Times of transition allow phoenix to rise out of traditions
Written by Beverly J. Chain
September - October 2009

When I think about "Transition," I am immediately reminded of the musical "Fiddler on the Roof" and its emphasis on "Tradition!" Transition is traumatic because it is hard to overcome tradition, not just the habits of generations, but the heartstrings that ripple with memories of the way we were or thought we were.

One of the transitions the Office of Communication had to weather on my watch was the move from New York City to Cleveland. Suddenly we were separated from ecumenical colleagues who could be counted on to help. We were farther away from Washington, D.C., and advocacy groups there. We had to say goodbye to trusted staff and fi nd new staff. And let's face it: a Cleveland address still doesn't have the cache of a New York one! Yet the move to the heartland seems to have been a success.

I admit to a bias for print journalism. I like to hold a newspaper, book or magazine in my hand while I sip a cup of coffee, relax by a pool, or to read from before nodding off to sleep. TV is great for entertainment and I love my computer for research and instant communication, but they are not so portable or convenient or lasting as print. So, while I am all for innovation and new approaches to communication, I shall mourn and miss United Church News.

Rich communication history

I, along with then-editor Evan Golder, introduced to the UCC the concept of a national newspaper with Conference wrap-arounds. I like that model of sharing and I think the local church is poorer when it does not have a consistent link with the news of national and Conference settings.

True, national and Conference news stories are available online, but a local editor has to believe that national news is worthy of the space and spend the time to make it available, or it never gets to the families in the pews. I know this because I still edit a local church newsletter and I rarely have space for Conference or national news. Besides, my readers don't find denominational news nearly as compelling as a photo of their own children's Easter egg hunt.

The UCC has a rich history of communication. Martin Bailey's contributions are legendary in the magazine field, as are Everett Parker's in communication advocacy. No other communion in history has had the impact on rule making in the public interest. No other communion has even tried.

Beginning with Everett's intervention in the historic WLBT case, the years of working for diversity in broadcasting content –– as well as promulgating employment in and ownership of media outlets by women and persons of color –– have been a unique contribution of the UCC and its Office of Communication.

Continuing media justice

It is hard to follow as dynamic and unique an individual as Everett. He did everything first and he did it better! I had always been active in the National Council of Churches communication arenas, so I had allies willing to sign on to UCC initiatives in communication advocacy. Therefore, I did have some modest effect on a number of important issues. One was to keep cable companies from being able to "redline" or wire around communities of color. A second was to convince broadcasters to supply educational children's programming.

With help from several UCC churches, we gathered information on the lack of appropriate programming for children in several communities. We supplied the research and our filings with the FCC to require at least a minimum amount of educational children's programming (not just Saturday morning cartoons).

Similar procedures helped put in place the requirement that telephone companies provide lifeline service to isolated communities and persons unable to afford basic telephone service. The idea was that the phone companies should provide this service out of their profits, not pass it on to their customers as they have done since the legislation was passed. I find it a bittersweet victory every time I look at my phone bill!

I also testified before the U.S. House telecommunications sub-committee on fairness in broadcasting and cable, and was given a feature editorial in USA Today on the need for broadcasters to present both sides of a controversial issue. I was opposed by Edward Fritts of the National Association of Broadcasters, and supported by Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media. I cite these events because it is always about mobilizing public opinion if you want to sway Congress. Office of Communication writer William Winslow's news releases always got picked up.

Tradition vis-a-vis transition is gut-wrenchingly difficult. It is hard to give up the familiar. It is terrifying to envision something new. But experience has taught me that once the transition is accomplished it is hard to predict what the heart will remember.

Beverly J. Chain was executive director of the UCC's Office of Communication, then an 'instrumentality' of the national setting of the church, from 1983 to 1995. She considers that call her "career summit," bringing together the three themes of her life: communication, work for justice, and mission. She resides in North Palm Beach, Fla. 

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