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Forty years ago, Ardmore, Tennessee's Christian radio station would have been typical. Purchased by a neighborhood pastor, it aired church services during blocks of time the congregation could afford and Southern gospel music the rest of the week. As Christian Radio author Bob Lochte recalls, the few advertisements it garnered were from area businesses like the local Goodyear Tires outlet.

Locally owned and operated, such stations provided a modest service to their communities. But rarely, if ever, did they draw in large numbers of people or make a significant profit. Most struggled simply to remain on-air.

There were exceptions, of course. Some of the stalwarts of Christian broadcasting enjoyed tremendous success throughout the years. Aimee Semple McPherson's Los Angeles station rode the colorful evangelist's popularity in the early 1920s. Charles Fuller's Old-Fashioned Revival Hour began broadcasting in 1937 and was syndicated to as many as 650 radio stations before the Bible teacher's death in 1968. And Moody Radio in Chicago has broadcast professionally produced gospel programming since its founding in 1926 right up to the present day.

These trailblazers helped make radio an established part of evangelicals' media outreach, complementing books, magazines, tracts, and, eventually, TV and internet. But they were unusual. Before the 1970s and 1980s, most listeners to Christian radio tuned in to stations and programming of widely varying quality and reach.

Those days are long gone. Today, popular Christian programs, such as Focus on the Family and Insight for Living, draw audiences of up to 1.5 million every show. The Barna Group estimates that 46 percent of Americans tune in to Christian broadcasting. While other radio formats ...

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In the Magazine

February 2007

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