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UU radio shows broadcast liberal religious message

Congregations and ministers use radio to reach a broader audience.
By Donald E. Skinner

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When the last notes of the postlude fade away on Sunday morning at First Unitarian Church in Worcester, Mass., the service isn’t over. Listeners have another chance to hear it—broadcast on a local community radio station. At 6 a.m. each Sunday people can tune in to WCUW (91.3 FM) and hear the previous week’s service.

The radio broadcasts are an experiment in reaching into the larger community with liberal religious messages, said the Rev. Thomas Schade, one of the ministers at the 457-member First Unitarian. “We have no idea if they are having an effect,” he said of the broadcasts, which started in May. “As we’ve gone along it does seem like there have been a few more visitors on Sunday.”

Halfway across the country, the Rev. Chuck Freeman is in the thirteenth year of another experiment, Soul Talk Radio. Begun on a community FM station, Soul Talk has since moved to the internet, progressiveblendradio.com. Freeman, who serves as minister of the 164-member Live Oak UU Church in the Austin, Tex., suburb of Cedar Park, said the program, in which he converses on progressive topics, is more his own ministry than a program of the church. “It’s my personal expression,” he said. “Visitors do come to church and say, ‘Oh, yeah, we know your minister, he does this radio show.’ People have called me to do weddings because of it too. Some have then become members.”

It’s hard to show that programs like his contribute directly to church growth, he said. “It’s like drops of water. As more of us do this it creates an awareness of liberal religion in the larger community.”

If you’re a new UU in Rochester, N.Y., there’s a good chance you learned about Unitarian Universalism from something called LifeNow!

LifeNow! is a collection of lively interviews with UUs who talk about their values and how they live them out. The Rev. Scott Tayler and the Rev. Kaaren Anderson, co-ministers of the 900-member First Unitarian Church in Rochester, are the driving force behind the show. Tayler took the idea from This American Life, the Chicago Public Radio program.

LifeNow! is a joint project of First Unitarian and the 133-member First Universalist Church of Rochester. Anderson and a team of interviewers have now done some 40 interviews, available on the internet and recorded on CDs. Anderson hosts, produces, edits, and directs. Church members are invited to take CDs home and pass them out to friends. They are also available as podcasts.

The idea is working, said Anderson. “Many people say it is their primary way of inviting folks to church, as it is easier to pass off a LifeNow! show rather than a sermon, and say to folks—if you like the show, you’ll like the church.”

Originally LifeNow! recordings were broadcast on Air America, but when that became too expensive ($12,000 annually) they were made available online at lifenowradio.org and at church on CDs.

LifeNow! topics are diverse. One on grief featured a man whose son died. A show on simple living interviewed someone who was underemployed who described how to live with few resources.

Anderson said that LifeNow! was inspired by the Unitarian Universalist conviction that religion is about living well in this life, rather than preparing for the next. “That’s what we try to reflect in our interviews,” she said.

Anderson’s hope is that other congregations will help spread the word about LifeNow! by adding the LifeNow! logo to their website. She says, “Our hope is that visitors to a church website will click on our LifeNow! logo and listen to a program. The shows contain the essence of who we are as Unitarian Universalists. If people connect with these programs they’re going to know that much more about our faith and they’re more likely to come to church.”

The LifeNow! name and format are copyrighted. Could other congregations start similar programs? “Yes and no,” said Anderson. “Radio is different than preaching. Learning how to do radio took us awhile. Others could duplicate what we’ve done in some format, but to be honest, our best shows came after we made an investment of about $5,000 in equipment and had spent a year learning about interviewing and editing skills and learning to use microphones, etc. In some ways I look at LifeNow! as my donation to the movement. I want congregations to help make this program more visible so that people looking for a church home can more easily get the information they need.” You can contact Anderson through the link at lifenowradio.org.

What these three programs share—in Rochester, Austin, and Worcester—is a desire to do more than simply put a worship service out on the airwaves. Schade of First Unitarian in Worcester has a Baptist colleague with a radio show on the same station, WCUW (91.3 FM) and WCUW.org. “He plays gospel records and extemporizes on the themes of the songs and makes it more of a traditional radio show,” said Schade. “I’m collecting material and figuring out how to do that.”

“A radio show could give people an open-ended opportunity to connect with and understand liberal religious viewpoints without it being specifically about coming to church,” he noted.

Schade is taking this slow. “I’m recognizing it could be a fair amount of work.” Quality is important, he noted. Even with a straightforward worship service, he and volunteers massage the First Unitarian services before they are broadcast. “We go over them and edit out personal announcements, our two minutes of silent prayer, any awkward transitions, and we’re careful we don’t broadcast any musical pieces that we don’t have permission to use in this way.” Every show takes about an hour to prepare, he said.

He said that having the radio show has made him and Senior Minister the Rev. Barbara Merritt think differently about worship. “We’re learning to listen with a stranger’s ears to what we do on Sunday. We ask ourselves what someone who is not familiar with Unitarian Universalism would think about our worship. Can they make sense of it? Does it seem insular or arrogant?”

In Oklahoma the 24-member Norman UU Fellowship is attempting to start a local progressive radio station. It filed for a license with the Federal Communications Commission during a one-week window last October, and is waiting for approval. Mary Francis, coordinator of the project for the congregation, said July 17, “We are still planning on being the first UU congregation to own a full power NCE (non-commercial, educational) radio station.”

Other UUs have also had radio programs. The late Rev. Carl Thitchener of the UU Church of Canandaigua, N.Y., created the Liberal Religious Hour in 2004, recording more than 40 interviews that were broadcast on radio stations in upstate New York. The program stopped after his death in 2008, but many of the messages continue to be available on his church’s website, uucc.us. There is other liberal religious programming at uuplink.org, a UU online radio site UU lay leader Rick Babb started and based in Canton, Ohio.

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