By DAVID BAUDER
AP Television Writer
NEW YORK (AP) _ Only a few thousand families in Tennessee were able to see the Gospel Music Channel light when it began less than four years ago.
Now it’s television’s fastest-growing cable network _ available in some 40 million homes, more than a third of the nation.
It reaches a milestone Wednesday when it carries live coverage of the annual Dove Awards for gospel music.
The co-founder of the Gospel Music Channel attributes its success in part to a lesson learned from his father, the late televangelist Rex Humbard.
Humbard embraced inspirational music of all forms _ June Carter and Johnny Cash, Mahalia Jackson, Andrae Crouch and Amy Grant all performed on his show, said Charley Humbard, co-founder and president of the Gospel Music Channel.
Similarly, the Gospel Music Channel plays the gospel sounds of black churches, edgy Christian rock and rap, mainstream contemporary Christian pop and even Latin gospel music, he said.
Radio station owners typically recoil from presenting so many forms of music, and some in the industry believed the Gospel Music Channel was making a mistake.
Instead, the network has been accepted by fans of all forms of inspirational music, Humbard said.
“We like to say in here, `multiple styles, one message,”’ he said.
Charlie Humbard is a former executive at Discovery, where he worked on networks passionately devoted to particular interests such as health and aviation. He joined with a former Turner executive, Brad Siegel, to begin the Gospel Music Channel.
Past attempts to reach this market like BET Gospel did not succeed because of a limited focus, they believed, leaving a large community of inspirational music lovers with no home.
Within six months of raising money for the network, they were on the air. That was the easy part.
“You have to have a totally unique programming concept and be able to prove the demand of an audience in order to be able to get in the door and talk to cable operators,” said Siegel. “Cable operators will tell you that they don’t want to watch any more networks.”
Cable systems have limited space to add new networks and are much more interested now in high-definition or on-demand channels, said Jack Myers, editor and publisher of the industry news source jackmyers.com.
As an independent company, the Gospel Music Channel doesn’t have the muscle of big media conglomerates that often force systems to accept a new channel as part of a larger deal.
What it has to offer are true believers. A study of more than 100 emerging networks ranked Gospel Music Channel No. 1 in the connection its viewers feel toward the channel, Myers said.
“Once they get a viewer, they keep them,” he said.
It may be the last of a dying breed. Siegel doubts that other new independent cable channels will be able to establish themselves in the future; the Internet is a more viable option for new ideas.
The success _ especially a deal with DirecTV that made the network available in 16 million more homes just last month _ was noticed by the Gospel Music Association. That extra audience made the Dove Awards interested in moving to the network; in past years the awards were syndicated and shown later on tape, said John Styll, president of the Gospel Music Association.
“They have actually surprised me in that it’s better than I expected it would be,” Styll said. “Their on-air look is as professional as anything I’ve seen on television.”
The Gospel Music Channel features a different style of inspirational music each night, like rock and rap on Fridays and soulful gospel on Wednesdays. Each evening has “Faith & Fame,” a biography series, and “Front Row Live,” concerts produced especially for the network. A new concert premieres every Saturday night.
Like any self-respecting music channel, it has its own “American Idol” knockoff. The third season of “Gospel Dreams” premieres June 1.
Most importantly, Humbard said the network is reliably family-friendly; it won’t even show movie trailers or commercials that might make for uncomfortable moments for parents.
“I want to know that every time I tune into this channel it’s safe for my 8-year-old to watch,” he said.
The Gospel Music Channel is intent upon growing more; its founders are targeting Orlando, Fla.; Phoenix and San Diego as potential markets. (Cablevision is the last major cable operator where it’s not available.)
The channel consciously doesn’t align itself with one particular religion or denomination. But it does use churches to build its audience; network representatives contact youth pastors and offer a curriculum for those who want to incorporate it into their religious instruction. It also has an “ambassador program” of community volunteers who distribute posters, T-shirts and fliers for promotion, Humbard said.
“We have a lot of secret weapons that work very well for us,” he said.