Ecclesiastes and Old Time Radio: by an Old Time Radio Enthusiast

By: Rev. Martin Dawson (retired and living in Cornwall PEI)

Recently, Prince Edward Island celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first international radio broadcast on the island. Yes, on March 11, 1921, Keith Rogers set up some rather strange looking equipment, and a group of enthusiasts eventually picked up a broadcast from Schenectady New York. From this early beginning, came station CFCY in Charlottetown that continues to this day.

By now you are probably asking how this historical fact might have influence on our rural churches today. Let us at least recall Ecclesiastes 1:9

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”  With this in mind, let me paint you a brief picture of this period in history. The “Spanish Flu”, as it was called back then, had just subsided, and the 1920s were about to receive the technical advantages that were developed during World War I. Up until the war, the telegraph was used with its wired connections; however, Marconi’s experiment with wirelessly sending signals was being developed. If you recall, the Titanic had a wireless transmitter and receiver on board, that was able to send out “SOS” distress signals. This Morse Code message was even received here on PEI. However, the Great War had advanced communication to the point that after the war, human voices and music were able to be transmitted and received. Now, the general public had a new “miracle” advancement to start a new decade. By 1924, VOWR in St. John’s Newfoundland was broadcasting church services over their station, at what is now Wesley United Church.

With new radio broadcasters on the airwaves, a few questions were starting to be asked. In my research, I was able to find a copy of a May 20, 1922 edition of “Radio World”. There I found an article by Everett Ewing, asking these questions. “Will radio take the place of the phonograph as an agency for entertainment in the home?”  “Will broadcasting popular music decrease the royalties of song writers and composers?”  “Will broadcasting sermons keep people from attending church services?” Similar questions were asked pertaining to theatres and movies too. At this point, the scripture of Ecclesiastes came to mind. Consider the parallels, namely, pandemic, new technologies, and change.

Just like a good sermon, one ought to finish with “good news”. So, I will give you the author’s general conclusion. “Churches are not likely to reject so powerful an ally as the radio.” “Broadcasting sermons is going to prove a good thing for the church. It will awaken a desire to attend services, and increase the sizes of congregations.” “When a sermon is broadcast, a preacher is heard by half a million people. I know of no other way such a vast audience can be reached.” He concludes that song artists will also benefit from increased record sales, and the same benefit will occur to the theatre. His predictions are rather accurate for the context that covers the “Golden Age of Radio”. Still, he does finish the article with a more balanced view of the future. “The “radio craze” as that term is used, is here to stay. There is no craze in reality. The radio is not a fad – it has passed the toy stage. It is practical and most useful, and with vast powers inherent, gives promise of becoming the one great agency that answers not only the questions it has prompted, but many other and graver questions.”

The final quotation then reminded me of  a line from the poem, “Israfel” by Edgar Allan Poe: “Yes, Heaven is thine; but this is a world of sweets and sours…the shadow of thy perfect bliss is the sunshine of ours.” Thus, all of us who ponder what the church will look like after Covid19 need to ponder the “sweets” and the “sours” of our modern technology, as did Mr. Ewing. May God’s Spirit lead all of us, through the gift of discernment in our own rural context.

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