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.