Drew Zahn is a WND news editor who cut his journalist teeth as a member of the award-winning staff of Leadership, Christianity Today's professional journal for church leaders. A former pastor, he is the editor of seven books, including Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, which sparked his ongoing love affair with film and his weekly WND column, "Popcorn and a (world)view."More ↓Less ↑
Old photo showing (with arrow) spot where Vic Eliason prayed for airtime
MILWAUKEE, Wis. – Vic Eliason still remembers the exact spot on the floor where he stood with three students in 1961, praying for a miracle after a fruitless week of searching Milwaukee for someone – anyone – who would grant the fledgling broadcasters 15 minutes of airtime for a Christian radio program.
Fifty years later, another young man Eliason knew decades ago, today known as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, designated May 15, 2011, as “WVCY Day,” in honor of the radio station that was founded in answer to those prayers and the ministry, VCY America, that has grown to operate nearly 30 Christian radio stations across the Midwest and provide on-air content for dozens more.
Eliason told WND how God answered his prayer for a miracle:
“We prayed on that spot on a Friday, believing that if God wanted us to have air time, He would have to provide it,” Eliason recalled. “On Monday, the door slammed open and a man I had never seen before asked, ‘Could anybody here use some free air time?’”
The man was from WBON Radio, assigned by his boss to craft a half-hour religious program. But after he was given the program’s theme song, “I’m Not Worthy,” he was convicted that he wasn’t the right man for the job. Like the three youths praying with Eliason, he had been pounding the pavement, searching for someone to fill the void. Then he stumbled into Eliason’s Youth For Christ center and became an answer to prayer.
VCY America grew from that first half-hour program to own multiple stations – some topping out at 100,000 watts – covering wide swaths of the Midwest, broadcasting 24 hours a day. In time, the ministry added the nationally syndicated “Crosstalk” talk show, a television station, a Christian school, a 385-acre youth camp, a pair of recording studios, a print shop, a library, an impressive array of technological hookups and telephone networks that allow VCY America to host local Christian talk radio covering individual communities all over the country out of its hub in Milwaukee, a central studio that can coordinate, for example, an on-air host in Tennessee taking calls from listeners in Canada and even a birthday club that sends gifts, gospel tracts and Bibles to thousands of children on their birthdays in dozens of countries each year.
The size and reach of the ministry sometimes overwhelms even Eliason:
“The marks of God’s provision,” Eliason marveled, “we don’t deserve what we have here. If you took 25 radio stations and look at the capital value, even in this economy, it scares you to death. … Our light bill runs $1,030 a day every day, and that’s before you start paying people, insurance and all this other stuff. And how God does it, I don’t know, not even to this day.”
He continued, “It seems like I’ve been in this ministry 50 weeks; it doesn’t seem like 50 years, and that to God’s glory. I feel as excited today as the day I walked in here, saying, ‘God, what are you going to do next?’”
Eliason still remembers how his fascination with radio began, listening not to Christian messages on the family receiver, but to a very, very different voice indeed.
“When I was a kid,” Eliason told WND, “we didn’t have running water, we had kerosene lights, and I remember hearing the screaming voice of Adolf Hitler on the radio.”
But his mother, noticing Eliason’s interest in the radio tubes and wiring and mechanics of the medium, planted the idea that the evolving technology could be used for a grander purpose:
“I remember my mom saying one day, ‘You know, Vic, radio can be used to further the gospel,” Eliason said.
“As I got near the end of high school, it began to sink in that this might be an area where God might want me,” he continued. “So when I was 18, I raised enough money for tuition at a technological institute in Minneapolis. I was set to go to school.
“But then our family went on vacation in California,” Eliason told WND, “and I’ll never forget sitting at that little church in Pasadena where the pastor said, ‘Young person, don’t hesitate to give your life to the Lord in service while you’re young.”
Through tears, Eliason shared his memory of the moment: ‘He said, ‘Give your life to the Lord while you’re young,’ and he said, ‘God will guide you,’ and that night my tuition went out the window.”
Eliason turned from tinkering with radio innards to a life of ministry, beginning with a little Bible institute associated with the California church to a Bible college and youth ministry in Des Moines, Iowa.
But Des Moines would eventually bring Eliason back to radio:
“I was already working with Youth For Christ,” Eliason recalled, “when my pastor said, ‘You know, our church needs to go on the radio, but we don’t have the money for the equipment. But we can buy the components, if you can put it together.’
“So God opened the door and we built the console, hooked it up with a remote wire to the station, AM radio, next thing we knew we were on the air every night,” Eliason said. “I didn’t know it, but God was giving me early inspiration for what was going to happen [in Milwaukee], because in those early days at VCY, I had to put together a lot of the equipment myself.”
In fact, one piece of equipment – a microphone that Eliason keeps on display at the VCY America headquarters – served as the key to unlocking new opportunities in Wisconsin.
Eliason standing near display of VCY’s history, including George Younce’s microphone (at left)
The Milwaukee miracles
“We needed a new microphone for the program, and that’s when we had The Cathedrals Quartet come in,” Eliason recalled. “Bass singer George Younce sold me the microphone he had been using, saying he wanted to get ‘one of those new, Elvis mics’ instead. He also told me that over in Milwaukee, there was a ministry in need of someone.
“The YFC in Milwaukee needed a Bible Club director and asked, ‘Will you come?’” Eliason told WND. “The salary was $50 a week, no health insurance, no guarantees. ‘If you trust the Lord with us, we’ll have you on,’ they said. And of course, God met the needs.”
“God meeting needs” became a theme of Eliason’s ministry in Milwaukee. From that first prayer seeking airtime, to listeners helping VCY purchase its first station, to a group of ranchers that worked to bring Eliason’s programming to a megastation that blankets the plains of the Dakotas, the spread of VCY’s message hasn’t stemmed from Eliason’s ambition, but from God’s provision.
Eliason in 1961
Eliason recalled the story of how VCY purchased a 100,000-watt station evaluated at $465,000 even though the ministry “didn’t have a dime”:
“The bank said they’d look it over, to see if it would be wise for us to take on that size of an expansion,” Eliason told WND. “And not only did the bank suggest it was a good idea, but they also said, ‘The people you reach are your greatest resource. We urge you to do it. How much do you have to put down?’
“I went like this,” Eliason said, holding his forefinger to his thumb in the shape of a zero. “‘Well,’ the bank said, ‘I guess we’ll have to write your whole check.’”
Eliason could only shake his head, saying, “To God be the glory.”
Eliason also recalled how he first began doing talk radio:
“In 1973, a woman called the station while I was playing music on air,” Eliason told WND. “‘Mr. Eliason,’ she said, ‘do you know what’s going on in the public school system?’ After she told me her story, she said, ‘If you don’t do something about this, God will hold you accountable.’
“So I interrupted the music and put her on the air,” Eliason said. “She told her story of immoral conduct at the school, and even though I’d never done a talk show in my life, I said I was going to open up the telephone lines for listener response. The phones exploded, and we’ve been doing talk radio ever since.”
‘You were there’
Measuring the impact of the encouragement and edification VCY has given to the millions of listeners it reaches or the tens of thousands of children it blesses would be impossible. There’s no question, however, that the talk programming that began in 1973 has sent shockwaves through VCY’s listening area.
In 1990, for example, VCY helped organize a “Solemn Assembly” to protest and pray over the practice of abortion. Roughly 10,000 people came, filling the Milwaukee Bucks arena. The next day, 7,000 people marched outside abortion clinics in the city, prompting police to handcuff pastors and use school buses as paddy wagons to haul away the protesters.
Eliason also recalled running a program on cancer, only to get a call afterward from the American Cancer Society. A representative explained that when national broadcasters like CBS or Fox News run a segment spotlighting the life-threatening disease, the organization might get a few calls, but that the Society received 900 contacts after VCY made it a topic of Christian talk radio.
Eliason also told WND that one of Milwaukee’s Aldermen explained, “We always know what you’re talking about, because the next day City Hall gets 300 or 400 calls about it.”
Eventually, Eliason said, the Alderman left office and became a contributor to VCY.
To many who hear VCY’s other programming, however, the station might seem strangely out of step with the culture, offering a classic program schedule filled with old-time songs, hymns and sermons.
When WND asked Eliason why VCY hasn’t updated its style, why it’s still broadcasting some of the same sounds and formats as it did when it began 50 years ago, the veteran broadcaster merely pointed to the size and scope of his station’s facility and said, with an earnest humility, “It’s working.”
“True, there’s a lot of emphasis on contemporary Christian music these days, and for many stations, that’s an effective approach,” Eliason said. “Yet it also seems that there’s a lot of dancing in the aisles in the church today and not a lot of weeping at the altar.
“I think the people that support us are doing it because of the sincerity of the Word of God in the message,” he continued. “We’re not trying to be grandiose or have these high rollers. The simplicity of the gospel message, keeping it clear and plain, the issues of repentance and spiritual regeneration are so simple a child can understand it.”
VCY’s music room
And despite the old-timey music, Eliason revealed his heart for youth, where he began his ministry over 50 years ago. He glowed over the memory of recently hosting a high school chorus singing rousing hymns in the station’s state-of-the-art music room. He pointed to the spots in the studio where the boys singing bass and the girls singing soprano stood, and he logged onto the advanced computer system to play it back and share the beauty of their voices in praise.
For a man in his 70s running an old-fashioned Christian radio station, Eliason is no fuddy duddy. He showed WND how he can call in and interrupt his own radio show from anywhere using his iPhone, and he mastered the recording studio’s equipment like a computer whiz.
Eliason explained that VCY is streaming and on Facebook and using e-commerce, but the real “cutting edge” isn’t technology, it isn’t the latest music or the hottest preaching techniques. The real “cutting edge” is the Holy Spirit, convicting sinners in love of the seriousness of sin and calling them to repentance and faith in Christ.
“As a station we have sought to aim our messages in ways that are clear-cut with passion for the gospel,” Eliason told WND. “The challenge here is getting people back to understanding what 2 Chronicles 7:14 talks about: If My people humble themselves and pray and seek My face and, here’s the catch, turn from their wicked ways. And that message isn’t just to ‘them,’ it’s to ‘My people,’ to the church. Our effort is continuing to keep the cutting edge the main thing, and we’re praying the Lord helps us to do that in a loving and kind way.”
For Eliason, one treasured memory sums up why he does what he does and how he knows he doesn’t have to use trendy techniques – and therefore risk trivializing the gospel message – to reach the youth of America:
“I got a phone call from a girl not long ago,” Eliason told WND. “She said, ‘Mr. E? I’m 15. I want to thank you for being there for me. Just like you were there for my mother when she was 15.”