The use of electronic means of communication to transmit radio programmes dealing with religion predates the beginning of regular broadcasting in the 1920s; in 1912 R. E. Fessenden transmitted a Christmas Eve service to ships off the E. coast of America. When regular broadcasting began on both sides of the Atlantic, the religious potential was recognized, but its context, control, and content developed differently in the USA and Europe.
In the USA the first licensed radio station, KDKA, broadcast a religious service in 1921, and in 1924 the first radio station launched under religious auspices, KFUO (‘keep forward, upward, onward’) began broadcasting. In 1927 the Federal Radio Commission was set up; licensing policy became less permissive and the number of Church-owned stations fell. When the main radio networks were established, the religious broadcasts they transmitted were ‘mainstream’ Christian. Evangelical Protestant denominations bought radio time from commercial stations; they learnt to make programmes that appealed to large audiences and attracted funds. In Europe, where there were few commercial stations, religious proselytizing by radio was either forbidden or frowned on, but religious broadcasting developed its own momentum. The Netherlands acknowledged religious differences by creating a balanced system of public broadcasting, with four services based on religion: two Protestant and two RC. In Britain Christianity was afforded a special place in broadcasting, and the BBC, which began operating in 1922, set up a ‘Sunday Committee’ in 1923. The establishment of a Central Religious Advisory Committee was significant in that it included not only Anglicans and Nonconformists but also RCs, and it supervised broadcasting on weekdays as well as Sundays. In Italy, the RC Church was strong enough to ensure that there was no Protestant religious broadcasting on State radio before 1944.
In the USA, the emergence of radio personalities who broadcast religious messages, was carried over into television. A number of them became involved in political, as well as religious, controversy. In 1950 Billy Graham's ‘Hour of Decision’ was first televised on a major network, but it was paid evangelical broadcasting that came to dominate what was increasingly thought of as a market, international as well as American. In Europe the advent of television opened up opportunities for religious broadcasting in various countries, including France, where the first televised RC Mass was broadcast on Christmas Eve 1948.
Religious broadcasting by the BBC has generally been ‘mainstream’ on both television and radio, but in 1954 ‘people's religious programmes’ were introduced on television. With the advent of competition from commercial companies in 1955, the number of experiments increased. In the 1970s more emphasis was placed on religious broadcasting as a forum, and attempts have been made to meet the religious interests of those outside the Churches.