At its zenith in the late 1960s, commercial-free religious programming was aired regularly on about 30 radio and television stations in the Los Angeles region. Now, it has dwindled to only two.
Even so, Los Angeles, with the second-largest radio and TV market in the nation, is better off than most metropolitan areas. Public-service religious programs have all but evaporated since the Federal Communications Commission deregulated the industry in 1979. The last religious program offered on any of the three major television networks free, CBS-TV's "For Our Times," shut down at the end of 1988.
In Los Angeles, the remaining public-service shows are KABC Radio's "Religion on the Line" from 10 p.m. to midnight Sundays, and KCBS-TV's "Today's Religion" at 6:30 on Sunday mornings. "Checkpoint," which aired at 6 a.m. Sundays on KNBC-TV, folded last year.
The only other free-time religious program produced locally is the annual Easter Sunrise service in the Hollywood Bowl. This year's service will be broadcast live on KCAL-TV (9) from 5:15 to 7 a.m. Sunday and also carried by the Armed Forces Radio and Television Services and by some satellite feeds, according to producer-director Norma Foster.
Nationally, only a handful of commercial stations still provide gratis air time, not only because the FCC no longer requires it but especially because station owners and networks can rake in fat fees from televangelists and radio preachers who jockey for the best Sunday time slots.
Also, in recent years the burgeoning number of radio and TV stations exclusively devoted to Christian programming--most are conservative and evangelical in tone--have provided another, less expensive, outlet for many preachers and religious groups.
Leaders of commercial-free religious programs that still are on regular channels say the listening and viewing audience suffers because of the change.
"We could have a much more rounded view of religion if we . . . had more public-service religious programs," said Mattie Hilburn, the adviser for Protestant participation on "Today's Religion" and "Religion on the Line."
Dennis Prager, host of "Religion on the Line", asks: "Why don't other broadcasters understand the thirst that Americans have for religious intellectual substance in broadcasting?"
According to the Arbitron ratings, Prager's lively radio talk show--uninterrupted by commercials--is No. 1 among 100 area stations broadcasting in that time period. An estimated 100,000 listeners--15% of all people with their radios on at the time--tune in Prager.
An author-lecturer and former director of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, Prager thinks one reason why similar programs are so scarce today is that "most people in the media are secular and have a secular bias insofar as they believe intelligence and rationality are incompatible with religiosity. When they think of religious programming, they think of simpletons."
Calling himself "a consistently sinning religious Jew," Prager says that if his nonsectarian program has a bias, it's that "religion should prevail over secularism."
The show has continued without advertising because "no other (advertisers) have demanded to be on the air at that time," KABC research director Jamie Maskell said. She added that the station has no immediate plans to seek commercial sponsors for the program.
Truman Jacques, the genial host and associate producer of "Today's Religion"--it has aired on Channel 2 for more than 22 years--said his program is no less community affairs-oriented just because it is religious.
"Religion has some answers, and people who work with me are proud they are able to raise these issues within the religious community," Jacques said.
The show, which won the Angel, a religious arts award, for a 1989 program on how people can gain, mentally and emotionally, through physical tragedy, "is part of our overall community affairs commitment," said KCBS-TV program director Jay Strong. "It's important that such programs continue."
Jacques has transformed the show's format. It used to consist of "three clergypeople who brought in a newspaper clipping and took eight minutes each to talk about it," Jacques said. Now, it's a sophisticated call-in show that deals with "the real world."
"We try to pick a topic that all the religious faiths can talk about," said the show's associate producer, Lorena Tong.
To assure balance and expertise, "Today's Religion" has a panel of four advisers who meet monthly with Jacques and Tong to bat around possible topics and choose appropriate guests.