In the early 1940s in America, the emerging culture of hostility between so‐called mainline Protestant denominations and the rapidly growing Evangelical Christian movement reached a crisis phase in the world of radio broadcasting. Protestant denominational leaders argued for regulations that would restrict access to the radio broadcast spectrum. They claimed independent Evangelical preachers who were unaccountable to any denominational entity could not be trusted with the public airwaves.
In those early years of radio broadcasting, pioneer Evangelical broadcasters like William Ward Ayer, Paul Rader, Donald Grey Barnhouse, Walter Maier, and Charles Fuller had built radio audiences in the millions and were faithfully proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. By 1942 The Lutheran Hour was receiving more mail than the well‐known Amos ‘n Andy radio program, and The Old Fashioned Revival Hour was the largest program on the Mutual Broadcasting System, purchasing 50% more airtime than the next largest secular broadcaster. In that same year, the Mutual Broadcasting System received more than 25% of its total revenue from religious broadcasters.
Evangelical broadcaster William Ward Ayer (far right), who would later become the first president of NRB, stands before a congregation during an altar call at New York’s Calvary Baptist Church. The altar call was carried live by radio.
Evangelist Billy Graham speaks at the NRB convention in 1977
Yet in 1943, the Federal Council of Churches (later renamed the National Council of Churches) supported proposed regulations that would result in every Evangelical broadcaster being taken off the national radio networks. They demanded that religious broadcasting should only be aired as a public service during free or “sustaining” time donated by the radio networks. They further argued that these public service slots should only be allocated to “responsible” religious broadcasters that had been approved by local and national denominational councils – like themselves. The Federal Council of Churches was eventually able to persuade all three national radio networks – NBC, CBS, and the Mutual Broadcasting System – to adopt the proposed regulations. Subsequently every Evangelical Christian broadcaster was taken off the national radio networks, with their only access being small independent stations with a very limited audience.
In response to this challenge, 150 Evangelical Christian broadcasters and church leaders held a series of meetings which led to the formation of the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB). In the fall of 1944, members of the NRB adopted their Constitution, Bylaws, Statement of Faith, and Code of Ethics. And thus began a multi‐year effort by NRB to build credibility for Evangelical broadcasters, to secure their fair share of the available public interest slots, and to overturn the ban on the purchase of radio airtime for religious broadcasting.
In 1949, that effort bore fruit as the newly formed ABC radio network reversed the ban on paid religious broadcasting, with the other networks following their lead. In a few short years, Evangelical radio broadcasters were again a dynamic and growing presence on major radio networks, with scores of new programs serving a vast national audience.
Seven decades later, the Christian multimedia association birthed by these visionary radio broadcasters operates in a far more complex electronic media environment, while retaining its original focus of defending and expanding access to electronic media platforms for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And the audience for religious broadcasters has expanded dramatically, with 141 million Americans listening to or watching some form of religious broadcasting at least once per month.
President Ronald Reagan speaking at the 1983 National Religious Broadcasters convention. (President Ronald Reagan addressed the NRB annual convention seven times during his presidency.)