|History of Religious Broadcasting: 1920-1960: Background and Inferred
Uses and Gratifications
Broadcast . . . act or process of scattering seeds. (Barnouw, 1966, p. 7)
He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. (Matthew 11:15, KJV)
Starting in the predawn hours of each Sunday morning, the largest
religious gathering in America takes place, drawing 130 million people
to their radio and television sets . . . reaching more people than all of the
nation's churches combined . . . the electric church. (Armstrong, 1979, p. 7)
Background: Religion and Radio—Ethereal Waves, Evangelism and Eternity
Douglas (1987b) in Inventing American Broadcasting: 1912-1922, described how a "radio boom" burst onto the American scene in the spring of 1922 (p. xv). An estimated 600,000 persons had wireless receiving sets as early as February 1922 (Neeb, 1967, p. 5). As then President Herbert Hoover said, "wireless fever" was one of the "most astounding things that [has] come under my observation of American life" ("Astonishing Growth," 1922, p. 28). From the perspective of many, radio appeared with "stunning suddenness," becoming within a few weeks "a force in public opinion and public taste fitly comparable to the press" ("Radio," 1924, p. 465). Figures reveal that by 1922 sales of radio equipment totaled around $60 million; in 1923, $136 million; and by 1924, $358 million (Lazarsfeld, 1940, pp. 181, 201). By January 1922, there were 30 commercial broadcasting stations in operation in the United States. By May of that same year, there were 218 stations and by November, 556 licenses were in effect (Neeb, 1967, p. 5).5 And by 1930, radio had an estimated audience over 50 million (Dubourdiku, 1933, p. 1).
The invention of radio allowed more individuals than ever before to hear the gospel, that is, to be exposed to the basic tenets of the Christian faith. As the earliest interpretive articles of this burgeoning medium during the 1920s reveal, in addition to causing "dizzy spells, changes in weather, and creaky floorboards" (Barnouw, 1966, p. 103), many believed radio would almost deterministically assert Christian values in America.6 This appears consistent with the powerful effects tradition in communication research that was prevalent during this period. Individuals in rural communities previously cut off from services, such as the farmer or the handicapped, could now "almost imagine being in church" (Douglas, 1995, p. 238). What once was lost as a result of the perils of a world war and growing post-war industrialism could now be found through religion via radio. Radio would become the earthly vehicle for delivering God's "Amazing Grace," a cultural savior, if you will.
Early religious broadcasting was perceived by many as a spiritual salve for the wounds of a nation in the aftermath of its First World War. World War One, while giving radio its greatest and earliest developmental boost (e.g., Barnouw, 1966, pp. 39-41), also created its greatest post-world war outlet. In this sense, then, radio would function as the ethereal thread that would weave unity (or community) into a post-war world tapestry that had become sorely torn and tattered. Radio has long been heralded as "the glue that held a nation together through war and economic depression" (Pease & Dennis, 1995, p. 5). For the generations growing up during the war and after, radio was an oracle of sorts, teaching them "how to live, what to be afraid of, what to be proud of, how to be beautiful, how to be loved, how to be envied, how to be successful" (Barnouw, 1966, p. 265). Dinwiddie (1968) described the marvel of radio development "through years of poverty and plenty, of unsettled peace and devastating war, of a shrinking world and expanding space, of faith battered and reborn into closer unity" (p. 16). He further poignantly summarized the prevailing cultural and spiritual sentiment in the following excerpt:
Religion by radio began at a time when the skepticism created by the First World War still exerted a strong influence. Thanksgivings for victory in a way to end war had faded and, though trade and commerce were booming [. . .], a feeling of instability was apparent in society, with a failure to maintain moral standards and rise to new opportunities of service. There was a superficial gaiety in all walks of life, but war had blunted man's sensibility, and a reverence for the welfare of others was lacking in days of hard-won peace. As General Smuts so well expressed it, "A new heart must be given, not only to our enemies, but also to us; a new spirit of generosity and humanity born in the hearts of people in the great hour of common suffering and sorrow." (p. 15)
Therefore, given this socio-cultural context, Dinwiddie concluded that
the stage was set in this needy age to "cast abroad," like bread upon the waters, the Christian religion by radio, able to reach to the ends of the earth, into the homes of people everywhere—to those of every class, colour and belief, or of none, and so employ this scientific method for the glory of God and the spread of Christ's Kingdom. (p. 16)
In this light, religious broadcasts (or "religion by radio") should be perceived as playing a significant role during radio's infancy both at home and abroad. In the United States, evangelical radio was anything but a minor aspect of American broadcasting and culture. In fact, as will be discussed below, given the relative ease of obtaining a federal license, religious organizations proved to be some of the earliest pioneers to be licensed by the Department of Commerce (Schultze, 1988, p. 291). By February 1, 1923, of the "businesses" owning stations, "churches" ranked seventh on a list of 20 potential categories (Neeb, 1967, p. 5).
The initial religious broadcast in the United States was a special program broadcast over the radio facilities of the United States Signal Corps from Trinity Church, Washington, DC, on August 24, 1919 (Archer, 1938, p. 3). The first regular religious broadcast in this country aired on January 2, 1921 from Calvary Episcopal Church on KDKA, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Reverend Jan Van Etten believed that this broadcast "symbolized the 'universality of radio religion'" (Barnouw, 1966, p. 71). One author later referred to this as the "birth of religious radio in the United States" (Knock, 1959, p. 2).7 KDKA had debuted as the second regular broadcast station just a few months earlier on November 2, 1920, when it broadcast the Harding-Cox election returns (Gibson, 1977, p. 3).8 The first broadcast station devoted completely to religious programming was KQW, appearing on December 9, 1921, a little over one month after KDKA, Pittsburgh received its license. KQW was licensed to the First Baptist Church of San Jose, California. Other stations were soon to follow (Neeb, 1967, p. 3). By the summer of 1923, special telephone circuitry was being used to link radio stations to carry programming of the religious kind (Knock, 1959, p. 3). Network religious programming appeared on the American radio scene as early as August 5, 1923 (p. 8).
Additionally, Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944), charismatic founder of the L.I.F.E. Bible College and International Church of the Four Square Gospel (ICFG), was the first woman to preach the Gospel by radio in April 1922, at KFSG in Los Angeles (Hansen, 1995, p. 17).9 The first "radio church" premiered on April 8, 1923 under the direction of R. R. Brown, who asked his listeners to join the "World Radio Congregation" (Ward, 1995, pp. 228-29). This was perhaps the first time radio was perceived as a separate form of church experience (i.e., para-church); a gathering of Christians that existed neither in time nor in place, an ethereal or "virtual" community of believers. Members could almost vicariously "fellowship" as part of a larger congregation without actually being in the presence of others. Former notions of community and fellowship would forever be radically redefined.10
On the international scene, broadcast stations appeared in London, Birmingham, and Manchester as early as November 1922. On Christmas Eve of that same year, a little more than a month after daily transmissions began, J. A. Mayo became the first clergyman to broadcast in Britain (Dinwiddie, 1968, pp. 18-19). John Wesley started a radio station in the Holy Club at Oxford around the same time in his attempt to evangelize the British Isles (Hargrett, 1930, p. 72). It was estimated by 1924 that "80% of the population within crystal range would get an earful of religion by radio" (Dinwiddie, 1968, p. 20).
Outside of England, the first international radio station aired on February 22, 1931 from Vatican City, and the first missionary radio station began with HCJB ("Heralding Christ Jesus' Blessings") from Quito, Ecuador, on Christmas day, 1931 (Ward, 1995, p. 211). The world by this time, as one scholar aptly noted, had truly become "wired" (Crowley & Heyer, 1995, p. 145).
In short, by 1930 Christians worldwide had already begun mining radio technology as a means of communicating spiritual truths. At the beginning of 1933, there were some 3,820 religious programs spanning 14 different types of broadcasts (Dubourdiku, 1933, pp. 25-26). KDKA had awakened some educators, which included preachers and teachers of the Gospel, to the seemingly limitless potentialities of radio.
"Perhaps the most arresting testimony to the impact of the radio boom" and KDKA's efforts during this time "was the simpler message put up by a minister in front of his church in Louisville, Kentucky: GOD IS ALWAYS BROADCASTING" (Barnouw, 1966, p. 104).
As Gibson (1977) noted, by this time "no longer was radio only an instrument in the physics laboratory. . . radio became an instrument for the dissemination of knowledge" (p. 3). In the United States, many saw radio as a logical way to extend "knowledge of" religion into the homes of nearly every American. Recall that scholarly research around this time had already begun acknowledging radio as a tool for spreading religion (e.g., Cantril & Allport, 1935, pp. 21-35). As early as 1924, religious organizations held one out of every 14 broadcast licenses available in the United States and by 1925, 60 out of 600 (Voskuil, 1990, p. 72).
On the international front, radio allowed Christians to spread the gospel to countries closed to missionaries. As Siedell (1971) argued, it was not until radio in the 20th century that the Church's dreams of reaching every person in the world with the gospel became technologically possible (p. 19). Radio, then, would become a way for Christians to usher in the "end-times" by giving everyone the opportunity to hear the gospel, even those who could not read. This potential is still realized today by international ministry organizations such as Lifeword, the international missionary radio/television agency of the Baptist Missionary Association of America. Lifeword broadcast a 15-minute Bible reading program in the Farsi language to the nearly 65 million people in Iran, half of whom could not read (Kraus, 1996, p. 2).
Governmental regulation also played a pivotal role in the early growth and development of religious broadcasting in the United States. White (1947) divided the history of government regulation of radio broadcasting (up to that point in time) into five periods: (a) the laissez-faire period (1922-1927); (b) the traffic-control period, (1927-1932); (c) the clean-up period (1932-1937); (d) the trust-busting period (1937-1944); and (e) the public service era (1944-present) (pp. 126-127). While all five periods had some effect on the practice of early religious broadcasting in America, period two (1927-1932) equally represented the most serious challenge to the propagation of the gospel via wireless.
The Radio Act of 1912 required individuals to obtain a license from the Secretary of Commerce and Labor prior to engaging in the business of radio broadcasting. Licenses were available to U.S. citizens only and were revocable for cause. Stations were required to designate a certain wave length (360 meters) and use the minimum amount of energy necessary to broadcast. The government's wavelength was 485 meters (p. 128)
Demand for licenses almost immediately exceeded supply in certain regions of the country. By November 1925, there were about 578 broadcasting stations, with another 175 applications on file (up from just 30 stations in 1922). Interference with government and other private stations was a common occurrence (Siepmann, 1946, p. 4). The government instituted time and power limitations in an effort to control the growing ethereal bedlam (Douglas, 1987a, p. 92). The Secretary of the Fourth Radio Conference (November, 1925) stated that he could:
see no alternative to abandonment of the present system, which gives the broadcasting privilege to everyone who can raise the funds necessary to erect a station, irrespective of his motive, the service he proposes to render, or the number of others already serving his community. (White, 1947, p. 130)
Congress passed the Radio Act of 1927 as a means of controlling what appeared to many a "lawless frontier." The free-enterprise, commercial spirit of most broadcasters had essentially eclipsed any hopes of self-regulation (Siepmann, 1946, p. 5). The Federal Radio Commission (FRC), created by the Radio Act of 1927, had the authority to issue licenses, allocate frequencies and limit power. The FRC declared the airwaves public property and set out to ensure that they were being used for the public interest (White, 1947, p. 132). The FRC reasoned that it was better to have fewer broadcasters operating in the public interest than many operating without checks and balances. In a matter of months, one out of every five radio stations was forced to relinquish its license (about 150 of 732 stations). Virtually all stations were ignoring restrictions related to power and hours of operation. Many religious stations were being challenged by the FRC as being mere propaganda outlets that simply failed to serve the "public good" (i.e., public interest) (Ward, 1995, pp. 34-35). According to one source, between 1927 and 1932, the total number of stations was reduced form 681 to 604, with a drastic cut back of stations authorized to broadcast at night (from 565 to 397 stations) (Douglas, 1987a, p. 96).
Radio stations were classified by the FRC as "public interest, convenience, or necessity" requires (White, 1947, p. 132). The FRC "took the stand that special interests had no proper claim to general broadcast facilities" (Rose, 1940, p. 170). And since most religious stations were classified as "special interest" stations—no doubt as a result of their perceived tendency toward indoctrination and "propaganda"—they were either put off the air completely or reassigned to frequencies they shared with other stations (Schultze, 1988, pp. 292-293). Several preachers and teachers eventually found a voice with stations attempting to meet their public interest requirements by offering free airtime to religious broadcasters. As radio continued to grow and stations began to cut back on sustaining time for religious broadcasts, however, these stations would require religious broadcasters to pay for their time (i.e., to "buy time"). Paid-time programming is a feature of religious radio programming that still exists today.
Faced with extermination, then, religious broadcasters had to either adapt or perish. Schultze (1988) argued that "nothing would be more important for the development of the electronic church" [religious broadcasting] than the FRC's regulatory cutbacks since such cutbacks ultimately forced religious broadcasters to become more formatically proficient. Simply stated, "evangelicals learned early how to produce programming that would attract audiences and garner financial support" (p. 295). Religious radio stations had to be operated professionally and creatively if they were to survive in the competitive marketplace. In the face of governmental regulations and public scrutiny, many religious broadcasters thus began to develop full-time evangelical radio formats to replace programming that consisted mainly of live church service broadcasts. For some this was the beginning of compromise, a watering down of the gospel to meet socially acceptable standards of religion and "entertainment." For others, this was the opportunity to reach a larger audience than ever before imagined possible. It is interesting to note that similar governmental public service regulations during the 1970s unwittingly led to the development of new forms of Christian music programming. As will be discussed in detail in Chapter Three, these regulations opened the national (and international) broadcasting doors for early CCM radio pioneers such as Scott Ross and Larry Black.
To continue, the Communications Act of 1934 replaced the FRC with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a permanent regulatory body. The Act substantially reaffirmed the basic principles defined in the Radio Act of 1927 (Siepmann, 1946, p. 7). The FCC's stable administration helped usher in radio's "Golden Age," which also meant a "Golden Age" of sorts for religious programming.11 As alluded to above, and as noted by Schultze (1988), by 1940 many stations were deriving significant revenue from evangelical broadcasts (i.e., paid-time programs). In order to stay on the air, religious broadcasters found it necessary to develop new and more entertaining formats that would attract audiences and raise financial support (pp. 295-297). Popular shows responding to the "revenue crunch" during this period included: Back to God Hour, with Henry Schultze and Peter Eldersveld; Radio Bible Class, with M. R. DeHaan; and the Bible Fellowship Hour, with T. Myron Webb (Ward, 1995, p. 54). Additional standouts during this time worth mentioning included The Lutheran Hour with Walter Maier and The Old-Fashioned Revival Hour with Charles Fuller.
The Lutheran Hour was distributed on the Mutual Broadcasting Network in 1935 and was the largest radio broadcast of its time. It aired on approximately 1,200 stations worldwide in 36 languages with an estimated audience of 700 million (a third of the world's entire population at that time) (p. 55). Charles Fuller's The Old-Fashioned Revival Hour switched to the Mutual network in 1937. In 1943, during the peak of Fuller's radio ministry, it was out performing its secular counterparts with its $1,556,310 of airtime, which was around 50% more than Mutual's next largest secular customer (p. 56).
By 1943, preachers such as Walter Maier and Charles Fuller could potentially reach more with one broadcast than D. L. Moody could reach in a single year! The country, then in the midst of its Second World War, was enjoying a spiritual renewal of sorts, a renewal that appeared to be fueling the growth of religious broadcasting. The spiritual salve applied by radio in the aftermath of the First World War was slowly taking effect. The growth in religious broadcasting occurring during this time period would be carried forward into the 1950s by such popular programs as Billy Graham's Hour of Decision (p. 215). During the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, the country would once again experience a type of spiritual awakening, what one author referred to as a "new religious consciousness" (Hoover, 1988, p. 21). This awakening, influenced in part by the Jesus Movement, would lead to a second wave of growth in the religious broadcasting industry and ultimately lay the foundation for CCM radio—a foundation that would ultimately support the phenomenal growth of CCM and CCM radio during the late 1980s and 1990s.
In brief, religious radio began its ascension in the aftermath of war and used subsequent world conflicts (e.g., World War Two, Korea, Vietnam) as platforms for its life-saving message. In the midst of national depression, destruction and despair, hope and peace were precious commodities that few could live without. Some argue that the 1930s were radio's finest years because of the Great Depression, which "made listening the only amusement people could afford" (Tyler, 1961, p. 11).12 Religion via radio was no exception. During times of economic and political tumult, the country was turning its ear and heart toward religion—in this case, religion by radio—to find the answers to life's most basic questions. Wartime pricked the collective consciousness and caused critical questions of peace, love, death and, by implication, the after-life, to be re-visited by cultural and religious commentators. Religious broadcasters saw this as an opportunity to provide the answers that appeared so obvious to them.13 It also afforded an unprecedented opportunity to "usher in the end-times" by allowing everyone with "ears to hear" a chance to respond to the gospel. In a similar fashion, early CCM radio pioneers would later see the cultural "hot buttons" of their day as providing a platform for a new kind of Christian expression.
Inferred Uses and Gratifications of Religion Via Radio
As previously discussed, religious (radio) broadcasting has grown and developed in Herculean proportions since it first debued regularly in January 1921, at KDKA in Pittsburgh. The potential audience at that time was estimated around 1,000 nationwide (Windsor, 1981, p. 1). Just a few short years later in 1923, R. R. Brown's "radio church" was reaching an estimated audience of half a million across the Midwest (Ward, 1995, p. 229). By 1935, Walter Maier's Lutheran Hour had a worldwide audience estimated around 700 million (p. 55).
"Fundamentalist" programming, which was suspicious of radio as "entertainment," dominated the airwaves during its early years with preaching and traditional vocal and instrumental musical forms (e.g., hymns) (Dubourdiku, 1933, pp. 33-34, 47, 85). Relationships to others, salvation and exposition based on the Bible were the primary subjects discussed in most sermons (p. 40). It was not until the late 1960s and early 1970s that more contemporary forms of Christian music in the form of "Jesus Music" were programmed at religious and sometimes secular stations.
From its inception, radio has been perceived by most Christians as "nothing less than a miraculous gift, bestowed by God to speed the progress of worldwide evangelization" (Bendroth, 1996, p. 75; see also Crozier, 1958, pp. 174-76). However, and perhaps somewhat ironically, there were clergy and other believers in the early days of radio who feared that religious broadcasts might be heard by the unbelievers and pagans. As "pearls before swine," the concern was that listeners would overhear what was not meant for them or hear something they would not understand or enjoy, "with consequent irritation or criticism" (Dinwiddie, 1968, p. 15).
But such views appeared by far to be the exception to the general support and enthusiasm Christians displayed for this new medium. In celebrating radio's centennial anniversary, Religious Broadcasting compared radio in the hands of Christians to the power of the rod in Moses' hands in Exodus 4 (Hansen, 1995, p. 16). In the hands of Christians, radio was "life-giving" but in the hands of non-Christians it was "demonic." As one British broadcaster rightly remarked, "every broadcast is a moral act" (Scupham, 1967, p. 66).
The diminishing public credibility and influence of the press further fueled the church's use of radio in evangelistic efforts (Lazarsfeld, 1946, p. 6). By the late 1930s and early 1940s, the press was so out of step with its audience and had fallen so much in public esteem that according to one author even "well-bred Christians would leave no doubt that they felt newspaper publishers sons-of-bitches" (Stott, 1994, p. 241). A 1939 public opinion poll revealed that the public did not think much of the press and actually preferred radio, finding it more credible and impartial than newspaper (p. 241). In support of this idea, Lazarsfeld (1940) reported that radio was preferred generally over the press as a source of news and specifically by women, those of lower income and those living in rural areas. Interestingly, even churches did not rank as high as radio in regard to public appraisal (Lazarsfeld, 1946, p. 6). The implication was that radio, because of its directness, personal touch, and empathic and participatory nature, was more trusted because it was simply less untrustworthy than other media. What better medium then for religious broadcasters to communicate the trustworthiness of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world?
Bendroth (1996) contended that the first major hurdle religious radio broadcasters had to overcome was radio's potential for "entertainment," a major reported use of the medium today. Radio was often objected to by some Christians on the grounds that it "'might well be called the helpmeet of the movie, the 'lust of the ear,'" for "it places religion on an equal basis with mere entertainment" (Loveless, 1946, pp. 15-16). The Payne Fund studies in the early 1930s had studied the effects of motion pictures on children and adolescents and found positive correlations between frequent movie attendance and truancy, delinquency and general antisocial behavior (Czitrom, 1982, p. 125). By associating radio with motion pictures, antagonists were therefore attempting to discredit radio as a viable tool for evangelism.
As Scupham (1967) noted, since the earliest days of broadcasting, "Churches have been aware of the danger that broadcasting might do no more than provide a form of sacred entertainment" (p. 142). But by the late 1930s, religious broadcasters were already recognizing that even gospel programs needed to have "entertainment value" in order to capture and sustain audiences. Long before any formal conceptualization of audience uses and gratifications, religious broadcasters identified an active, goal-directed audience that takes the initiative in selecting communication vehicles to satisfy felt needs in an environment where other media compete for attention. As one commentator during this time noted of the secular audience: "It is so easy for the indifferent worldling to turn the dial to another program or to get up and walk away. If the old-time evangelist needed power for his work, how much more must the radio messenger of God's grace lean on the supernatural!" ("The Radio," 1937, p. 55).
This realization that radio required "entertainment value" to sustain audiences functioned as a catalyst for more informal styles of preaching, a departure from the "bible-thumping" delivery mode of many old-school preachers. In 1933, approximately 40% of all religious radio was given to sermons or talks (Dubourdiku, 1933, p. 32). Wendell Loveless, Moody Bible Institute professor, thus instructed his students to avoid a "preachy" or "oratorical" tone in presentation, since "people wanted the voice on the air to talk to them, not shout at them" (Loveless, 1946, pp. 21-25). "The goal was to capture the listeners' interest first and then to introduce the gospel" (Bendroth, 1996, p. 78), a type of "incarnational model" of communication according to Webber (1980). In this light, even gospel radio broadcasts needed "entertainment value."
However, as proponents of radio evangelism were quick to point out, entertainment value was quite different from "amusement": "A radio audience may be amused for a half hour without the accomplishment of anything instructive. But the gospel broadcaster, who properly employs entertainment factors, has held the interest of his listening audience and has rendered a constructive service" (Loveless, 1946, pp. 46-47). It is interesting to note that CCM radio pioneers such as Scott Ross and Larry Black would employ a similar broadcast/communication philosophy to attract secular audiences during the late 1960s and early 1970s (see Chapter Three, infra).
Therefore, even at this early stage, Christian broadcasters were acknowledging "entertainment" as a possible gratification that audience members might seek and receive from Christian radio programming. A consistent finding appears some 50 years later in Creasman's (1994) study that identified entertainment as the highest rated listener- reported gratification for the CCM radio audience (p. iv).
There is also evidence that some individuals no longer capable of making contact with a larger church body on a regular basis because of "age, sickness or household duties" used early Christian radio broadcasts as a form of companionship or fellowship—as a way to participate in religious services (Scupham, 1967, p. 142; Crozier, 1958, p. 2). For example, Moody Bible Institute programmers specifically designed shows for the elderly and bedridden "shut-ins" that took prayer requests over the phone and even visited listeners in their homes (Bendroth, 1996, p. 78). Similar programming experiments by the BBC in 1926 were "well received and appreciated by patients in hospital and the housebound," such that the BBC received some 8,000 letters suggesting topics for prayer to meet listeners' personal needs (Dinwiddie, 1968, p. 21). This programming functioned as a substitute for face-to-face interaction for many of the faithful who were no longer able to attend church. This "functional substitution" use of religious programming for shut-ins was later noted by researchers of religious television programming (e.g., Welch, et al., 1990).
Other research around this time also revealed that even physically healthy individuals used religious broadcasting as a way to "join in" the service without actually being present. For example, Robinson (1941), in studying the social effects of the radio, reported that even with the effects of economic status and church membership ruled out, "radio women attend church less frequently than non-radio women" (p. 290). One may infer from such a finding that listeners were able to share or participate in the church service via radio in ways that satisfied their need (to some degree) to be physically present in corporate worship. However, it may be premature to conclude that radio functioned as a church substitute in the same way that religious television was later reported to function as a church substitute in the 1980s, especially in light of the differing technological and mediated communication environs that characterized these distinct time periods.
Additionally, the limitations of early radio technology at home and abroad often meant that "church services and other items would be heard in groups rather than in isolation with the family as the normal unit" (Dinwiddie, 1968, p. 22). The use of loudspeakers—the large horn type—in the mid-1920s, made earphones unnecessary and thus altered the context of home reception. Individuals could gather around sometimes-massive radio units in the company of friends and loved ones to enjoy the message in the comfort of their homes while sipping coffee or eating breakfast. The size and shape of early radio units made it easy for listeners to imagine that they were looking at a pulpit or sitting before an (electronic) altar. The presence of a small group of people may even have legitimized or otherwise sanctioned these gatherings as forms of "home churches."
Radio also is sometimes perceived as accelerating the transition to mass society first initiated by the telegraph and carried forth by the telephone and motion picture industry. As such, radio reinitiated an almost "messianic" understanding of communication first introduced by the telegraph in 1844, an understanding that would fuel, to some degree, the Church's use of this medium. This was an understanding of communication as common participation, which suggested communion or community (Czitrom, 1982, p. 10; Granfield, 1994, pp. 3-4). The possibility now existed for Christians to participate in communal celebration on a scale previously unimagined. This in turn provided an expanded sense of the "universal church" or "Body of Christ" as described by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament (although with a much different understanding of community than traditional notions of meeting face-to-face). Radio provided the first massive electronic implosion that reversed the individuation and isolation first introduced to the Western mindset by writing and later print. A new type of communal experience was now possible for previously disparate sectors of the Christian community.
Radio's tendency toward an understanding of communication as community, or communion, is related in part to its ability to involve people in depth. McLuhan (1964) in Understanding Media described radio as the "primal drum." Radio's auditory power has a tribal effect by appealing to tribal emotions, or primordial emotions, drawing people into a state of "secondary orality" reminiscent of oral culture in the tribal age. Secondary orality, according to Ong (1982) is like primary orality in its ability to foster a communal sense (along with communal personality structures), its concentration on the present moment and in its use of formulas. It differs from primary orality in that it is essentially a more "deliberate and self-conscious orality" based permanently on the use of writing and print.
Radio's tendency toward fostering a sense of community is further related to what Ong referred to as the "interiority of sound" (p. 71). Hearing can register the interior structure of whatever it is that produces the sound whereas sight tends to situate the observer outside that which he views. Sight isolates and sound incorporates, or pours into the hearer. Sound therefore enters deeply into our feel for existence. Spoken words via radio may thus be viewed as a manifestation of the human interior. In essence, individuals are "pouring" their sound [or essences] into other individuals. This in turn may approximate a face-to-face gathering and thus lend additional support to the para-communal use of this medium. "Fellowshipping" or "community" on the radio, then, may not be as far-fetched as it first appears.
Early interpretive articles further reveal an interest in the transcendent or invisible life associated with early radio broadcasts. As evidenced by Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938, radio was considered by many as a means of "making contact" with extra terrestrials (Lowery & DeFleur, 1983, p. 59; Barnouw, 1968, pp. 83-89). The panic following this Halloween spoof broadcast prompted a "hastily organized" research study by Lazarsfeld's famed Office of Radio Research, which had been founded only a year earlier by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to consider the influence of radio on listeners (Lowery & DeFleur, 1983, p. 67). The power of radio, not to mention its connection or association with the "extra terrestrial," had been forever rooted in the minds of most Americans. It is worth noting that the effects of this hoax were so powerful that many listeners refused to believe early reports of the bombing of Pearl Harbor some three years later, assuming that it too was an imaginative recreation of some horrifying event (Tyler, 1961, p. 8).
Early radio isteners were "awestruck" by the fact that they were most likely listening to sounds not intended to be heard by human beings. As Smith (1922) maintained, "radio has caught and brought to the ears of us earth dwellers the noises that roar in the space between the worlds" (emphasis added) (p. 6).
Religious overtones are often associated with this transcendent use of radio. Consider the comments of Hart (1922): "the most occult goings-on are about us. Man has his fingers on the triggers of the universe. He does not understand all he is doing. He can turn strange energies loose. He may turn loose more than he figured on; more than he can control" (p. 949).
Here, spiritual images of "powers of this dark world" and "spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" begin to emerge (Ephesians 6:4, New International Version). The transcendent appears to cosmically invade the immanent. There is spiritual grappling of sorts "with the concept that something seemingly dark, quiet, and empty actually contained invisible life" (Douglas, 1995, p. 233). The "air had been cracked open, revealing a realm in which the human voice and the sounds of the cosmos commingled" (p. 233). The eyes and ears of a nation, for better or worse, had been turned upward toward the heavenlies. Religious broadcasters prayed "for the better."
Using radio as a form of "escape" from earthly pressures was also an early motivation for listeners. The turn of the dial allowed individuals to be magically transported across the nation or to visit never-before-seen exotic locales. Notions of time and space had forever been altered by the telegraph and now by wireless. Motion pictures too carried this escapist tendency, but without the same degree of mastery or control afforded the radio aficionado. The motto during these early years may best be summarized as follows: "We will get what we want" (Frost, 1922, p. 18), or "we will go where we want" via ethereal highways. As MacFarland (1990) put it, any way you slice the radio pie, the audience will be in control (p. 49).
More importantly, perhaps, radio was perceived as a powerful social and cultural force, capable of revolutionizing America. It was often cast in terms of technological determinism, which represents the idea that the introduction of new modes of communication or technology brings about changes in social institutions and structures of consciousness.
As mentioned elsewhere, radio (and hence religious broadcasting) began its ascendance during the era of "all-powerful media" (McQuail, 1987, p. 252). This conception of the media was much like Eco's venerable priest Jorge in the Name of the Rose (1986) who thought books had the power of 1,000 scorpions. Media had the power to mold and shape public opinion (as opposed to merely reflect it as others would later proffer).
Radio was perceived as having the power to improve American life. Not only would it improve politics by holding politicians more accountable (Stott, 1994, pp. 241-43), it would also become an "intellectual force," making educational opportunities accessible to larger segments of society and thus strongly reducing class distinctions (Frost, 1922, p. 18).
In the process, the audience was perceived as a passive, reacting mass and messages produced uniform effects on individuals who received them in relative isolation. Communication was conceptualized as a one-way transmission of information from sender to receiver. In this context, for religious broadcasters, radio would be the vehicle to send the good news of the gospel directly into the hearts and minds of the populace, much like a needle injects its serum directly into the body of a patient. This likely explains, in part, the old-time "Bible-thumping," no-nonsense style of delivery that characterized so many early radio ministers. After all, if radio could be used to educate the public about politics and economics, it could also be used to educate them about Jesus Christ. All that was required for world evangelism, then, was a persuasive message and a powerful signal. Such assumptions about communication theory and practice guided many of the early religious radio undertakings described in this section.
Further evidence of radio's relationship with the mission of the Church is related to the widespread belief that radio's social destiny lay in its perceived ability to promote cultural unity, or a type of homogenized nationalism. Radio was embued with the power to rectify the isolation and disconnectedness associated with the industrial revolution, to function as an "antidote" to the "more debasing effects of mass culture" (Douglas, 1995, p. 236). Some saw radio as capable of "spreading mutual understanding to all sections of the country, unifying our thoughts, ideals, and purposes, making us a strong and well-knit people" (Frost, 1922, p. 18).
For religious broadcasters, the connective thread in this well-knit tapestry was the gospel of Jesus Christ. Religion by radio would help build a sense of "community." The "flexible, tenuous ether" would introduce a sense of intimacy by linking previously unrelated individuals (Hart, 1922, p. 949). The lonely farmer or invalid could now become a real "member of the community" (Bliven, 1924, p. 152). Even at this early stage, radio was perceived as a way for Christian listeners to be "connected" with other believers.
Religious broadcasters thus viewed radio as a way of expanding previous notions of "Christian community." One's conception of the Christian community or Body of Christ would no longer be restricted by national and international boundaries. Religion by radio enabled one to reach beyond local congregations and touch base with fellow brothers and sisters on the home front. While religious radio broadcasts were undoubtedly used as a church substitute by some, they were used by far more as a religious supplement. Later studies noting a positive correlation between church attendance and religious (radio) broadcasting consumption lend support to this inference. As Bendroth (1996) noted of fundamentalist radio broadcasting, "one of its primary purposes was to provide a cultural roadmap for Christians who wished to maintain a supernaturalistic faith in an increasingly materialistic culture" (p. 83). Religious broadcasting was a spiritual anchor amidst the prevailing industrial and technological chaos. It was used to "fill up" and sustain Christians during the week between worship services.
In sum, as the examination in this section has revealed, early religious broadcasting was likely used by audiences as a form of para-communal participation or extended fellowship with the larger Christian community. Such an idea of "fellowship" was only made possible by an understanding of communication, or communion, that had been radically transformed by the introduction of the telegraph and later by the radio. Radio's electronic implosion created a tendency toward primary orality, which itself was characterized by face-to-face communal interaction. In this sense, early religious broadcasts were used by audiences as a form of what others would later refer to as "social interaction" or "companionship." The interiority of sound compelled tribal images of storytelling around the campfire, an imagery that FDR's fireside chats would later capture in high fashion. Those who were bed-ridden or physically incapable of attending services could almost imagine being in church; that is, imagine participating with the Reverend Brown's "World Radio Congregation" or "radio church."
Second, many of the faithful were tuning into religious programs for a taste of what critics labeled as "sugar-coated, witty sermon stories" ("So-Called Humor," 1954, p. 941). By 1946, religious broadcasters had begun to recognize that listeners used radio as a form of entertainment. As one Moody Bible Institute instructor stated, "the gospel broadcaster, who properly employs entertainment factors, has held the interest of his listening audience . . ." (Loveless, 1946, pp. 46-47).
Radio in its various forms of programming would thus enable the Church to "reveal herself to the modern world" and preach the Word to audiences on a scale previously unimagined (Granfield, 1994, p. 17). As Parker, et al. (1948) argued, there were three unique characteristics of radio that made it an important tool for religious organizations. First, "radio's immediacy and speed; second, the personalized nature of radio communication, and third, the powerful drive exerted by radio as a potential agent of democracy" (p. x). Benjamin Armstrong, former president of the National Religious Broadcasters, described radio and other electronic media (in New Testament terms) as the "new Pentecost that communicates religious belief directly to the homes and hearts of individual listeners and viewers" (Armstrong, 1979, p. 7). By the end of the 1970s it was estimated that more people listened to (or viewed) a religious broadcast than attended a weekly church service (p. 7). For such reasons, Pope Paul VI, in his 1976 Evangelii Nuntiandi said that "the Church would feel guilty before the Lord if she did not use these powerful means that human skill is daily rendering more perfect" (pp. 30-31).14 The Jesus Movement of the 1970s and subsequent emergence of CCM radio would only reinforce radio's proven ability to "reveal herself" in ways unimagined.