Christian radio, TV wary of ‘Net neutrality’

Conferees oppose bid to reimpose ‘Fairness Doctrine’

NASHVILLE, Tenn. | The nation’s Christian broadcasters admit they face a challenge appealing to a new generation of listeners, but many say a more immediate threat is coming from an administration in Washington that many worry is trying to limit their right to express their beliefs.

“We believe in the sovereignty of God,” National Religious Broadcasters President Frank Wright told reporters during this week’s annual gathering of Christian radio and television programmers and media outlets. “Our job is to keep the airwaves open” for the proclamation of the Christian message, the NRB chief said.

The Federal Communications Commission, now dominated by appointees of President Obama, came in for particular criticism here for its recent “Net neutrality” regulation designed to oversee traffic on the Internet. FCC officials defend the move as a way to establish rules of the road for the Web and balance the interests of Internet users and the large telecommunications firms that build, maintain and run the Web’s hardware.

Mr. Wright complained that there were “no free-speech” protections in the FCC order, which gives companies such as Comcast and AT&T greater ability to control traffic on their Internet lines.

Christian broadcasters said they are also anxiously watching the FCC’s “spectrum reclamation” initiative, in which the Obama administration plans to “reclaim” portions of the existing broadcast spectrum from current users for new mobile broadband technologies. Mr. Wright said the reallocation plan amounts to “effectively a Soviet[-style] five-year plan.”

The 2011 edition of the National Religious Broadcasters convention — the people who run and supply programming for about 80 percent of the country’s 2,400 Christian radio stations and 100 full-power Christian television stations — was in many respects smaller than previous years’ meetings, but the passions of the broadcasters remain strong.

New GOP House Speaker John A. Boehner launched a stinging attack on the FCC’s net neutrality plan when he addressed the Christian broadcasters Sunday.

“The last thing we need, in my view, is the FCC serving as Internet traffic controller, and potentially running roughshod over local broadcasters who have been serving their communities with free content for decades,” the Ohio Republican told cheering NRB delegates.

Mr. Wright also spoke out against efforts by FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, who last December renewed his call for a “public-value test” in station-license renewals. Many broadcasters here argue the test would be a revival of the much-despised “Fairness Doctrine,” repealed nearly a quarter-century ago.

The public-value test is “the ‘Fairness Doctrine’ in a dress,” Mr. Wright charged.

The NRB has endorsed the “Broadcaster Freedom Act,” a bill introduced in the new Congress by Republican Reps. Mike Pence of Indiana, a former talk-show host, and Greg Walden of Oregon, a radio station owner, calling its passage “our No. 1 legislative priority.”

But Mr. Wright added that outside influences on what NRB members can do pale besides the group’s own compulsion to share their faith: “It’s not just about access [to the airwaves], but about access for the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” he declared.

Approximately 200 million people tune in to Christian broadcasts each week, said Craig Parshall, NRB senior vice president in charge of communications and legal affairs. In Nashville, the station operators looked over new equipment and potential programming, and met authors of new Christian books.

But the size of the convention appeared to be scaled down from previous years. Some NRB members acknowledged they faced hurdles in getting their message through to a younger generation in the age of iPods and Twitter.

Grace M. Reif, 22-year-old news director for one of the radio stations operated by Northwestern College in Roseville, Minn., said it was a challenge to get people in her demographic to tune in to preaching and instructional programming on Christian radio stations.

“We’re striving to use new media to reach the younger generations, to get people my age to listen,” she said.

Mr. Wright acknowledged the demographic challenges for Christian broadcasters, but also asserted “part of this is the seasons of life” that people in their teens and early 20s will encounter. Once in the work force and raising children of their own, he said, these people will turn to inspirational programming.

At the same time, Mr. Wright said, “we do need to address that generational issue.”

Christian broadcaster and advocate for the disabled Joni Eareckson Tada said in an interview she was not concerned over the loss of younger viewers and listeners.

“People still have radios,” she said, adding that religious communicators “have many more options, such as the Internet and podcasts” to reach audiences.

Ms. Tada, a Maryland native now living in California, added, “The onus is on us to be relevant.”

But some Christian broadcasters at the convention said they were pleased with the current state of the market.

“Our revenue is up, and our engagement with listeners is higher than in years past,” said Todd Payne, general manager of WCRV-AM in Memphis, Tenn., one of 88 outlets owned by Bott Broadcasting, a chain of religious stations.

Patti Souder, who co-hosts a program on WPEL-FM in Montrose, Pa., said the outlet has received “wonderful letters from listeners,” noting that “the Lord has provided, and we’re doing OK.”

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