MercyMe's 'I Can Only Imagine' breaks Top 20 on mainstream radio

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--More than two years after its release on Christian radio, MercyMe's Dove Award-winning song "I Can Only Imagine" has become a crossover hit on mainstream radio stations across the country.

The song is at No. 19 on the Top 20 Mainstream Adult Contemporary chart and No. 39 on the Contemporary Hit Radio chart for the week of June 30 and has become one of the most requested songs in history for some stations.

Dallas' Wild 100 FM was the first mainstream station to play the song after a listener called in to the station's "All Request Hour" and asked that the song be played.

Matt Austin, program director at the Franklin, Tenn.-based WAY-FM Christian station, said he believes two reasons for the crossover success of "I Can Only Imagine" are that it's simply good music and that it conveys so much hope that it speaks to a much broader audience than just the Christian subgroup.

"There seems to be an opinion that Christian music has to change its message to get mainstream airplay, and this song is an example that it doesn't," Austin told Baptist Press. "I think if Christian artists will just release quality music, they will have an opportunity from time to time to cross over. It's a question of is it simply good music or not?"

Austin said that though "I Can Only Imagine" was released long ago on Christian radio, WAY-FM still plays it as a current song, which is longer than any other song has held that status at the station.

MercyMe's lead singer, Bart Millard, wrote the song as he was coming to grips with his father's death. As an 18-year-old, Millard found solace in believing that if given the choice, his father would prefer to stay in heaven with God rather than return to his family. The idea of the song stayed in his mind for years, and he found himself scribbling the phrase "I can only imagine" on scraps of paper, notebooks or anything he could find. In 1999, about eight years after his father's death, Millard finally wrote the song in a matter of minutes.

"I Can Only Imagine" was part of the band's album "Almost There," released in 2001, and won the Dove Award for Song of the Year in 2002.

"When people first started talking about working it to pop radio, I thought, 'This song is so blatantly Christian, why bother?' But the response has been overwhelming," Millard said in the Nashville Tennessean June 3.

The song has been added to more than 100 markets nationwide, and program directors in markets like Phoenix, Denver, Minneapolis, Monterey, Atlanta and Orlando say it may be the biggest reaction song they've ever had, according to a June 25 release by The Media Collective, MercyMe's public relations representative.

Stations reported that once they started playing the song, they got overwhelming feedback in the form of e-mails, phone calls and even people driving to the station to inquire about the song or thank them for playing it.

Pete DeGraaf of WXXL in Orlando said "I Can Only Imagine" won the votes for best new music all five nights it was played.

"I checked my records, and no song has done this in 12 years, except [American Idol winner] Kelly Clarkson in 2002," DeGraaf said in the release.

Rich Davis, program director at Nashville's WRVW, said MercyMe's record company, INO Records, first brought him the song about two months ago.

"It was a time the country was still at war, and regardless of the fact that it was such a Christian message, I thought this was a song that especially at this point in time would be a good song to play on the station," Davis said.

He had not decided whether he would play the song a lot; he just wanted to put it on the air and see whether the response was positive or negative. The reaction was so overwhelmingly positive that Davis decided to give it more air time.

"I've always been the kind of program director that has said it doesn't matter what genre the record comes from, if it's something the audience wants to hear then I'm going to give it to them," he told Baptist Press.

WRVW's "Woody & Jim in the Morning" offered a reason why it may be so successful.

"It seems like every important time in a nation's history ... there's a song attached to that time," the team said in the release. "It seems like this song is going to be the one that sticks for right now."

So many people connect with "I Can Only Imagine" because "no matter who we are, we all have lost a loved one, and we all want to know that they are in a better place," Millard said.


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