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Evangelical radio station that predicted end of the world is raking in the cash

By Matthais Gafni

Bay Area News Group/Contra Cost Times

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 09:48 a.m. HST, May 20, 2011


WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — Judgment Day is fabulous for business.

Just ask Family Radio, the evangelical nonprofit that has plastered billboards and driven vans across the San Francisco Bay Area and the world proclaiming the end of the world will be Saturday.

The Oakland-based nonprofit has raised more than $100 million over the past seven years, according to tax returns. It owns 66 radio stations across the globe and was worth more than $72 million in 2009.

As The End nears, donations have spiked, a board member says, enabling Family Radio to spend millions of dollars on more than 5,000 billboards.

But it is not about money, say President Harold Camping and board member Tom Evans. It's about spreading the Gospel and saving as many people as possible.

What will the nonprofit do with the millions of dollars left in the bank Saturday?

"When Judgment Day comes, if someone is a billionaire, how will they take their money with them?" said Camping, 89, during a phone interview Tuesday. "If we have any money left, and we will because we have to pay bills up to the very end ... it will all be destroyed because the world will be in a day of judgment.

"The money is not important at all. It's a vehicle to spread the judgment and a vehicle of the Lord."

Camping, a Bible scholar and former civil engineer, founded the 24-hour evangelical broadcasting network in 1959. The station, with offices in Oakland, reaches listeners around the world in 75 languages and at www.familyradio.com.

For years, the stations have espoused Camping's belief that May 21, 2011, is the date of the rapture, when true believers will be taken up to heaven.

For those left behind, there will be a tremendous earthquake followed by six months of mayhem, disease and destruction until Oct. 21, when the world ends.

Camping used mathematical biblical calculations to determine the date. He erroneously predicted Doomsday before, Sept. 4, 1994, but says he has corrected his miscalculation.

The recent marketing blitz has drawn international media attention and the Day of Reckoning date trended as the hottest Google search Tuesday.

In September, Family Radio's board members made a final push, dedicating all "extra dollars" to billboards and the Caravan project, which sent volunteers across the country in RVs painted with Apocalypse warnings, Evans said. The outreach has paid off.

"Donations have picked up, but not enough to offset the amount of money we're spending," said Evans, adding that the organization's money comes only from listener donations, not corporate or church sponsors. "The only reason we had those assets in '09 was God had been very generous to Family Radio."

In 2009, in the last Family Radio tax return that was made public, the group collected $18.4 million in contributions, and earned more than $1 million in investment and other income. That year the group spent $36.7 million, and $41.2 million the previous year.

In 2009, Family Radio also reported employing 348 people earning more than $9 million in wages and benefits.

Camping, however, said he has been a full-time volunteer for five decades.

"I've never taken one nickel out of Family Radio," said its president, who lives with his wife in Alameda, near Oakland. "Many evangelists have become very rich, but my wife and I live very modestly."

In 2008 and 2009, he lent $175,516 to the organization, according to the tax returns.

Spreading the word of God also did not shield Family Radio from the 2008 stock market crash. The nonprofit reported $8.6 million in investment losses, dropping its stock portfolio to about $35.3 million that year.

It is sad, said a Pinole, Calif., atheist, that Family Radio preys on fear, particularly during tough economic times.

"I'm concerned people will give their life savings to the organization and come Sunday, they'll say, 'Well, I'm still here and all I have is this Winnebago,"' said Larry Hicock, California director for the American Atheists, which is hosting post-rapture parties in Oakland and elsewhere this weekend. "This could be a Kool-Aid moment. It takes an incredible denial of reality to not have a Kool-Aid moment."

Camping bristles at talking about money or fundraising.

"We have no interest in talking about money. We never tell people what to do with their money, that's between them and God," he said. "We'll be paying all our bills to the last day and we're honest in everything we do."

Family Radio has no intention of giving away its money or assets before The End.

"There isn't going to be a Saturday. So certainly none of Family Radio's assets will be left because it won't matter," Evans said.

"The last thing people should be concerned with is what Family Radio is doing or what their assets are. They should be concerned with what I am doing and how I will stand before God."






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