- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 18, 2024

Christian broadcasters gather this week in Nashville for the National Religious Broadcasters’ International Christian Media Convention, billed as the largest event of its kind “dedicated solely to assist those in the field of Christian communications.”

Thousands are expected to attend the four-day event that starts Monday and features industry shop talk and a Presidential Forum headlined by former President Donald Trump. Some might cast a wary eye around the media world: 2024 has been tough in many corners, where outlets such as CNN and CBS have announced major layoffs and media writers wonder aloud whether the industry is in meltdown.

One Christian communications executive who isn’t worried is Rich Bott, whose family roots in the industry go back nearly a century. He believes the essence of the Christian message — and a need for its teachings — will keep the airwaves humming.

Mr. Bott, president and CEO of Bott Radio Network, owns 120 radio stations and local “translators” that relay the network’s signals, is far more sanguine, asserting Friday in a telephone interview: “There’s a tremendous hunger for the teaching and preaching of God’s Word,” which helps keep that network of stations operating.

“People are looking for answers to the problems that we face today,” he said. “People are looking for peace of mind and assurance. And the Bible tells us that the Word of God is our sure foundation, and everything else is sinking sand.”

Some industry insiders warn that sinking sand may include traditional broadcast and cable services. CNN’s new chief executive, Mark Thompson, has said the cable news giant has to retool for an era in which users get their information from smartphones and short videos. Audacy, the nation’s No. 2 radio station chain behind iHeart Radio, saw left-leaning billionaire George Soros scoop up a controlling stake during the firm’s bankruptcy sale. 

Mr. Bott said the move by Mr. Soros “shows that he certainly believes in the power of radio to influence people.”

And influencing people is what Christian broadcasters such as Mr. Bott want to do. The programming lineup features evangelical Christian pastors such as Jack Graham, Chuck Swindoll, Michael Youssef and Greg Laurie, along with Washington-based Christian pundits Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.

“What we’ve attempted to do is not get distracted by a lot of different popular trends,” Mr. Bott said. “We stick with the preaching and teaching of God’s word, faithfully delivered: we broadcast quality Bible teaching ministries.”

He said his company isn’t ignoring shifts in the media world, but makes its programming available in additional formats to reach audiences.

“The definition of radio is expanding now to include streaming on smartphones and smart speakers, Apple TV and Roku and all different forms of digital communication streaming on the internet, and so forth,” Mr. Bott said. “We’re involved in all of those as well, [and] that really expands our reach to a much broader audience, even around the world.”

The quest for a wider audience — and concern about a media “cancel culture” aiming at Christian voices — is what motivated Pastor Jack Hibbs of Calvary Chapel in Chino Hills, California, to start Real Life Network, described as “a digital media platform that features Biblical Worldview programming to fast forward the faith of viewers across the globe.” His daily sermons air on Bott Radio Network stations as well as the broadcast and satellite outlets of Salem Radio Network, but his goal is to get Christian messages out to as many people as possible.

Available on iPhones, Android devices as well as Amazon’s FireTV, Apple TV and Roku devices, the network includes Mr. Hibbs’ sermons, programming from other ministries, as well as legacy sermons from Billy Graham, Adrian Rogers and Chuck Smith, Christian speakers who’ve passed away in recent years.

Mr. Hibbs said his own “Real Life” video messages were dropped from social media when his church defied pandemic-era shutdown orders they believed violated their right to the free exercise of religion.

“When COVID came we were just simply being canceled on YouTube and Facebook and streaming platforms that we actually paid to be on these streaming platforms,” he said. ”Some of them canceled us, because we were open during COVID. And that didn’t play into their narrative, so they got upset.”

The streaming app is free to users and “completely free to all broadcasters” such as the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, he said.

“These guys are all on for free because God provided so much for us to get the word out, that we created the Real Life Network completely free on both ends,” Mr. Hibbs said. He said that after 8 1/2 months of operation, “we have hundreds of thousands of subscribers.”

Companies such as Mr. Bott’s radio network and ministries such as Mr. Hibbs’ streaming service are likely to do better than some mass-media players because of their targeting a specific, interest clientele, said Mark Dreistadt, president and CEO of Infinity Concepts, a consultancy.

“Christian broadcasting is a different marketplace than mainstream media,” he told The Washington Times. “We have a very specific message that we’re delivering to an audience looking for that specific message. Because we are a bit of a niche audience with a niche message, it creates a different dynamic.”

He said embracing digital media by people such as Mr. Bott and Mr. Hibbs makes sense in a changing environment, although digital distribution has its own challenges.

Streaming content “requires some other disciplines attached to that because if you’re using broadcast, you have a built-in audience there’s an already an audience of viewers who watch the station,” Mr. Dreistadt said. A digital distributor has “to build your own audience, and that means there has to be other methodologies employed to generate, build and sustain that audience.”

He said “a combination of social media marketing and email marketing, and some other plain old marketing/advertising techniques,” digital streamers can build substantial audiences, as his firm did in the early days of podcasting.

But broadcasters have to be flexible and resilient as AI-powered technologies change the landscape, Mr. Dreistadt added. Those involved in the industry need “to be flexible and to stay on the edge so that we can continue to use and leverage the emerging technologies as they as they continue to evolve and continue to emerge in the days ahead,” he said.

That evolution doesn’t faze Troy Miller, president and CEO of the National Religious Broadcasters, who also cited demand for the Christian message as a positive factor.

He said Pray.com, which offers daily prayers and “bedtime stories” for Christians, has seen 14 million downloads of their mobile app since its 2017 launch.

“Chrisitan broadcasting as a whole is providing an alternative for people who really kind of look at mainstream media [as being] really full of despair,” Mr. Miller said. NRB members’ programming, he said, “provides a different kind of hope and truth.”

Correction: In an earlier version of this article, Pastor Jack Hibbs misidentified one of the Christian ministries associated with Real Life Network, a streaming service. 

• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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