GOSPEL MUSIC CHANNEL FEATURED IN WALL STREET JOURNAL'S MARCH 20th EDITION
With Charles Humbard and Brad Siegel
Gospel According to Its TV Execs
By JOANNE KAUFMAN
March 20, 2008; Page D7
Charles Humbard was making a phone pitch to a cable-company honcho from the front passenger seat of a town car. Since the fall of 2004, when he launched the Gospel Music Channel with his business partner, Brad Siegel, Mr. Humbard, the founder and CEO, has been pitching and pitching and pitching some more. Pitching from cars and conference rooms, boardrooms and street corners, from production studios and his office in Atlanta where GMC is headquartered. Pitching media buyers and media planners to buy time on the channel, cable multisystem operators to carry the channel, religious leaders to phone their local cable operator and say, essentially, “I want my GMC.”
“Anybody who’ll listen we’ll talk to,” said Mr. Siegel, 50 years old, the channel’s vice chairman and the former president of the entertainment networks – AMC, TNT, TBS – at Turner Broadcasting. “Sometimes, Charley will give them the play by play and I’ll do color. Sometimes, I’ll do the play by play and he’ll do color.”
Whatever it takes to spread the gospel about GMC, the only 24-hour music channel devoted to all styles – rock, pop, country, soul – of gospel music. Praising the Lord may be job one on GMC, but there’s no pulpit, no preaching, no proselytizing and no two-bit production values. Some have labeled it VH1 for the Christian market with a list of performers that includes country stars Alan Jackson and Martina McBride; the alternative rock band Switchfoot; contemporary soul and gospel singer Kirk Franklin; and contemporary Christian music singer Amy Grant and shows that include a gospel versions of A&E’s “Biography” and Fox’s “American Idol.” From 7 a.m. Sunday to 7 a.m. Monday, the channel’s commercial-free Easter marathon will showcase, among others, Carrie Underwood, the Clark Sisters, Tim McGraw and Casting Crows in concerts, videos and interviews.
“I know you like the channel and that you thought it was great to have an alternative to MTV and other things that are on,” Mr. Humbard, 45, was saying to the cable biggie. “We believe we can help you with customer retention. Can we put something together for you to look at to see how we can help on the marketing front?”
After Mr. Humbard clicked off, he assessed the call as having gone “average.” The sticking points for that particular cable operator, as for others, he said, “are bandwidth and margins.”
Still, there’s no question that the gospel guys are on a roll.
Their channel is carried on almost every major cable system – Charter Communications, Cox, Comcast, Time Warner – and the two of them are vigorously pleading their case to Cablevision.
“Cablevision, Cablevision,” they said reverentially in unison, as though it were the chorus of a song heard on their network. “Jimmy Dolan, come in. Where are you?” Mr. Siegel apostrophized, referring to the company’s CEO.
Mr. Dolan, take note: A deal the supplicants just signed with DirecTV has added 20 million viewers to the GMC rolls, bringing the subscriber total to 40 million and solidifying the channel’s position as the fastest-growing enterprise on cable. The Gospel Music Channel now has a national footprint as well as what Mr. Humbard, a former senior vice president at the Discovery Network, refers to as 40 “blue chip” national advertisers. These include Coca-Cola, Allstate, Geico, NBC, S.C. Johnson, Wal-Mart and Ford.
Further, according to a 2007 survey conducted by JackMyers.com, a media-industry Web site, GMC ranks first among TV channels in terms of emotional connection. “That’s perfect for the way advertisers are moving – associating themselves with media brands rather than just spraying their messages across the landscape,” said Mr. Myers.
Before GMC there were sporadic attempts to create a home for gospel on cable. Other entrepreneurs had been intrigued by the same stats that would intrigue Messrs. Humbard and Siegel: An estimated 80 million Americans listen to Christian music on 114 radio stations. According to figures provided by Soundscan, Christian/gospel music sold an average of 40 million units annually in the past three years.
The difference between those earlier efforts and GMC “is Brad and Charley,” said John Styll, president of the Gospel Music Association, the trade group for the gospel music community. "They’re TV guys and they’ve approached the cable community like TV guys. They’ve approached the advertising community like TV guys. They bring formidable strengths to the process and the results are showing. Getting that DirecTV deal is a huge thing.
“Their on-air look is very high quality and they’ve done a very good job of serving the community,” Mr. Styll continued. “You’ve got the black gospel world that lives on a different planet from the Southern gospel world, which lives on a different planet than contemporary Christian. They’ve made all of them feel part of the channel, which is no small feat. I think that anything appealing to a faith-based audience has to deal with being ghettoized, but Brad and Charley are delivering an audience that is an attractive one to potential advertisers.” That audience is 41% African-American, 44% Caucasian and 15% Latino, with a median age of 41, more female than male, more suburban than urban.
Mr. Siegel grew up Jewish in the suburbs of New York City. Charley, the son of the late televangelist Rex Humbard, was raised in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, playing guitar, singing and mingling with both Christian music industry artists and secular musicians, among them Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, Mahalia Jackson and the Gatlin Brothers. Ultimately, though, he found himself attracted to the production, marketing and sales side of the business.
After 9/11, he left his job at the Silver Spring, Md.-based Discovery Network and moved with his wife and two young sons to Atlanta, where they had family. “I had no idea what I was going to do, and a friend who’d grown up in my father’s ministry suggested I look at the gospel music industry as a business to get into,” Mr. Humbard recalled. "I knew right then that my two worlds were coming together – my years in cable and my years in the gospel and Christian music industry.
“I thought what a great need there was for a channel that would solve the problem of giving people an alternative to what else was on TV,” he added. “Gospel Christian music is family-friendly in its DNA. We don’t have to add that element.”
In late 2003, the erstwhile cable executives were brought together by a venture capitalist who’d seen Mr. Humbard’s business plan and passed it on to Mr. Siegel, recently parted from Turner Broadcasting. “From day one Brad and I felt comfortable together,” Mr. Humbard said. “I joke that we’re twin sons of different mothers.” They closed on the channel’s financing in spring 2004 and were on the air six months later.
Their odd-couple narrative has proved an asset. Given Mr. Humbard’s background, cable-company operators and potential advertisers “got why he was walking in the door. But with me it was like ’what’s a nice Jewish boy like you doing in a place like this.’” Mr. Siegel said. “But I think it helped. People’s attitude was ‘if you are doing this, there must really be something here.’ It gave them faith.”
Timing was also key. When GMC set up shop, people, still reeling from 9/11, were looking inward. Further, “‘The Passion of the Christ’ had just come out and was a huge success,” said Mr. Siegel, referring to the controversial Mel Gibson movie. “‘The Purpose Driven Life,’” the inspirational tome by evangelist Rick Warren, “had also just come out and the movie ‘Narnia’ was about to be released. There was clearly a large audience supporting faith-based properties.”
Even so, the two were going up against advertisers and cable operators who had very definite – if benighted – notions about the nature of gospel music. “The perceptions, especially in New York and Los Angeles, was black women in robes,” said Mr. Siegel. “When we showed our demo tape of what the network actually looked like, people would be shaking their heads and saying ’that’s gospel?’ Or they’d say ‘oh, it must be big in the Bible belt.’ Well, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta and Seattle are among the top 10 markets for gospel in terms of downloads and record sales.”
Messrs. Humbard and Siegel were in town earlier this month to ring the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange. It’s an honor generally reserved for businesses that have just gone public – in any case, businesses that are listed on the big board – and the Gospel Music Channel is privately held. But the combination of a dogged publicist on the company payroll and GMC supplying a handful of performers for the NYSE’s tree-lighting ceremony last Christmas helped make it a done deal.
Wearing caps bearing their channel’s logo – a “g” topped by a golden halo – GMC’s founders posed for pictures on the exchange’s podium and on the trading floor.
“A lot of people start businesses and then they say ’wow, I thought the audience would like this, but they like that,” said Mr. Humbard. “But the mission and the vision of this channel has not changed since I conceived of it.”
A trader admired the GMC caps, and a specialist wrapping up for the day congratulated the two men. “Thanks,” said a beaming Mr. Siegel. “We’ll come back when we’re listed.”
Ms. Kaufman writes about culture and the arts for the Journal.