Preventing ‘dead air’: Jerry Johnson champions Christian communicators’ right to speak
In radio, silence is not golden. Indeed, “dead air” — a period of unintended silence during a live program — is a broadcaster’s nightmare.
Jerry Johnson’s mission in leading the National Religious Broadcasters is to protect his fellow communicators’ right to exist and prevent the worst kind of dead air — the censorship of evangelical voices on radio, television, the Internet, and social media.
Johnson, a 2003 Ph.D. graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, assumed the presidency of NRB in November 2013 with a mission to transform the historic evangelical organization for the modern world of media and prepare its members for the growing opposition they face in the federal government, the commercial world, and broader society.
Johnson was the ideal selection as NRB president because of his experience in radio ministry and his passion to defend evangelical voices in the culture.
“We believe Dr. Jerry Johnson was called by God to direct the National Religious Broadcasters for ‘such a time as this,’” said Bill Blount, chairman of the NRB Board of Directors and president of Blount Communications Group, a Christian radio network of seven stations throughout New England he and his wife, Debbie, founded 36 years ago.
“With the onslaught of moral and ethical changes taking place in our country, and internationally, the NRB is uniquely positioned to speak to the issues of our day though the various media platforms represented by our membership,” Blount told Southern Seminary Magazine.
National Religious Broadcasters began with 150 radio broadcasters in 1944 in response to industry censorship when the Federal Council of Churches (now known as National Council of Churches) successfully lobbied all three national radio networks to adopt regulations targeting very popular evangelical programs for removal in favor of programming by mainline denominations. By 1949, the ABC Radio Network reversed the regulations, with other networks later following.
“Today, we’ve come full circle,” said Johnson, citing recent examples of commercial and industry censorship: the forced removal of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich for a donation in support of traditional marriage and the firing of sports broadcaster Craig James for views he expressed while running unsuccessfully for public office.
While industry censorship is a real threat, Johnson said even greater is his concern about the growing prospect of government censorship.
“NRB is going to have to stand up for the First Amendment — the freedom to believe and the freedom of speech in America,” he said.
The first three parts of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — religious freedom, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press — protects NRB members’ ministries, Johnson noted, and NRB must be the front-line defenders of those rights.
“I think we’ll be the leading advocate for evangelical communicators, protecting their First Amendment rights,” he said.
From the sexual revolution to the advancement of Islam, Johnson said the challenges Christian communicators face today require the existence of an organization like NRB to defend their rights.
While NRB began in the 1940s as an association of radio ministries, today the network of 1,144 members with a weekly cumulative listenership/readership of 60 million covers the full range of communications platforms evangelicals are engaging to proclaim the gospel, said Johnson. Radio remains a key part of the organization, but members today are also on television, as well as media delivery platforms made possible by the Internet: podcasts, YouTube videos, blogging, social media — and whatever the next advancement in technology will bring.
Further, Johnson believes NRB today is ideally situated to assist and defend local churches, throngs of which are engaged in a wide range of media ministries.
A former pastor in Texas and Colorado, Johnson went to NRB with a vast background in Southern Baptist leadership: as dean of Boyce College, president of Criswell College, seminary administrator, and trustee of Southern Seminary. Johnson’s commitment to helping pastors and local congregations can be traced to his own experiences in churches and denominational leadership.
As a trustee of Southern Seminary in the 1980s and early 1990s, Johnson played a key role in reversing the institution’s slide to liberalism. The election of R. Albert Mohler Jr. as the ninth president was only possible because of the efforts of Johnson and other conservative trustees.
“It’s one of the great experiences of my life to see what Dr. Mohler has done, to see him lead this school to renewal and doctrinal commitment, as well as to excellence,” he said.
Johnson, who would go on to serve as chairman of the seminary’s Board of Trustees, later became a doctoral student at Southern. His studies at Southern, which included work at Oxford University, gave him the analytical skills he is using today to lead NRB, Johnson said.
“I didn’t study under Dr. Mohler in a formal way, but I was studying under him in a ministry kind of way, as well as in a leadership kind of way,” he said, noting Mohler’s role as a cultural communicator for evangelicals.
When Johnson was installed as NRB president in February 2014, he asked Mohler to offer the keynote address at the ceremony.
“I wanted to send a signal about the kind of leaders we want to be, the kind of leaders we want to follow, and the kind of leaders we want to include in NRB,” Johnson said of his invitation to Mohler.
Calling him a “dear friend,” Mohler said Johnson “played a vital role on Southern Seminary’s Board of Trustees at a most important moment in its history.”
Noting Johnson’s other positions at the seminary and elsewhere, Mohler said, “In every role, Jerry has shown himself to be an incisive Christian thinker, a courageous Christian leader, and a gifted apologist. His doctoral work in Christian ethics puts him in very rare company.”
As NRB president, “Jerry is one of the most important evangelical leaders of our time,” Mohler said, noting NRB is now an “even more effective and faithful voice” on the “front lines of defending and extending the gospel of Christ.”
Southern Baptist Convention President Ronnie Floyd echoed Mohler’s assessment of Johnson’s importance to the evangelical world.
Floyd, pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas and longtime NRB member, said Johnson will have “tremendous influence on the future of evangelical Christianity nationally and globally.” He added, “It is a joy to know that we have a great Southern Baptist leader like him in one of the most strategic roles in Christianity today.”
Johnson’s strategic role requires him to contend for biblical truth in a culture increasingly hostile to that message — opposition that may lead to the worst kind of “dead air.”
“We see many forces aligning for censorship against conservative Christianity,” he said. “I feel it’s absolutely essential for the American church to have equal access to radio, television, and the Internet. NRB champions this cause.”
James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor and chief spokesman of Southern Seminary. This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Southern Seminary Magazine.