Spreading gospel on cable pays off
EAST POINT, Ga. - From his little studio and offices here, the son of one of America’s early televangelists launched the squeaky clean Gospel Music Channel, potentially reaching more than 1 million homes with its first broadcast in October 2004.
In the years since, Charley Humbard and his investors can claim that what’s been called “MTV for Christians’’ has been the fastest-growing cable channel, now with 46.7 million subscribers, according to SNL Kagan, a media research and analysis firm.
The channel, privately owned by investors Humbard spent two years assembling after he walked away from a career at the Discovery Channel, does not release earnings. But it’s no secret that since its earliest days, television has provided a living for the Humbard family.
Humbard’s father was the guitar-strumming, singing preacher Rex Humbard, who started his TV show in 1952. He added his four children as singers and musicians and then his grandchildren by the mid 1960s. At the height of its popularity in the 1970s, more than 1,000 US and foreign stations carried the “Cathedral of Tomorrow’’ broadcast.
“As Dad said, ‘If you don’t sing, you don’t eat,’ ’’ Humbard said. “He said that lightly, but we got it.’’
Humbard, now 48, worked his way to a senior vice president position at Discovery Channel before the appeal of music led to Gospel Music Channel.
“It is very deep in all of us,’’ Humbard said.
As a kid, young Charley hung around Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, Mahalia Jackson, and Andre Crouch. He met Elvis, a family friend. By 7, he was teaching himself guitar.
Mike Privette, the road manager for Rex Humbard’s show, recalls young Humbard asking Privette if he would bang on a piano in a recording studio so Humbard could practice manipulating the slides, dials, and switches on a recording board.
Much later, he mentioned to Charley Humbard a little Tennessee cable channel for sale that was devoted to gospel music.
One big thing stood between him and the channel - the average $100 million it would take to start and fund a new cable operation with top-notch production, Humbard said.
Humbard called contacts, seeking advice and potential investors who would view the channel not as a ministry but as a profit-driven business. In two years, they had enough investors - Humbard declines to say how much they put up - to start their own channel from scratch and start broadcasting.
For fans, the music on GMC is more than just entertainment, according to media economist Jack Myers. “The content of the music has relevance and importance in their lives,’’ he said.