SALT LAKE CITY – Joseph Smith dreamed big in 1830 when he founded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He imagined an army of saints that would spread the Gospel and restore for the world what he said was the true church.
But Smith could not have anticipated that one day sharing the Mormon message would include nine satellites, the translation of speeches into 86 languages and an army of more than 1,500 volunteers making sure that its twice-yearly conference comes off without a hitch.
In 1830, just a handful of church leaders and members attended the first General Conference. This weekend, when Mormons gather for the 176th year of the event, roughly 12 million members will witness the proceedings, whether by television, radio, the Internet or as part of the audience in the 20,644-seat Salt Lake City Conference Center downtown.
Producing the conference is a master-level feat of organization that includes plenty of challenges.
“You bring 21,000 people together and sure there are going to be issues,” said Doug Balls, manager of event operations for Temple Square and the conference center. “But you can say, there’s 21,000 problems, or 21,000 opportunities to serve, and that’s the way we like to look at it.”
During the event, Balls is stationed in the operations center – a booth at the back of the conference hall – juggling a pair of phones and a walkie-talkie to stay in touch with staff throughout the building. He’s also checking a bank of video screens monitoring traffic routes and parking lots outside, as well locations inside the 1.5 million-square-foot building.
Before show time, Balls monitors a computer that tells him how many ticket-holders are entering the facility per minute, so he can make decisions about filling the house. Seats on the theater’s lower levels are filled first.
“There are a lot of moving parts,” says Brent Roberts, director of headquarters facilities, who was sitting alongside Balls in the control booth. “But there’s a lot of people to help.”
Balls has more than 1,000 church missionaries assigned to his staff. Their jobs range from ticket-taking and security to directing conference-goers to bathrooms and performing custodial services between the five sessions throughout the weekend.
Sometimes they also take care of last-minute, unexpected details, Balls said.
Like the time church President Gordon B. Hinckley asked for a hymnal just moments before the event was to begin. But the conference center isn’t stocked with hymnals, Balls said. After a scramble, one was located and delivered to Hinckley with about 45 seconds to spare.
“We should have had one there,” Balls said, noting that a rack of hymnals is now kept backstage.
Not far from Balls’ operations booth is another nerve center, the audiovisual control rooms where the conference broadcast is produced, directed and sent via satellite around the world.
Mormons believe that founder Smith was specifically directed by God to share the message of Jesus Christ, and the church is well-known for sending its missionaries to proselytize in 165 countries.
Nowhere does that mission seem more clear than in the effort the Mormon church makes in broadcasting and translating the conference sessions.
Conference first hit the airwaves back in 1924, but only on the radio and only in English.
By 1949, there was a black-and-white television broadcast, shot on 16 mm film through a periscope that came up from the floor of the basement of the Tabernacle, where conference was held until 2000, said Lyle Shamo, managing director of audiovisual services.
These days, thanks to millions of dollars in state-of-the-art equipment – church officials won’t say how many millions – conference is delivered in high-definition broadcast quality to members in 83 countries. In addition to sending the broadcast via satellite into more than 5,700 church facilities around the world, the proceedings will air on 18 television and 1,700 cable stations.
“We’re in a whole new world, and it’s wonderful,” said Shamo.
“But the key to it all in the technical area is not necessarily how many cameras you have or what type of setting you have, but what you can do to enhance the message. The message is the key to conference. We don’t want anything to be disruptive of that.”
Conference is available in 86 languages, from Arabic and Armenian to Kiribati, Marshallese, Navajo, Portuguese, Sinhala, Slovenian, Tagalog and Urdu. New to the offerings this year are the Western African languages of Efik, Lingala and Yoruba. The church also translates in American Sign Language and provides closed-captioning in English and Spanish.
About 98 percent of church members can hear General Conference in their primary language, said Paul Kern, manager of interpretation services. “We’ve got a plan to be at 100 percent by 2010.”
Non-English speakers attending the proceedings in Salt Lake City can pick up a translation headset at the conference center to listen to the proceedings in their native tongues.
What they’re hearing are live translations of church leaders’ talks, provided by about 700 volunteers, many of whom are holed up in 58 translation booths inside the conference center. Most of the translations occur live from Salt Lake City, although 21 languages are translated in remote locations around the world, Kern said.
Getting the translation right is a combination of artistry and training, Kern said. It’s so important that the church has worked with music and speech professionals to develop a training program for translators.
“Not everyone is blessed with a beautiful voice,” Kern said. “But with practice, they can develop.”