Media Challenges

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“Media Challenges,” Ensign, Oct. 1991, 46–47

Media Challenges

For over one hundred million television viewers in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the first spark of knowledge regarding The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came as a result of the 1991 tour of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The same is true for tens of millions more viewers and listeners in the nations of what used to be known as the Eastern Bloc.

Beyond all expectations, the choir’s tour provided the pivotal event—the springboard—from which it became possible to tell millions of people, for the first time, something of the story of the Restoration.

Despite the historical atheism of the U.S.S.R., the news media in Moscow and Leningrad asked repeatedly for explanations of who the “Mormons” are, how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints differs from other faiths, how it came into being, and what motivates its members. One radio commentator referred repeatedly to the “spirit” of the choir and its members.

Russian news men and women, in particular, were not just willing to listen. They were eager. What often began as an exploratory conversation for a short news item would quickly yield a one-hour radio program or a substantial TV segment.

In Leningrad, tears filled the eyes of the Moscow-based TV producer as choir member Joyce T. Muhlestein bore her testimony directly to the camera. That interview and others were to be incorporated into a half-hour program to be screened later, statewide, to 100 million potential viewers.

When planning began some two years ago for news coverage of the 1991 Tabernacle Choir tour, challenges were immediately evident. Even if specific contacts with news organizations could be established, the media itself was in such turmoil in 1989 and 1990 that developing personal contacts and relationships was almost impossible. Heads of news and program departments would seemingly change overnight. New publications would appear, only to go out of print in a few weeks.

Yet by the time the choir arrived, patient groundwork and a combination of unexpected factors suddenly yielded results. Not the least of these was the timely formation, on Christmas Day last year, of the Russian State Radio and Television Company—a democratic and commercial broadcasting network that reaches 92 percent of the state’s more than 147 million people with its TV programs. What had appeared impossible six months earlier suddenly became possible. In cities of the West—Frankfurt, Strasbourg, Zurich, and Vienna—news of the choir’s visit had to compete with current television programming, the more familiar media challenge faced by the Church in most places.—Michael Otterson, a director in the Church Public Affairs Department.

TV and Radio Broadcasts

Drawing upon long-standing contacts in the countries of the West and breaking new ground in most countries in the former Eastern Bloc, Bonneville Communications (the Church’s broadcasting arm) successfully negotiated public service airtime for the concerts in the state-owned radio and television networks.

Participating organizations and potential audiences included, chronologically: Hungarian Magyar radio and TV (10 million), Austrian Radio and TV (2 million), ORF SAT 3 with satellite coverage from Iceland to Israel and Turkey, Czechoslovak National radio and TV (15 million), German radio (Dresden and Berlin concerts nationally—24 million), Polish radio and TV (38 million), and Soviet radio and TV (250 million).

Besides broadcasting the actual concerts, most organizations also filmed an introductory documentary about the Church and the Tabernacle Choir.

Also, the state radio and TV organizations in Budapest, Vienna, and Moscow helped record the three “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcasts that were aired on CBS and other networks throughout the world during the three weeks of the tour. These organizations also provided TV personalities to narrate the programs.—Iain B. McKay, Director of International Media Relations for Bonneville Communications, who arranged for the choir’s radio, TV, and satellite concert coverage.