With its 3,862nd broadcast, a Dinuba, Calif., radio ministry came to a close as listeners heard Dwight Heier’s voice bid the audience farewell for the final time. Heier, who has served as chief audio engineer at Dinuba’s New Life Community for more than 50 years, can recite his standard closing from memory:
“You’ve been listening to the live broadcast coming to you from the Dinuba Mennonite Brethren Church. We trust that you were blessed by today’s music and spoken word, and we ask that you join us again this same time next week. This is Dwight Heier saying goodbye and God bless you.”
DMBC—now New Life Community—broadcast its final service Dec. 27, 2020, marking the 74th anniversary of the church’s radio ministry and ending what may have been the longest running live broadcast in the United States, Heier says.
Lead pastor Mark Isaac says the radio broadcast provided some listeners’ primary church contact.
“For decades this radio ministry was the primary way our shut-ins and those unable to attend worship were able to participate with us,” he says. “Communication was almost entirely by phone and mail for all those years, so the live radio broadcast from the church allowed people to be present with everyone there.”
Going on the air
NLC began broadcasting its Sunday morning services live Dec. 29, 1946, one week after the KRDU radio station went on the air in California’s Central Valley.
“They had invited us, when they started transmitting, if we would like to broadcast our Sunday morning service live,” Heier says. “So back then, the church accepted that challenge.”
KRDU was the first commercial Christian radio station in the U.S., Heier says. Its signal reached from Bakersfield to Lodi and as far as the central coast.
The station’s founders, David Hofer and his brother, Egon Hofer, former Krimmer Mennonite Brethren and members of Zion MB, eventually came to DMBC.
“When we first started, the service got to the radio station by way of the telephone lines,” Heier says, adding that the church later got an FM transmitter and now uses an interface to send audio from the church’s mixer.
In the early days, the first 15 minutes of the service was in German, so the radio broadcast began with the 45-minute English service that followed. The church transitioned solely to English services around 1957, Heier says, and KRDU expanded the broadcast to 60 minutes soon after.
Heier accepted the role of chief audio engineer at DMBC in 1964, where he serviced and maintained the sound equipment. “They knew I was interested in electronics and microphones and recordings,” he says, laughing as he adds: “They asked if I would be willing to step in and fill in until they could find somebody permanent.”
Heier’s wife, Carol, a former church choir director and soloist, says Heier knew how to keep the equipment working.
“As it progressed, there was always more and more equipment, so he spent so many hours there at church, making sure it was working,” she says. “If something didn’t work right, he would go and fix it. He not only knows how to turn those knobs, but he knows how it’s made and put together.”
Realities of radio
Each radio broadcast began and ended with Heier’s pre-recorded remarks.
KRDU requested that NLC not alter its services to accommodate the radio, but an awareness of starting on time and silence was necessary.
Although Heier could add music during periods of silence, being on air impacted ways Isaac and others carried out services.
“We’ve had a highly structured worship service for all these years, with constant alertness by the audio technicians, worship leaders and musicians to cover any periods of silence or unmiked speakers,” Isaac says, adding he regularly modified his application points to include suggestions for the “unseen audience.”
Heier also recorded services for historical preservation and online.
Digital recordings helped keep the church on the air during the coronavirus pandemic when NLC no longer met in person. For nine and a half months, Heier kept the radio broadcast going from his home studio, pulling together old content on everything from wire recording reels, records, reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes and incorporating a current message from Isaac.
Over the years, Heier served with several others to produce the broadcast, including his son-in-law, Tim Smith, who has served as a sound operator the past 25 years.
“Our church has had an enjoyable business relationship with the management of KRDU over the years,” Heier writes in a historical reflection. “We have also had great cooperation with their great professional engineering team. They have always been committed to providing us with the best possible up-to-date equipment for quality radio sound broadcasting.”
Heier’s work on the broadcast has been a labor of love, he says, and the decision to go off the air was not made lightly. Heier says while he wishes someone would take over, the reality that he has all the files would make that transition difficult.
As the radio ministry neared its end, Heier stitched together one final broadcast, using a combination of songs, prayers and messages from past recordings as well as current music and a message from Isaac.
When the final broadcast aired, the Heiers and their daughter and son-in-law gathered around the radio to listen.
“I knew what was coming obviously, because I put it together, but I couldn’t help tearing up quite often,” Heier says, adding later: “I put a lot of heart into it.”
The impact of the radio broadcast has been far-reaching.
Heier says he has received cards and gifts expressing gratitude for his service. For some, the broadcast was their worship service during the pandemic.
“It’s touched a lot of people’s lives over the years,” Heier says, adding: “We know people that came to the Lord from listening to our broadcast.”
A listener wrote this in a letter to Heier: “Thank you for all the years you did in working the sound system at DMBC, especially the radio broadcast. Being I am now alone and don’t get out much, my only source of contact with the church was through radio. … That will be missed.”
The end of the radio program marks a shift in strategy as NLC invests in technology to reach younger generations. Since the start of the pandemic, NLC has offered its services online and plans to livestream services and add them to its website and Facebook for on-demand viewing. NLC is also working on a new website and app.
Isaac acknowledges that some older church members and radio listeners may not have computers or be familiar with the Internet, but says he hopes the app provides a relatively easy way to access services.
“We aren’t opposed to returning to radio broadcasting in the future, especially once we’re able to capture better audio indoors,” Isaac says. “For now, though, we’re investing in technology and training to reach the generations growing up around us. Our community’s population has an extremely low average age. We know they’re online, and that’s where we’re aiming to reach them.”
If you’d like to contact Dwight Heier, he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
LINK UPDATED: Listen to the final service here: https://www.newlifedinuba.org/media/qrvj226/krdu-final-broadcast