From Radio to the Internet: Christian Broadcasting at 90

In the decades since the first religious program was aired, Christian broadcasting has embraced technological changes while staying true to the proclamation of the Gospel.

Ninety years ago, the first Christian program – the worship service of Calvary Episcopal Church – went out over the air on KDKA in Pittsburgh. Since that time, Christian broadcasting has flourished in the United States and around the world.

"Not only do I think Christian broadcasting is still relevant and vibrant, I'm increasingly impressed at how the Lord is using every aspect of media technology to get the Gospel to unreachable areas via radio, TV and Internet programs," said Craig Parshall, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Religious Broadcasters, a trade association based in Manassas, Va.

Today, approximately 2,400 Christian radio stations and around 100 full-power Christian television stations send out the Gospel message via Christian music, preaching and teaching programs, and Christian talk shows. NRB estimates that between 300 and 400 Christian production companies produce programming for radio and TV stations, in addition to thousands of churches that broadcast some content, usually Sunday morning services.

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One survey of Christian radio and TV program producers that NRB conducted several years ago discovered that 42 percent aired content exclusively on Christian radio or TV stations, while 55 percent produced content for both Christian and secular radio or TV stations.

"We were surprised to find that there was a fair amount of crossover of Christian content that airs on general market stations," said Parshall.

For example, "The 700 Club" airs on the ABC Family Channel, 100 secular stations in most major markets and many of the large Christian TV networks, according to producer CBN. The one-hour live show can be seen in 96 percent of U.S. television households, according to Nielsen.

While today's Christian broadcasters still proclaim the Gospel as their earlier counterparts did, Parshall pointed to several things that have changed the face of religious broadcasting over the past 20 years: the explosion of the Internet, the growth of cable and satellite radio and television, and the continued financial support given to Christian broadcasting.

"The phenomenon of the Internet has been a game changer in terms of how we view communications," said Parshall. "Ten years ago, the number of Christian broadcasters – including stations and producers – that had a website was around 60 percent to 70 percent. Today, literally 100 percent have a very vibrant website."

The number of cable and satellite radio and television stations has opened up another avenue for Christian broadcasters. "Now broadcasters have a multiplicity of platforms to send out their message," said Parshall.

The recession has hit commercial stations hard as advertisers have reduced or eliminated radio and TV ad spending. However, noncommercial Christian stations, which rely exclusively on listener support for their operating budgets, haven't seen as sharp a decline in revenue.

"Because noncommercial or nonprofit stations are mission-driven, listeners have shown a willingness to support their work through donations," said Parshall.

At the upcoming NRB annual convention in Nashville, Tenn., broadcasters will meet to discuss a wide variety of issues, including technological challenges.

"I counted 22 separate presentations, seminars and workshops that specifically deal with the Internet, social networking and social media," said Parshall. "Those issues are on the radar of our folks to make sure they're on the cutting edge of using all of the media and technology available to get our Gospel message out."

On the public policy side, NRB has its eye on net neutrality because of the Federal Communication Commission's comments that it might write regulations to govern the relationship between Internet companies, like Apple and Comcast, and the consumer.

"We feel that the FCC should instead focus on preserving free speech for those who want to access the Internet," said Parshall.

NRB created the John Milton Project for Religious Free Speech to monitor any potential censorship of Christian viewpoints online. "We are beginning to see a very delicate balance between allow free enterprise, which is good, and shutting down free speech online," he said.

Another issue at top of mind for Christian broadcasters is the battle over spectrum. The FCC wants to open up more spectrum for wireless companies to use and has asked TV broadcasters to voluntarily give up some spectrum, which would then be auctioned off.

"Our concern is that if the auction does not yield enough spectrum, the agency will move from a voluntary to an involuntary program," said Parshall. "That would really hurt our smaller TV broadcasters, who already spent a lot to convert from analog to digital."

This spring, the FCC will release its Future of Media report that NRB hopes will contain a rule allowing noncommercial stations to do on-air fundraisers for other nonprofit, 501.c.3 organizations.

"Right now, unreasonable FCC rules ... make it difficult for a noncommercial station to interrupt programming to raise money for another nonprofit group," said Parshall. "The stations have to get a waiver from the FCC to do so and the practice has been to deny those requests unless it's for a mass disaster, like Hurricane Katrina or the Haiti earthquake."

Also of concern among religious broadcasters is the call among some liberals to resurrect the Fairness Doctrine in the wake of the Tucson, Ariz., shootings last month.

"Immediately, there was a call by a number of legislators to blame conservative talk radio for that shooting, and some of those conservative talk folk are on Christian talk radio," he said.

The FCC had abandoned the Fairness Doctrine years ago, but some in Congress recently have talked about renewing it. Basically, the doctrine would require both sides of any issue to receive equal air time. What makes it especially of concern to Christian broadcasters is the potential of the doctrine being interpreted to mean preaching or teaching programs would need to air opposing views. "We don't hear any call right now to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine," but we have to keep educating the public about its damage to First Amendment rights in order to keep the possibility at bay, said Parshall.

Going into its 68th annual convention later this month, NRB sees the future of Christian broadcasting to be bright and the challenges great. "Now it's up to the Christian broadcasters and communicators to be faithful as well," said Parshall.

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