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God's Plan

At 10:20 on a Wednesday morning, the only real talk-radio station in Houston is doing what any good talk-radio station should be doing: delving into a burning local controversy.

In this instance, it's yet another cop shooting -- the killing of a man outside a local hospital. Coming in the wake of a protest-igniting jury decision that saw a white ex-cop receive only probation for murdering his black neighbor, the latest incident is ripe for discussing the issues of race and violence and police behavior.

On KPRC-AM, though, they're talking with the police officer's pastor.

"I want you to know that this [officer] came to my church a few years ago and he fell to his knees, and when he came up he was a different man," says Pastor Bill Livingood.

He also offers a detailed explanation of the Bible's view on shooting people. "The Bible says, 'Thou shalt not kill,' but that is the King James Version; the ancient Hebrew actually translates as 'Thou shalt not premeditatedly kill someone,' " the pastor explains to host Dan Patrick, who also runs the station.

Just two days before, KPRC, 950 on your AM dial, had been ablaze, like every other talk-radio station across the country, with talk about Hillary Clinton's interview about her husband's infidelities. Afternoon host Mike Richards scorned the First Lady's comments, saying she is absolving him of responsibility for his actions and, like all Democrats, painting people as victims.

"There is another way, and it's not victimhood. It's God," intones Richards, a former state senator.

KPRC is not a Christian station, one of those weak-signaled outlets with shouting preachers and treacly hymns. It's the second-largest AM station in town, second only to all-news KTRH, and it's the city's highest-rated AM station from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. And when it comes to political talk, KPRC is effectively the only outlet in the fourth-largest city in the country.

It's not unusual, given the tendencies of talk radio and Houston's generally conservative outlook, that the station is a hotbed for those who think Democrats are evil and Republicans are saints. What is surprising, though, is a trend that has become much more pronounced over the past two years: At KPRC, God is in the house and on the air.

The usual partisan back-and-forth on the station's local shows has become more and more colored with religion. The Bible is quoted time and again by callers and hosts, as support for everything from banning abortions to tax cuts to the never-ending Clinton-bashing. There's an occasional God Squad segment where a Muslim, a rabbi and a priest talk about why they think they're going to heaven and the others are going to hell.

These days, if you want to talk about local or statewide political issues on the radio in Houston, you better be prepared to talk about religion, too.

"Of all the large secular stations in the country, we probably have more religious content than anyone," says station manager Dan Patrick.

But, he says, "This isn't a church, and this isn't a Christian station. It's a secular station with Christian overtones."

Some wonder, though, if the only bastion of local political discussion isn't being hijacked by the religious right.

For years, political talk-radio here and across the country avoided religion as a topic. Hosts would reach for the kill button as soon as a caller started in on God. Even today, the most famous conservative talk-show hosts shy away from the subject.

"Generally when you get into a Bible-quoting contest on the air, it's not a good idea. It gets old very quickly," says a former KPRC insider.

Rather than shunning God, though, KPRC is embracing him. And for that, blame or credit goes to Patrick, the station manager who first hit Houston as the wacky sportscaster who painted himself in Oilers colors on the air, then went broke in the sports-bar business, and then became rich after he took a tiny radio station deep in the woods of Tomball and parlayed it into a local radio empire.

According to Patrick, his improbable rise can be traced to two things: a call from God, who turns out to be a shrewd businessman, and a call from a then-obscure guy looking to syndicate a talk show, who went by the odd name of Rush Limbaugh.

Patrick says his station is having "a profound impact" both on the bottom line of the media giant that bought it from him four years ago, and on the lives of his listeners.

"I don't take any credit for that," he says. "That is God. It's clear to me that's what God wanted to happen with this radio station. It's clear to me that in this country today, [a country] that you might argue is becoming more immoral and a lost nation, that in the fourth-largest city in the United States of America, God said, 'I'm going to take a radio station and I'm going to use it to reach people in that community.' I believe that."

Such talk seems improbable for anyone who remembers the 49-year-old Patrick from his first days in Houston 20 years ago.

As the lead sportscaster at KHOU-TV during the height of the city's "Luv Ya Blue" passion for the Oilers, Patrick specialized in inane antics: wearing huge foam cowboy hats, painting himself Columbia Blue, taking part in any silly stunt that might get attention.

He opened a sports bar in Rice Village. He made outrageous comments. He was the toast of the town, or at least that portion of the town that appreciated idiotic gimmicks.

He was also, he says, leaving the station in between the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. broadcasts each Wednesday night to attend services at the First Baptist Church.

Raised in Baltimore by a not-terribly-religious family, Patrick says he found something in the preaching by Pastor John Bisagno that he hadn't heard before.

"Church to me had been more pomp and circumstanceŠ.When I heard some of the Baptist preachers, I thought for the first time I was hearing someone speak to me about what was going on in my life," he says.

He considered quitting television to become a minister, but Bisagno warned him of the financial and personal sacrifices such a decision would create.

"He told me, 'Even if you are willing to make that sacrifice, we don't need more preachers; we need more Christians in the workplace; we need Christian politicians and business people and doctors and lawyers and broadcasters,' " Patrick says.

For all of his burning, though, Patrick's fervor started to ebb. "Preachers will tell you that's not unusual," he says. "I just became kind of a part-time Christian."

He also became a full-time bar owner, and not a very good one. KHOU had been purchased in 1984 by the Belo Corporation, owners of the staid Dallas Morning News. Unsure how receptive the new bosses would be to his flamboyant style, Patrick pushed for a long-term commitment as his contract came up for renewal.

The station manager refused to commit, and Patrick was out of television when his contract expired soon after.

He concentrated on Dan & Nick's Sports Bar in the Village, but he wasn't making much of a go of it. He had declared bankruptcy in 1986 and was struggling to reorganize and keep the place afloat in Houston's tanking oil-bust economy.

His first step on the path to radio Godliness came from a discussion held in the big toe of a foot-shaped swimming pool owned by a Tomball podiatrist.

The podiatrist had raised money from patients and friends and had purchased KTVT, a radio station in Tomball that broadcast from 700 AM on the dial. The station mostly aired big-band music, but the owners wanted Patrick to host a sports talk show from his bar.

A month after he took to the air in June 1987, Patrick says, he called the station to set up that day's show and no one answered. He soon discovered the station was deeply in debt to the IRS and a bank was seeking to repossess it.

Frantic investors "looked at me like a savior because they didn't know anything about radio, and I had been on radio and TV," he says. He convinced the investors and the podiatrist to drop lawsuits they had filed against each other, and the Federal Communications Commission appointed him to head the station, renamed KSEV, in a receivership status in August 1988.

A few months later, through a patron of the bar, Patrick came up with $1 million from a varied group of investors and purchased the station. The plan was to apply for a boost in signal power from the FCC and then sell the improved asset.

While trying to implement that strategy, they played syndicated programming from the Business Radio Network, Patrick did his sports show, and the station languished in obscurity, hardly able to be picked up at night, a seemingly amateurish operation headed by someone who appeared to have made an astoundingly bad career move by leaving his television gig.

All that changed early in 1989 when he got a phone call from a guy named Rush Limbaugh.

Limbaugh was trying to sell his radio show, without much success. Political talk radio was anathema to programmers at the time; they were certain they'd simply be pissing off half their listeners, who would move on down the dial.

In Houston, KPRC's talk lineup was dominated by Alvin Van Black, whose listeners called in about poor garbage service or how there's nothing good on TV, and TV weatherman Doug Johnson, who spent much of the day rhapsodizing about country biscuits or sea cruises he was hosting.

Limbaugh was offering his show to stations, who would let him sell some of the ad time each hour. No one was interested.

"What Rush was reduced to in those early days was contacting any [station] that was near a big city and getting on the air," Patrick says. "Tomball was near a big city. So I listened to the show and I liked itŠ.I thought this guy was going to attract attention and it wouldn't cost me anything and I wouldn't have the boring Business Radio Network on all day."

Within six months, the tiny Tomball station was outdrawing its Houston rivals during Limbaugh's 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. time slot. "It was astonishing because we had no money to promote it, no billboards, no newspaper [ads]; no one had ever heard of our station."

Limbaugh's phenomenal popularity, duplicated all across the country, put an end to the plans of Patrick and his partners to sell the station.

Rush, he says, changed their whole game plan. We said, 'Gee, we can compete with these guys.' "

They moved the studio to Houston and hired recently out-of-work names such as former Oilers coach Bum Phillips, former Astros announcer Gene Elston and Ed Brandon, the Channel 13 weatherman who had lost his job in a drug scandal.

(One programming possibility never considered was the syndicated Howard Stern shock-jock show. "For my money, he shouldn't even be allowed on the air," Patrick says.)

The station rode the Rush juggernaut for all it was worth, but by 1992 that limit seemingly was reached.

"KSEV had a good day signal, but a bad night signal," Patrick says. "We had gone about as far as we could go. We were like a really good racecar driver in a car that just couldn't keep up with the pacesetters at the Indy 500. So I needed a better station."

Patrick's luck continued to improve. In 1992, the FCC changed its rules to allow a single entity to own more than one AM station in a market. That same year, the Hobby family decided to sell KPRC.

A representative of the family contacted Patrick. "The family didn't want to sell it to someone from out of town, and they didn't want KTRH to buy it because that would create too much of a monopoly," Patrick says. "And had KTRH bought it, we would've been just wiped out because it would have been two powerhouses and they would eventually have convinced Rush to change stations, and we would have been back to selling corn in Tomball."

Finding financing wasn't easy -- 43 banks turned them down. "The last year KPRC was owned by the Hobbys it lost $1.5 million, and my little business had just barely started turning a profit," he says.

Patrick and his investors, calling themselves Sunbelt Broadcasting, purchased the station for a reported $3.5 million in October 1992.

The sale came shortly before the election of Bill Clinton, God's gift to conservative talk radio. The once-maligned format became hotter than it had ever been.

In 1995 the media giant Clear Channel Communications of San Antonio was in the midst of a huge expansion, one that would eventually see it own such major Houston FM stations as Majic 102 (KMJQ), The Boxx at 97.9 (KBXX) and The Buzz at 107.5 (KTBZ).

Clear Channel offered to purchase Sunbelt's properties for $27 million (Patrick says he is "a sweat equity partner" who received a relatively small portion of the net proceeds left after paying Sunbelt's debt and taxes). Under the deal, Patrick would run the stations, and he and his partners would keep a 20 percent stake in the operation.

"It was too good an offer not to move forward on because a radio station is no better than the programming you have, and what I had to look at seriously Š in 1995 was that if Rush Limbaugh had a heart attack, or decided to quit, if he decided he had all the money he needed or some TV network gave him a big offer, our ratings would suffer dramatically and our revenues would suffer dramatically," Patrick says. "A radio station is a very fragile business."

With the sale, Patrick was in the best financial shape of his life. He decided to use his station to thank the person most responsible. In his mind, that person is not Rush Limbaugh, but Jesus Christ.

"I know God had his hand in my life because the things that have happened to me and this station, no man could have accomplished," says Patrick. "There is no question in my mind that it was part of God's plan for my life and God's plan for this radio station."

The words come pouring out of Patrick when he's in his full preacher mode. Even his nonreligious acquaintances don't doubt the sincerity of his faith. He's no longer the frantic yahoo of his TV days, but getting a monologue out of him is not a problem.

Patrick says he never had a blinding road-to-Damascus moment of religious discovery; instead he just looked around at his growing commercial success and decided there was something more to it than luck or skill.

"In the early '90s I was still searching. And it occurred to me that when I looked at my life and how I'd been kind of a phoenix rising out of the ashes, that I had nothing to do with that. [I said,] 'Why are all these good things happening to me?'

"I had never gotten mad at God because of all the bad things that had happened to me, frankly because I had made some bad decisionsŠ.If we look at our life, the good things that happen to us are God-inspired and the bad things that happen in life are things that we are the reason forŠ.When I make a business decision now, unless it is clear to me that that is what God wants me to do -- clear to me -- then I won't do it."

"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."

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."

He talked of Clinton having an operation "to make his eyes slanted." The performance was particularly galling coming from Patrick, who landed in hot water six years ago for referring to then-CBS correspondent Connie Chung's "Eye to Eye" interview show as "Slanted Eye to Eye" for a piece it had done.

It's not hard to be taken aback at times by the near-feral tone of voice KPRC callers and hosts use in regard to Clinton. Patrick insists, however, that his product cannot be labeled "hate radio."

"I took a position when we bought KPRC to not allow viciousness on the air, to not allow hateful callers on the air, to not allow extremists Š and I think we do a pretty good job of following that policy," he says. "I don't think anyone can listen to this station and say there's a hateful sound."

And if Patrick has called the Clintons "pathological liars" and "Marxist-Socialists" who are determined to lead the country down the path to Communism?

"That's not hateful," he replies.

But wouldn't you hate such a person if those claims were true?

"You know, I don't hate anybody. I don't hate anybody. But those people who would do that to this country I think are very dangerous, and I don't want to see them in positions of power. But I don't hate them."

So what would be hateful?

"Hateful, a lot of it is the tone of voice. Hateful would be 'I wanna see something happen to this guy.' Hateful would be 'He's a murderer, he used to run drugs in Arkansas.' "

Claims that have been aired on KPRC more than once.

"It's all right for someone to bring that up and for that to be discussed, but it's a far different thing for a radio station to let that go on and people call in with it unchallenged."

But KPRC runs the Michael Reagan show at night, which wallows in such unchallenged claims.

"Mike Reagan -- the truth is, I don't listen to the station 24 hours a day, so I can't say."

Michael Reagan isn't the only person Patrick seeks to distance himself from. He eagerly opines that there are far-right-wingers who give Christianity a bad name. Patrick says he gets more complaints from people saying the station isn't Christian enough than from people complaining it's too religious.

"When people call in or write me a letter and say, 'Well, I'm a Christian,' I'm not so sure they really are, because they would never be that hateful to begin with," he says.

Some on the far right are too rigid, he also says. Winning political offices requires some compromises. "I don't have much patience for people in the Christian movement who would rather lose and be able to be high and mighty about where they stand on something while the country is going to hell," he says, citing as an example Gary Bauer, the GOP presidential hopeful and hard-line conservative activist. "The stridency in his campaign platform turns people off."

Governor George W. Bush, on the other hand, is someone who understands common sense.

"I think George Bush is a person of true faith. I think he is born-again, as I am and millions of people have been," Patrick says. "I think he is pro-life, but I also think he is smart enough to understand, as some pro-lifers don't understand, that the object is not to convert AmericaŠ.The object is to get 51 percent to vote for you."

Patrick's desire to not be broad-brushed as a Christian Right station is understandable -- advertisers might be scared off by overt proselytizing.

Talk-radio expert Michael Harrison, publisher of the Massachusetts-based Talkers trade publication, says a growing number of outlets nationwide are addressing religious issues but don't want to be tagged as church or religious-right stations.

"The trick for any radio station, with any kind of format, is to get a big enough core audience but not to cater to them so much that they don't get other listeners," he says. "You always have to piss off your core some, maybe by not doing as much of what they want as you like. That's the game you have to play."

Hosts at stations like Patrick's "sound a lot like Rush Limbaugh or Gordon Liddy or Oliver North, but they'll cite the Bible every so often." "Sometimes you can't tell if you just listen casually, and much of the radio audience is casual, so they just hear the conservatism and not the religion," Harrison says.

Patrick insists that he brings up religion simply for discussion purposes, not to propagate the word.

"I would not use this radio station as a vehicle for my Christian faith. My first responsibility as the general manager and programmer is to the shareholders of the Clear Channel company Š to do the best I can to have the highest ratings and the biggest revenues, make the most money. That's what my job is," he says. "I have not been shy in sharing my faith, but I don't think we're trying to convert or preach, I just think we're talking about a fascinating subject."

He says he's proud that he invites discussions of other faiths, through the God Squad show or in an hour-long discussion with Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon about Islam.

"Obviously the Christian faith is the number-one faith in our community, and because of the faith of the host, that's going to dominate," he says. "But I can't think of any other radio show in the history of this city that has had a Muslim on for a full hour to talk about his faith or for me to have the God Squad onŠ.Forget the faith issues for a moment -- I think people are fascinated by it, and I think it's a topic worthy of discussion."

Patrick has heard no complaints from Clear Channel, for whom he says the station generates a healthy $10 million a year in revenue. (Clear Channel does not publicly break down revenue figures by station.)

"We definitely entrust our general managers with the stations, and he's clearly more in touch with his market than we are," says Kathryn Johnson, a Clear Channel vice president.

"Our revenues have never been higher, our ratings have never been higher, so talking about God on the air, and even sharing my faith from time to time, has been a positive," Patrick says.

Whether it has been a positive for the city is another question. "Good talk radio should be a little more diverse," says the former KPRC staffer. "And this town doesn't have it. And what I fear is that [KPRC] has kind of salted the ground for talk radio here, because that is the perception -- that talk radio is what they are doing. And it doesn't have to be."

Attempts to topple KPRC from its talk-radio perch have been futile, however. A "moderate" station called 97 Talk failed after a short run a year ago, both because of a weak signal and because it was on the FM side of the dial.

KTRH is seemingly content with limiting its talk shows to gardening, home repair and sports. Other stations reach too small an audience to make much of an impact.

So the talk-radio game in Houston is pretty much limited to Dan Patrick's KPRC. And as long as he's calling the shots, that game is going to be focused, to an unusual degree, on religion.

"The only people who would put us in the group of being 'too strident' are nonbelievers, people who don't want to be accountable for their lives," he says. "The reason most people don't want to hear you talk about God, or moral absolutes, is because no one really wants to look at their own life and decide to be accountable for it. And so you kind of shoot the messenger."

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There are people, of course, who think religion is a private matter, who think politics can be discussed without getting into deciding who's a sinner and who's going to hell.

Dan Patrick doesn't care about those people.

That's not why God put him here.

E-mail Richard Connelly at rich_connelly@houstonpress.com.

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