When Radio Was Wrong


Pentecostals have always viewed mass media technologies with warranted suspicion, fearing their invasive capacity to influence the Christian home and morals. With the advent of home radios in the 1920s, there was widespread social and religious concern about radio and its long-term effects on listeners. The Church was a vocal opponent of immoral radio programming, and many worried that Christian broadcasting would ultimately damage the local churches.

Initially, radio was hailed as a tool for education and cultural enrichment, but broadcasts quickly degenerated. Soap operas developed, and evening programming soon filled the daytime airwaves with shows like Trouble House, Lonely Women, and John’s Other Wife, captivating housewives with their melodramatic depictions of adultery, intrigue, and illicit love. During the 1930s, evening programs increasingly included crime and suspense dramas like The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet, closely followed by the appearance of supernatural horror shows like The Inner Sanctum, whose famous introduction of a dissonant organ and creaking door lured adults and children into thrilling tales of ghosts, lunatics, and murderers (Starker 112-113). Such so-called entertainment seems completely innocuous to modern audiences who are desensitized by the pedestrian vulgarity of television and Hollywood films, but psychologists, parents, and preachers raised voices of legitimate concern about the meaning and menace of radio programming.

In a 1932 article from the Journal of Adult Education, educators were cautioned about the potential ill effects of radio:

All great human inventions, even printing, even language itself, have proved to be two-edged swords. They can do as much evil as good. Radio is as great-and as dangerous-as any. It will not, in careless hands, bring on any millenniums, and it can broadcast injury and discord and ugliness into the farthest reaches of inhabited space. To be light-minded about the radio is to jig along a precipice. (Bryson 234)

In 1933, Arthur Man contributed an article to Scribner’s, lamenting the criminal content of so many radio programs, noting that “every form of crime known to man” made up the plot of many children’s programs on the radio. He reviewed twenty-five juvenile programs for the article and could only recommend two fit for children, concluding: “I should like to postpone my children’s knowledge of how to rob a bank, scuttle a ship, shoot a sheriff, the emotional effects of romantic infidelity, jungle hazards, and the horrors of the drug habit for a few more years at least” (qtd. in Starker 117).

Bro. William Booth-Clibborn contributed a number of articles to Pentecostal periodicals on the subject of radio. In a June 1933 piece, he lamented about the down-spiraling immorality of radio:

The last five years have seen a complete change both in the tone and in the material of that which is permitted to be broadcast. Murder mysteries, sex serials, detective stories, absurd banalities with the most fantastic fables are mingled together in the most heterogeneous mixture, curses and groans, shrieks and sobs, revolver reports, Machiavelian madnesses, the description of bloodthirsty encounters and debauching banquets is all scrambled together . . . We are waiting to hear the first
voice that is raised by a Christian spokesman against the modern menace that radio presents to the immature minds of Christian childhood raised up in a protective atmosphere of homes that should take a firm stand against the blasts of this breath of hell. It is impossible to “bring every thought to the obedience of Christ and to cast down every foolish imagination” as we are commanded of Paul, and listen to the modern radio programs. (Booth-Clibborn, “Radio Menace” 13)

In another article, he quipped about the voyeuristic lovemaking on radio: “Crooner’s Curse. Generally people make love privately but the fool crooner uses radio’s immense mouth to fill the air with his sentimental pains” (Booth-Clibborn, “Pulse . . .” 13). Clearly, radio seemed a clear enough enemy of Godly living and Christian morality.

Despite such assessments, many groups, including Pentecostals, began using the radio to broadcast religious services. However, as early as 1923, some members of the clergy noticed that wireless worship had an unwanted side effect-decreased church attendance. Parishioners were prone to simply stay home from church and listen to services via the radio. Cardinal Dubois, the Catholic Archbishop of Paris, France, posited that radio was indeed an anemic substitute for church attendance as “the radio cannot convert sinners.” Bishop Wilson R. Stearly, an Episcopal churchman from Newark, New Jersey rhetorically asked: “Why go to your parish church when you can sit at ease in your parlor and hear the heavenly music of a capable choir and be charmed by the fervid eloquence of a magnetic preacher?” He identified radio as “another ally of those forces which make more difficult the assembling of the faithful for praise and prayer” (“Radio Cutting Down . . . ” E1).

While radio ultimately proved to be an efficient technological vehicle for the worldwide delivery of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it cannot be said that the Apostolic Church, or denominational Christianity in general, impacted radio. Radio ministry never eclipsed or even seriously competed with the seductive soap operas or hi-fi horror shows. The immorality of nascent radio gradually desensitized audiences to the once taboo topics of sex and crime, invading the Christian home and mind with vice and violence and created a ready-made audience for the evils of television in the 1950s. Modern radio continues to be a minefield for the Christian, filled with prurient talk shows, secular music, and celebrity gossip. With the passage of time and the deadening of society’s sensibilities, The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet seem almost completely innocent to modern listeners. Such automatic divestiture of offense should make us keenly aware of the debilitation of social concern and religious conviction. Let us heed the call of God’s Spirit to the observance of a stricter and much higher standard for all entertainment, “denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, [that] we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world” (Titus 2.12).

Sources:

Booth-Clibborn, William. “Crooner’s Curse.” The Pentecostal Evangel Vol. 26, No. 3: December 1993, pg. 12.

Booth-Clibborn, William. “The Radio Menace.” The Pentecostal Evangel Vol. 25, No. 9: June 1933, pg. 13.

Bryson, Lyman. “The Revolt of the Radio Listener.” Journal of Adult Education Vol. 4: 1932, pp. 234-239.

“Radio Cutting Down Church Attendance by Broadcasting Services, Says Bishop.” New York Times 27 May 1923, E1.

Starker, Steven. Evil Influences: Crusades Against the Mass Media. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1989.

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