- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 4, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.

The caller is a 42-year-old woman named Christine from Seminole who cries a little as she talks about being addicted to crack cocaine for the past seven years.

“I don’t want to do it anymore,” she tells Bill Keller — and everyone else tuned into the religious broadcaster’s late-night program in the Tampa Bay, Fla., area. “I just want to be free of it, and I don’t know how to do it anymore.”

Mr. Keller, who has heard it all during almost four years of taking unscreened phone calls from the lost and forlorn on live television, doesn’t flinch. He bows his head and urges her to pray along with him. She repeats the words after him as if she is taking her wedding vows.

“Christine, let me tell you something, honey,” he says before passing her off to another minister for further counseling. “You’ve got the power of God in you, and you can be free from this once and for all.”

A few hours later, Mr. Keller drives to his cluttered office at a used-car lot to share God’s word with his flock in cyberspace. He writes a daily devotional for his Web site (www.liveprayer.com) that he says is e-mailed directly to more than 2 million people who signed up. About 40,000 of them hit the “reply” button every day to send back prayer requests.

Mr. Keller, 48, is God’s man for the multimedia age, salvaging souls one mouse-click at a time while thriving on the personal contact with callers to his unorthodox TV show, “Live Prayer With Bill Keller.” It airs on the local CW network affiliate but is slated to go national and move to the afternoons in March. He is convinced that he can take viewers from “false hope merchants” like “Oprah,” “Dr. Phil” and “Montel” by touting strict Christian values.

“My mind-set is to reach the lost,” says the salesman turned preacher, who doesn’t shy away from his past as an all-star sinner. “The lost aren’t sitting in church, the lost aren’t watching Christian TV. I’m not here to preach to the choir.”

Judging from the solid ratings — it’s the second most watched show in the Tampa market between midnight and 6 a.m. — and the jammed phone lines, plenty of the lost are awake at 1 a.m. when he comes on, right after the “South Park” reruns. He is counting on a larger audience when the show goes national on Ion Television, formerly Pax TV.

“You’re never going to hear a guy on a secular TV station say the things I say, which the world today views as outrageous,” Mr. Keller says. “Fifty years ago, people commonly held those same beliefs. That’s how far we’ve gotten from biblical truth.”

Reared in Columbus, Ohio, Mr. Keller took a meandering route to the ministry. Intending to go into it after graduating from Ohio State University, he ran out of money, quit school after his junior year and made a bundle selling personal computers in the late 1970s.

Later, he sold fax machines and traded commodities, lost a bundle when the stock market crashed in 1987, then got caught up in an insider-trading scheme that landed him in federal prison for 2 years in the early 1990s. Behind bars, he earned a biblical studies degree from the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.

Preaching and working in development for Christian television eventually brought him from his Chicago base to Florida. But he says he grew disillusioned with the philosophy of marketing religious programming to other Christians willing to open their pocketbooks, rather than to nonbelievers who really need to hear the message.

Looking for new ways to reach people, Mr. Keller founded LivePrayer.com in 1999, taking prayer requests and answering each e-mail personally. These days, the 40,000 daily requests are parceled out to 700 volunteers who reply to every one.

The cost of the Internet and TV enterprises — about $80,000 a month — is covered by about 4,000 donors. Mr. Keller hopes the syndication deal will mean he never has to ask them for money again.

Mr. Keller’s 2005 tax return — which he gladly shares with anybody who asks about his finances — reported an income of $57,000. He and his wife of 24 years, Nan, live in Largo, near St. Petersburg.

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