Humbard Spreads Gospel on Cable
Son of a TV preacherman finds his own path
Son of a TV preacherman finds his own path
Gospel Music Channel President/CEO Charley Humbard doesn’t have to catch the new biopic Walk the Line at the local multi­plex to learn about Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. He grew up sleeping in their bed.
Humbard is the son of famed minister Rex Humbard, who pioneered TV evangelism by starting what he called an “electronic church” that put him into the homes of millions of viewers around the globe. But it also put Charley in an odd world where he was both the stereotypical “preacher’s kid” and the child of celebrity, frequently appearing on TV and mingling with various Hollywood and country-music stars who appeared on Rex’s shows.
Humbard says the brass bed he slept in as a child, now in a spare room in his home, was a hand-me-down from the Cashes. “You didn’t realize they were stars back then,” he says. “They were just people who came over for dinner on Sundays.”
Gospel Music Channel (GMC) has put Humbard right back in his father’s world. Though operated strictly as a commercial venture rather than a ministry, the Atlanta-based network is centered on Christian music, stretching across several styles of gospel—from country to hip-hop. Programming includes videos, concerts and artist biographies, supported by advertising and license fees from cable and DBS operators.
Launched in October 2004, the channel has just 4 million subscribers, but that’s not unusual for a young network limited to cable systems’ digital tiers. Humbard is partnered with Brad Siegel, former president of Turner Entertainment Networks, who is vice chairman of GMC.
For years, Humbard steered clear of the family business, pursuing a strictly secular career—first on the production side of TV and music and later helping start Discovery Communications’ earliest digital cable networks. “I’ve really never talked about [my] corporate path,” he says. “There were a lot of folks at Discovery who had no idea of my background.”
It’s a unique one. Rex, who’s still preaching today, had done it for two decades on the radio, where ministers were commonplace. But in 1952, Rex says, he was struck by the power of television while jostling in a crowd to watch a Cleveland Indians game through the window of an Akron, Ohio, department-store window. He started a ministry in an old movie theater the following year and bought time on TV stations to carry his sermons.
In 1958, the minister built a giant, 5,000-seat church—grandiosely named the Cathedral of Tomorrow—plus an adjacent broadcast facility to produce shows and ship tapes around the world. Humbard’s outfit had all the trademarks of TV evangelists: a folksy storytelling preaching style with plenty of fundraising shtick, and even a financial scandal or two. At its peak, the Humbard operation leased time on 650 TV stations and claimed to have 20 million viewers around the world.
Charley was in the middle of it all. At 5 years old, he was part of the entourage as his father’s show broadcast from “The Holy Land” in Israel. He was in the Humbard Family Singers at 10 and played bass in the ministry’s house band at 14. He spent most of his junior year of high school on tour (accompanied by tutors) and mingled with such performers as the Gatlin Brothers, Mahalia Jackson and the Cashes. “It was a heavy influence of traveling with the ministry all the time,” Humbard says. “Television and the cameras were a natural part of my life.”
The ministry itself offered no lure to him, but his father’s TV- and music-production operation did. Having spent his teen years “playing around in the studio,” Humbard went to school for two years at Nashville, Tenn.’s, Belmont University, one of the few colleges offering a program in music management at the time. “I was taking time away from work to understand music theory, music marketing and production,” says Humbard, who made extra money at the time writing songs for gospel artists.
He left school to work at a 48-track recording studio at his father’s Florida operation, which did commercial work for outside clients. A contact there led to a production job at Turner Broadcasting in 1983, including serving as a project manager for Ted Turner’s sports dream, the Goodwill Games in Moscow, in 1986. It was bigger than any Olympics telecast, Humbard says.
“I was setting up the actual Russian venues,” he says. “No one spoke any English, so we were drawing pictures of microwaves and dry lines.”
That led to a job as VP of sales at Crawford Communications, which performs production and uplinking services for many cable networks. In 1993, Humbard jumped to Discovery Communications, helping start the cable programmer’s myriad international networks, then its U.S. digital networks. He left Discovery for an advertising venture in Los Angeles but bailed after 9/11 when his wife balked at being so far from her family.
Humbard was out of work until a family friend, Mike Privett, sparked the idea for GMC while they were helping Humbard’s parents move furniture.
“'Have you looked back at what gospel music is doing?’” Humbard says Privett asked. “It was like someone pouring a bucket of warm oil over me.”
Even though he runs his own cable music network, don’t expect to see Humbard in front of the microphone trying to re-create his childhood singing career.
“There’s a reason I’m pushing a pencil today,” he says. “I was terrible.”