Judith M. Dinsmore
Back in 2004, Camden Bucey had a morning ritual. He’d get up, hook up his iPod, sync his podcasts, jump in the car, and hit “play” on the way to his job at Caterpillar in Peoria, Illinois. “That was my life for years and years,” Bucey laughed.
Now pastor of Hope OPC in Grayslake, Illinois, Camden Bucey is not just listening to podcasts, he’s hosting one. He launched Reformed Forum, which currently produces three separate podcasts, in 2008.
For Bucey, Reformed Forum is a combination of two interests: tech and theology. When he first began listening to podcasts in the early 2000s, techies were the only ones producing them because techies were the only ones who knew how. Bucey was still listening in 2007, while also preparing for seminary and diving into Reformed literature. He recalls wishing for a few other theology nerds to discuss what he was reading. “People take it for granted that there are Reformed churches and that people can just have conversations about theology. But I didn’t have that. In Peoria, I felt like I was alone,” he said.
A year later, studying at Westminster Theological Seminary and surrounded by like-minded friends, that memory gave him an idea.
Thanks to a guitar hobby, Bucey had some recording equipment and knew how to use it. He scheduled a Skype call with two willing friends, Jeff Waddington and Jim Cassidy, hit “record,” and discussed the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament. Afterward, he posted it online for anyone to download. Ten years later, in 2018, Reformed Forum was averaging about 50,000 downloads per month of its audio content.
Many podcasters begin like Bucey, with minimal radio or media experience, just chatting it up in their living room or garage and uploading the file to the internet. Originally, podcasts, like music, would be downloaded as an mp3 file, burned onto a CD, or, for mobile listening, put onto an iPod with a USB cable. But since those early days, podcasts have become much easier to access and have exploded in popularity. By 2018, an estimated 48 million Americans were listening to podcasts.
Apple played an outsize role in the rise of podcasts: In 2005, they released iTunes 4.9 with native support for podcasts—meaning that you could download more than 3,000 free podcasts directly from the iTunes store rather than heading to the podcast’s site. Then in 2008—when Bucey began recording—the first iPhone that allowed listeners to download audio files on-the-go hit the market.
Even the name is Apple-coined, an elision of iPod and casting. Before that term was in use, it was known as “audioblogging”—a clumsy term, but actually more descriptive of the medium. Just as blogging took shape once it became possible to publish content online for the whole world to read, so podcasting began with the ability to publish audio content online for the whole world to hear.
Yet Bucey argues that the podcasting medium is more than just an audio file downloaded from the internet; it connotes a conversation. A podcast listener is invited into a dining room, not a lecture hall. “What gets people most excited, what gives them community … is when they feel like [podcast hosts] are sitting around a table or a firepit,” he said. Bucey is careful to capture in the podcast a conversational togetherness around a shared interest.
The shared interest also guides the content of the podcast. “You can’t fake an interest,” Bucey explained. “If we just did programs that we thought would be market-friendly, but we didn’t really care about it, people would know.” Instead, Bucey and his team pick topics that intrigue them, figuring that if they are interested, their audience will be, too.
Christ the Center, produced weekly by the Reformed Forum and hosted by Bucey, tackles theology with technical language and the assumption that the listener has a thorough understanding of the Reformed faith. The second podcast by Reformed Forum, Theology Simply Profound, is hosted by Robert Tarullo and Rob McKenzie from Westminster OPC in Indian Head, Illinois, and addresses theological issues at a more introductory level. Finally, Proclaiming Christ, with a varying roster of hosts, is “a pastor’s toolbox and an audio commentary for anyone who wants to learn more about the Bible,” said Bucey. All three can be downloaded from reformedforum.org or from most podcast platforms.
Joining in an informal conversation, however, can be more difficult than it looks. When Aimee Byrd, member of New Hope OPC in Frederick, Maryland, and a writer by trade, first came alongside hosts OP minister Carl Trueman and PCA pastor Todd Pruitt on their podcast Mortification of Spin, she brought a stack of prepared notes with her. “They put this microphone in front of you and … you can’t edit it!” she said. When writing, you can leave your work, come back, ponder, and revise, Byrd explained. Not so with podcasts.
But that’s the draw of the show. “The tagline for Mortification of Spin is ‘a casual conversation about things that count.’ We like to talk about important topics … but we want to do it in a casual manner. We take the topics seriously but not ourselves,” Byrd says.
Mortification of Spin, a production of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, is published weekly and allows the hosts to confront a pertinent topic. It can be found at alliancenet.org/mos or at most podcast platforms.
Their podcast was designed, Byrd explained, to get underneath and around polished presentations of Reformed theology that “overlook some of the real issues and challenges that the church has.” People who are frustrated by church branding may thrive on the Spin’s franker discussions of Christianity, she said.
Like many podcasts, Mortification of Spin also frequently includes interviews with recently published authors. It’s a win for Byrd—her favorite task on the podcast is discovering a great book, discussing it with the author on the show, and sharing it with listeners.
Being promoted on podcasts is also a win for the author. Book tours used to be a given in the publishing world; authors would travel from event to event, all centered on their newly released title. But with tighter budgets, publishers now often encourage authors to “tour” podcasts like Mortification of Spin instead. “Certain publishers and authors really market well and promote themselves well. But there are so many great authors who don’t have a well-oiled publicity machine behind them,” Byrd explained. For those, podcasts focused on the content of their books can widen their exposure.
It’s also a win for the podcast: by interviewing authors, they can quickly create fresh content with “experts” on a topic who are often eager for the interview. However, Mortification of Spin is careful with which authors they feature. “We like to promote authors that are of use to the church,” Byrd said.
Both Reformed Forum and Mortification of Spin grew out of the podcasting era. Established radio shows, however, have also hopped on the podcasting bandwagon by simply publishing their content online in order to grow their audience.
The percentage of Americans who do not even have a radio in their home anymore grew from 4 percent in 2008 to 29 percent in 2018 (the jump among millennials was a shocking 44 percent), according to Edison Research. But 82 percent of driving-age Americans still listen to the radio in their car. Does podcasting spell the end of radio?
Andrew Hess doesn’t think so. “My sense is that people are still listening to their radio,” he said. Hess, who worked for years with Focus on the Family, is a PCA elder and producer of the new Core Christianity—which is intentionally available both as a podcast and a radio show. Aimed at unbelievers or new believers, Core Christianity seeks to “really focus on the core truths that every Christian should know and embrace,” explained Hess. The hosts, PCA pastor Adriel Sanchez and Westminster Seminary California professor Dr. Michael Horton, answer listeners’ questions about faith in a way that always points to historic Christian teaching.
“We always want to be answering questions from the Scriptures,” Hess said. “My job as a producer is to make sure that we’re being faithful to that.” They solicit questions from listeners and run shows on everything from struggling marriages to the laws in Leviticus.
The vision for Core Christianity was to create a show that could be understood by a chance listener who’s stuck in traffic, Hess said. “Core Christianity is a podcast. But it’s also on the radio because we really have a heart to get the show out and get people listening to it who may not be familiar with Dr. Horton. It’s an exciting opportunity to reach a wider audience.”
So far, it’s been well received. The thirty-minute show was released in September 2018, airing daily on 420 outlets across the United States. The podcast is now averaging eighty thousand monthly downloads.
Core Christianity’s success is due in part to its parent, White Horse Inn, a radio show launched in 1990, long before the advent of podcasts. It features guests who, united around the solas of the Reformation, endeavor to call the modern church to reformation. “Within three years of starting, White Horse Inn was nationwide,” remembers founding producer Shane Rosenthal, who is also an elder at Christ Presbyterian (OPC) in St. Charles, Missouri. “But the show aired at nine o’clock on a Sunday night in California—which means that on the East Coast, you’d be listening at midnight!” Still, they grew. At their height, White Horse Inn was airing on over a hundred stations.
When podcasting first hit, Rosenthal said, many people assumed it was bad news for radio. But White Horse Inn had an edge on other podcasts because it was being produced professionally; if you’re radio-ready, you’ll also have a high-quality, clean podcast. In addition, their loyal fan base from the radio show followed them—or rather, led them—into podcasting. White Horse Inn experimented with a price-per-download of their weekly radio show in podcast form, but when they followed the trend and started posting the show for free, fans were ready and waiting. “Listeners were like, ‘oh, finally,’” Rosenthal said.
White Horse Inn’s growth in recent years has been “three times out of four” due to word-of-mouth about their podcast, said Rosenthal. The show’s host in 2019, Rosenthal is doing a yearlong series on the Book of John. White Horse Inn can be found on its website, whitehorseinn.org, or on most podcast platforms.
A radio show might worry about a loss of revenue when they post their content online for free. As the murky waters of podcast advertising revenue start to settle, those problems will increasingly be addressed.
However, a Christian podcast may have a deeper concern about posting compelling content online: the friendly, accessible nature of the medium can draw people into forming virtual relationships rather than real ones.
Camden Bucey has had strangers who listen regularly to his podcasts approach him at conferences with a level of delighted familiarity that he just can’t reciprocate. “It’s weird,” he said. But at the same time, he understands. The voices and personalities of the hosts of podcasts he likes are similarly in his head. “It really shows how interpersonal this audio format is,” he reflected.
That one-sided relationship becomes more serious when people on the internet do what fallen people on the internet always do: get angry—not at you but supposedly with you. “Real growth happens in community,” Rosenthal explained, “but [at White Horse Inn] we have a kind of virtual community. We can get somebody agitated, but then we just made an angry Calvinist.” Inside the church context, you can personally approach such a person, and suggest toning it down a bit. “But I can’t do that in the disconnected world of media,” Rosenthal said. For this reason, he firmly believes that podcasts about theology and the Christian life should be listened to in the context of a church community, and though they provide assistance to the church, they are in no way intended to replace it.
Podcasting may be a powerful tool for spreading and pondering the Reformed faith. But it’s no substitute for the flesh-and-blood church.
The author is managing editor of New Horizons. New Horizons, April 2019.