With the seconds ticking away to air time, news anchor Wendy Griffith had adjusted her microphone, retouched her makeup, practiced the tough pronunciations, taken a last sip of water. It was time for a final check -- with God.
As the crew and other staff members bowed their heads, Griffith prayed, first for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and then for a successful broadcast: "We ask You to be with us and that things will go smoothly and that through our show, people out there will get to know You better."
The Christian Broadcasting Network's daily CBN NewsWatch, which presents the news through a conservative Protestant prism, is one of the latest entries in the growing universe of evangelical Christian broadcasting.
On radio and TV, on cable and satellite, evangelicals have become a 24-hour-a-day presence with preaching, music, entertainment, talk and news.
Evangelical programs offer a refuge from sex, violence, profanity and liberals. The news shows find silver linings behind grim headlines. The talk shows push familiar hot buttons -- family values, abortion, Israel, activist judges, moral decay. With their unabashed references to Jesus and salvation, the programs speak a language familiar to evangelicals, and with their loyal audiences, they provide a reliable, quickly mobilized political force for conservative leaders.
But polls show that the programs may be more effective at fortifying the faithful than converting skeptics. The number of non-Christian listeners of Christian radio has dropped by a third since 1992.
The growth in the number of religious stations has been marked: Of 13,838 radio stations in the United States, 2,014 are religious stations, according to Arbitron Inc., the media research company. That's up from 1,089 stations among 12,840 in 1998, according to Arbitron. Salem Communications Corp. of Camarillo, Calif., the biggest owner of Christian stations, owns 104 radio stations in the country and syndicates programming to 1,900 affiliates.
On television, Christian networks have proliferated. They include CBN (home of Pat Robertson and "The 700 Club"), Trinity Broadcasting (the nation's largest religious network), Inspiration Network, Daystar, Three Angels Broadcasting, World Harvest Television, Cornerstone Television, Praise TV, Worship Channel, Gospel Music Television, The Word Network and FamilyNet.
"If you wanted to, you could immerse yourself 24 hours a day in religious programming in nearly every radio market in the country or with cable television or with satellite TV," said Quentin J. Schultze, author of "Televangelism in America: The Business of Popular Religion" and a professor of communication at Calvin College, an evangelical liberal-arts school in Grand Rapids, Mich. The most popular topic on the programs, he said, is personal salvation, and the second-most popular is "whatever is a source of conflict in the general media."
Evangelical broadcasters can help set the nation's agenda to an extent beyond the size of their audience.
"Because most Americans don't contact their public leaders, when religious broadcasters ask listeners to do so, they can make a tremendous difference," Schultze said. "Since the Reagan era, the religious conservatives have been able to set so much of the public discourse agenda."
Americans have grown more receptive to Christian broadcasting, said Rob Kirkpatrick, executive director of broadcasting and operations for Focus on the Family, where broadcaster James Dobson's radio show draws about 2 million listeners a day and his TV commentary about 686,000 daily viewers.
"I think there is a shift occurring culturally," Kirkpatrick said. "I think a desire for wholesomeness is returning."
Despite the increase in outlets, the number of daily listeners and viewers remains relatively small. Religious radio draws about 5.5 percent of the audience, up from 2.2 percent five years ago. Monthly numbers are much larger: The National Religious Broadcasters, a trade association, says more people use Christian media than attend church; in a survey in April, 46 percent of American adults reported that they listen to a Christian radio broadcast in a typical month and 45 percent watch Christian TV.
Numbers of religious TV viewers are not as accurately tracked as radio listeners but may average 5 million daily, said Philip Goff, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University.
By comparison, the most popular TV entertainment programs, such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "The Simpsons," draw more than 10 million viewers each. There are about 109.6 million households with televisions in the United States, according to Nielsen.
The widespread use of radio, television and, now, the Internet, Goff said, is just the latest demonstration of evangelicals' grasp of technology to spread their message, building on a tradition that started in the 19th century with the mass printing of religious tracts.
"I think it's going to continue to transform," Goff said. "The Web is going to be more and more useful." And he cited another recent development: the linking of large evangelical congregations in national radio and TV simulcasts to advance political agendas, as with Justice Sunday and Justice Sunday II, which rallied evangelicals this year to support conservative judges.
"Evangelical TV mirrors the larger culture," said Bill Leonard, dean of the Wake Forest Divinity School and a professor of church history. "It takes the same elements and Christianizes them. You have Christian soap operas, dramas, talk shows, music -- even Christian heavy metal."
So, on a show such as CBN's NewsWatch, reporters may cover many of the same stories as their secular counterparts, but they do it with a Christian perspective. Recent reports from the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, for instance, touched on body counts and criticisms of the government but also featured prominently Marines clearing fallen timber, Christian teenagers dishing out hot meals, CBN reporters praying with victims and the medical donations of Operation Blessing -- Robertson's charitable organization.
"We try not to do stories that are just the downers," said Robert Allman, news director for the show. "We hopefully spend as much time on the hopeful aspects."
"We have no house fires, car chases or drive-by shootings," said Allman, commenting on the differences between CBN and a Dallas CBS station where he used to work. "We did not run a Michael Jackson story till the verdict."
A recent segment on the Senate hearings on Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. featured not only the predictable sound-bite exchanges between Roberts and committee members but also a pro-Roberts analysis by Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the Robertson-created American Center for Law and Justice.
Across the nation, religious broadcasters tend to preach to the choir. The vast majority of listeners of Christian radio are born-again Christians, according to the Barna Group, a Christian research organization. Christian television draws its strength from people in their sixties and older, females, residents of the South, African Americans, people with limited education and income, and born-again Christians. And non-Christians are increasingly tuning out: 28 percent of non-Christians surveyed in April said they ever listen to religious radio, compared with 42 percent in 1992, according to Barna.
"Religious broadcasters talk about reaching beyond their tribe, but they use language that only their tribe understands," Schultze said. "It seems like the American media, secular and religious, are arenas for tribal bickering rather than trying to serve the public good."
Pat Robertson, center, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, his wife, Adelia "Dede" Robertson, and Michael D. Little, president and chief operating officer of CBN, celebrate the network's 40th anniversary in 2001. The network is known for Robertson's "The 700 Club."