Youll 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 is quietly 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 Salems 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 Americas moral decay. When you secularize a culture, says Epperson, you lose your moral compass. A mission statement in Salems 2003 annual report reads: One mended marriage. One regained childhood. One restored faith. One broadcast at a time.
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 leftwhich for years dismissed evangelical activists as out-of-touch zealotshas nothing on the radio dial even close to Salems reach and influence. Air America is broadcast on 70 stations and owns none. Salem owns 103 stations in the nations 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 doesnt own just one station in those markets. It owns twosometimes more. In Los Angeles it owns four. In Honolulu it owns seven. It also owns 62 websites and a magazine publishing division.
Though the chain is not as large as Clear Channel Radio (which owns 1,200 stations) or Viacoms Infinity Broadcasting (178), Salems programming is available to one-third of the U.S. population; its websites are read by some 3 million people. Salem Radio Network News division is, according to its website, the only Christian-focused news organization with fully equipped broadcast facilities at the U.S. House, Senate, and White House manned by full-time correspondentsensuring timely, on-the-spot coverage of breaking news
specifically created for Christian-formatted radio stations. In a move that mirrors the Republican Partys objectives, Atsinger and Epperson have recently expanded Salems stable of Christian talk-show hostsJames Dobson, Randall Terry, Janet Parshallto include conservative Jews like Prager and Michael Medved. The company is a leading outlet for Christian rock, one of the music industrys fastest-growing segments, and is chasing after black and Latino listeners. The company was also quick to embrace iPod technology to do what evangelicals call godcasting.
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.
For all such thunder, resembles any other radio station. In its studio, a chubby, disheveled engineer spins the dials while a moody young woman struggles to keep pace with the flood of calls to Pragers show. In his office, general manager Terry Fahy pores over Arbitron ratings and listener patterns. Look a little closer, though, and youll notice that the engineers T-shirt is emblazoned with a huge American flag and the words God Bless America, the screeners handbag sports a Jews for Bush and Cheney pin, and on Fahys bookshelf is a small glass cross and a piece of framed scripturethe latter a gift from missionaries who smuggle Bibles into China.
According to University of Akron political science professor John C. Green, conservative Christians listen to Salems stations the same way sports fans listen to sports radio shows, keeping abreast of the latest developments regarding abortion, gay marriage, Iraq. In many ways, Green says, the chain typifies the congealing of the religious communities into a potent political force. When traditional issues become important in campaignsas they did in the last campaignthey can have a huge impact. Programming such as Salems challenges people to accept their obligation as Christian citizens, says Frank Wright, president of National Religious Broadcasters. (Epperson currently serves on NRBs board.) Our faith in Jesus Christ has eternal spiritual dimensions, but it has a temporal practical obligation to live out your faith in the world around you. That means being involved in the world around you, whether it be the law or medicinecertainly government and politics.
Salems stations allow the religious right to share information, mobilize allies, and galvanize public opinion. During the Terri Schiavo battle, Dobson took to Salems airwaves and told listeners: A womans 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. Theres a principle here: Its a paradigm of death versus a paradigm of life. Dobsons cohost then reeled off the phone numbers of Florida legislators.
Salems founders are as politically skilled as their hosts. Time magazine recently named Eppersonwhos twice run for Congress as a Republicanas one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America in a cover-story package that asked What Does Bush Owe Them? Atsinger is a Bush Pioneer, meaning he gave $100,000 to the presidents reelection campaign. In the 1990s, he helped revolutionize California politics, first by running Christians for local school boards and then backing candidates who took over the legislature. In 2000, the two men, along with a close political ally, funneled $780,000 into a California state ballot initiative to ban gay marriages. Both have served on the board of the Council for National Policy, a secretive and exclusive network of conservative activists and moneymen.
In 2004, Atsinger cochaired Americans of Faith, a massive, church-based, get-out-the-vote campaign, and Salem ran hundreds of radio spots urging Christians to vote. A Salem affiliate in Pennsylvania sponsored an Operation Vote caravan that registered voters, offering them prizes of cars and cash. Epperson and Atsinger were spark plugs to take voter registration to the next level, says NRBs Wright. They also contributed $15,000 to John Thunes campaign to defeat Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, and Salem host Kevin McCullough solicited funds for Thune on his Salem-sponsored blog.
For all their political activity, Atsinger, 66, and Epperson, 69, have shunned the spotlight. Atsinger declined to discuss his activism, and Epperson would rather talk about the Bible. Hes particularly fond of Romans, in which Paul describes the plight of those whove turned away from God: So they are without excuse, for though they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him. But they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools.
Says Epperson: I personally am happy the president won. But weve been very careful as a company to be nonpartisan. We talk about issues and urge people to vote their conscience. Democrats can be more credible by looking at the issues we care about and being responsive to our issues.
In other words, get with the program.
In a Barnes & Noble parking lot in Orange, California, Salem host Michael Medved sits at a table flanked by speakers. A large heckler in a Newt and Bush: Dumb and Dumber T-shirt is at the mike, and Medved has him on the ropes.
Why are you so concerned about what people in France think about Americans defending themselves? Medved asks.
Because Americans are stupid and idiotic! says the man, who identifies himself as Russ.
Why are you so full of hate? shouts an elderly lady in the audience.
Im a pacifist, Russ objects.
Youre not really a pacifist, Medved scoffs. What would the right response have been when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor?
The crowd is eating it up, and when Russ eventually slinks off, Medved is showered with applause.
Its easy to cheer when youre on the winning team, especially against such an easy target. But things werent always so fun for the traditional-values crowd. In 1972, when Atsinger and Epperson bought their first station together in Bakersfield, California, it was liberals who seemed to have the last laugh. 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.
Epperson had learned early that radio is a powerful tool to spread the gospel. He grew up on a tobacco farm in Ararat, Virginia. Andy Griffith hailed from just down the road in Mount Airy. During World War II, Eppersons older brother worked for the Navy, developing radar. Upon returning home, he built a radio station on the second floor of the Epperson farmhouse, and when word of it spread through the hills, musicians began showing up on Saturdays with banjos, guitars, and fiddles to play their hillbillery. The preachers took the microphone on Sundays. Stuart Epperson made his debut at 10, reading the 23rd Psalm.
He studied broadcasting at Bob Jones University and founded his first station in 1961. Through his wife, Nancy, he met his future business partner: her brother, Edward Atsinger III. Born in Honolulu in 1939 and raised in Southern California, Atsinger had also graduated from Bob Jones, after which he taught public speaking in the L.A. public schools.
The two soon purchased a small secular station in Bakersfield. But it was at tiny KDAR in Oxnard, Californiatheir first Christian station, bought in 1974that Atsinger and Epperson began developing the formula they would later 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, and we felt the message deserveddemandedthe best facilities, Epperson says. 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.
Once they got a taste, nothing seemed more important. In 1977, Epperson and Atsinger mortgaged their homes and sold all their secular stations. Over the next eight years, leveraged to the gills, they went to the very places where cynicism and secularism breed the fastestAmerican cities. They got licenses in San Francisco, San Antonio, Seattle, Boston, even a weak signal on Staten Island.
Sometimes their quixotic mission felt more like a burden than a blessing. It was a fearful time, remembers Epperson. I went to Boston and bought WEZE and came back home, got a mortgage on the house, and told my wife we may be starting over. In some cities, Epperson and Atsinger were greeted with skepticism, even outright hostility. But everything changed with the acquisition of KKLA. The previous owner, Gene Scott, had operated a transmitter 1,000 times more powerful than tiny KDAR-Oxnard. When the FCC accused Scott of stealing from his tax-exempt ministry and didnt renew his license, Epperson and Atsinger were well positioned to take over the signal. In 1985, Salem won the right to beam the word of God into the nations second-largest radio market and to an audience used to opening its checkbooks for Christian causes.
Using this blue-chip Los Angeles-area station as collateral, Atsinger and Epperson could now secure even larger loans. From 1986 to 1990, Salem moved into Chicago, bought two stations in Portland, Oregon, and one in San Diego, then scored a strong signal in the mother of all markets, New York City.
Unlike KKLA, WMCA did not come with a Christian audience accustomed to tuning in. WMCAs audience was all about rock and roll; back in its heyday, the station broadcast a famous Beatles concert live from Shea Stadium. There was some degree of opposition and ridicule, but the more difficult thing to overcome was apathy, remembers Joe Davis, whom Salem had hired to revamp WMCA. They werent impressed. In a cosmopolitan city that prizes intellectual pursuits, freedom of thought, and independence of lifestyle, New Yorkers saw religious people as second-class citizens. It was hard to get them to engage and recognize that the station did have something to say.
Salem responded with the same methodical network building that has characterized the political rise of evangelicals across the nation. On Sundays, Davis loaded his wife, Carolyn, into their Ford Taurus and headed to churches across the tristate area. After services, they handed out WMCA program guides to parishioners and then lunched with the local pastor. Over the course of three years, the Davises visited 154 churches and got to know pastors from Harlem to Westchester. On New Years Eve, Davis recruited church youth groups to go to Times Square to hand out hot chocolate and church literature. Salems DJs spent the night interviewing the kids, keeping congregations back in their hometowns apprised of their activities as the excitement built toward midnight. The young people got to know each other. The church elders mingled. Salem gained listeners.
In addition to patient proselytizing, Salems rapid expansion 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 the societys great cultural fault lines fell away.
KKLA station manager Terry Fahy first realized the raw political power Salem now commanded when Martin Scorseses The Last Temptation of Christ hit the theaters in 1988. KKLA spearheaded a demonstration at MCA Universal Studios, where chanting protesters mobbed the entrance, waving signs and banners. They were saying Route 101 is really blocked, you cant get there, remembers Fahy, who now manages Salems four-station L.A. cluster. Tens of thousands of people also participated in protests at theaters and video stores nationwide. That was a lot of Christiansenough, by any objective measure, to wield significant political clout if harnessed.
It was around this time that Jerry Sloan, a former fundamentalist minister turned gay activist who heads Project Tocsin, which monitors the political activities of evangelical groups in California, began hearing the name Edward Atsinger III. The reason had nothing to do with radio. In 1989, a mysterious entity named the Capitol Commonwealth Group began recruiting Christian activists to run for school boards and other offices. Nobody knew who they were, but we got word from candidates who said they were being asked questions about their feelings on homosexuality and abortion, Sloan says.
Liberals would forever after ruefully refer to what happened next as the San Diego Surprise. Sixty of the mysterious groups 90 candidates won. The surprise part came when parents realized the new school board members advocated school prayer and creationismand that their financial backers were the largely unknown, but ex- tremely wealthy, evangelicals Howard Ahmanson Jr. and Robert Hurtt, whod founded a like-named lobby shop (Capitol Resource Institute) a few years earlier. Ahmanson is an heir to a savings and loan fortune and a trustee of a think tank run by the Reverend R.J. Rushdoony, who preached that the death penalty should be instituted for crimes against the family, such as homosexuality and marital infidelity (see A Nation Under God, page 32). Hurtt is a wealthy businessman and devout follower of James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family and a Salem host.
The San Diego Surprise was only a taste of what was to come. Ahmanson and Hurtt soon recruited Edward Atsinger, along with publishing magnate Roland Hinz, whose wife, Lila, has served on the board of directors of Paul Weyrichs National Empowerment TV, and another millionaire Bob Jones alumnus named Richard Riddle.
Over a series of lunches in Orange County in 1991, these five men, all members of the secretive conservative Council for National Policy, hashed out an ambitious plan to transform California politics. The Capitol Commonwealth Group was reborn as the Allied Business PAC and began financing conservative candidates for the state Assembly. We were tired of being the supply ship, Hurtt told a reporter at the time. We said, Screw that; were now going to be the flagship. Together, backers of Allied Business very quietly campaigned in the churches and passed out fliers urging them to vote for their candidates, Sloan says. More important, they spent prodigiously. Allied Business was the fourth-largest political donor in the 1992 election cycle, giving $915,745. That was peanuts compared to the 1994 election cycle, in which Allied and its five founders doled out more than $5.3 million, and Hurtt spent an additional $952,080 on his own state Senate campaign. The result: a political earthquake. Two-thirds of Allieds candidates won, the Republicans controlled the Assembly for the first time in 25 years, and Hurtt became the state Senate minority leader.
This success came with too much limelight for Allied, which was renamed the California Independent Business PAC (CIBPAC) and began funding candidates to challenge fellow Republicans whom CIBPACs founders found too moderate. Take the demise of Republican Assembly Speaker Brian Setencich. When 31-year-old Robert Prenter, a Fresno-area medical equipment salesman with no political experience, entered the 1996 Republican primary, Setencich didnt take the kid too seriously. But Prenter was Ed Atsingers nephew. In the waning days of the campaign, Atsinger and his CIBPAC buddies bombarded the district with mailers that said Setencich opposed the death penalty for carjackers, was a traitor to the Republican Party, and was guilty of public attacks on Christians and those who want to restore moral values to society. Prenter won by 500 votes.
But in many ways CIBPACs victories were Pyrrhic. That same year the Democrats retook the legislaturein part by portraying CIBPAC candidates as demagoguesand voters passed a tough campaign spending law (though it has since been overturned). And CIBPACs tactics created a schism between Republican moderates and conservatives that has since only deepened. These guys throw $50,000, $100,000 at a candidate before theyre even out of the gate, Sloan says. More moderate candidates who have nothing feel like they cant run. Kevin Drum, who writes the Washington Monthlys Political Animal blog, says that while the Republican party in California, and particularly in Orange County, has always been very conservative, its never been religious based. Even Orange County is more anticommunist conservative. But money is the mothers milk of politics.
If party cohesion is the measure of success, then the religious conservative wing has been disastrous for California Republicans, says Drum. While candidates whom CIBPACs funders have sponsored still comprise a sixth of the current legislature, the Republicans twice lost the governorship by fielding ultraconservatives against Democrat Governor Gray Davis. But if bringing conservative ideals to the political fore is the yardstick, then the men behind CIBPAC have been wildly successful. Though Atsinger and Epperson arent on record as having contributed to the ballot initiative campaign to recall Davis, Salem radio personalities made it a topic every day, says Sloan. Talk-show hosts like Ollie North said he was a sleazeball, raising money all the time. They attacked Davis on immigration, they used gay marriage. They stirred up the evangelicals and got them out to the polls. In the election to decide whether or not to recall Davis and who his replacement might be, conservatives backed Tom McClintock, whom Atsinger had helped put in the state Senate with a $100,000 loan in 2000 and whom Ahmanson funded in the 2003 recall circus. And while McClintock proved no match for Arnold Schwarzeneggers star power, Atsinger and Epperson 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, theyve funded a vast network of conservative think tanks and special-interest groups that continue to influence policy, notably antigay activist Reverend Lou Sheldons Traditional Values Coalition and the Western Center for Law and Religious Freedom, which famously defended the Kern County school districts decision to ban Gabriel Garcìa Márquezs One Hundred Years of Solitude on the grounds of its profanity and vulgarity. Another such group, the Campaign for California Families, sued San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom last year to stop him from marrying gay couples. The debate over gay marriage in California became a national hot-button issue in part because Salem stations kept their audiences primed for outrage.
And thats what George Bush owes these evangelicals.
By the mid-1990s, Salem had developed a signature business strategy. Atsinger and Epperson would approach highly leveraged stations and offer huge amounts of money. They are actually pretty shrewd at buying stations, but also at moving stations around to maximize their coverage, says John Crigler, an attorney in Washington, D.C. (Crigler represented Reed College after Salem acquired a station in Oregon and then moved its transmitter, which effectively blocked Reeds signal.) Shows taped at KKLA and the three other stations based in the Glendale office are beamed out to affiliates, offering the company a significant advantage over single operators.
Soon, though, Salem bumped up against the FCC laws limiting the number of stations any one company could own nationwide and in each market. So, 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 Gingrichs 104th Congress, largely written by lobbyists, and signed by President Clinton, the new law eliminated FCC national ownership caps and loosened local ownership restrictions. After that, Salem Communications went on an acquisitions tear, owning 40 radio stations nationwide by the end of that year and organizing stations into local clusters, which shared administrative resources and gave Salem a further cost-saving edge over smaller operations.
Salem remains focused on deregulation. Between 1998 and 2004, Salem Communications and its executives contributed $423,000 to federal candidatesmaking it the sixth-largest industry donor today96 percent of which went to Republicans. Salem also has a PAC, which contributes only to Republicansabout $54,000 to Republican congressional candidates in the last election cycle.
And because hes been a reliable ally on deregulation as well as social issues, Salems leaders have maintained a close relationship with embattled former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. For the past six years, Salem Communications has paid about $26,000 a year to the Alexander Group, a Washington, D.C., lobbying group run by DeLays former chief of staff that had DeLays wife on its payroll. In 2000 and 2002, Atsinger was among the top contributors ($28,311) to the Republican Majority Issues Committee, a 527 advocacy group closely affiliated with DeLay that is now under fire for paying DeLays daughter a large salary; Epperson kicked in another $5,000. Atsinger is also one of only a handful of private citizens to contribute (thus far, $6,000) to DeLays legal expense trust fund. Salems support for DeLay should come as no surprise, says John Dunbar of the Center for Public Integrity: Any radio company that wants to get bigger is obviously going to spend a ton of money lobbying because the issue of deregulation is very much in play.
Salem has another reason to cultivate allies in Congress: hate crime legislation. Historic Judeo-Christian teachings have always held that homosexual conduct is a mortal sin, says NRBs Wright. We are fearful that criminal penalties for so-called hate crimes might impinge on Christian broadcasters. In a recent op-ed about indecency laws pushed by some Christians, Epperson worried that such laws could be twisted by liberal opponents to muzzle Christians. Sure right now an FCC dominated by reasonable people wouldnt do anything drastic, Epperson wrote. But let us suppose that with this bill on the books the nation has elected Hillary Rodham Clinton as President. Then, he says, Salems support of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage would open it up to attacks. The homosexual lobby would organize itself to insure that there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of complaints against stations that took that point of view. Armed with that sort of ammunition, the FCC would have no problem finding the excuse for shutting down those voices that broadcast what they would call homophobic views.
By the late 1990s, Epperson and Atsinger were debating taking the company public. Joe Davis, Salems executive vice president of radio stations, remembers them worrying that to do so would force Salem to become mainstream. Before the Bush phenomena, Wall Street didnt understand niche broadcasting, he says. Weve never had a litmus test, where a guy had to sign a statement of faith. Now we knew we really wouldnt. The question was, would we be invaded by people who dont share our values?
The decision to go public was announced by Atsinger at a 1999 company conference in Colorado Springs. We wanted this to be a company for eternity as well as for our time. We have unabashedly embraced Judeo-Christian values, and the whole purpose is to propagate those values, Davis remembers Atsinger telling Salems station managers. Up until now, weve been a Christian company. My prayer is that we will lead the industry as an excellent public company. After Atsinger left the room, the station managers gathered together to pray, and then burst into a church hymn.
After going public, Salem bought eight stations from Clear Channel for $185.6 million. In 2000, it launched a flagship contemporary Christian music station in Dallas. In 2001, Salem added 12 stations in cities like Minneapolis, Cleveland, and Tampa. In 2002, it purchased Crosswalk.com, a website with 2.1 million monthly readers. In 2003, Salem acquired stations in Boston, Sacramento, Jacksonville, and Colorado Springs. In February, it paid $3.4 million for the URL Christianity.com.
Today Salems stock trades on the NASDAQ at around $20. In an industry rocked by an advertising slump, the companys national advertising revenue grew 23 percent during 2004. We believe this is due to a growing recognition among advertising agents and their clients of the significant size and buying power of the Christian audience in America. And the fact that Salems radio, publishing, and Internet platform offers the best way to reach this audience on a national basis, Atsinger recently told a conference call of Wall Street analysts. Jonathan A. Jacoby, an analyst with Bank of America Securities, wrote recently that the current stock price does not yet reflect the companys growth potential. We increasingly like Salems growth strategy.
Overall, Salems revenue grew 10 percent last year, second in the industry only to Spanish-language broadcaster Univision, according to a Bear Stearns analyst. And more than 40 percent of Salems revenue comes from programming by some 65 ministries and advocacy organizations such as Focus on the Family. Ninety percent of such clients who rent block programming reenlist, analysts say, which makes them a reliable source of revenue in advertising slumps.
Salem has made it clear that it wont sacrifice its values for profit, even stating so in its annual report. But Epperson and Atsinger have apparently 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 also signed William Bennettthe former drug czar, education secretary, and Book of Virtues authorwhose nationally syndicated show, Morning in America, is a huge draw. Salem has inked a deal to provide exclusive religious and family-issues talk for XM satellite radio, it owns a large and expanding number of Christian rock stations, and it sponsors huge outdoor concerts billed as safe for the whole family. Its courting conservative Jews, Catholics, and Latinosall constituencies prized by the Republican Party. What theyve 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 nations political future.
Carol Pierson, president and CEO of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, says the growth of religious broadcasting behemoths has come at the expense of locally produced public-interest and independent radio stations. In some areas, stations that once played jazz or broadcast NPR now feature religious programming. Several religious networks own a huge number of licenses, Pierson says. The nonprofit Educational Media Foundation is gobbling up parts of the spectrum reserved for educational programs and broadcasting religious programming. In the for-profit market, cash-rich companies like Salem are pricing everybody out of the market, Pierson says. I think this is a major issue, and its impact on democracy is incredible.
More than 100 million Americans now listen to Christian stations at least once a month, 43 percent more than five years ago, and, according to NRB president Frank Wright, Salem has spearheaded the trend. Salem is far and away the fastest-growing Christian radio chain. Their growth has been meteoric, says Wright. I think these two guys are visionary.