(RNS) — Stuart Epperson Sr., who co-founded one of the largest conservative religious radio broadcast outlets, died Monday (July 17) at the age of 86.
His death was announced by Salem Media, which Epperson co-founded in 1986 with his brother-in-law, Edward Atsinger. The two built Salem into a radio powerhouse that became a key communication channel for the religious right and a mainstay of the Republican Party. It helped congeal America’s religious communities into a potent political force.
By 2018, the company was so involved in Republican politics it was pressuring its radio hosts to support then-President Donald Trump.
Epperson was a member and onetime president of the conservative Council for National Policy, an influential group whose members include leaders of anti-abortion organizations, think tanks, CEOs, wealthy donors, pastors, leaders of conservative universities and right-wing pundits.
He twice ran for Congress in the mid-1980s to represent the 5th Congressional District of North Carolina. (He lost to 10-term Democratic Congressman Stephen L. Neal.)
But the for-profit Christian radio empire Epperson built with the aim of offering an alternative to the secularism that he and Atsinger saw as part of America’s moral decay was his singular accomplishment.
Salem owns 101 stations in major cities, including New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas and Atlanta. Its eight daily show hosts are name brands in the religious and political right. They include Hugh Hewitt, Mike Gallagher, Dennis Prager, Charlie Kirk, Sebastian Gorka and Eric Metaxas.
The company is also an outlet for Christian rock, through its Salem Music Network, which offers three 24-hour Christian music formats. Salem also owns Townhall, a conservative media site, and Regnery Publishing.
“He was a true believer, who felt he had a mission — to provide an alternative to what he called ‘creeping secular humanism,'” said Adam Piore, an independent journalist who interviewed Epperson. “Whether you agreed with him or not, he helped change Christian radio, and in the end did as much as anyone to build a parallel universe of talk radio geared towards people who didn’t feel like the mainstream media was speaking for them. He was a key player in the religious right, willing to go into big cities and use stations to proselytize.”
Epperson was born to a family of tobacco farmers in the Southern Virginia town called Ararat, named after the final destination of Noah’s Ark.
His older brother Ralph had fallen in love with radio and convinced his parents to get a mail-order Montgomery Ward radio set. Ralph eventually built a radio station on the second floor of their farmhouse that broadcast out into the community.
Stuart’s first radio role may have been to read the 23rd Psalm over the radio when he was 10 years old.
He went on to study broadcasting at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, where he married classmate Nancy Atsinger. Together with Nancy’s brother, Edward, also a Bob Jones alum, the two started a radio business.
They first acquired a radio station in Bakersfield, California, and later KKLA in the greater Los Angeles area. In a handful of years, Salem more than doubled the number of stations it owned.
At first Salem stations aired church sermons. Their business model was to get a commercial license and charged preachers a fee for carrying their programs.
In the mid-1990s, Salem pivoted, adding Christian music and then news and talk radio, with hosts such as Oliver North of the Iran-contra affair; Alan Keyes, a member of Ronald Reagan’s administration; and Michael Medved, the conservative political commentator and film critic.
“One thing that was innovative about them was that they went from religious broadcasting, where there was one business model — getting churches, and radio preachers to pay them for carrying their programming — to this three-pronged format approach,” said Anne Nelson, author of “Shadow Network: Media, Money and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right.”
For over a decade, Epperson served on the National Religious Broadcasters’ executive committee and board of directors.
In 2005, Time magazine named Epperson one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America.
“They were one of the most important voices in the Trump MAGA evangelical media infrastructure,” said John Fea, professor of American history at Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, referring to Salem.
The company has struggled over the last few years. Salem’s stock price has fallen to 93 cents as of Tuesday, as investments go to social media and podcasts. Officials at NASDAQ warned the Salem it could be removed from their exchange if it doesn’t bring it stock price into compliance, The Desk reported last month.
Epperson, who made his home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for years, was Salem’s chairman emeritus at the time of his death. His son, Stuart Jr., now sits on the board of directors of Salem Media.