In a nondescript building in Oakland, between a store that specializes in automobile tint and a palm reader, sits the headquarters of Family Radio, a Christian-based network that spreads " the word of God to the world." In 2011, they spent over $100 million dollars spreading God's word that the world was going to end.
It didn't, which begs the question: What happens after doomsday comes and goes?
It's probably best to start at the beginning. Family Radio was founded in 1958 by Dick Palmquist and Harold Camping as a fairly orthodox radio station, with programs alternating between blocks of early American hymns, contemporary Christian music, and original evangelism like Camping's daily show Open Forum, where he responded to call-in questions about the Bible. But over the years, the mission morphed.
"There was a problem with Harold," said Matt Tuter, a longtime and now-former employee of the network.
All Family Radio decisions were intended to be made by a three-person Board of Directors, one of which was Camping. But as members retired or became too ill to continue, Camping handpicked their replacements. "[They] were incapable of telling Harold 'no' on anything," said Tuter. When Camping could control the network as he pleased, the doomsday predictions began.
Camping's first big prediction was for the rapture to occur on September 4 or 6, 1994. The "or" is significant, evidence of his hesitancy, which extended to the punctuation on the title of his book, 1994?. Camping arrived at those specific dates through a convoluted crunching of Biblical numbers. (He believed Jesus died on April 1, 33 AD, exactly 1978 years before April 1, 2011, and when you multiply that by the days in a solar year, and divide it by zzzz…) As a result of his obsession, nearly every Open Forum between '92 and '94 was dominated by Camping detailing his proof to enraptured listeners around the world.
"It was a very distressing thing," said Tuter. "This was a real left-handed turn."
The predictions started getting in the way of the network's Christian-based missions. In 1993, the organization had an opportunity to distribute non-registered Bibles throughout China, an unheard-of happening in the country. But Camping would only approve if they'd also promote his book. "I said, 'So you're telling me your damn book is co-equal with the Bible,' and his words were 'Yes, it is,'" said Tuter. "I regret to this day I didn't knock his head off." Instead, they spent millions of listener-donated dollars to spread his false prophecy.
"There were a lot of people who sold their houses, who gave up their life savings," said Tuter. "And Harold thought it was funny. He would come into my office and say, 'So-and-so called me. They're broke, but I'm not giving their money back.' Harold was a very twisted man."
1994 came and went, and the world was still standing. Which, you'd think, would end someone's credibility and, thusly, their source of income. And donations did wane, but only for a time. Soon enough, the topic of apocalypse was dropped from Camping's show and things normalized. "When Harold would shut up and be normal, people would support the organization," said Tuter. But while he was normal on-air, away from the microphone Camping was crunching more numbers and planning for the biggest doomsday media blitz ever.
In 2003, Family Radio sold off a station in Stockton for $65 million. In 2005, they swapped their San Francisco-based FM station with CBS's AM station, netting $40 million in the deal. And between 1997 and 2011, they brought in over $216 million in donations. So when the time was right—in this case May 21, 2011—Camping and his puppet board of directors blanketed the world with their warnings. Park bench ads were purchased around the country. Over 3,000 billboards were installed around the world. And a five-car caravan toured America and Canada, handing out pamphlets that prepped unbelievers for the end. "We had a pool of about $100 million dollars," said Tuter, "and he spent it like no tomorrow."
So, just who spent their time and money for this nonsense? One oft-quoted report told of a New York transportation agency worker who donated $150,000 of his savings to Camping's doomsday cause.
"One striking thing about the group/movement was its diversity, in both racial, ethnic terms, and socio-economic terms," said Charles Sarno, an associate professor of sociology at Holy Names University who's spent the past few years writing a book about Camping and Family Radio. "The educational backgrounds appeared to vary greatly from Ph.D.s to high school graduates. And the group did seem to attract a disproportionate number of engineers and engineering types, like Camping himself."
Sarno also doesn't use the word "cult" when describing Family Radio, due to its pejorative connotations. "Family Radio has traversed all points on this spectrum and it currently 'fluctuates,' depending on the message being broadcast and who is listening." Like sports radio, in other words—just because a certain show has super-fans doesn't mean they're into the entire channel.
But just because it's not a "cult" doesn't mean it's benign. When you reach millions of true believers, you're going to wind up attracting some nuts. Tuter claims he personally received death threats for his skepticism. "We were a step away from Jonestown," he said. "In fact, Harold Camping was very enamored with Jim Jones. We had equipment that used to belong to People's Temple. He loved to show it off."
Even true believers had to reevaluate things when, on May 22, the world was still here. (Camping half-heartedly "clarified" that his May 21 prediction regarded final judgement, while the actual day of apocalypse wasn't until October 21. By that point, most folks didn't even have it in them to make fun.) "Many coped by deferring to the Bible and God as their ultimate source of truth," said Helen Shoemaker, Sarno's co-writer. "Seemingly, but respectfully, putting Camping in the benign position of a wise, but fallible human."
And so began the long slide into debt. The network, valued at $135 million in 2007, dwindled down to $29.2 million by the end of 2011 due to the spending spree. Donations dropped precipitously. In 2012, the network received only $6.2 million in donations, which seems like a lot, but doesn't come close to the $26 million in yearly expenses they needed to stay afloat. And unlike '94, Family Radio no longer had their ace-up-their-sleeve: the ability to ask new listeners for donations. "They sold the three biggest stations," said Tuter. "It's basically dying a slow death."
Following the false predictions, Camping apologized on a now-removed blog post, saying " even the most sincere and zealous of us can be mistaken." In fact, Camping has been excised from the Family Radio website. One of the remaining artifacts is a somewhat depressing video where he explains why there are "anti-Harold Camping websites on the internet." On December 15, 2013, after roughly 13 failed predictions, the end finally came for the 92-year-old Camping. He died in his Alameda home due to complications from a fall.
But Family Radio isn't dead just yet. And neither is Harold Camping.
If you live in the Bay Area, flip on 610 AM. If you're in Buffalo, try 89.9 FM. Or just forgo terrestrial radio and stream online. But my suggestion is, if you find yourself driving through the middle of nowhere late at night, unplug your iPod and give the Scan button a push. If it's around 6:30 on a weeknight, and your radio happens to pick up the right station, you might just hear the man's voice.
"I've had many people tell me that was what attracted them. It was his voice," said Tuter. "They were seduced."
Listen for a few minutes, but do so hesitantly. This is the voice, after all, that tricked people into believing the world was coming to an end.
(Emails to Family Radio went unreturned, as did my calls, although I'd like to point out that the woman answering the phone was very pleasant.)
Follow Rick on Twitter