*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 2nd of January 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
I’m starting this, my 9th year of podcasting with a new mic (my first new mic since 2013 and not a headset! If you hear new pops or buzzes, don’t worry, we are working on it!)
Reflecting for a second almost a decade of podcasting is bizarre. I left full-time teaching to take up this opportunity to teach via pod. If I had told grad school that this is what I would be doing in the 3rd decade of the new century, I wouldn’t have known what to do with it. But here we are.
Of the almost 700,000 podcasts, more than 90,000 religious broadcasts are making it the number one podcast category. Since 2014 podcast listening has been up at a rate as high as 85%. Of course, exponential growth in media is no new story.
Today, I want to take you back to the early 20th century. You had books, the newspapers, and the occasional train from out of town. Your local teacher, pastor, priest, and doctor were the oracles you had access to. And then Marconi’s invention: the wireless radio.
And 1921 would be the watershed year for the new technology and its possible uses. In 1919 the first religious broadcast was made over the air from Trinity Church in Washington D.C. Radio audiences were still small as the technology had not made it into every home across the nation.
It was early in 1921- in fact, it was on the 2nd of January in 1921, the first regular religious broadcasting program was broadcast from Calvary Episcopal Church from KDKA in Pittsburgh. The Reverend Lewis B. Whitemore conducted the over-the-air service. The audience was estimated to be about 1,000 people. It was modest, but the radio craze was on.
Within a year, radio sales would hit 600,000, and there would be some 30 commercial broadcast stations. By the end of 1922, radio sales would be close to 100 million, and the 30 some stations ballooned to over 200 with 500 licenses representing would-be new stations. We know that Sister Aimee began her broadcasting in 1922. In 1923 the reverend R.R. Brown started his “World Radio Congregation”- the first religious service broadcast for only a radio audience. By 1924 1 in every 14 broadcast licenses were held by religious organizations. By 1930 radio audiences exceeded 50 million. This is one of the most significant cultural and sacred stories of that decade (which isn’t short on big stories!).
The issue of gatekeeping interests me very much when it comes to religious broadcasting on the air. The initial excitement of the new media gave way to recent concerns from churches about who should be on the air and who shouldn’t be. It was assumed that the broadcasting corporations would be their censors- but the early preaching of Father James Coughlin on CBS radio caused concern. The Detroit-based priest began with jeremiads against the KKK. Still, he would soon advocate for the likes of Hitler and Mussolini, was openly anti-Semitic with conspiracy theories about “Jewish cabals.” While the national broadcasters abandoned the racist priest, they would perhaps be over-correct in their desire to find only the most agreeable (and often milquetoast) of broadcast preachers.
Religious broadcasting brought with it new apocalyptic expectations, and for a good reason. With this technology, it was true that people could hear the gospel anywhere on the planet for the first time. Enterprising missionaries and evangelists began experimenting with translated scripture and sermons broadcast into places where missionaries could not go. It seemed that the fulfillment of the Great Commission could be at hand.
From radio to televangelists to Christian broadcasting networks (from CBN and TBN) to web services and podcasting, Christianity has been forced to adapt to new media. Of course, this should not be a surprise for those who believe the Gospel is the living Word proclaimed and confessed. The modern iteration of a kind of Gutenberg-Esque medium- regular religious programming on the radio began on this day in 1921 from Calvary Episcopal and KDKA in Pittsburgh.
The Last Word for today comes from Romans 10
14 So how can they call on someone they don’t have faith in? And how can they have faith in someone they haven’t heard of? And how can they hear without a preacher? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of those who announce the good news.
16 But everyone hasn’t obeyed the good news. As Isaiah says, Lord, who has had faith in our message? 17 So, faith comes from listening, but it’s listening by means of Christ’s message. 18 But I ask you, didn’t they hear it? Definitely! Their voice has gone out into the entire earth, and their message has gone out to the corners of the inhabited world
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 2nd of January 2022 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man still celebrating the upset of his Purdue Boilermakers of the Tennessee Volunteers. Of course, you all heard that it would happen here, first. He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man wishing a happy birthday to Kane Ota- the oldest person in the world. She turns 119 today. I am Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.