COVER

God's Man For the Internet Age

He's a moralizing evangelist. He's a local late-night TV star. He's an ex-con. And in the back offices of a used car lot in St. Petersburg, he just might have a head start on the Next Big Thing in mass-media religion.

BY ERIC SNIDER

His name is Bill Keller. His business is saving souls, one computer screen at a time.

Local television watchers may recognize Keller from his call-in show, Live Prayer with Bill Keller, which airs weekdays from 1 to 2 a.m. on WTOG-Ch. 44. It's the second-highest-rated program in its time slot, behind Conan O'Brien but ahead of Craig Kilborn. Remarkably, while the show costs $30,000 a month to produce, Keller does it without soliciting donations or hawking religious trinkets on the air.

The most far-reaching part of Keller's enterprise, however, is his four-year-old website, liveprayer.com, which features a live video stream in which volunteers respond in real-time to e-mailed prayer requests. Keller also writes a Daily Devotional and sends it electronically to a list of 1.8-million.

Get this: About 40,000 of those people write back. Every day.

"This guy has recognized what I believe to be true -- that the Internet is going to be the dominant form of electronic media," says Phil Leigh, senior analyst for Inside Digital Media in Tampa. "And he's identified at an early stage how to make it work, using interactive communications with his audience. Soon the Internet will hook into the TV screen, and when people start using it while leaning back on their sofas instead of leaning forward to a computer monitor, this guy's gonna be there."

Internet religion is already a force. A 2001 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project says that roughly 25-percent of adult Internet users, around 28-million people, have gone online to get religious and spiritual material.

Keller, 45, who has caught big commercial waves before, knows he's on the cutting edge.

"No one else is doing this," he says. "And all the work is exactly why no one else is. People expect it to be automated and you start collecting checks. Nonsense. That's not the real world. We literally deal with people on a one-on-one basis, with real lives. Nobody in their right mind would do this thing. If God had told me what it would entail, I might've said, 'Go get someone else.'"

Keller insists that his only goal is to harness new media to reach and save people who haven't been touched by more conventional religious services, including Christian TV.

But there's a real-world value -- and real-world risk -- to what he has developed.

At the end of 2002, the board of directors for the evangelist's nonprofit organization, Bill Keller Ministries, placed the value of his mailing list at $850,000. That's a good thing, because the ministry also owed more than $560,000 in loans. Keller says the money came from private sources who believe in his mission, so the ministry is in no danger of default. Closing up isn't the problem; managing growth is.

William Herbert Keller gave his life to Christ at age 12. Even then, he knew deep down he would be a minister. He just didn't anticipate such a circuitous route.He was the oldest son in a solid nuclear family in Columbus, Ohio. His father owned a Standard Oil gas station; his mom was a homemaker. The Kellers regularly attended the local Methodist church.

When Bill was 16, his father died, so he socked away as much money as possible for college. He had a plan: earn an undergraduate degree at Ohio State, then go on to divinity school and be ordained a Methodist minister. Keller got through his junior year in college as a broadcast journalism major when the money ran out. He decided to take a year off.

The pastor-in-waiting answered an ad looking for people to sell computers over the phone. It was 1978, when PCs were still relatively novel, and Keller proved an immediate success. Within a few weeks, he had set up a boiler room in his mother's basement with 20 of his friends hawking PCs. He took half their commissions.

Soon, the college kid on hiatus was fat with cash. Not long after, he abandoned the idea of returning to school or joining the clergy. "Basically that started me down the path of, in the words of Gordon Gecko, greed," Keller recalls.

Keller says he built his company into a multi-million dollar operation, with 40 telemarketing centers around the country peddling computers and office supplies. Two years later, he got restless and sold his business.

Keller turned to the financial markets and became what would later be called a day trader, trafficking in commodities, futures, options and other risky investments. The stakes were high, the adrenaline rush was huge, and the bucks rolled in. In October 1987, when the stock market took its deepest plunge since the Great Depression, Keller says he lost his whole fortune in a matter of days.

"You'd think a person who had any knowledge of God would have at least thought, 'Maybe God's trying to get my attention,'" Keller says. "A couple of times I had feelings he was telling me to get out of the business world, but the greed and the power kept me there."

Keller then got in on the ground floor of another product: fax machines. With a letter of credit procured from friends, he bought a couple of palettes of the new-fangled product that were sitting on a dock in Japan. He grabbed a phone book and began to cold call businesses. He says he moved them all in three days. Keller was back in the sales game.

Now living in Chicago, he set up another phone bank and began raking it in again. And along with it, the lifestyle: booze, coke, power suits, full-length mink coats, weekends in Vegas losing 50 grand at the crap table.

Then came a fateful dinner with a couple of old acquaintances from the brokerage world. They were investment bankers with knowledge of pending corporate takeovers. They set up a deal: The brokers would give Keller information about companies that were about to be bought up; he would buy gobs of their stock via an off-shore account. When news got out about the acquisition, the stock would skyrocket, Keller would cash out and the insider trio would split up the spoils.

Keller was on a plane for the Cayman Islands the next day. For a few months, the scam worked beautifully. (He says that compared to the Michael Milkens of the time, he was just a little fish.) But the Drug Enforcement Administration had set up a sting operation to catch crooks laundering drug money in the Caymans. With him making about three trips a month there, he quickly showed up on the DEA radar. When the narcs found out that Keller was not involved in the dope trade, they turned the case over to the Securities Exchange Commission, which brought a civil suit against him.

After a few months of legal scrums, the SEC referred the case to the U.S. Attorney's Office for criminal charges. Keller remembers the scene well: It was chilly in Chicago on Oct. 12, 1989. His lawyer had told him to be at the U.S. Attorney's office for a meeting. Keller was running late, so he had his limo driver pull up on the sidewalk in front of the federal building. He emerged from the back seat, draped in a mink coat, 45 minutes late.

"I never actually sat down," Keller recounts. "We shook hands and the U.S. Attorney looks at my attorney and says, 'If Mr. Keller cooperates we can probably work out something in the range of six months.' I looked at him and said, 'It's been nice meeting you. One day, when you're as good as me, we can talk about something else.'"

Ten days later, Keller left for a Florida vacation. He insists he did not go on the lam. Brazenly, he failed to leave a contact number with his lawyer, so he was not aware he'd been indicted. On Dec. 17, 1989, Keller was lounging around a friend's Pensacola Beach condo, sipping a snifter of Louis the 13th cognac, waiting for the pizza delivery man and Monday Night Football to come on, when he answered a knock at the door.A bevy of U.S. Marshals, with a helicopter hovering overhead, pushed Keller to the floor, handcuffed him and tossed him in the Escambia County Jail. On the day after Christmas, he was shipped back to Chicago, where a judge pegged him a flight risk, denied him bail and remanded him to the city's Metropolitan Correction Center.

On the night of Aug. 20, 1990, Bill Keller lay on his jailhouse cot thinking about his wife. "She had visited me that day and told me that no matter how long I was in jail that she was committed to our marriage and would stay with me," he says. "She had every reason in the world to leave me. I had not been a very good husband. I thought about how she loved me so unconditionally and that's the moment that I thought, 'If my wife of flesh and blood could love another person to that degree, how much more must God love me?' That was really what caused me to break down and wholly and unconditionally surrender my life to him."

Keller soon copped a plea with the authorities. From November 1990 until August 1992, he did what he calls "Club Fed" time at the Federal Prison Camp at Saufley Field near Pensacola. Keller spent a good deal of his sentence working on his education. "It was like the seminary I should've gone into 10 years earlier," he says. Keller earned a B.S. in biblical studies from Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. He was ordained by Spiritual Life Concepts, a non-denominational seminary in Largo.

After his release, Keller returned to Chicago and became an itinerant evangelist, traveling around the country telling his story and saving souls in Christian churches of every stripe, from 5,000-member Pentecostal flocks to a small black church in Pensacola, with a congregation of one the night he was there. After a while, though, his job became frustrating. "As an evangelist I was supposed to reach the lost," he says. "Church was the last place I needed to be preaching. The people are already Christians. I was not reaching the audience God had called me to reach."

When Richard Dortch, former president of Jim Bakker's PTL Ministries, called and asked Keller to work on a program for Christian station WLCF-Ch. 22 in Clearwater, he accepted. Soon he started producing Christian TV shows for stations around the country. But the same frustrations began to vex him. "The Christian TV marketplace is very confined," he says. "Ninety-eight percent of viewers are already Christians. I had to look for an audience outside of this."

So he bailed and went out on his own, displaying his knack for prescience again by picking the Internet, even though he didn't know a gigabyte from a dog bite when he launched liveprayer.com. The salesman-turned-preacher intuitively knew it needed a hook. That's where the live video streaming came in. ("The sizzle that sells the steak," he says in sales-speak.) He knew he needed to regularly infuse the site with fresh content, so he included the Daily Devotionals. Unwittingly, he had launched what Internet experts call a "viral marketing" campaign. People began asking to receive his sermons via e-mail. It began with a few thousand, then started to spread exponentially.

People constantly refer their friends and family. During a 20-minute span one morning in early November, Keller received 99 e-mails, many of which included several addresses to be added to the list. In as long as a football half-time, he had gathered, without solicitation, 120 new names.

Not long after Keller started e-mailing his sermons, some folks began shooting him prayer requests. He did the only thing he knew: He answered them. At first it was just a few hundred, but responses multiplied to the current daily average of about 40,000.

In order to handle the volume, Keller has recruited some 600 volunteers, mostly retired clergy, to answer about 70 e-mailed prayer requests per day. He says they use templated responses that address particular problems -- health, finances, divorce, etc. -- and then add brief, personalized postscripts.

Keller still runs a lean operation with a lot of volunteer help. That's mostly because, so far, he has refused to cash in.

Keller reckons he could quickly turn his ministry into a $15-million annual concern by selling content ($5 a month to receive the devotionals, for instance), by selling ads that would be attached to his e-mails, and by renting his list to other marketers.

Although he's fielded inquiries about such opportunities, the evangelist says he's not biting. "The Bible said the gospel is free," Keller explains. "You can't sell the gospel. As for advertising, one-third of the people who get the devotionals are not saved. The second I make it a billboard, I just become another commercial religious venture. I lose my edge to impact their lives. If I start selling people's names, they'll know soon enough and all the trust I've built up over 50 months goes down the toilet over a few million bucks. This is a ministry. If I wanted to make money I could easily go into another business."

Further, Keller does not hammer his flock for bucks. Liveprayer.com includes a couple of inconspicuous links for donations. There are no solicitations attached to his e-mail missives. Twice a month, he asks for money in his Daily Devotional.

At this point, liveprayer.com, which costs about $30,000 a month to maintain, more or less breaks even, Keller says, sustaining itself on donations.

Keller is acutely aware that the public distrusts telepreachers and fears Internet scams. So he readily agreed to provide the nonprofit tax returns for Bill Keller Ministries as well as his personal income tax statements. From 1999, the first year of liveprayer.com, to 2002, his personal income rose from $19,200 to $36,486. He also received an $8,700 housing allowance from the ministry. Keller lives in mid Pinellas County with his wife Nan. They have no children.

Keller declined, however, to disclose any information about the financial backers who have loaned him more than $560,000 over the past several years. He said they wish to remain anonymous. "Most of them have been reading the Daily Devotionals for years," he explains. "These people not only have the resources, but they've caught the vision of what we're doing."

Balancing the value of his e-mail list against those loans, Keller's ministry had $283,767 in net assets at the end of 2002.

The evangelist launched Live Prayer with Bill Keller last March. For an hour each late weeknight, Keller plays talking head, fielding calls from the damaged, the lost, the desperate, attempting to open the doors of salvation to non-believers.And he refuses to ask for donations or sell stuff on the Ch. 44 show. "I'll never do it, buddy," he says. "I'll shut it down [first]."

That leaves a big nut to crack. The TV show costs $40,000 a month, and that figure more than doubles in early January, when Live Prayer with Bill Keller lands on five more secular stations in Florida, Virginia and Ohio. Keller says the television ministry is supported by a select handful of well-heeled donors, who also wish to remain anonymous. Keller said he would consider using a national sponsor for the whole show, but won't get into the ad-selling biz.

Keller's no feel-good holy man. His message is a stern, fundamentalist one. "Bible based," he calls it. "God will not bless sin," he's fond of saying. Keller will pray for anyone, but will not give people a pass on sex outside of wedlock, abortion, pornography use, gambling, excessive drinking, overeating. Or homosexuality.

"That's the biggest hot-button issue, the one that causes the most outrage," Keller says. "Listen, sin is sin. There's no way you can justify homosexuality from a biblical perspective. No sin is greater than others. When someone commits adultery, they're ashamed of what they've done. The person who commits an act of homosexuality, there's pride there. They put the sin of homosexuality in parades."

Keller says his strict moral message generates a few death threats a month via the Internet as well as the occasional anti-religious rant on his TV show, which he welcomes. He's a feisty fellow who enjoys a good debate.

And for a fundamentalist, he seems like a pretty cool dude. He ended all of our phone chats by calling me "buddy." He says worldly stuff like, "Listen, man." A secular-minded guy might be inclined to invite Keller to watch his beloved Ohio State Buckeyes at a sports bar, except you'd be worried about ordering that third beer.

Ace Motors is a classic dirt-lot car store that sits on 46th Avenue N., just west of 66th Street. Its owner, Clyde Walters, a retired St. Petersburg police officer, let's Keller use a chunk of the building for free. "He must be doing something right; his place is the only part of the building that don't leak," Walters riffs. "Rats don't go back in his place anymore. They come to my place. There's no roaches back there. He must be connected."Keller's office is a whir of activity. He peers intently into a computer screen, types on the keyboard, dictates to an assistant, answers his cell phone every few minutes. The room fairly bursts with file cabinets and stacks of boxes. A small TV projects a snowy image, the sound turned all the way down. The seat propped in front of his desk has been salvaged from a minivan. Keller wears loose-fitting shorts and a polo shirt for comfort and maximum productivity. The jacket and tie come after midnight, when he hits the airwaves.

Past a rickety wooden door is the webcast studio, a former storage closet. Looking at the 2-inch square live feed on the website, you'd never know that the liveprayer.com logo sitting on a tiny desk was hand-drawn in felt pen on two sheets of printer paper taped together.

Another cog in Keller's operation sits some 65 miles north in a house in Spring Hill. It's the home of Packet City, which handles liveprayer.com's e-mail and Web services. Owner Mike Glassberg has set up the software that enables the monster mailing list to receive Keller's devotional seven days a week. His shop also handles the incoming prayer requests, bundling them up and distributing them to the volunteer pastors. The time it takes for a prayer to reach its destination varies with the amount of traffic, Glassberg says, "But they've got to be handled within a day or otherwise it builds up."

Glassberg does a lot of heavy lifting for liveprayer.com for very little money. A self-described non-Christian, he simply believes, like so many others, in the good that Keller is doing. Plus, "I know the man is honest," he says. "And that's what flips me out."

Keller has a far more business-like arrangement with the outfit that handles his real-time webcast. Candid Hosting in Tampa runs Voyeur Dorm, a Tampa website that allows people to watch the day-to-day lives and sexual goings-on of a group of young women.

A deal with the devil? Keller has a soundbyte ready: "In Genesis 50 it says, 'What man meant for evil, God meant for good.' That was really the verse that gave us the comfort to go ahead with it. The only thing we really asked of them was 'Please don't mix up our feed with your feed.'"

He lets out a chuckle and then launches into a diatribe about the destructiveness of pornography.

Minutes after another Live Prayer has wrapped, Keller slaps exuberant high-fives with his right-hand man Shane Brown in the dark, chilly confines of the Ch. 44 studio.They're stoked. They saved a soul tonight.

A half-hour earlier, a guy named Ricky had called in. His voice choked, he told of how he'd gotten his girlfriend pregnant and she'd had an abortion without telling him.

Peering intently into the camera, Keller consoled the young man.

"Where do you stand spiritually?" he asked.

Ricky paused, and then murmured. "I don't stand anywhere spiritually."

Keller then sent Ricky's call to Brown, who handles pastoral care for the ministry, in the station control room. The two spoke at length. Ricky unloaded his troubles. Brown asked Ricky if he would receive Jesus Christ as his personal savior. Ricky said he would. They prayed together.

A week later, I called Ricky to ask him about the experience. "Who's Bill Keller?" he asked, caught off guard by a call from a reporter. After a few seconds, he remembered the encounter. "I was watching Roseanne one minute and switched the channel and there was the show and I thought I'd call in," he said. "I was really hurtin'. To know that they would pray for me and that they cared, it felt really good. I remember I said a prayer with [Brown], but I don't know about being born again I wouldn't say there's a full commitment now. More like an eye-opener: God's still there; don't forget about him."

The 21-year-old, a New York transplant who lives in Pinellas Park, said his life was better after he called Live Prayer. He and his girlfriend got engaged. His shaky job situation improved. He joined a union and was set to begin doing sheet metal work.

Ricky said he hadn't heard from Keller or Brown, and had not joined a church.

But, bottom line, he felt closer to God after calling the show.

"I do feel like a different person after that phone call," he said. "They helped me out a lot. I understand between right and wrong. Things will always work out if you believe in God and have faith. They reminded me of that."

Contact Senior Writer Eric Snider at 813-248-8888, ext. 114, or at eric.snider@weeklyplanet.com

 

           


Bill Keller (ROBIN DONINA SERNE)


IT'S SHOWTIME: Just past midnight, Bill Keller straightens his tie before going on air on WTOG-Ch. 44, in St. Petersburg. (ROBIN DONINA SERNE)


EXECUTIVE OFFICE: Boxes, file cabinets and an old mini-van seat crowd the small office where Keller runs his television and Internet ministry. (ROBIN DONINA SERNE)