reach diminished, the Light was left to rebuild through a series of lower-powered FM stations and numerous “translators” that relay a radio signal by receiving it and then converting it to a different frequency. That task fell to McClary.
The son of a radio engineer, McClary is the public face of the Light and the voice of its one-hour midday music show. Bob Pierce hosts the station’s three-hour morning show. Aside from those two locally produced programs — and a few segments from local pastors — all content, 20 hours a day, is syndicated programming beamed in from Nashville and other locales. The Light’s total audience is 22,000 listeners, according to McClary, with 12,000 of those residing in Chittenden County.
Raised in Minnesota and North Dakota, McClary was a high school dropout who left home at age 15 and spent “a couple of years” living on the streets before, he says, “accepting Christ as my personal lord and savior” when he was 18.
“I was kind of a bum. A long-haired, rock-and-roll bum,” McClary recalls. “I wasted a lot of years getting loaded and being a directionless wanderer. It took me a number of years to really pull that together and say, ‘God, what do you want me to do?’”
The answer he heard was broadcasting school. Today, the 59-year-old McClary is a 30-year radio veteran with a velvet-smooth baritone that would make Casey Kasem turn his head. After years working in secular radio — as a news director in small-town Minnesota, a talk-show host in Salt Lake City and a program director in Yakima, Wash. — he landed in Vermont in 2002 to helm the Light network.
With his board’s backing, McClary started buying up translators on noncommercial frequencies to expand the Light’s signal. He also launched the Wave on a low-wattage FM frequency in Burlington that was just powerful enough to reach its target demographic: students at St. Michael’s and Champlain colleges and the University of Vermont.
Reaching them was the easy part, McClary says. Making them listeners is a far tougher sell.
“We’re not in the Bible Belt,” observes McClary. “There’s a large community in New England that would consider us to be fundamentalist or fanatical. I wouldn’t be surprised to come to work some day and find protesters outside the station.”
No protests have materialized so far, but McClary says the station occasionally hears complaints after airing announcements for the Vermont Right to Life Committee, one of the network’s underwriters and a vocal opponent of abortion rights and other liberal causes. The station doesn’t shy away from addressing lifestyles it considers to be wrong, such as homosexuality, McClary says. But when it does so, he says, “It’s not like it becomes a half hour of beating the pulpit and saying, ‘Homosexuals are wrong and they’re going to hell.’ It’s a loving presentation of what the Bible says.”
McClary isn’t just preaching the gospel on the Light — he’s taking the show on the road. In recent years, he’s gone on several missionary trips to distribute handheld, solar-powered radios to “gypsies” in Eastern Europe and Christians in Morocco. The radios are manufactured in North Carolina and frequency-locked to Trans World Radio, which broadcasts Christian programming internationally in several languages.
“It’s like a missionary in a box,” McClary says.
Here in Vermont, the Light network aims to expand to new towns — a goal that depends on turning more listeners into donors. Since 2002, the network has increased the haul from its annual “Sharathon” from $88,000 to $220,000. With sustained listener support, McClary hopes the Light can purchase new translators to break into more markets. In his office, he has a map of Vermont with sticky notes on three towns he’s targeted for a frequency: St. Albans, Middlebury and Ludlow.
“We actually have one in Ludlow now, so this can come off,” McClary says, as he peels that sticky note off the map. “It was one of our desires. This area of the state did not have very good Christian radio stations covering it.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece characterized Vermont Right to Life as being opposed to same-sex marriage. VRLC's mission statement is actually this: "The mission of the Vermont Right to Life Committee is to achieve universal recognition of the sanctity of human life from conception through natural death."