When radio caught the attention of Americans in the 1920s, sermons were among the first things aired. Today, MP3 players-the latest in audio technology-are offering a more portable and flexible way to air the gospel.
By Kathleen Murphy
The radio preacher is finding new life in cyberspace.
Godcasting is the latest advancement in online religion, in which preachers convert their sermons to audio to be heard on portable digital audio devices.
Using iPods or any portable MP3 player, “podcasting” lets people download audio programs that can be listened to whenever they like. It's a form of audio syndication that musicians, businessmen, tech talk show hosts and political commentators like Al Franken have already adopted.
There's lots more God on iPod than jazz, theater or movie reviews. Pod preachers, including Christians, Buddhists and pagans, are among the most prolific users of the new technology. Just as sermons were among the first type of broadcasts when radio caught on in America in the 1920s, podcasting is creating a new form of wireless parson.
To get the audio feeds, listeners connect an MP3 player to a computer, go online and sign up for podcasting feeds. Audio content is then pushed from the original source and makes its way through an aggregator to a subscriber who can listen to it anytime-in the same way video cassette recorders time-shifted TV and cable services have provided programs on demand.
“Based on the number of religious-themed programs being distributed, though, it looks like Godcasting may be the podcast's first killer app,” said Podcasting News, a Web site that features a directory of podcasts.
Kevin Seger, minister of youth and education at Pitts Baptist Church in Concord, N.C., one of the first churches to podcast weekly sermons, said, “You don't normally see the churches on the cutting edge of technology. If we can utilize tools and technology to get the gospel out, the better we are. It's portable. It's compact. People can listen in the car or when they're working out. It fits like a beeper on the side of your belt.”
Recently launched podcasts include “Catholic Answers Live,” an hourlong daily call-in radio program run by a San Diego-based lay group. The show also airs on AM and FM stations.
Another podcast called “Teachings for the New Age,” offers thoughts on following your inner self and achieving true perfection. Meanwhile, the “RevTim Podcast” with host Tim Hohm, and “Lifespring” with Steve Webb devoted recent podcasts to discussing how God could allow a devastating tsunami to happen in South Asia.
“Psalmcast,” produced by John Owen Butler, pastor of Beal Heights Presbyterian Church in Lawton, Okla., airs selections of musical settings of the Book of Psalms.
Religious podcasters say they like the medium because it's an inexpensive way to reach the masses.
Nick Ciske, media coordinator for Minneapolis Vineyard Church, also called Bluer church, said, “It takes a lot of money to run a TV show, it takes millions of dollars, and it seems a lot of the focus is on money. Podcasting is basically free. There is never a mention of asking for money. There's no need.”
Podcasting also can connect a dispersed flock-snowbirds, in particular. Part-time members of the Mount Pleasant Christian Church in Greenwood, Ind., listen to podcasts of sermons as they spend the winter in Florida, said Bill Todd, network administrator for the 2,400-member church just south of Indianapolis.
Meanwhile, the “Pagan Power Hour” started providing spells, cooking and crafts in January. The show is aimed at educating people about Wicca, said Malcom Waterstone, host of the show produced in Quincy, Ill. A recurring topic has been the need for public worship spaces in small communities, but the show also advises listeners that the correct practice of Wicca excludes sacrificing animals and worshipping Satan, Waterstone said.
Craig Patchett of San Diego started The Godcast Network at Godcast.org in November, a site that mirrors religious-themed podcasts so they can be more widely distributed. Patchett said he started the network to reach seekers and people in 75 countries have downloaded podcasts in the past three months.
Despite its mass-market promise, listening to podcasts is, for now, the pastime of an elite, gadget-oriented group, said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a nonprofit group that analyzes the real-life impact of the Internet through national surveys. But as the price of MP3 players-ranging from around $100 to $600-continues to drop, it will make podcasting more accessible, Rainie said.
A 2004 Pew Internet Project report said 82 million Americans have used the Internet for spiritual and religious purposes. Podcasting is a logical, virtual extension of the connection between minister and the congregation, and time-shifting is what makes it noteworthy, Rainie said.
“You can get your dose of your worship service when you want it, not necessarily when it's taking place,” Rainie said.
Religion News Service
Kathleen Murphy writes for RNS.