Just two months after the Church was organized, Joseph Smith and the other early leaders of the Church conducted the first general conference on June 9, 1830 in Fayette, New York. About thirty baptized members and several visitors attended that first meeting.
Now, 175 years later, Church members continue to gather to hear instruction and messages of hope. Those who will hear general conference now number in the millions, and instead of meeting together in a small cabin, they now meet as families in front of televisions, computers, or at stake centers via satellite. The setting is notably different; the gospel message, however, remains the same.
In his April 2000 general conference address “To All the World in Testimony,” President Hinckley read a 1924 journal entry from James E. Talmage in which Elder Talmage wrote of what he saw as the future of communication for the Church. He described a “great pavilion” which he envisioned would seat twenty thousand people or more and would be equipped with amplifiers and connected to a broadcasting system capable of reaching throughout the intermountain region (Ensign, May 2000). Increasing the number of people who are able to hear the prophet’s voice and improving the ways that it can be accomplished has long been a concern of Church leaders. Just a few weeks after Elder Talmage wrote this entry, the Church’s first general conference radio broadcast aired. Technology and the advantages it could provide for distributing the message of the gospel began to pose exciting possibilities for the Church.
As the years passed, the Church continued to utilize new advances in broadcasting and also considered constructing a larger and more technologically advanced facility to replace the Tabernacle which was growing smaller and smaller as the area population and the Church population increased. In 1940, plans began for a building that would seat 19,000 and would stand in the same location as the present Conference Center. However, after the leaders of the Church thought about and discussed the idea, it was ultimately dropped.
Now, sixty years after Elder Talmage’s journal entry, the Church does have a facility that seats around twenty thousand and contains broadcasting technology capable not only of broadcasting to the intermountain region (as he described), but throughout the world.
Behind the Scenes
General conference is the perfect opportunity to gather as a Church to listen to instruction for our day. We look forward to this time every six months and prepare our hearts to feel the Spirit as we listen to our leaders direct us from the pulpit. Those behind the scenes, however, are hearing quite a bit of additional direction:
“Seven next, shot twenty-two…five next, dissolve to five…stand by five…”
As the technical crew listens through speakers and headsets, the director gives them their next cue as the choir music begins. Right from her seat, she starts vigorously conducting the music along with the choir director in order to keep an exact pace.
Her timing is everything. When her arm gives a downbeat, it coincides with the choir director’s motion, but instead of leading the singing voices, she’s signaling a camera change and leading a group of production technicians. Her “choir” might not be as willing to get in front of the camera, but they do an equally beautiful job standing behind it.
Pulling It All Together
Approximately 120 people make up the technical crew involved in producing the event which is broadcast from about 7,000 different media outlets (i.e., TV, cable, radio, and digital satellite systems). From one conference to the next six months later, the process of preparing for this event is continual. Just two days after general conference ends, preparation for the next one begins.
Ed Payne, the producer of general conference recalls, “Elder Wood [a member of the Seventy who worked in military strategy for the Pentagon] once said to me, ‘It looks like you’re preparing for war!’”
Though certainly not a war, technical crew members are definitely entrenched in what is usually a tense period as they move the sights and sounds of the Conference Center to cities and towns around the globe. As seamless as it appears to those in the audience or watching at home or in stake centers, making everything successfully come together is a complicated balancing act; many variables must be thought about well in advance. The number of things that could go wrong with the production are many, yet the team of experts involved is able to react to complications with a variety of backup plans, making the process look much easier than it actually is.
During one conference several years ago, the switcher, which is the device that allows producers to switch from one camera shot to another, froze. “Just like with a home computer,” Ed explains, “sometimes the computer technology powering this machine runs into a glitch and freezes.” Consequently, the production team was stuck with the one camera being used when the system froze.
Prepared and ready-to-go, however, is another control room, completely separate from the one experiencing technical difficulty. The signal feeding master control simply had to be switched from one control room to the other and the broadcast continued on without interruption.
“I doubt anyone watching at home could have noticed,” says Ed. “The camera shot may have remained where it was a few seconds longer than usual, but basically everything continued on as it had before.”
Right on Time
In addition to managing potential problems, the technical crew must also keep in mind the spiritual nature of the facility and event. This is an added challenge because the companies carrying the production are dealing with strict time frames and regulations. The four two-hour meetings that make up conference weekend must be closely regulated for time in order to make the program well-suited for broadcast. The two digital clocks mounted on the wall at the front of the main control room (one showing time of day, the other showing program length) tick away the seconds so that all of those cues and cuts and transfers come at just the right moment.
Speakers are able to rehearse their talks on their own time with production crew members who can answer their questions (there is not a set dress rehearsal). Speakers can practice pacing themselves and working with the teleprompter in order to determine how to best express their messages. The Church has also produced a video about speaking in conference that many first-time speakers use to help prepare for an address that will be broadcast to millions.
Timing for the event is a matter of seconds. Often these seconds are balanced through the program’s music. If extra time needs to be filled, it can be done with an extra song. If time is running short, the choir conductor may be asked to use fewer verses. For example, a message about shortening or expanding a song may be sent to Craig Jessop, the director of The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, who will then communicate to choir members, usually through hand signals, how to sing a certain song (determining the tempo or which verses to sing, for example).
Spreading the Word
For the millions of Church members who are not able to attend in person, but who still look forward to watching and listening to general conference, many other modes of communication allow them to receive the biannual spiritual recharge. TV, radio, satellite, magazines, video, CDs, and the Internet are all being utilized for distributing general conference to members around the world.
Some members gather to hear the messages in homes and meetinghouses throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Western Europe, the Caribbean, Central and South America, parts of Eastern Europe, and Southern Africa as part of a digital satellite network system that broadcasts in over sixty-five languages.
People can also view, read, or listen to conference online in over forty languages www.lds.org/conference/languages or through the approximately 1,500 radio and television stations and cable systems that carry all or portions of the program.
Receiving the conference issues of the Ensign and Liahona is often as anticipated as the actual broadcast. There are currently twenty-nine different language editions of the Liahona (not including English) making it possible for Saints in many locations to remember and reflect on the conference messages. World-wide distribution of these magazines is no simple undertaking, yet because of its importance, efforts are made to ensure that all members receive this issue at roughly the same time, no matter where they live.
Covering the Earth
Interpretation at general conference is one of the most fascinating behind-the-scenes aspects of the broadcast process. Though most members try to pay close attention to the important messages being spoken, few people are probably listening as intently to those words as the interpreters.
The tremendous interpretation efforts of the Church have included general conference since 1961. This is the year that the first non-English stakes were organized and also the first year that conference was distributed in foreign languages, specifically Dutch, German, Samoan, and Spanish.
Seven years later in 1968, conference interpretation included eleven languages and by 1981, that number reached seventeen. The eighties and nineties brought tremendous Church growth and the ability to have a more world-wide reach. By 1997 conference was interpreted into over thirty languages. Our last conference (April 2004) saw the number reach sixty-six, with the most recent languages being Arabic and some of the Micronesian languages.
For approximately twenty languages, the October 2004 conference will be a first in interpretation technology. Instead of using on-site interpreters from foreign countries to voice the sessions, this conference will be fed over phone lines to interpreters living in the foreign countries. The interpretations are then fed back to Salt Lake City to be mixed with the video and prepared for broadcast. Amazingly, the process will not take any longer than the traditional method.
This change has come about because the Church has found that even native interpreters, after living outside their country for only a relatively short period of time, can lose touch with localisms and change. Locals hearing the interpretations can sometimes notice that certain words may have additional or inaccurate meanings. This new method helps ensure that the translation being heard is as accurate as possible.
The language of general conference is often very rich and full of specific meaning, which means time must be taken to match the level of language in these important texts to the most appropriate words in the foreign language. Interpreters are aided in their work by written scripts of the conference addresses, which are usually given to them seven to ten days before conference. Sometimes, however, speakers may ad lib or deviate from their submitted scripts once at the pulpit, so these written scripts cannot be relied on entirely during the translation. To the superb team of interpreters this is expected and their high level of skill typically allows them to continue on as if they’d rehearsed the changes many times.
Noting the amazing dedication and service of this group of individuals, Director of Translation Services Paul Kern says, “Even after a week or more of intense linguistic preparation and a weekend of pressurized broadcast interpretation, the spiritual content of the general conference messages so energizes the interpreters that they keep coming back to help time after time.”
These men and women make it possible for members in their native lands to hear the same messages that English speakers hear. It is a challenge they take very seriously and consider a great privilege. According to Kern, “This is the spiritual glue that holds such a massive worldwide undertaking together—knowing that the words of the living prophets are going to their own people in their own tongue.”
The messages of the gospel will remain one of the constants in an ever-changing world. The ways these messages will be distributed, however, will continue to change as the Church grows and technologies advance. As broadcast communication helps the world become a smaller place, more and more people are given the opportunity to hear general conference and learn from the messages that are presented.
“Eventually we want every member of the Church to hear the prophet and experience what we experience here in the Conference Center,” says Ed Payne. Considering the Church’s rapid growth and the rate at which technologies are updated, this is not a simple task, but, nonetheless, one that all involved feel is very important and worth the effort.
General conference has evolved tremendously since that first humble meeting in 1830 in order to address the needs of Saints around the globe. Members realize the importance of this instruction, and like the people of King Mosiah, they look forward to gathering at this time to listen to those who teach the word of God “that they might rejoice and be filled with love towards God and all men” (Mosiah 2: 4).
This is why the seats fill, the cameras turn on, and the lights shine down: so that the members of the Church can hear modern revelation from latter-day prophets and be reminded of the everlasting truths of the gospel. No other production in the world serves this same purpose or influences so many in quite the same way.