Adding Color to the Radio Sermon

Presentation at Eastern Radio Workshop, Takoma Park, March.

By W. FLETCHER TARR, Professor of Radio and Speech, Washington Missionary College

There was a time in the history of Amer­ica when one of the favorite and most usual forms of diversion was attending church. One reason for its popularity was un­doubtedly the earnest spirit of the people; an­other was the caliber of the preachers; a third was perhaps the relative scarcity of other forms of social activity for large groups.

In colonial times—yes, and even in later years—the populace in general sought keenly after spiritual help and guidance; and, despite legends of coercion and "blue laws," attendance at church was regular and voluntary, and non­attendance was exceptional. The tolling of the chapel bell on a Sunday morning was a signal for practically the whole community to find its way to the service. And that bell was the church's only publicity. Once there, the congre­gation would settle down to a sermon from a man of God who felt himself called to preach. And preach he did, vigorously, and at great length. Reading these sermons today, we mar­vel not so much at the courage of the minister as at the fortitude of the congregation.

But times have changed. From its peak of popularity church attendance has fallen to the point of comparative insignificance. The forces at work to reduce it to this condition are, doubt­less, just the opposite of those which rendered it popular in earlier days. The spirit of the peo­ple has changed with the times; the preachers are of a different mettle ; and multifarious forms of diversion compete for the attention of the populace.

What is true of the lack of attendance at the physical church is equally true of the church of the air. Had C. E. Hooper been on hand to con­duct his census on July 8, 1741, he would prob­ably have found that Jonathan Edwards rated a twenty-five on that day in Enfield, Connecti­cut, when the congregation trembled under the impact of his sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Today it is almost impossible to get a Hooperating for even the most popular and most publicized religious radio programs. "The Catholic Hour," with a ready-made po­tential audience of twenty-four million adherents, besides the large Protestant group, can claim a rating of only 4.1. And as a religious radio speaker Monsignor Sheen stands at or near the top.

The radio sermon today has two major counts against it. In the first place it is not, and is not intended to be, entertainment. It has a great deal of competition to meet in the field of entertainment. In the second place, "talks" pro­grams are not popular, and of all such "shows" it has the least appeal. According to the report of the National Opinion Research Center, it is consistently the least popular of all types of programs among all listeners, with one excep­tion—serial dramas (soap operas) among male listeners. With these handicaps the radio ser­mon cannot be expected to capture the "Stop the Music" or Jack Benny audience.

Nevertheless, here is a challenge which we as religious radio workers must meet. Simply because we fail to attract the masses we should not throw in the sponge and say, "What's the use ?" and thus be content to produce second-rate programs. There is also a danger in the assumption that our program is so good, our method so perfected, and our technique so skillful that we need not improve. Such an atti­tude is symptomatic of indomitable mediocrity. A statement in THE MINISTRY for March, 1949, is very true : "We might as well face the facts: We are religious propagandists. We are trying to sell the everlasting gospel to the pub­lic, if you please. If we do not make the proper impression and appeal in our broadcast, our whole program is destined to fail."—Page 12.

The questions now are: How can we improve our salesmanship? What can be done to enhance the attractiveness of our radio sermon? How far should we go in mak­ing it more attractive?

I make no pretense of being or having been a radio evangelist. Apart from some little ex­perience in a variety of roles before the micro­phone and as an amateur writer-producer, I have only studied a number of types of reli­gious programs, but I make bold to offer some observations on possible improvements. If these lead to worth-while discussion, the purpose of this paper will have been accomplished.

One of the reasons people tune out "talks" programs is that they tire of hearing one voice constantly. Would it be out of harmony with our message or theme, or would it be out of place, to introduce another voice occasionally? For instance, why should we not invite some­one to read the texts in our sermons, provided there are not too many of them. In the demon­stration which follows it will be noted that this principle is carried out. We believe that, in this particular instance at least, the new voice not only adds variety but increases the movement and saves time. The speaker is not required to say each time that he is quoting the Bible, for the voice becomes established as the reader of Scripture. In most small stations the announcer or engineer would be willing to take this part.

Apart from such help, in the small commu­nity the radio minister must often carry the full load of his broadcast himself. He is called upon to make the announcements, offer the prayer, and preach the sermon. This is espe­cially true of the parish that is scattered over a large area. However, it may be possible from time to time, by the use of one or two church members, to vary the talk with dialog. Are you going to illustrate a point by telling a story? How would it be to ask your wife, or brother, or Sister Jones, or the church school teacher to take part in the dialog. By careful handling and skillful cross fading, with or without the use of a musical bridge, you can make that illustration more real and more meaningful to your listener. But at the same time nothing should be done which would de­tract from the dignity of the religious exercise. We should keep in mind that entertainment plays an important part in the educative proc­ess, but the primary purpose of the sermon is not entertainment. The sermon must not be­come a circus.

The radio speaker is prone to think that his message consists of the script in his hands. But the program is not in his script. It is not even in the studio. It is in the mind of the listener. The speaker will add color to his talk by using colorful words—words which paint pictures in the mind of the listener. It is only as these dis­tinct impressions are made that the speaker's success is obtained. For example, the verb walk is one of the most common words used to indicate movement from one place to another. We say, "He walked across the room." Such a sentence conveys only the vaguest of pictures of locomotion. The mind simply visualizes a male form in motion. How much more distinct is the impression when we say, "He strutted across the room"—or strolled, stumbled, slunk, hobbled, ambled, meandered, sauntered, or any one of dozens of others. We are prone to over­look the fact that there are more than twenty synonyms for look, and that there are other adjectives in the language besides beautiful and wonderful and nice.

And while we are discussing words, let us glance at a kindred aspect—the cliche and the trite expression. Have you ever heard these: "a goodly number," "the younger generation," "a person of consequence," "milling mass of humanity," "the finer things of life, "venture a suggestion," "the psychological moment"? These and numerous other overworked phrases do anything but add color to the radio sermon. The trite quotation also detracts: "improve each shining hour," "time and tide wait for no man," and "the wheels of the gods grind slowly." The apt adjective, the strong verb, the meaningful noun—these are power tools in the hand of the radio craftsman.

When we enliven the listener's world of ex­perience we make the sermon more attractive to him. As we meet a demand of this listener's soul, as we fulfill an immediate need, as we provide an answer to a present problem, as we tie up our words with his experience, so our discourse possesses a reality for him. If we can bend our discussion of the 2300 days to meet and satisfy an immediate want in the hearts of our audience, or if we can clearly present the vision of Daniel 2 as being of vital import to a man's experience today, we are adding an­other necessary touch of color to the sermon, and thus to the listener's life.

There is perhaps no more effective means of beautifying the spoken word than that of ac­companying it with appropriate music. It is un­derstood, of course, that there can be too much of even a good thing, so we would not want to supply a musical background for more than two or possibly three selections in an eight-minute talk. This, too, should be handled with great care. If the music is too loud or inappro­priate, or if it carries a melody that is recog­nizable, it will accomplish just the opposite effect to what we want. The minister should use recorded or transcribed themes, unless the organist is imaginative and versatile and can improvise to match the mood of the selection being read. Commercial houses handling sound-effect records can supply recordings of a va­riety of types of mood music. The house which appears to have the largest selection is Thos. J. Valentino, Inc., 1600 Broadway, New York 19, N.Y. It is a simple matter to hand your ,record to the announcer before the broadcast and ask him to play the selection on cue.

In this discussion we cannot omit mention of what is probably the greatest factor in adding color and impressiveness to the radio sermon. That is a dedication to the task, a sincerity of purpose, an overwhelming love for God and for the people you are trying to reach. There is a richness of tone color which inevitably accom­panies the earnest utterance. It is inimitable and indispensable. All the tricks and devices at our finger tips will prove inadequate and inef­fectual unless we speak from a consecrated, sympathetic heart.


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By W. FLETCHER TARR, Professor of Radio and Speech, Washington Missionary College

July 1949

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