Radio Missions: Station ELWA in West Africa

Article excerpt

Missionaries have long served as agents of globalization. (1) As early as the sixteenth century, European missionaries imagined the globe as a unified space for cultural action. In turn, the missionary encounter implied a particular set of power relations based in space that changed over time. Beginning with William Carey's pioneering venture, evangelically minded missionaries sought to convert the unsaved around the world through a set of labor-intensive methods that involved face-to-face interaction under the framework of direct European colonial rule. In a general pattern that reached its apogee before the First World War, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and other mainline Protestant groups from Europe and North America formed mission enclaves--initially, mission villages; later, outstations in European-controlled territory. Brick-and-mortar mission "stations" drew prospective converts out from socially marginalized groups (such as widows, childless women, former slaves, and the extreme poor), severing them from their native environment and submerging them in a thoroughly Westernized milieu. Compounds typically included a dispensary, school, and church, from which missionaries administered medical services, provided basic education, and engaged in personal evangelism. While missionaries held a complex, at times conflicting, relationship with colonial authorities, their fieldwork, grounded in geographic space, assumed the territorial control, administrative stability, and cultural prestige afforded by European imperial power. (2)

By contrast, missionary expansion in the twentieth century included evangelical use of radio airwaves and took place under the aegis of a postcolonial and postterritorial American "empire." Missionary activity in the American century demonstrated American exceptionalism in two related areas: (1) the increasing dominance on the mission field of conservative evangelical workers from the United States and (2) the prevalence of the private American system of broadcasting in the field of transnational religious radio. Unlike earlier missionary methods, global expansion of religion by radio required "deterritorialization"-that is, a disembedding of the Gospel from its point of origin in physical space and its transposition into an electronic message that could then be communicated universally by broadcast "stations" around the world. "Radio revivalism," as developed by evangelical preachers for the American market of the 1920s, fit this purpose well. Crafted initially for listening audiences in the United States, evangelical programs combined music and preaching in a highly personalized form of religion that was freed from corporate church requirements of priest, liturgy, or sacrament and was oriented instead to individual experience and conversion.

Easily reproducible by mechanical means and hence readily expandable, radio programming facilitated American evangelical expansion on a global basis. Pioneer American broadcasters tied "radio revivalism" to a voluntary, parachurch form of faith missions, relying on a loose worldwide association of broadcasting organizations funded by private donations to extend their influence abroad. Radio Vatican began worldwide Catholic broadcasts from Rome in 1931. The same year, conservative evangelicals in the United States launched the first full-time Protestant religious radio station overseas--Station HCJB in Quito, Ecuador. By the mid-1950s, conservative religious broadcasters had established sixteen radio beachheads on medium wave and shortwave transmitters in the major regions of the Global South (Central and South America, the Caribbean, Asia, sub-Saharan and North Africa), as well as in Europe. In countries where privately owned religious outlets were not available, radio missionaries purchased airtime on government or commercial establishments. (3) By 1970, conservative Protestant radio stations comprised "a far-flung gospel radio network around the world" that easily trumped its Catholic or mainline Protestant counterparts in its size and influence? …