The State Of Church & Community Media

Open Letter to Local Churches – History and Current Viewership

Content from churches has been a ‘walk-in’ mainstay of community media for four decades. For more than two of those decades, services were cablecast the week following the service. This may still be true on other community media channels. However, fourteen years ago, WPAA-TV committed to scheduling local services on the ‘same day’ it was received from at least five faith communities. This number increased to seven communities during the pandemic. The minimum staffing commitment to the Same Day Sunday initiative has been 5-hours-per-week. In approximately four of these 14 years, individuals were hired to do specific file management tasks at minimum wage. That made Sunday staff 35% of our budget. But even with Sunday staffing, senior volunteer staff needed to be on-site.

Our volunteer has been attending to the management of local church services for seven hundred and twenty days, reduced by COVID and one family emergency. But is there an end in sight. Is anybody watching?

WPAA-TV Governance

Same Day Sunday is 14 years old. It is the cablecast of video content received from several faith communities within hours of receipt. When implemented by WPAA-TV, it was revolutionary. Previously, St. Paul’s Episcopal and First Congregational Church members supported this ‘same day’ idea. Each week church volunteers spent a few hours after church compositing the service with a welcome message and video credits on S-VHS tape using WPAA-TV equipment. They were WPAA-TV volunteers because they needed a key to the building on Sunday. These two faith communities have had the same cablecast times for 30 years: Sunday at 3:30 pm for First Congregational Church and 5 pm for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Predictable scheduling, a unique circumstance in community media, is additional proof of WPAA-TV’s commitment to regular viewers.

According to these church volunteers, some viewers reported listening to replays, many for the music, or with bible study groups. Since cable TV is local, people out of town on Sunday could also catch up with replays. Back in the day, there were no other platforms for distribution. If we have community media viewers today, they would still be older members of these communities. The ones we knew about, however, are no longer with us. Frankly, we do not know if anyone is watching. We no longer have weekly in-person contact with the local church video production teams. Everything is handled remotely. And cable companies, the only ones with the data, claim data is proprietary. They tell legislators that no one is watching. Are they right?

During the services, we hear the pastors & clergy suggest that those in attendance share the “Peace of the Lord” with the remote viewers as comments on social. After several months as an interim pastor, we received a call asking about the reference to WPAA-TV in the church bulletin. The reply is followed by an “Oh, do we need that?” We have YouTube. To which we reply, “That is something only you can answer. Are your members watching?” Video capture and distribution continue to provide a vital service, but is community media a necessary component of this weekly content management service?

Fourteen Years of Evolution – From Hyper Relevant to Courtesy Copy

YouTube was becoming mainstream when we launched Same Day Sunday (2010). By 2016 Facebook added a LIVE stream capability. However, it was not until capture-platforms like Zoom emerged during the pandemic that the nexus of accessible media tools eclipsed the substantive value of community media for this significant percentage of our walk-in content.

Production capabilities vary by faith community. However, all community media users have transitioned to streaming on social media platforms. We can see the viewer analytics. Some streamers never use community media. They want to drive traffic to their websites. As of this writing, the DVD provider ceased sharing the content they had been rotating for decades. One submits the sermon excerpt for replay within 2 days. Four transfer files to us immediately following a service. We can manage the files within an hour or two. Sometimes they are late, forgotten by new volunteers, or stuck in slow Internet. Our volunteer is still here every Sunday but is this a courtesy copy? Is 30-plus percent of our content no longer an essential service? Can we afford this tremendous use of resources anymore? Our volunteer’s dedication, 30 % of the channel’s capacity, and opportunity costs are significant. If we did not receive courtesy copies what would be on the channel? Would anyone be watching whatever that is?

Our Cross: You may be surprised to learn!

We are relevant because we exist. Within this relevance, it is our community’s responsibility to determine community needs. Community need is determined by ‘whatever walks in the door’. We schedule what we receive or help people create content at studioW #wpaatv. Like the churches, we share what is created on social platforms. It is ‘In addition to’ our channel.

We are funded in three ways. Cable fees, capital grants known as PEGPETIA, and community contributions (donations and grants for training or projects.) Cable fees are declining exponentially We could not afford Sunday staff if we did not have the volunteer. Blog Post here on that topic.

A political anomaly in community media funding has enabled several churches to install significant video capabilities for their stream and courtesy copy to other community media channels. PEGETIA funds, now in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, have benefited a handful of well-connected churches. The direct cost to WPAA-TV of this capital fund siphon over the past few years is about $100,000. If you have read this far, would your faith community have been interested in a grant covering the cost of your audio-visual recording equipment? Should the state be underwriting video capture of beliefs? As reported above, Community Media resources have been available to individuals who produce content related to their beliefs for decades. But a line has always been a line drawn regarding production support. Production was the responsibility of the faith community members. Content is distributed on community media channels because people, not organized religion, consider it good enough to share. As much as it seems like it, this is not splitting hairs. Community media is about what people are passionate about. If you can get enough people together to produce something we must provide the tools and channel capacity. 

According to a common understanding of the separation of church and state grants for video equipment for churches should not be happening.

Question: When is it appropriate for faith-based organizations to receive public funds?
Answer: Public Safety – Yes, Public Health – Yes, Historic Preservation – Registered as Historic
Places – Yes, Spreading their beliefs – No
The United States Supreme Court: faith-based organizations may not use direct government support to support “inherently religious” activities. …inherently religious activities such as worship, prayer, proselytizing, or devotional Bible study. The current Court is satisfied if government assistance is neutral — that is, nonreligious and religious organizations are equally eligible to compete for funding — and beneficiaries are offered genuine choices about where to go for assistance.
All programs identified by religious organizations in compliance reports are inherently religious. What was once equal eligibility is now the direct underwriting of faith-based organizations in a manner that enables worship, prayer, proselytizing, or devotional study.

Is it time to blow the whistle on this syphon of state funds by churches?

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One thought on “The State Of Church & Community Media

  1. This was really eye-opening! I did not realize churches were getting public grant money to broadcast their Sunday masses, services, etc. We watched many catholic masses from Church of the Resurrection during the worst of the pandemic and I think many people were grateful to have them available right on their TV thanks to WPAA-TV. I personally don’t feel it’s right for churches to accept public grant money.

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