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Christian talk radio's high-wireless act is soaring. But without strong accountability structures, it could lose its balance.
The defining moment for Christian talk radio happened February 24. In the previous ten days, programs such as James Dobson's Focus on the Family and Marlin Maddoux's Point of View had urged listeners to call congressional representatives to protest a provision in a $12.4 billion federal education bill that could have virtually outlawed home schooling.
Nearly one million callers jammed the House of Representatives' phone lines to protest HR 6. Lawmakers approved an amendment, 424 to 1, that stripped the home-schooling portion of the bill. Thus, Christian radio's small but loyal audience dramatically influenced the political agenda in Washington.
Although the vote was not a watershed event in America's political history, the effective alliance between Christian radio and largely conservative Christian activists may foreshadow their influence on the issues of health-care reform, abortion, and countless other social concerns. With new satellite technology, extensive mailing lists, and phone networks, Christian broadcasters are able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of concerned listeners on short notice.
Christian radio has mushroomed to the extent that it is now the third most-common format on the dial, behind country and adult contemporary. The National Religious Broadcasters Association (NRB) says 1,600 stations—one in ten—have a Christian format, more than two-thirds of them for-profit. Reflecting a trend in the larger culture, talk has become the hottest format in Christian radio, with 15 nationally syndicated shows. The success of pre-eminent talkmeister Rush Limbaugh—heard by up to 20 million people weekly—has done much to inspire Christians to follow his formula. Factors spurring the popularity of talk radio include its low production cost, immediacy, and ability to reach a nonprint-oriented audience.
Although programming ...