A few weekends ago while on a road trip to Santa Barbara, I scanned the left side of the radio dial for interesting college radio stations. After I lost all trace of college radio, somewhere around Santa Maria, I happened upon the show “Open Forum” on Family Radio.
Pretty quickly I became riveted by the religious call-in talk show. I learned that Judgment Day was apparently slated to arrive on May 21, 2011 and that it would begin with swarms of earthquakes all over the world. The host said that we have been beyond the “church age” since 1988 and that in fact, “the churches today are ruled over by Satan” and that we are “right at the time of the end” with “salvation…only going on outside of the churches.” After doing some quick research on my mobile phone I started to realize that I’d seen some billboards about Judgment Day, but had no idea that 1) it was so soon and 2) it was largely being hyped by a massive radio network.
Of course I wanted to learn more, so I arranged a time to visit the Oakland-based Family Radio upon my return to the Bay Area. Family Stations, Inc. was founded in 1958 with the purchase of KEAR-FM in San Francisco and since then has grown to a massive Christian radio network with 66 stations in the United States. Broadcasts are also sent all over the world (to places as far flung as Turkey, South America, Russia and South Africa) via shortwave radio and the Internet. Programming even reaches as far as Taiwan and undersea cable allows it to broadcast into China. Additionally, they own two television stations (in San Francisco and New York) and broadcast several shows (including Open Forum and Family Bible Study) on TV and the Internet.
Family Radio President and General Manager Harold Camping has been hosting the live, call-in talk show “Open Forum” for 50 years. When it initially began in 1961 it was meant to simply be an open forum for listeners to call in and ask Camping questions about the station. Although they expected to hear questions about the music, programming, and finances; they were instead besieged with calls asking about the Bible. Since those early days the show has aired at least 5 nights a week. For the past few weeks (as Judgment Day draws near), Open Forum has been airing live 7 nights a week from 5:30 to 7:00pm Pacific time. In addition to Open Forum, Camping hosts “Family Bible Study,” which is recorded for both radio and TV.
When I visited Family Radio on Thursday, May 12, 89-year-old Camping was leading his final “Family Bible Study” during lunch time. As a diverse group of perhaps 50 people assembled in the studio audience and crews from both Univision and Nightline filmed the action, Camping walked everyone through a number of Bible passages before concluding with a brief question and answer session with the audience. He began the Bible study with a prayer and in it I couldn’t help but notice that he made reference to members of the Family Radio staff who were non-believers. This was my first hint that not everyone in the building was counting down the days until May 21 and it came as a great surprise to me.
As you might expect, Thursday’s final Bible study largely dealt with Judgment Day. Camping said that it would come on Saturday, May 21 at 6pm local time, meaning that wherever you live, it will happen at 6pm. He promised that, “We’re going to be able to see…those who are being raptured” and said that “when you are raptured” you get “eternal life.” He added, “it’s just a fantastic, wonderful gift that we paid nothing for.” But then his Bible study veered into fire and brimstone territory as he said, “When the believers are being raptured” it will be a “final condemnation of those left behind.”
Apparently May 21 will signal the beginning of hell on earth for non-believers, as the world won’t actually end until October 21. Camping argued that the people left behind will feel something akin to a “sting of a scorpion” that will be a “final blow” as they realize that others have been raptured and they have not. Camping seemed almost giddy as he anticipated May 21, describing the moment, “When we’re caught up and the world sees us.” He added that when that happens, “God’s judgment is upon them and they are left behind.”
After Bible Study I was able to tour the entire Family Radio operation (see my post on Spinning Indie for more pictures and details about the network). It’s quite a set up with television studios, radio studios, production rooms, printing department, international department (they translate materials into 68 languages), Internet team and mail room. Most of the radio programming originates from the Oakland studio and is run on other stations (including full power AM and FM stations as well as translators) via automation.
As it gets closer to May 21, Family Radio has been working overtime to spread the word not only through their radio and TV broadcasts, but also by a variety of marketing tactics including RV caravan tours across the United States and Canada, billboards, religious tracts, You Tube videos, and free bumper stickers. I also saw numerous people at Family Radio wearing Judgment Day t-shirts and trucker caps, but it’s unclear to me if those are available from the network. When I visited the network’s Internet department I learned that the Family Radio website has been buzzing, with 3.25 million visits in April. Interestingly, I heard that the majority of web traffic has been coming from outside of the United States, with China as one of the biggest non-U.S. countries as far as visitors.
The mood around the Family Radio offices was joyful as people gathered for lunch in a common room following Bible study. Families with small children milled about and a man who’d traveled from New York for the “final two weeks” took a break in the lobby before hitting the streets with Judgment Day literature. He told me that his family thought he was crazy.
As a practical matter, I was curious about the network’s programming plans after May 21. My tour guide Rosa said that she didn’t know and added that they are “just letting the lord stop it.”
There was a posted sign announcing that Friday, May 20 would be a paid holiday; but there was no mention of the work schedule for the following week. I also heard that programming was generally produced several weeks in advance, so if May 22 does come, there should be material to play. Harold Camping was vague about the future as far as programming goes, but he did admit to me that, “We have a lot of staff who don’t abide us at all and for their sake there’s some programming that’s in the can. But we’ll probably…we certainly will not use it, but for their sake, they think that they might use it.” Despite that, he said that everyone has been helpful and loyal, even if they don’t agree with the prediction about the coming Judgment Day. I asked him what the non-believing staff expected to happen at the network after May 21st and Camping said, “I’m not the CEO. God is the CEO. You have to ask him.” When I asked Camping what his plans were for May 21, he told me that he’d probably be watching TV and listening to the radio to hear about what was happening around the world.
Camping and his followers are resolute in their belief that May 21 is the beginning of the end. According to the tract, “Facts Concerning May 21, 2011,” this date is a certainty. The pamphlet states, “The great amount of Biblical signs and proofs absolutely guarantee Judgment Day is May 21, 2011.” Yesterday, Camping said on Open Forum that “people will be dying by the millions.”
Of course, there are plenty of doubters. Competing billboards from an atheist group proclaim that Judgment Day is false and non-Rapture Day parties are planned. Skeptical callers to “Open Forum” have derided Camping for being a “false prophet” and on Open Forum yesterday, one caller even asked, “Are you on crack cocaine?” Amazingly, this question elicited laughter from Camping, who replied that he’d never done cocaine.
For those who are following Camping, Judgment Day will begin far away from Family Radio headquarters at about 11pm Pacific time on Friday, May 20, 2011. As it will already be 6pm on May 21st in New Zealand, this should mark the beginning of the Rapture. We’ll just have to see if there’s radio silence on May 22 or if Family Radio network continues with their broadcasts.
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