TV evangelist in rural Illinois hopes cable will take him national

Posted: Friday, February 06, 2004

THOMPSONVILLE, Ill. (AP) Danny Shelton leaned into a speaker phone toward the end of talks with a satellite company promising to sell his Three Angels Broadcasting Network to thousands of cable operators across the country.

''Let's call it a deal,'' he said. ''It seems the Lord is opening up these doors.''

There was no time to celebrate. Shelton was out of his seat and already headed across the parking lot to the recording studio at the Christian broadcasting network he founded. It was time to run through hymns for a new CD.

The former carpenter and devout Seventh-day Adventist has served as everything from road-builder to talk show host to singer for the media operation he has been building for 18 years in the farmland of southern Illinois.

Today, brick buildings and satellite dishes are the nerve center for Three Angels, which sends a mix of religious and lifestyle programs to 10.2 million U.S. households by cable or satellite along with the 100 free-to-air TV stations it owns.

A production house in Russia sends programs to 170 stations there, and stations in the Philippines and Papua New Guinea also carry the network.

Three Angels named for biblical characters who warn of the end of the world is still a relatively small player in the nation's religious broadcasting industry. For example, Trinity Broadcasting Network, a Costa Mesa, Calif.-based conglomerate that features such well-known evangelists as Benny Hinn, reaches 70 million homes.

The 52-year-old Shelton hopes his latest satellite deal will win millions more viewers. Until then, it remains most notable for its ties to the Seventh-day Adventist church, a Protestant denomination whose members go to church on Saturday, shun alcohol and tobacco (many also are vegetarians) and anticipate what they believe will be Jesus' imminent return.

Shelton's career path can be traced back to his family's conversion to the Adventist church and a love for singing hymns.

Growing up poor in the coal-mining Illinois town of West Frankfort, Shelton helped feed his four brothers and sister by pumping septic tanks with his dad, a former honky-tonk singer.

The family also traveled to work in Indiana's tomato fields in the summertime, singing old spirituals as they fanned out across the rows.

''We'd sing, 'I Need No Mansion Here Below,''' Shelton said, breaking into his baritone as he stood near a grand piano in his recording studio. His family often performed at churches, too.

Fast forward to 1982. Shelton's first wife was killed in a car wreck and he turned to music to help in the healing process. He quit his day job in carpentry and began to sing gospel full time, appearing at churches and Christian TV stations with his 11-year-old daughter, Melody.

But he didn't like what he saw at those stations, particularly the long segments in which hosts would ask viewers for donations.

''Any time they would talk, it was always about 'Give to me and God will bless you,''' Shelton recalled.

He told God he'd start a station that would spread the gospel without asking for money very often. He didn't have any cash, land or equipment, but he talked about his dream between songs at the churches where he appeared.

''It's OK to make your needs known, it's just not OK to beg,'' he said.

The checks came in, and his dream took off. A woman who caught his performance donated some unused land to the cause.

Before long, Three Angels' first uplink station was built on the small plot at the end of a road Shelton had forged through the grassland. More donations came as satellites expanded Three Angels' reach.

Viewers get a mix of religion and lifestyle shows, some 80 percent of which are taped at the network's studios here. Shelton and his wife, singer Linda Shelton, interview visiting preachers and missionaries on cushy couches in their set made to look like a living room.

Other local hosts have shows in English and Spanish like ''Tiny Tots for Jesus,'' cooking and exercise demonstrations and musical programs. The remaining 20 percent of airtime is bought by preachers, most of them Seventh-day Adventists, who run tapes of their sermons.

The network's message is aimed at a broader Christian audience but pushes Adventist themes: eat healthy, exercise, and prepare to answer to God at the end of the world, which could be sooner rather than later.

A few times a day, a taped announcement tells viewers they can ''send their tax-deductible love gift'' to the address on the screen.

Three Angels' tax filings show it's collected $12 million to $14 million a year in donations for the past several years. Danny and Linda Shelton each take home about $50,000 a year, Shelton said, and don't take money for the books and CDs they produce on Three Angels' label.

Shelton said he hopes OlympuSat, the satellite company he recently hired, will help him win the more than 8,000 cable operators who don't yet carry his network, the vast majority of the U.S. cable market.

The satellite company will bundle Three Angels with other channels and hawk them in packages to cable operators.

''That's a smart move on their part,'' said Robert Higley, Trinity Broadcasting Network's vice president of affiliate sales and relations.

Shelton says he is driven more by devotion than ambition.

''I'm just going where I think the Lord wants us to go,'' he said.

On the Net:

Three Angels Broadcasting Network: http://www.3abn.org



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