Organ music swells to the crescendo of congregational singing. Soon a deep, paternal voice reads the Scripture lesson, asks for money, and prays. A soprano sings. After twenty minutes of forceful preaching, the program closes with a slightly hurried prayer.

Religious radio programs like this are as old as broadcasting itself. As Christians in a world of need we are charged to communicate to the world who Christ is. Yet after nearly forty-five years of a technology that virtually made it possible to reach the world all at once, we are still trying to preach the world into heaven using a language and frame of reference the non-church person does not understand. Is it any great surprise that the unchurched are not affected by a music style of a hundred years ago, and that they cannot understand phraseology that would please the ear of a Shakespearian scholar? Is it any wonder that a worship service designed for church use and those initiated in the Christian tradition does not communicate to the non-churched person through radio?

A recent survey found that in the United States radio’s weekly audience includes 92 per cent of all persons eighteen and older, 99 per cent of all teen-agers, and 94 per cent of all people from twenty-four to forty-nine. The lack of effectiveness of religious radio programs cannot be blamed on a dying medium.

What is the government’s attitude toward religious programs? Since its beginning in 1934, the Federal Communications Commission—the agency that regulates broadcasting—has been in favor of religious programs. It has often asserted that these programs are in the public interest. As early as March, 1946, the FCC encouraged broadcasters to carry religious programming. The policy known as the “Blue Book” stated that a radio station has the primary responsibility for choosing programs but that the FCC also has a related duty to perform. The immediate result of the Blue Book was a new license-renewal application form requiring applicants to state how much broadcast time they devoted to certain categories, among which was religious programming. The government licensing agency today continues to show interest in religious programs, and as a result stations want to be able to say that they carry such programs. The limited success of religious programming cannot be attributed to broadcaster unwillingness. Nor is non-availability of stations an excuse: as of August, 1970, there were 6,364 AM and FM radio stations on the air in the United States (Sydney Head, Broadcasting in America, 1972, p. 469).

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What else can be limiting the success of religious programs? Take a look at the programs themselves. The principles of good listening are simple to the point of common sense. What does make a radio program interesting? Joseph Johnson and Kenneth Jones offer several suggestions for making a radio program interesting in their book Modern Radio Station Practices (Wadsworth, 1972). They tell us that a successful program relates to the listener’s previous experiences. We cannot describe something new to a person who has no frame of reference for it. The new object or material has to be either demonstrated or described in relation to the person’s own experience. A taped church service has little meaning to someone who can barely remember going to church as a child.

Johnson and Jones say also that a successful program has a comfortable pace. It never lags nor pushes too hard; there is a balance between tension and relaxation. The most highly developed message package there is, the commercial, never tells you everything about its product. It concentrates on a few aspects of the product and repeats the name often. It is forceful but not overwhelming. A program, too, needs this balanced appeal.

The successful program also has a variety of content and pacing. A commercially produced program does not use all the same style of music, for example, or all vocal selections, or all fast rhythms.

Radio is a personal medium, Johnson and Jones point out, one that requires understatement. Only a few elements are needed to tell a story well. Radio can stir the imagination through simple arrangements of sound, as happened in the successful old radio dramas such as “The Shadow,” “One Man’s Family,” and “Amos ’n Andy.” These programs did not try to tell everything; a few simple sounds would create a detailed scene in the mind of the listener.

A program should be presented with ease, with a smooth flow that creates a positive feeling inside the hearer. If a religious program sounds choppy and compartmentalized, the person who stumbles upon the program while scanning the dial is unlikely to listen long. Each element in the program should lead naturally to the next one. It should not be expected, but neither should it come as a total surprise. Dedication and prayer are no substitutes for production errors.

Most people are not overbearing and are certainly not going to put up with overbearing people on the radio. When a simple turn of the knob will change the station, they are not going to listen to a bombastic, holier-than-thou pronouncement from anybody’s ivory tower. The relationship of teacher and student is so often weakened by the inability to feel enough kinship with each other to ask the questions that really matter. How much greater is the chasm that develops when the listener cannot talk back? A little humor or other touch of humanness builds a lot more credibility than an hour of verbal punishment.

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At the door

the host snaps a cookie

into my hand

kneads my hand around it

almost like a fist

and gives me a sip of juice:

these, he says, for the trip.

A giant fly

buzzes in the dark

on the step

rubbing its forelegs together,

the small hairs like razors.

It is begging the disk

which is becoming part of my hand.

Thinking we might be friends,

I offer it some chipped crumbs

and am surprised to learn

they will not go down,

but shoot from the shocked mandibles

like one full moon,

like stars


A program can coax involvement from a listener by giving him something to do. “Sing along …” or “Talk back at us …” both elicit an action and create something of a commitment to or investment in the program.

Johnson and Jones tell us further that the “build-up” is important to an interesting program. A little suspense or appeal to the listener’s curiosity is good. The listener wants to be encouraged to listen. He doesn’t want to have to force himself to pay attention.

A very important aspect of a program that is at the bottom of some elements already mentioned is personality, the character of the program as well as the people on it. People like a radio program if it seems to show more interest in the listeners than in itself, say Johnson and Jones. Some successful programs include letters from their listeners. Some approach their audience as if the program were a person-to-person conversation rather than an impersonal speech to “all you out there in radio land.” Whatever the approach, simple language is necessary. When the medium is print, one can always read it over again if he does not understand everything the first time. With radio, there is no going back.

What can the listener do about inadequate religious programming? Plenty. Every broadcast depends heavily on two things: money and letters. A well-written letter to the radio program (it may be sent “in care of” the station) has immense influence. Most religious program producers do not research their audience; they depend on letters to tell them whether they’re finding an audience. If you don’t like what you hear and don’t write to the program, you are in effect encouraging that program. Tell the producers your reactions and suggest better ways to communicate the message. If the program continues to be poor, refuse to support it. There is nothing Christian about giving money to something you think is ineffective.

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There are other possibilities, too. Give some thought to making your own program or encouraging interest in new programs. Are there broadcasting students or hobbyists you know who have a tape-recorder, microphone, and some imagination? Chances are that your local radio station would be more interested in what you can do for them in a creative way than in the usual humdrum hymn-and-message or endless panel discussion that is common religious broadcast fare today. Think of it for a minute. What would you rather listen to? That is what you should be hearing.

Perhaps no other medium of mass communication requires so little to be effective. The technology is not beyond the reach of anyone, and the challenge is to everyone. Are you a Christian? Do you have something to tell and a fresh idea for telling it? If so, religious radio programming could use your help.

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