God's Plan

At Dan Patrick's KPRC talk-radio station, it's politics with a capital G

"Jesus the entrepreneur" may not strike some as the world's deepest theological theory, but there are probably worse things than discovering religion in a time of personal prosperity rather than crisis. Whatever the personal reasons for his being born-again, what's important from a public standpoint is how Patrick's religious beliefs began influencing whatever on-air debate is taking place in this city.

KPRC's office, in a nondescript tower in far west Houston, doesn't exude a particularly churchy feel. Producers in the booth aren't necessarily constrained -- "Oh God, what the hell happened?" one panicked when a network feed was temporarily lost recently. A sign on the booth's TV says it should "remain on Ch. 25 CNN at all times," but it's instead showing a babe-laden aerobics show from ESPN2.

A quick look at the computer screen identifying callers on hold, though, makes it clear that this isn't the gardening show on KTRH. Somehow -- Patrick later can't remember specifically how -- the subject this day has turned yet again to abortion. Dee Ann is on line one, wanting to talk about "Psalm 139 @ this issue." Kenny's on line four, ready to weigh in on "abortion done for selfish reasons."

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Phillippe Diederich
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Patrick's radio empire started in Tomball.
Patrick's radio empire started in Tomball.

By the time they have all said their piece, the callers have pretty much agreed, as they almost always do, that abortion is a heinous sin.

Seldom is heard a dissenting word, leading some to wonder if KPRC is just preaching to the converted. At any given quarter-hour during Patrick's show, 33,000 Houstonians are tuned in, making it the highest-rated AM show in its time slot. How many of those are tuning in simply to reinforce what they already agree with is not so easily quantified.

"They do just preach to the choir, and they have absolutely no effect on politics in this town," says one Democratic political consultant, who preferred anonymity despite professing the station's impotence. "Every once in a while if they really get on something, like the bottled-water issue, then the other media will pick it upŠ.But if I'm thinking of political ads, I can go to a country station for the Bubba vote, and do it with listeners who have less of an extreme feel."

A Republican consultant disagrees. "They have a terrific audience, and the major personalities there all have their own following. When they are active, their personal endorsements mean a lot," says Allen Blakemore.

In the biggest political fight of KPRC's life under Patrick, the station came up short. Patrick became the poster boy for opposing the 1996 referendum to build the Astros a new baseball stadium. Patrick says the fact that the referendum barely passed is evidence of his station's influence; other observers say the vote would have been close anyway and note that Patrick failed despite giving tons of free publicity to his cause.

Patrick fights hard against any "preaching to the choir" characterization. "If we were a Christian station, yeah, but on KPRC we're not," he says. "A huge percentage of our audience believes in God, because a huge percentage of Americans believe in God. But in terms of what percentage of our audience is committed Christians, it would be larger than any other station, but it still is not going to be the majority of the audience."

Still, a Houstonian who may not be born-again, one who's curious about what the public is saying about tax hikes or the police department or gun control, may find it a little jarring to tune into the city's major talk-radio station and hear about the search for faith.

That's how God wants it, Patrick says. "I can tell you that there are callers who ask me questions on faith issues that I don't know where the answer comes from, but it seems to be the right answer," he says. "I will sit there literally while they're asking the question, and I'll say, 'Lord, I need a little help here, give me an answer.' And people will say to me after the show, 'That was a really good answer,' and I don't even know what it is I said."

Critics of the station's programming find the piousness hard to square with the venomous Clinton-bashing that KPRC's hosts revel in.

"All the while that they're professing brotherly love, they're willing to entertain any vicious rumor if it's about the right people," says one former station insider.

When rumors surfaced about Clinton fathering a crack whore's baby, morning host Jon Matthews gleefully polled listeners on whether they believed the prostitute or the president. Almost all, naturally, chose to believe the rumor. When the story fell apart soon after, Matthews and other hosts had moved on to other subjects.

"We are going to have some bad shows; we are going to have some shows we're embarrassed about," Patrick says. "So you can pick out this example or five more examples, and I'd say okay, that's five shows out of 1,500 we've done since last August."

On another recent broadcast, Patrick lapsed into a faux-Chinese accent when he thought he heard a network correspondent call Clinton, in the midst of the Chinese-espionage scandal, "President Crinton."

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