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A higher frequency 

How the rise of Salem Communications radio empire reveals the evangelical master plan

click to enlarge 2005 KATHY CONARRO
  • 2005 Kathy Conarro

It's a sunny morning in Southern California, but inside the gleaming Glendale studios of KKLA, nationally syndicated radio personality Dennis Prager has spotted a dark cloud on the horizon, namely the "soullessness" of Europe.

The white-haired host with a deep baritone and, this morning, a purple tie has fresh evidence of the Continent's decline: a recent study linking depression in France to the nation's loss of religious faith. "The breakdown in Christianity has led to a profound crisis," he says. "What will people believe in? It leads to communism and fascism. It's one of the reasons I so worry about secularism in our society. I don't want that breakdown here."

You'll hear that message a lot on stations owned by Salem Communications, a little-known for-profit Christian radio empire that has ridden the evangelical movement to the big leagues and quietly is becoming a force in national politics. Before it was purchased by Salem, KKLA was owned by a cigar-chomping preacher whose promises of redemption raked in millions to help finance a lavish Pasadena estate, replete with a Rembrandt, a Monet and show ponies.

But Salem's founders, Stuart Epperson and Edward Atsinger III, have a far grander goal: spreading the word of the Lord and offering an alternative to the creeping secularism that they see as responsible for America's moral decay. "When you secularize a culture," says Epperson, "you lose your moral compass."

Filling a void

Atsinger and Epperson started their company 30 years ago as young, idealistic evangelicals. Today, Salem is the second-fastest-growing radio chain in the nation. The left has nothing on the radio dial even close to Salem's reach and influence.

Air America is broadcast on 70 stations and owns none. Salem owns 103 stations in the nation's largest markets and broadcasts to more than 1,900 affiliates. It owns radio stations in New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas and Atlanta. In fact, it doesn't own just one station in those markets. It owns two, or more. In both Los Angeles and Colorado Springs, it owns four. In Honolulu, it owns seven. It also owns 62 Web sites and a magazine publishing division.

Though the chain is not as large as Clear Channel Radio (which owns 1,200 stations) or Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting (178), Salem's programming is available to one-third of the U.S. population. Salem Radio Network News division is, according to its Web site, "the only Christian-focused news organization with fully equipped broadcast facilities at the U.S. House, Senate and White House manned by full-time correspondents."

In a move that mirrors the Republican Party's objectives, Atsinger and Epperson recently expanded Salem's stable of Christian talk-show hosts -- James Dobson, Randall Terry, Janet Parshall -- to include conservative Jews like Prager and Michael Medved. The company is a leading outlet for Christian rock, one of the music industry's fastest-growing segments, and is chasing after black and Latino listeners.

By melding business savvy, generous political giving and an unshakable faith in their own moral righteousness, Epperson and Atsinger have built Salem into a blue-chip Wall Street company that has tapped into what Medved calls "a conservative religious counterculture" that is "far more powerful and far more significant than anything in the stupid counterculture of the 1960s."

Salem's stations allow the religious right to share information, mobilize allies and galvanize public opinion. According to University of Akron political science professor John C. Green, conservative Christians listen to Salem's stations "the same way sports fans listen to sports radio shows," keeping abreast of the latest developments regarding abortion, gay marriage, Iraq.

During the Terri Schiavo battle, Dobson took to Salem's airwaves and told listeners: "A woman's life hangs in the balance. We really have to defend this woman, because if she dies, the lives of thousands of people around the country can be killed, too. There's a principle here: It's a paradigm of death versus a paradigm of life." Dobson's co-host then reeled off the phone numbers of Florida legislators.

Back in 1972, when Atsinger and Epperson bought their first station together in Bakersfield, Calif., it was liberals who were mobilized. Abortion was about to be legalized, school prayer had been banned, and gays were on the march. "Things move very slowly in a culture," Epperson says. "But the increasing secular humanism in our culture seemed to be moving at a gallop pace. We felt we needed to do something."

It was at tiny KDAR in Oxnard, Calif. -- their first Christian station, bought in 1974 -- that Atsinger and Epperson began developing the formula they later would replicate so successfully. Preachers paid for time to sermonize, listeners could call in, some slots were reserved for Christian music. KDAR was a refuge from the hedonism and cynicism of the mainstream stations, and Atsinger and Epperson realized people craved it.

"We felt we had a message," recalls Epperson, adding that it "demanded the best facilities.

"We felt our mission was to build a platform for the best communicators to communicate biblical truth," to speak about "the eternal soul and the destiny of man."

Dereg politics

In 1977, Epperson and Atsinger mortgaged their homes. Over the next eight years, leveraged to the gills, they went to the very places where cynicism and secularism breed the fastest -- American cities. They got licenses in San Francisco, San Antonio, Seattle, Boston, even a weak signal on Staten Island. In 1985, they hit the jackpot when the FCC awarded them a license to operate KKLA, a powerful signal in the nation's second-largest radio market. Then, using this blue-chip Los Angeles-area station as collateral, Atsinger and Epperson secured even larger loans.

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Gaining listeners took patient proselytizing and hard work. In New York City, station manager Joe Davis visited 154 churches over the course of three years and got to know pastors from Harlem to Westchester. On New Year's Eve, Davis recruited church youth groups to go to Times Square to hand out hot chocolate and church literature. Salem's DJs spent the night interviewing the kids.

Salem's rapid expansion also owed a lot to Reagan-era deregulation. Until 1987, the FCC required broadcasters to provide equal time to political opponents. And the last thing a religious broadcaster wanted to do was eat up airtime with liberals "promoting" abortion and homosexuality. But when the FCC repealed the fairness doctrine, the shackles that had forced Salem to tiptoe cautiously around society's great cultural fault lines fell away.

With the freedom came newfound political clout. KKLA station manager Terry Fahy first saw it when Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ hit the theaters in 1988. KKLA spearheaded a demonstration at MCA Universal Studios, where protesters mobbed the entrance. "They were saying, 'Route 101 is really blocked, you can't get there,'" remembers Fahy.

It was around this time that Atsinger began to make a name for himself as political operative. Jerry Sloan, who heads Project Tocsin, which monitors the political activities of evangelical groups in California, first heard Atsinger's name in 1989, in connection with a mysterious entity recruiting Christian activists in San Diego to run for school boards and other offices.

In 1991, Atsinger formed a PAC with four other wealthy Southern California evangelicals, Howard Ahmanson Jr., Robert Hurtt, Roland Hinz and Richard Riddle. In the 1994 election cycle, these five founders doled out more than $5.3 million to back conservative candidates for the state Legislature and helped Republicans win control of the California State Assembly for the first time in 25 years.

Democrats won the Assembly back the very next election. But the moderate wing of the California Republican Party never recovered. Atsinger and Epperson since have adeptly used California politics to catapult issues to the head of the national debate, particularly gay marriage.

In 2000, Atsinger, Epperson and Ahmanson poured $780,000 into a state ballot initiative against such unions. Along with Hurtt and Hinz, they've also funded conservative think tanks and special-interest groups that continue to influence policy. The debate over gay marriage in California became a national hot-button issue in part because Salem stations kept their audiences primed for outrage.

Extending their reach

The influence of Salem and its owners has only continued to grow. Like everyone else in the broadcast industry, Epperson and Atsinger lobbied for the Telecommunications Act of 1996. They gave $74,000 to key legislators, a small part of the tidal wave of industry contributions. Pushed by Newt Gingrich's 104th Congress, largely written by lobbyists and signed by President Clinton, the new law eliminated FCC national ownership caps and loosened local ownership restrictions.

Salem immediately ballooned to 40 stations -- and then grew larger. Between 1998 and 2004, Salem Communications and its executives contributed $423,000 to federal candidates -- making it the sixth-largest industry donor today -- 96 percent of which went to Republicans. Salem's leaders have an especially close relationship with embattled former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, employing a lobbying group run by DeLay's former chief of staff, contributing generously to a 527 advocacy group closely affiliated with DeLay, and ponying up to DeLay's legal expense trust fund.

Atsinger and Epperson took Salem public in 1999. The IPO raised millions, which Salem used to expand into high-profile Internet ventures, to become a leader in Christian music, and to build up to 103 stations. Today, Salem's stock trades on the NASDAQ at around $20. In an industry rocked by an advertising slump, the company's national advertising revenue grew 23 percent during 2004. Overall, Salem's revenue grew 10 percent, second in the industry only to Spanish-language broadcaster Univision, according to a Bear Stearns analyst.

Time magazine recently named Epperson -- who's twice run for Congress as a Republican -- as one of "The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America" in a cover-story package that asked, "What Does Bush Owe the Religious Right?" Atsinger is a Bush Pioneer, meaning he gave $100,000 to the president's re-election campaign. In 2004, Atsinger co-chaired Americans of Faith, a massive, church-based get-out-the-vote campaign, and Salem ran hundreds of radio spots urging Christians to vote.

Salem has made it clear that it won't sacrifice its values for profit, even stating so in its annual report. But Epperson and Atsinger apparently have decided that the time has come to bring nonevangelicals into the fold. In 2004, Salem acquired 16 new news and talk stations, doubling its stable of secular stations. It's courting conservative Jews, Catholics and Latinos -- all constituencies prized by the Republican Party.

"What they've decided to do is not just preach to the converted but to reach out to a larger audience," explains Medved. "This is secular radio. But part of the idea is that you cannot separate faith from the ongoing debate in society at large or the nation's political future."

Reprinted with permission from Mother Jones magazine, where the article appears as part of a special December issue on the religious right. 2005 Foundation for National Progress.

Praise pod

'GodCasting' a technical and media revelation for religious organizations

From the corner of his Carlsbad, Calif., bedroom, Craig Patchett has defined the cutting edge of a technological revolution. It's called "GodCasting," a term coined by Patchett, founder of GodCast.org, a Web site where small churches and preachers are finding a voice not often heard on Christian radio, which is dominated by conservative evangelicals.

GodCasting is a play on podcasting, which gets its name from the popular Apple iPod portable player, although podcasts can be downloaded to any digital audio device, including a personal computer.

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Last fall, the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a national research group exploring the impact of the Internet in the United States, estimated that between 3 million and 6 million podcasts have been downloaded. Roughly 15 percent of U.S. adults have digital audio players.

"That figure would surely be higher today, after the holiday gift-giving season," says Lee Rainie, director of the project.

In just 14 months, Patchett's site has placed an array of Christian views that otherwise might not be heard before 1 million (and counting) Web users. Many GodCasts simply are recorded sermons made available for download on the Internet. But some are more unique. One goes so far as to translate the Bible into the make-believe language of Klingon from "Star Trek."

Innovation, not revelation, inspired Patchett to start the site, in which he's invested $500 so far.

"I was looking for a way to put sermons on my iPod and stumbled into it," Patchett says.

The appeal of such programs, he says, is that they allow people curious about Christianity, or any other religion, to find a church with which they feel comfortable without actually attending a service.

GodCasting already has surpassed the confines of Patchett's Web site.

In recent months, a growing number of preachers and religious organizations have started podcasting in hopes of spreading their views around the globe. Evangelical media empire Focus on the Family, known for its stance against gay marriage and support of conservative judges, turns previously aired radio broadcasts into podcasts.

"Trends show that 18- to 49-year-olds are using the Internet at roughly an 80 percent pace," notes a June 2005 Focus on the Family press release, announcing the organization's podcasting intent. "This poses new avenues for media channels inside the ministry of Focus on the Family."

The massive New Life Church in north Colorado Springs has responded to the trend by launching two podcasts, with a third planned for later this month, says Josh Hudnall, a technical director at the church.

"We jumped right on board," he says.

Unlike radio, podcasts allow people to listen to what they want, wherever and whenever they choose, Hudnall notes.

New Life's foray into podcasting also gives non-churchgoing people a taste of its sermons.

On one podcast available via Apple's iTunes, New Life associate pastor Brent Parsley speaks to a group of teenagers about gays and lesbians: "Now, I've got to tell you, I'm not a fan of homosexuality. I think it's destructive. I think it's ruining people and I think it's sending people to hell according to the word of God."

Such sermons, if not heard live, once were available only on CD or cassette tape at the church bookstore.

Patchett predicts these types of GodCasts will gain popularity in 2006. He notes the array of Christian broadcasts, and other religious podcasts, is growing daily.

"I think it is at least a wake-up call that people are fed up with the homogenized aspect of radio."

-- Michael de Yoanna

Salem in the Springs: A sampling

1460 AM KZNT. One of Salem's three radio stations headquartered at 7150 Campus Drive, KZNT says its conservative news talk programming is "Where Your Opinion Counts!" During the week, the station offers almost no locally produced content, favoring nationally syndicated programs such as Bill Bennett's "Morning in America" and the Michael Medved Show. But on the weekends, it serves up a broad array of local shows, such as "Chamber Connection" with Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce vice president Jeff Crank; "Radio Envoy," produced in conjunction with two Focus on the Family employees; and a local fly fishing show that airs Saturdays at 5:30 a.m.

-- Dan Wilcock

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