When radio emerged as a public medium in the early 1920s, preachers were fascinated but cautious.
Would it work? Would it last? Could a crackling, disembodied voice elicit response to the Gospel? As one preacher asked, could unction be transmitted?
At the time, great crusades in the mold of D. L. Moody and Billy Sunday, with dynamic preachers swaying vast crowds, were considered the modern method of mass evangelism. Yet as pioneers such as Paul Rader and R. R. Brown showed the effectiveness of radio evangelism, religious groups joined the general rush to claim a place in the fast-growing new medium.
In recognition of National Radio Day, August 20, the following are highlights from the chronology* of religious broadcasting, starting from the first religious broadcast to the formation of NRB:
- 1921 (January 2): First religious broadcast. KDKA airs the Sunday vespers service of Pittsburgh’s Calvary Episcopal Church, presided over by junior associate Rev. Lewis Whittemore.
- 1921 (November 27): First continuous religious program. Broadcasts begin in New York by the Radio Church of America.
- 1921 (December 22): First religious station. Church of the Covenant (now National Presbyterian Church), a congregation in Washington, D.C., receives the first broadcast license issued to a religious organization.
- 1922: First religious broadcaster. Paul Rader is invited by the mayor of Chicago to give a radio address from City Hall, and when response far surpasses expectations, Rader begins a radio ministry.
- 1923 (April 8): First radio church. R. R. Brown begins radio broadcasting and later realizes his Radio Chapel Service audience is really a new form of the church. Rather than simply preaching to listeners, Brown recruits them into an organization, the World Radio Congregation, so they can be mobilized for prayer and charitable work.
- 1924: KFUO begins operation. Walter Maier, an Old Testament professor at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, begins his broadcasting career by convincing the school to operate a radio station.
- 1927: First woman broadcaster. Lois Crawford of religious station KFGQ in Boone, Iowa, receives the first operators license issued by the Federal Radio Commission to a woman.
- 1928: First network religious program. Donald Grey Barnhouse, Pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, becomes the first to purchase network airtime for a religious program. The year before, he broadcast a local program and finished 1927 with a balance of 11 cents but nevertheless signs a $40,000 contract with CBS.
- 1928: First religious studio broadcast. NBC airs National Radio Pulpit, sponsored by the Federal (later National) Council of Churches with speaker S. Parkes Cadman, the first religious program broadcast from a network studio.
- 1930 (October 2): Maier goes national. The Lutheran Hour airs on network radio for the first time, eventually becoming the largest radio venture of its day. By the 1940s, the program is heard in 36 languages over 1,200 stations with an estimated worldwide audience of nearly 700 million. When Maier dies in 1950 at the age of 56, he is believed to have preached the Gospel to more people than any man in history.
- 1931 (February 22): First international religious station. Radio Vatican goes on the air from Vatican City, beaming religious services across Europe with a 10,000-watt transmitter.
- 1931 (December 25): First missionary radio station. HCJB, “The Voice of the Andes,” begins broadcasting from Quito, Ecuador. The founders are Clarence Jones, a protégé of Paul Rader, and Reuben Larson, who committed his life to missionary radio after hearing a challenge by R. R. Brown.
- 1936: First Black religious broadcaster. Rev. Clayton Russell begins regular broadcasting of church services on KFOX/Los Angeles.
- 1937: Fuller goes national. Charles Fuller brings his local program on to the Mutual Broadcasting System (MBS). Soon the Old-Fashioned Revival Hour is the top religious broadcast in America, with an estimated audience of 10 million. In 1939, he introduces a second one-hour network program, and by 1943, Fuller’s Gospel Broadcasting Association is the top broadcaster on the Mutual system, spending 50 percent more money for airtime than the network’s next-largest secular customer.
- 1943: Mutual announces restrictions. In the fall of the year, MBS announces its intention to severely curtail its practice of selling time for religious programs by the 1944 season. The development sets off a firestorm in the evangelical community, which is also worried that individual stations will follow suit.
- 1944 (April 12): NRB organized. As the threat to Gospel broadcasting deepens, broadcasters decide they need to organize themselves into an effective pressure group that deals officially with radio issues. With support of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and in conjunction with its second annual convention in Columbus, Ohio, the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) is organized. An NRB constitutional convention is called in Chicago for September 21, 1944, at which time the new association is incorporated.
*This chronology appears in Air of Salvation by Mark Ward, Sr.