The Church on the Airwaves: How Radio and Television Spread the Word

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“The Church on the Airwaves: How Radio and Television Spread the Word,” Ensign, July 1974, 67–69

The Church on the Airwaves: How Radio and Television Spread the Word

Although approximately 10,000 Saints and visitors attended each session of the 144th Annual General Conference in the Salt Lake Tabernacle in April hundreds of thousands more participated worldwide through radio and television.

The electronic media is playing an ever-increasing role in carrying the counsel of the Brethren to the Saints and in introducing nonmembers to the Church.

“Both radio and television can be highly valuable to the Church,” says Heber G. Wolsey, director of the Church’s Public Communications Department’s electronic media division.

“There are two basic ways for us to use the electronic media. One of them is the important opportunity of extending our message through sermon and songs, such as broadcasting general conference, ‘Music and the Spoken Word,’ and ‘Sunday Evening from Temple Square.’ The other is to analyze the strengths peculiar to each of the media and then tailor programs that will best utilize these strengths: drama, documentary, holiday specials, and the like.

“Our ‘Homefront’ series is an attempt to accomplish the latter objective. The ‘Homefront’ series is a radio and television public service campaign in which we select a universal theme that will appeal to most audiences and be in agreement with our own deep convictions. The first in the series dealt with family unity and family solidarity, and we were pleased to find broad acceptance from the media. What we were saying in these messages was striking a universal chord, a situation people could appreciate and identify with. And each message ended with ‘A Thought from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the Mormons.’

“To follow up on that first series we produced ‘Homefront II’ which is, in effect, a ‘listening’ campaign, where we suggest that family members take time to listen to one another for the purpose of improving relationships within the family, and we give suggestions on how to accomplish this.

“Television and radio stations present these messages in either 30 second or 60 second ‘spots’ as a public service; the air time costs us nothing.

“Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) accepted the ‘Listening’ series for their radio and television public service campaign, and the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) is using the series on television. With additional outlets wanting to use the series, the message will be heard on more than 2,000 radio and television stations.

“In accepting ‘Homefront II,’ which was produced for the Church by Bonneville International Corporation, CBS said that they were pleased to have such a campaign because of its positive nature in providing hope and understanding for our families.

“The series reaches beyond the United States. It is being accepted in Australia and New Zealand, and we are preparing ‘Homefront II’ in Spanish and Portuguese for distribution in South America. Approximately 200 stations in Brazil used our first ‘Homefront’ series.

“We are reaching more people with ‘Homefront’ than with any of our other programs. For instance, CBS Radio told us that in 1973 they broadcast our message 179 times on their network and it had a combined listener impression of 210 million. What is impressive is that this is only 10 percent of the total exposure ‘Homefront’ receives.

“We are pleased, too, that the series has received many professional awards for quality of approach and content, including the International Broadcasting Award honoring the world’s best broadcast advertisements, the Gabriel Award of the National Catholic Broadcasters, and the American Advertising Federation Award.

“Now, we don’t seek the accolades of the word, but we know that when we are recognized by the professionals within the industry, we will have an even greater acceptance by the radio and television stations. That means that we can reach more people with our message. The awards really are a by-product.”

Compared with other Church-oriented programs, the “Homefront” series is a relative newcomer to the airwaves. The Tabernacle Choir has been broadcasting since 1929, and the present format of “Music and the Spoken Word” has been on the air since 1936.

General conferences receive worldwide exposure through radio and television, and “Sunday Evening from Temple Square,” featuring music and talks, has been broadcast since 1932 and now is carried by 370 radio stations. Elder Sterling W. Sill, Assistant to the Council of the Twelve, joined this program almost 14 years ago; since then he has delivered more than 700 sermons. This program is prepared in two formats, one 15 minutes long, and the other 30 minutes in length.

In addition to the Church preparing material for the electronic media, the media has often taken a look at the Church. In 1973, NBC-TV featured the Church in a 30-minute documentary shown in prime viewing time. Some $400,000 was spent on the production of this program that featured highlights such as excerpts from an interview with former President Harold B. Lee, Church history, and the Saints at work in various areas of the world.

Although not a Church production, the NBC program prompted many people to investigate the Church. For example, Brother and Sister Cary Wilson of Imperial Beach, California, saw the program and then wanted to know more about the Church. Subsequently, they received the missionary discussions and were baptized.

In March, NBC featured President Spencer W. Kimball in a nine-minute interview on its “Today” show. Other aspects of the Church are being considered for possible treatment on this show that reaches an early morning television audience of approximately five million.

Viewers responded favorably after ABC-TV carried a 30-minute documentary on an LDS family. It, too, helped nonmembers better understand the Church and its emphasis on good family relationships.

British television took a look at the Church and its history in a segment of the “America” series in which Alistair Cooke provided viewers in both Britain and the United States with a “personal” tour of American culture and history.

The British Broadcasting Corporation’s television network filmed the Tabernacle Choir last summer in London prior to their concert in that city’s Royal Albert Hall. The film, “The Joy of Christmas,” was shown at prime time in Britain on Christmas Eve, and was carried in the United States by 200 stations.

The choir again was featured in a series on great choirs and folk music of the world. Filmed in Europe and the United States for the Zweites Deutches Fernsehen network by producer Lutz Wellnitz, the program was well received in Europe and was carried by some 200 television stations in the United States during the Easter season. Mr. Wellnitz, who was killed in a plane crash shortly after completion of the filming, believed it to be “the best we have ever done.”

Television viewers in Australia now know more about the Church, Utah, and the United States through a series of interviews conducted in Salt Lake City by John Crook of Brisbane. Mr. Crook, who hosts a daily television show, interviewed personalities in politics, sports, entertainment, and tourism. He also met with Elder Theodore M. Burton, Assistant to the Council of the Twelve, who had met Mr. Crook on a plane in 1972 and had invited him to visit when he was in Salt Lake City again. From that invitation resulted the series of interviews.

Often, local television stations will take a look at the Church in their own neighborhood. For instance, KOOL-TV in Phoenix, Arizona, recently aired a 30-minute documentary on the Mormon pioneers with emphasis on the part they played in settling Arizona. The documentary featured excerpts of an interview with Elder Mark E. Petersen of the Council of the Twelve.

In Manila, capital of the Philippines, a local television station carried a film of an open-air Christmas concert given by missionary, stake, and district choirs.

“There may be opportunities elsewhere for local radio and television coverage,” says Brother Wolsey. “If Latter-day Saints have ideas or suggestions for programs, they may want to contact their area public relations coordinator, or their stake or mission public relations director. These public relations specialists can evaluate the suggestions and we, in turn, will be of help wherever possible. In some cases the suggestions may be of local value, but others may be more suitable for a much wider audience. Whatever the idea, the goal is the same—to utilize all the mass media to better acquaint people throughout the world with the Church.”

President Spencer W. Kimball talks with NBC’s “Today” show correspondent Tom Pettit in an interview carried on nationwide television.

Using a mountain setting, a camera crew under the direction of producer Lutz Wellnitz photographs the Tabernacle Choir for a European television special.