Founded in 1951, the Word label helped spark the multimillion-dollar genre of Christian Contemporary Music (CCM). And it was sportscaster and ministry student Jarrell McCracken who gave it a voice.
McCracken was working in radio to finance his graduate education when someone approached him and asked that he use his broadcasting expertise to reach youth by combining ministry and sports. Overcoming his initial reluctance, McCracken warmed to the idea and recorded “The Game of Life”—a fictionalized football match between good and evil—using his resources at KWTX. His play-by-play of the supernatural clash for radio station WORD proved a hit with area youth groups. Each spin of the record brought McCracken requests to purchase copies of it. The only problem was he didn’t have any. So McCracken pulled together the funds to finance the pressing of one hundred copies. Through their popularity the young man sensed a market for sacred records. He started Word Records in Waco to meet that demand.
Initially, McCracken ran Word out of his apartment, bringing his friends Henry Sorelle and Ted Snider in to help him run the company. During the 1950s few labels produced religious music, and Word found ways to edge out the competition. In its early years it signed artists like Frank Boggs, got into production and distribution, and used record-of-the-month clubs to disperse music. Outside of religious records, Word sold sheet music, Christian literature, and educational resources. The label soon outgrew McCracken’s apartment and, after brief stints at other locations, moved in 1960 to its longtime headquarters at 4800 West Waco Drive.
The year before its move, Word hired Kurt Kaiser as its Director of Artists and Repertoire. Trained in piano and composition at Northwestern University, Kaiser’s ear and desire for outreach diversified Word’s offerings, charting a new trajectory for Christian music. Kaiser signed gospel juggernaut George Beverly Shea in 1975, and also worked with Ralph Carmichael to write a folk musical for youth titled Tell It Like It Is. Cooperating with secular musicians who wanted to produce sacred music also provided Word an opportunity to expand its audience. In the 1960s and 70s, it acquired the smaller Canaan and Myrrh labels. Its publicity and distribution operations grew as well. As it entered the 1980s, Word’s multimedia approach continued at the forefront of CCM as the genre developed.
For the first thirty years of the company, Word immersed itself in the Waco community. When McCracken first started Word, Waco businessmen provided the young entrepreneur with capital and connections. Word later returned the community’s gesture, offering college scholarships to local high school graduates and providing jobs to many Baylor students. The label drew musicians such as Ken Medema to perform in Waco, in addition to sponsoring many community events featuring the Christian arts. Word held a reputation in town as a respectable company that felt like a family. It invested in cultivating the support of Wacoans, many of whom endorsed its mission. Word’s business and community commitments reaped dividends.
The label grew exponentially alongside CCM. In 1974, ABC purchased the company, eventually moving it near Fort Worth. Leaving Waco meant that Word sacrificed some of its communal feel. The transition also led to Jarrell McCracken departing the company in 1986. By the 1990s Word was in Nashville and the label housed popular artists like Sandi Patti and Amy Grant. Still one of the leading producers of Christian music today, the label retains its initial ministerial goal. Word went out from Waco and aided in the development of Christian music. Its impact still reverberates in the city and Christian music industry.