Reaching the world one person at a time: An interview with the leaders of Adventist World Radio
Editor’s Note: The editors of Ministry interviewed Benjamin Schoun, president of Adventist World Radio, and his vice presidents: Jim Ayer, Dowell Chow, and Greg Scott. The following are excerpts from the interview.
Nikolaus Satelmajer (NS): When did the Adventist Church begin to use radio as part of its outreach?
Benjamin Schoun (BS): The first experiments with radio were by a student at Andrews University (then known as Emmanuel Missionary College) in 1923. In the dormitory, John Fetzer built his own radio transmitter for the campus and later established a whole network of stations in Michigan.
NS: How did the dean of men react to a radio station in the dormitory?
BS: Actually, Fetzer was invited to bring his radio equipment to the college from home and his project eventually became the campus station. H. M. S. Richards began experimenting with radio in the late 1920s, and that developed into the Voice of Prophecy. Adventist World Radio (AWR) was established in 1971, and the first program to be broadcast on AWR was in Italian, although the overall goal was to reach people in restricted areas, such as the former Soviet Union.
BS: Yes. The objective was finding a way to reach the people behind the iron curtain. We knew we had some believers in those countries, but we had very little contact with them and they were unable to share the gospel publicly. So, Adventist World Radio, under the Communications Department of the General Conference, started using shortwave radio. And just as in H. M. S. Richards’s time, there were skeptics about this plan because many people wondered whether shortwave radio would really work.
NS: Tell our readers the difference between shortwave radio and the radio they listen to.
BS: The radios we listen to today are usually FM. The FM radio signal is a line of sight signal that travels across the ground and the range of its coverage is limited to fifty to one hundred miles. Shortwave radio uses a different frequency band, and the signal goes up and bounces off the ionosphere and then comes back down to the earth. It can travel thousands of miles and cover very broad areas. So we can have a transmitting site that exists outside of a country and still beam programs into that country.
Willie Hucks (WH): With the wide acceptance of television, why do we still use radio?
Dowell Chow (DC): In many parts of the world, television does not exist. The only means of getting outside communication into these places is by radio.
Jim Ayer (JA): We recently returned from Nepal. Some of our listeners walked four days and then traveled by bus to reach the baptismal site. In those valleys, between the mountains, our shortwave signal can reach them as nothing else can.
Greg Scott (GS): Another reason radio has become very popular is because in some countries the governments control the local media, but shortwave signals still reach the people. When the people want to find out what’s happening in their country or other countries, they turn to short wave radio.
NS: But isn’t it also true that even where you have television, radio is still widely used by people who are driving, walking, hiking, and so forth?
BS: Yes, by all means. It’s also true that we don’t use shortwave radio very much in North America and in western Europe, but it is heavily used in other places. In general, radio is still a very important medium. In Australia, for example, it’s said that from morning until late afternoon, radio has twice if not three times the listenership of television. Only in the evening does television listenership climb higher than radio. So radio and television are both for presenting the gospel.
NS: Give our readers a picture of how widespread the broadcasts are that you coordinate around the world.
GS: We’re broadcasting in about seventy languages, such as: English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Mandarin, Russian, eight to nine languages in India alone, and also in Indonesian—Indonesia being the largest Muslim populated country in the world. We broadcast in about twelve to fourteen different African languages. Altogether, our broadcasts have the potential to reach between seventy and eighty percent of the world’s population. Our main transmitter site is located on the island of Guam where we broadcast in twenty to twenty-two languages. We have transmitters in Germany and Madagascar, South Africa and Austria. Our priority broadcast area is the 10/40 Window.1 In other parts of the world, such as the Americas, we assist with broadcasting on local radio. For instance, we now uplink our Spanish programming via satellite from the Dominican Republic. This allows local AM and FM stations in South, Central, and much of North America the opportunity to use the programming. We also partner with the South American media center in Brazil through the Nuevo Tiempo Spanish Network and the Novo Tempo Portuguese version.
BS: We also provide programming to many local radio stations in Europe as well. In North America, we use the Internet and podcasting.2 There’s a large number of ethnic groups, in cities particularly, and our goal is to provide them programs in their own languages through these tools. Our podcasts have become very popular. The highest number of subscribers is a French health broadcast with one hundred eighty-three thousand subscribers around the world.
NS: Comments were made of the Guam station, your flagship station. Where does it reach?
BS: The Guam station went on the air in 1987, with the specific purpose of trying to reach mainland China, but it covers many other nations as well. Today Asia is the biggest mission field. It has the fewest Christians of any part of the world, based on their population. Only about eight percent of their population are Christians and as little as one percent in the 10/40 areas. The Guam station is crucial for reaching Asia.
WH: Describe the nature of the programming that you have on AWR.
BS: Our most typical program is a magazine format, meaning that it has a variety of segments. We’ve chosen that format because most of our listeners are non-Christians: Hindus, Muslims, Secularists, and Communists. These people aren’t used to listening to sermons. This format allows us to include a variety of material, such as health subjects, family life, spiritual segments, and biblical information and study. In Madagascar, our studio was chosen as one of four in the entire country to help the government prepare radio programming to deliver community education to its people. This includes programs on HIV/AIDS, agricultural principles, anti-crime values, and nutrition.
WH: Do you have the same programming in all of the countries that have listeners?
BS: No. We’re very sensitive to the fact that people need to hear programs in their own languages and reflecting their own cultures. Therefore, we have about seventy studios all over the world.
WH: What kind of feedback do you get from listeners?
JA: We receive around one hundred thousand letters and emails every year. Also, Ben and I just returned from Asia where we visited with many listeners. We found murderers in prison, people from various ideologies who had no thought of becoming Christians. So many times we heard that they were tuning the dial to listen to a news station and instead stumbled across AWR. They fell in love with Jesus Christ, and their whole lives were changed. One man in Burma who had been in prison for two murders was, for some reason, pardoned after four and a half years and sent home. A neighbor came to his home, carrying a radio, and said, “Listen to this.” They tuned to AWR, and he soon fell in love with Jesus. He was baptized last year. We have many stories like that. Also, I think it’s important for everyone to realize that we just don’t put out radio waves. We work to do the follow-up as well, right through to baptism.
DC: And how many people listen to AWR who cannot send an email, or don’t have money for a stamp, or might be persecuted if they were discovered, or who can’t read or write? How many thousands or even millions more might be willing to send us a letter or message but don’t have the means!
BS: In the past, most of our responses were by actual letter, and we still get a lot of letters, but in recent years that has changed considerably. In some places, cell phones have become the primary method of communication. For instance, in Ethiopia they don’t have much of a postal system or good connections to email, but since they have installed cell phone towers, almost everyone has access to a cell phone now. In China, we get seven hundred to eight hundred listener responses every month, many by email. Studio workers send them electronic Bible lessons, answer their questions, and keep in contact by email. One of our workers was instrumental in leading around one hundred thirty-five people to preparation for baptism, people he had never met personally but people he had become acquainted with through the Internet.
NS: So, then, you’re reaching areas that sometimes cannot be reached by conventional ways.
BS: Yes. In fact that is part of the mission statement by which AWR operates: Broadcasting the Adventist hope in Christ to the hardest to reach people groups in the world in their own languages.
WH: How is your ministry supported?
DC: We receive an appropriation from the General Conference that totals about one-third of our annual budget. The rest must be raised from private individuals, mostly church members in North America, and we have an annual offering every March. We also receive funds from wills and trusts. Every year we face a real challenge to come up with a budget, but the Lord has always provided. We raise about two-thirds of our annual seven million dollar budget. We have a direct-mail program to raise funds and we make contacts with people inviting them to partner with us. We visit churches and camp meetings to share the exciting success stories of AWR. One of the challenges facing us is that we work heavily in places that most people can’t see. So, we must intentionally tell what’s going on in order for people to know about AWR. For example, many are not aware that we operate with a paid staff of only thirty people plus a handful of dedicated volunteers. This includes headquarters but AWR coordinates and broadcasts in seventy languages around the world daily!
WH: How can our readers contribute?
BS: They can send their gifts to our office here at the General Conference, visit our Web site at www.awr.org, or give through their local Seventh-day Adventist church by writing on their offering envelope “Adventist World Radio.”
NS: Is there new technology that you’re working on and new programming that’s coming in the near future?
GS: About three years ago one of our engineers came across a new device, a solar-powered MP3 player. Set it in the sun and it’ll charge itself. We took two hundred of these small solar-powered units into southern Sudan last November. They contained our radio programs in their main language. Our regional director for Europe, Tihomir Zestic, and I were in northern Uganda where the administrative office for southern Sudan is located. We heard firsthand how the small solar-powered MP3 players had been utilized in their area.
NS: What did they say?
GS: They said that the units have been passed from villager to villager and there have been at least twelve baptisms as a result of this little device just in the last eight months. They made a request that we provide additional units in the seven Sudanese languages where we’re currently broadcasting. So we have plans to answer this request and deploy thousands more in many places in the world. These devices will contain such resources as the Bible, a series of Bible lessons, perhaps the book Steps to Jesus (the condensed version of Steps to Christ), and other nurturing materials with the idea that these units will be passed on from person to person. We just placed one hundred of these devices in two countries in northern Africa and are awaiting their feedback.
NS: Are there devices that can be powered by turning a crank?
GS: Yes. We found a radio manufactured in China that has four sources of power: batteries, electricity, solar, and dynamo crank on the back. You can turn the crank and it will recharge the battery. We have purchased around one thousand and sent them to different countries. In one location, fifty radios given to and used by area workers have been responsible for six thousand seven hundred baptisms.
BS: As people give, we will increase the number of radios sent out. I was recently visiting with one of our world church leaders, and he told me that he took a number of these radios to his home village and in a short time there were eight to ten baptisms.
NS: What other kind of technology do you use?
JA: To wrap our technology into one package, besides shortwave radio, we currently use AM and FM, podcasting, satellite, the Internet, and MP3 players.
BS: There’s one other area that we’re beginning to work on, and that is a new delivery system in partnership with the Hope Channel. AWR and the Hope Channel are planning to work together where we will have several audio channels on the same satellite that delivers the television signal. This will enhance our delivery system. For example, wherever there’s a downlink site for Hope Channel, we can place a small FM transmitter there and suddenly multiply the number of people who will benefit from the radio broadcast. Right now it’s relatively easy to get licenses in Africa, and by following this plan we can suddenly multiply our outreach efforts. It will also enable us to deliver programming to other FM stations that we’re already serving.
NS: Where are you in Christian broadcasting? Are you a major player or in the minor league?
BS: We are recognized, especially, in the shortwave world as a significant player. We are written about in journals and talked about in the shortwave world. Last year AWR hosted a convention of the National Association of Shortwave Broadcasters and the Digital Shortwave Radio Consortium. Those people know who we are, and they know about the General Conference and the presence of AWR. So, yes, we do have a strong recognized presence.
NS: Anything else you want to say before we end?
BS: Yes, I wish I could tell more of the inspirational stories that we hear from our listeners and how their lives have been changed. But mostly I want to thank the people who support AWR through their gifts and prayers, because their support is the only way that we can keep this message on the air.
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1 The imaginary rectangle called the 10/40 Window is located between 10 degrees north and 40 degrees west of the equator, and stretches from West Africa, through the Middle East, and into Asia. Two-thirds of the world’s population live here and they’re the world’s poorest people, the vast majority of whom have never even heard the name of Jesus.
2 A podcast is a digital recording of an audio or video program on the Internet for downloading to a personal audio player.