Religious Broadcasting

This began in the British Isles 24 December 1922, when the Rev. J.A. Mayo gave a ten-minute talk just forty days after the inauguration of “the wireless.” In 1924 the first worship service was broadcast from St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London, and since 1928 there has been a daily service on radio without a break. The scope has widened to include talks, hymn-singing, panel discussions, and magazine- style material as well as services of various kinds.

Little was done by the British Broadcasting Corporation to develop religious television programs until the era of competition with Independent (i.e., commercial) Television began in 1955. One of the ITV companies launched “About Religion” in 1956; another began “Sunday Break” in late 1957. Both set out to popularize Christianity, and they used the so-called closed period (6:15-7:25 p.m.) on Sunday evenings. The BBC responded to the challenge with “Meeting Point” and “Songs of Praise”-the latter a hymn-singing program.

No program regularly succeeded in reaching mass audiences until Yorkshire Television's “Stars on Sunday” in 1969. This long- running series of unashamedly sentimental songs, poems, and readings-largely chosen by viewers-has captured audiences of up to fifteen million, but has been heavily criticized for its saccharine style. Nevertheless successive archbishops of Canterbury have appeared on the program. One reason for its popularity may have been the overintellectual style of most BBC religious programs, which have until recently been heavily weighted in favor of high-level debate or formal church events. With the arrival of BBC's “Anno Domini” program, the balance seems to have been partly restored.

Local radio began in Britain in 1967 and from the start offered much wider access for the Christian layman. In practice, local programs have often allowed experimental ideas to be tested before they reach the larger regional and national audiences.

Training centers for radio and television were set up by the late Lord Rank (at Bushey) and the Roman Catholic Church (at Hatch End). The former is now fully ecumenical, and the latter is open to non-Catholic participants. Both centers are independent of the public broadcasting media.

From the beginning, religion has not been advertised, nor could would-be sponsors purchase time. The main churches generally favor this policy, believing that any change opens the public to those for whom money alone is the means of gaining air- time.

Religious broadcasting has inevitably been dominated by the Christian churches as a result of the BBC and a “mainstream” policy. By 1976, however, this was being interpreted much less rigidly. The end of the “closed period” also is in sight.

Some evangelicals have been dissatisfied with Britain's religious broadcasting and have attempted to beam shortwave programs into Britain from Monte Carlo and elsewhere. These programs are much closer in style to American religious broadcasting and have not won mass audiences. In the 1960s similar programs were transmitted by the now-defunct “pirate” radio stations. More recently, attempts have been made to gain access to BBC and ITV by media-trained evangelicals, and this seems a more fruitful method.

Predicated on the Bill of Rights of the Constitution, the doctrines of “Freedom of Speech, Press and Religion” have guaranteed that individuals and organizations in the United States have access to the airwaves for responsible religious instruction and persuasion. The history of American religious broadcasting has had three phases: The pioneer phase, 1921-31. This began with the endeavors of individual clergymen, usually broadcasting their own church services. The first of these apparently was from Calvary Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh, on 2 January 1921. Within two years, several ministers had regular programs from various cities.

The first religious station license was granted on 22 December 1921 to the National Presbyterian Church of Washington, D.C. Within five years there were more than sixty licensed religious stations, including KJS (Bible Institute of Los Angeles) in 1922, KFUO (Concordia Seminary, St. Louis) in 1924, and WMBI (Moody Bible Institute, Chicago) in 1926. When the first American network (NBC) was organized in 1926, free time was given to S. Parkes Cadman's program from New York City, and it was co- sponsored by the Federal Council of Churches as the “National Radio Pulpit,” the first network religious program. In 1928, D.G. Barnhouse* purchased program time on the CBS network; in 1930 came Walter Maier's “The Lutheran Hour.” Roman Catholic network broadcasting began at the same time, when Fulton Sheen* preached the first sermon on “The Catholic Hour.” Foreign missionary broadcasting started when the World Radio Missionary Fellowship was founded in 1929. Its station, HCJB, went on the air from Quito, Ecuador, on Christmas Day, 1931. The development phase, 1932-42. The Great Depression forced the sale of most religious stations to commercial interests; WMBI was one of the few to survive. Because the FCC controlled most of the free time, the independent gospel broadcaster had to buy time on commercial stations. This led to development of many types of religious programs. C.E. Fuller* launched his own independent radio ministry, as did other pastors. This period of development was retarded by two events: America's entry into World War II in 1941, and the FCC's persuading networks to discontinue the sale of time to religious broadcasts and channel all free time through the FCC. The expansion phase, 1943 onward. The exclusion of most independent gospel broadcasters from the networks soon led to the former purchasing time on hundreds of individual stations as well as organizing their own. Metropolitan, denominational, and ecumenical agencies were formed, such as the Southern Baptist Radio Commission (1938). The National Religious Broadcasters, an evangelical association, was established in 1943, partly to counter the FCC's restrictive policies. The Broadcasting and Film Commission of the National Council of Churches now serves the interests of the mainline denominations.

In 1943 Billy Graham began the popular program “Songs in the Night,” which has had many imitators; his even more widely heard “Hour of Decision” was launched in 1950. A year earlier, the radio networks resumed the selling of time to independent religious broadcasters.

Postwar broadcasting saw two significant technical achievements: FM broadcasting and television. FM has meant many new religious stations granted frequencies in the noncommercial portion of the band. The current era has seen much creative energy in programing religious television, beginning with Percy Crawford's “Youth on the March” in 1949, the first network gospel program. Others followed, including the Lutheran “This is the Life” and the telecasts of Billy Graham and Oral Roberts. Network television began to sponsor programs such as “Frontiers of Faith” and “Lamp Unto My Feet.” Roman Catholics were well represented by Bishop Sheen, Jews by “The Eternal Light.”