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For almost eight years, Pope Benedict XVI has been blessing, succoring and preaching to his many followers around the world. And for two months, he has been tweeting to them as well.

So as religious television and radio executives prepare to meet in Nashville next month for the National Religious Broadcasters Convention from March 2-5, it’s only fitting that the notion of how best to use digital media will remain as hot a topic at the annual confab as it’s been in recent years.

“It’s going to be the major focus as long as that’s where the rest of media is,” says Michael Little, president and COO of the Christian Broadcasting Network, one of the NRB’s member stations. “We’re in the digital media revolution.”

One of the five keynote sessions at the NRB meeting will focus exclusively on using social media to “leverage the reach of a traditional broadcast network.” Claire Diaz-Ortiz, who leads social innovation for Twitter; Katie Harbath, manager for policy, Facebook; and Rob Saliterman, senior account executive for Google, will take part in the March 4 keynote, and each will also hold their own private educational session during the convention.

“Convention attendees will be blessed with the opportunity to get an inside look from companies that have revolutionized the ways through which we connect and communicate,” says Frank Wright, NRB president and CEO.

Matt Robertson and Jeff Bethke, creators of the viral video “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” (which at presstime had more than 23 million YouTube views) will lead a session on using Internet video to help reach a wider— and younger—audience. There will also be a two-part session on TV Everywhere led by media company executives including Jason DeMeo, president and CEO, Omniverse One World Television; Steve Burzynski, president & founder of Imavex; and Q Saeed, managing director of Media Exchange.

The NRB will also keep the “zoom lunches” after certain sessions—including the social media keynote—that were a popular addition to last year’s convention. Craig Parshall, senior VP and general counsel for the NRB, says this year he wanted to build off the success of those lunches, which allow attendees to meet and discuss what they just heard. “Hitching that concept to a major session on new media I think will provide a tremendous chance for attendees to let those Web ideas really sink in and bear fruit in their own organizations,” Parshall says.

Besides serving to inform NRB members about new ways to reach their viewers and listeners, Parshall adds that the continuing focus on digital technologies will also “remind major Internet technology companies that Christian media folk are keen on Web-interactive innovation.”

“Even our oldest and most established organizational members” have been seeing the light that digital media can bring, Parshall says.

Two of those long-standing members will receive awards during the show. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which was around in the early years of radio and television, will receive NRB’s media award for best short-form online video that promotes a message on the Web. And Focus on the Family, an organization that has been in business for 36 years—and is best known for their visibility on the radio—will receive the NRB’s award for “Best Use of Social Media.”

“These are awards resulting from being judged by their peers,” says Parshall, “and reflect that Christian media organizations and ministries of all stripes, histories and specialties see the need to be fully immersed and converged in the newest online strategies.”

Parshall, who is also director of the NRB’s John Milton Project for Free Speech, says he is doggedly attempting to encourage a “healthy balance among online communication platforms between free enterprise and free speech.” That, he admits, can sometimes put him at odds with some of these digital media companies, and Parshall hopes they will take his NRB conference invitation as an olive branch.

“We consider ourselves to be partners with them in that great enterprise,” he says.

CBN’s Little echoed that sentiment, saying that all religious broadcasters want to do is connect with a larger and younger audience. Little says that companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google provide the best ways to reach younger believers—as the Twitter account “@Pontifex” clearly proves. “Religious broadcasters,” Little says, “want to be in the mainstream.”

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