How a congregation’s community radio station makes church participatory, provocative, and fun.
© Dan Page Collection/theispot.com
There is a natural tendency for congregations to focus on who we draw in to become part of our world, rather than what we put out there in the larger world. A few years back we began to wonder: What if we were to become more radically public, without boundaries? What if we accepted that 99 out of 100 people in town who would benefit from what Unitarian Universalism embodies may never—no matter how clever, exciting, and welcoming we are—walk through the front door of our church? What if we consider that some truth might come from mouths other than our own, especially from those who are rarely invited to speak?
Mindful of these questions, we tried an experiment at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Savannah, Georgia. We opened up a community radio station in our basement. That station—WRUU, 107.5 FM—is going strong as it enters its second year on the air. It’s a real radio station, the kind of thing you can actually hear in your car.
This project took years of work by many impassioned volunteers, a surprising amount of money (our original goal was to raise $5,000, but it grew closer to $100,000), lots of trial and error, and a dose of good fortune.
Our opportunity was a special one, as the FCC had opened up the chance to apply for community licenses. Though new licenses might not be on offer, Prometheus Radio Project is a good source for those looking to enter grassroots radio. Good timing and technical advice were important to our project, but years in, I know that to make something like this work for a church, you need a project champion in the congregation who really cares, people willing to stick with it year upon year, people to jump in and make hard jobs look easy, and people willing to take over hands-on operating roles that require consistency and dedication. A community effort also takes many people willing to invest their financial resources. We benefitted early on from two rounds of grants from the UU Funding Program, which shared money, kindness, and enthusiasm at just the right time. We then moved forward with individual donors, station members, and even business sponsors.
Radio also requires voices to take up the microphone once it’s plugged in, and we have more than fifty show hosts who bring it all crackling to life. We find these voices through a system of open invitation to propose shows (which can be done through our website), regular open meetings to learn about getting involved, and promotion everywhere we go in the community. Our volunteer Program Committee receives pitches and makes all the programming decisions.
With 168 hours of available air every week, we have a remarkable ability to accommodate a great breadth of shows. We have the chance on Sunday morning to broadcast our church’s worship service at 11 a.m., preceded by a collection of the best UU preaching from around the country curated by our own Orlando Montoya. We have other diverse religious programming on Sunday, but the bulk of our airtime is devoted to other kinds of talk and music. We’ve had shows focused on local musicians, civic life, music genres from blues to trance, women leaders, cooking, positive psychology, poetry, indigenous voices, visual artists, activism, small business, and more.
Almost two years into our experiment, we’ve learned that old-time radio has the power to rewrite the playbook; it has the potential to make us a more expansive public church, turning our attention a bit from the inward direction and a spirit of gathering up, to an outward position and the spirit of spreading out.
Adam Messer, host of the WRUU program “Muses, Memoirs, and More,” interviews authors, artists, and entertainers. (© 2018 David H. Messner)
I'm often asked on the one side, from new church people, why a radio station? What does that have to do with the real work of the church? And from the radio side, with people who volunteer to do shows from all parts of the community, deeply committed to different faiths or no faith at all: “It’s a church station, is there something you expect us to say or not say?”
We tell the latter group about FCC rules, no cussing on the air and the like, and that we care about treating everyone with dignity, but we also tell them that if we wanted to hear one long 24-hour-a-day sermon of our own broadcast, we’d never have made it a community station. We want to be surprised by the truth and beauty that wasn’t evident within our church already. When one of our ministers invites another into their pulpit, it is with the understanding of mutual respect and the granting of freedom to use that pulpit for the common good, without hindrance. I wanted to extend our tradition of the free pulpit so that others can feel that power and the gift it represents.
As for the other inquiry, why a little church in the South is in the radio business, the first and simplest answer is that the work of the church rightly understood—the heart of the gospel—is not to convince people of anything or incite them to do anything for the church, but to help them see more clearly for themselves, to pay attention to the possibilities surrounding them, and to generously serve everyone who has human need.
I hold close the long-time examples still alive in our churches: serving the hungry in soup kitchens, providing shelter to the homeless, offering resettlement support for refugees, or throwing a lifeline to those incarcerated. The list goes on, of the ways that old-school ministries carried out from aging buildings are still bearing the bread of life for so many. The living church, made up of so many diverse parts, must persevere to serve all, ensuring them the goods owed as a universal birthright. To name just a few: food, shelter, safety—but also self-expression. That last one can’t be left off; it is one of the rights that protects all the rest.
Creating space for the prophetic voice to arise from the people and for showing how we are collectively interdependent is central to our civic faith. It takes a while to learn that wise ministry often has us handing over the microphone to others and listening for the good spirit which emerges.
So now when people ask me about radio ministry, I simply say it is an example in motion of what church ought to be: public, participatory, unpredictable, provocative, and fun. It happens not because we are looking to fill our church sanctuary, but because we are stretching to open up a space others are invited to enter and make something life-affirming. It is creating an unexpected place to encounter friends and grace anew.
Please note: newsletter on hiatus
The Rev. David H. Messner is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Savannah, Georgia, and a lifelong UU.