Tony Cummings reports on the UCB Cross Rhythms team planning revival.
December 7th, UCB Cross Rhythms begins its Saturday satellite broadcasts in the first step which will, in about a year, lead to a 24-hours-a-day terrestrial radio station. Behind this broadcasting breakthrough are two stories of pioneering Christian broadcasting initiatives which have triumphed over seemingly insurmountable odds.
"Revival is our goal" is possibly the most succinct and breathtaking mission statement ever issued by a British Christian organisation. They come from United Christian Broadcasters, an organisation which in 10 years has risen from a laughably tin pot concern seemingly suffering from a delusion that they could survive in the big money world of broadcasting to a still expanding ministry which will in a year -with the launch of its terrestrial stations -become arguably the most significant outfit in UK religious broadcasting. The extraordinary growth of UCB is testimony to a miracle working God and the tenacity of a bunch of broadcasting pioneers who refused to cower to the giants of political opposition, church indifference and lack of finance but instead held true to a vision that in radio there was a tool to both reach the lost and build up and encourage Christians.
In the early '80s such a perspective of broadcasting as a mission
field had been well and truly marginalised. Thanks to a stranglehold
by humanistic media professionals and compliant politicians - and with
no little input from liberal churchmen -evangelicals were discouraged
from access to much of the media. It was illegal for Christians in the
UK to own a radio station. And religious broadcasters on the existing
channels, hyper-sensitive to political incantations that "Britain is a
multi faith society", weren't doing much to communicate a positive
Religious broadcasting on the BBC and independent stations seemed stuck in a time warp of ever-increasing irrelevancy. The BBC, with one or two notable exceptions, played it safe with a tepid diet of high church art, folk religion whimsey and be-nice-and-give-to-Christian-Aid-style churchmen. The independent stations were no better. Religious slots were still statutory (ie, stations were forced by law to broadcast at least one religious programme) but many local stations got round that by handing out these slots to any local churchman prepared to work for free and get up at some absurdly early hour on a Sunday morning and broadcast. The results, by creative and spiritual standards, were often abysmal. In Plymouth though things were different. A programme went out at 7.00pm on a Sunday called The Solid Rock Of Jesus Christ. It featured rock and pop music with Scripture read on air and was the brainchild of an ex-disco deejay and radio presenter called Chris Cole.
After years of minor celebrity in Belgium clubland and an increasingly dubious lifestyle, Cole had had a monumental conversion experience in 1981. Soon afterwards he had attended a meeting organised by the Full Gospel Businessmen Fellowship International in Brussells where a European Bible teacher Dr Fred Ladenius prophesied that he would "have a ministry that would reach millions with the Gospel." Remembered Chris, "The enormity of what he said didn't dawn on me at the time -I just thought he was being nice and trying to encourage me!"
Back in the UK Chris settled in Plymouth, Devon, courted and married a local girl Kerry, and started a small marketing company Cornerstone House. His Christian discipleship far from barring deejaying activities gave them a new focus. "Ever since I got saved I had a passion for radio," remembered Chris. "I began to play around with the idea of a radio programme based on contemporary Christian music. To be honest, there were only a handful of records that I thought good enough to stand up on radio in 1983 but I got them together and made a little tape. The managing director of Plymouth Sound liked the show but the religious committee didn't! I can remember Kerry and I praying that if this idea wasn't of God he'd take the desire of it away but if it was God he'd open the door. A month later I met the chairman of the religious committee who said Plymouth Sound had told them 'your listener ratings are so bad and unless you give us something new we'll take you off the airwaves and replace you with something else.' So I got to do a show! I remember crying in the car all the way home I was so grateful to the Lord and His miracle working intimacy.
"I was so naive that I went to my church and expected them to be as excited as I was. I told him God had opened a door and I had a chance to play Christian music and read Scripture to 5,000 non-Christians every week. Instead, my pastor, a Welsh Elim minister, said, 'I've got a problem with rock music!' That's when I realised it was going to be a long road. Pioneering Christian radio wasn't going to be easy."
The November 7th production meeting is in full swing. Eight or nine radio presenters sit in a modern open plan office. It's chaired by a bespectacled lady called Anne Haccius, UCB's broadcasting manager, and is an intriguing blend of requests ("if your programme throws up a record which isn't inspirational but belongs to the Cross Rhythms format, do get it removed from the system "; banter (Chris Cole puts his hand up to originating the mispronunciation of Chris Lizotte) and news ("the logging computer is on its way"). But it's Anne's comment on the future which quieten down the meeting.
"The Lord has given us a year before we go Medium Wave. Then we will be heard not just by people in the street but by the editor of the News Of The World, the humanists, etc, etc. Are we prepared for the flak we will receive? Are we prepared for the intense criticism we could receive in some quarters? It is going to be a spiritual battle and we must be prepared..."
UCB began in 1986 when Ian Mackie and his wife were sent by New Zealand's Radio Rhema ministry to come to the UK, live by faith and "help start a radio work in Britain". Soon after their arrival they came to recognise how hard the job was going to be. Gareth Littler, who'd given up a lucrative job in satellite technology, joined UCB in 1987 to live by faith. He remembered, "There was little or no money, we almost starved, but God was faithful." The fledgling UCB initially found a very different vehicle to get around Britain's broadcasting laws by going to a little island 15 miles from the coast of England. Remembered Gareth, "We found that though the UK was closed to us, in the Isle Of Man there was a window of.
On 5th October 1987 UCB started an overnight gospel radio service using Manx Radio's stereo FM and AM transmitters (which Manx Radio weren't operating at night). It was a small beginning and it was debatable how many people were going to tune in at 2.00am to hear Christian music and Bible teaching. But, against all the odds, the UCB/Manx Radio began to hack out a small but loyal listenership. And it wasn't only the tiny island 15 miles form mainland UK that was reached with the nightly broadcasts of easy listening Christian music, preaching and Bible studies. Listeners were reached as far apart as Western Scotland, the North West of England, North Wales and Northern Ireland.
"Considering we had little or no resources, a team of unpaid volunteers on air, and only a limited listenership we did an immense amount of good," commented Littler. "In fact, there was one instance where a man was converted in his cell at the Isle Of Man prison. At that time the authorities had a rule that nobody could listen in his cell to the radio after 11.00pm. However, after the dramatic conversion of this man - and apparently he really changed - they amended the rule and said nobody could listen after 11.00pm unless it was to UCB!"
In 1989 Littler left the UCB operation to work alongside Lady Watherston in mounting an effective evangelical lobby to effect changes to new broadcasting legislation being planned by the government. Their organisation, the National Council For Christian Standards, was able to get five amendments made to the Broadcasting Act which, if it had been allowed to pass unchallenged, would have made the law even more draconian and restrictive to Christians than the existing legislation. Instead, there were new opportunities in the legislation though at the time not everyone in religious broadcasting recognised them. Chris Cole, who for a while had two shows on Plymouth Sound, The Solid Rock Of Jesus Christ and The Sunday Experience, was one of the few ILR broadcasters who didn't feel threatened when the new act took away the ILR company's statutory duty to broadcast religious programming.
Remembered Chris, "I realised that the clauses in the act which allowed sponsored religious programming on existing stations, short term licenses for Christians and even Christian ownership of new stations would one day have real significance in the UK radio scene and more importantly for the Kingdom of God. In the short term it would mean that a lot of churchmen and religious programmes would lose their programmes. But most of them had tiny, tiny listenerships. In the long term there were more opportunities opening up than doors closing. If only Christians were prepared to resource initiatives there were windows of opportunity. It just needed people with vision to see them."
In July 1991 UCB demonstrated they had such vision. UCB obtained th first 28-day FM licence to broadcast in the Midlands as a totally Christian radio station. Equally pioneering were the activities of Chris Cole. His marketing company Cornerstone House, having experienced slow growth, suddenly took a quantum leap of either Christian faith or extreme fiscal recklessness when it bought Britain's new Christian music magazine Cross Rhythms from journalist Tony Cummings and printer Mark Golding; took over the floundering West Country Solid Rock Festival, renamed Cross Rhythms; and oversaw the metamorphosis of the two Plymouth Sound programmes into a new programme, the Cross Rhythms Sunday Experience with sponsored programming. Remembers Chris Cole, "It took faith. As has been observed before in Cross Rhythms, contemporary Christian music in Britain wasn't so much a hole in the market as a hole, and in the West Country there were only a few churches and individuals prepared to financially support the work -radio/festival/magazine. But clearly God was doing something in CCM and I had to go along with it."