A St. Petersburg televangelist does know the troubles they’ve seen: He spent three years in prison for fraud.
ST. PETERSBURG — It’s a multimillion-dollar feat, seemingly impossible for a low-budget, late-night televangelist.
But improbabilities make Bill Keller smile.
At the stroke of midnight after Monday’s newscasts and late-night talk shows , Keller is set to pull off perhaps the biggest coup of his evangelistic career. His late-night talk show, Live Prayer With Bill Keller, will debut on a national network, giving him entree to more than 90-million homes around the country.
National exposure won’t come cheap. Broadcasting his program weeknights on the i Network , formerly PAX TV, will cost $10-million a year. Keller plans to sell commercial advertising to make it happen. Network executives hope he succeeds.
“That translates into a recommitment and longevity for the program, which is good for the program and the network,” said Leslie Monreal, an i Network spokeswoman.
Until a year ago, Keller’s television program was a decidedly local phenomenon, with all manner of the Tampa Bay area’s hurting and distressed calling him in the wee hours of the morning. Broadcast live from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m., most recently on WTOG Ch.-44, UPN network, the program expanded its reach last July when Keller bought air time around the state. His success — he claims 250,000 viewers nightly — prompted him to think bigger.
“We’re going in with a lot of faith,” said Keller, 48. “But we’re also going in with the fact that we’ve been doing it for the last four years.”
Keller believes his message will attract viewers around the country.
But watch out. He’s no cotton-candy preacher.
He routinely skewers Oprah, branding her “a new-age witch” for her tendency to embrace diverse religions. He calls Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and Scientologists members of “cults.” He also rails against homosexuality, tells cohabitants to quit shacking up, and demands that the lost and lustful get saved.
“If you don’t like what you hear, turn the channel,” Keller said, rattling off his pat line of defense. “You’re not hurting my feelings. I didn’t come over to your house and duct tape you to a chair, put toothpicks in your eyes and make you watch the program. You’re watching it because you want to watch it.”
This is Bill Keller live.
Keller has pledged to sell $11-million in commercial advertising to cover the costs of the television program’s national broadcast and its corresponding Web site, Liveprayer.com. Late last week, he was still making cold calls. He said he had sold 75 percent of his ad time for his debut week to credit card firms, health care product peddlers and mortgage companies. He also enlisted an advertising sales company to help bridge the gap.
Many televangelists stay afloat by asking viewers for donations, something Keller is loath to do on his broadcasts. He figures on-air begging would turn off his core audience. It’s a risk that could become his Achilles’ heel.
“A question is, ‘Is he going to sell enough advertising at that hour to pay $10-million on that channel?’ ” said Stewart M. Hoover, director of the Center for Media, Religion and Culture at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “He’ll either make it or not on that. I’d have to say, I’m suspicious.”
Skeptics marvel at Keller’s appeal.
Despite his criminal past — Keller found God behind bars while serving nearly three years in federal prison in Pensacola for securities and mail fraud — he has legions of followers.
About 2.2-million people worldwide get Keller’s daily e-mail devotionals. He claims he and his volunteer staff of 700 preachers respond to about 40,000 e-mails a day, a total of more than 60-million prayer requests since he started the Internet ministry in 1999.
On a recent Friday night at UPN’s St. Petersburg studios, about 40 supporters showed up to take part in Keller’s final studio audience at the station. His move to the i Network will take him to new digs in Clearwater at WXPX.
Dressed in a navy blue pin-stripe suit, Keller warmed up the audience with a pep talk and a prayer. He asked them to pray fervently for the show’s national debut.
At 1 a.m., it was show time. First, Keller delivered a sermonette on the story of Simon the Samaritan Sorcerer, who tried to buy an apostleship. Then came the calls.
There was Harriet from Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, the mother of a 35-year-old paranoid schizophrenic. In Jacksonville, Michelle’s live-in boyfriend disrespected her growing faith. Andrea from Miami worried that her younger brother would convert to Judaism.
Keller advised and prayed for them all. When the show ended, the studio audience erupted in thunderous applause.
Bobbi Lafferty watches via Webcast from her home in Rockford, Ill. She sends Keller monthly donations and prays along with him each night as he takes calls.
“I’ve told him before, ‘You’re the founder, but it belongs to all of us who are participating financially and praying,” said Lafferty, 68, a retired medical secretary. “I think a lot of Bill, and I believe in what he’s doing.”
Lafferty is lobbying her local cable provider to add the i Network to its offerings.
If Keller sells $11-million in advertising this year, he plans to use the surplus to offset expenses for his Web site, which about 5,000 donors currently fund, he said. Confident in his ability to attract advertisers, Keller has told donors that he will no longer need their money.
A personal pay raise is not on the table, Keller says. He lives in a Largo house that he bought for $300,000 and shares with his wife, Nan. He earned $57,000 last year, according to personal income tax returns Keller shares with anyone who has an interest in his ministry.
He’ll keep his bare-bones office in the rear of St. Petersburg’s Ace Motors, a used-car dealership. But he still doesn’t plan to pay the owner, retired St. Petersburg police Officer Clyde Walters, any rent. Walters sits on Bill Keller Ministries’ board of directors and considers use of the building a donation.
Keller would love to balance his late-night gig with a daytime talk show that could compete with the likes of Dr. Phil and Oprah. But he admits he’s unlikely to become the next Pat Robertson, mostly because he refuses to broadcast his program on religious television.
“I’ll go sell shoes before I do that,” Keller said. “There’s enough people preaching to the choir.”
Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.