Above left, Don Wildmon, local satellator sponsor, AFR engineers Tom Scott and Ray Haney, and AFR morning host J.J. Jasper. Right, Don Wildmon at one of the early AFR towers, 1993.
“Ever since I accepted Christ as a 9-year-old, I had a feeling God had something for me to do,” wrote Bro. Don Wildmon in his 2013 memoir, I Had a Vision. God Had a Plan. It was a feeling that would be with him for 30 years.
In 1951 at age 13, he solidified his commitment to serve God at a Billy Graham Crusade in Memphis, Tennessee.
“The experience helped confirm the sense that God had something special for me to do with my life,” he wrote.
Years later, he was serving in the U.S. Army when he “got it” – God’s clear call to prepare to be a pastor. In 1976 he was pastor of Southaven United Methodist Church in the Memphis suburbs when the calling expanded and became a vision.
“Finally,” he wrote, “at age 39, God showed me what he had for me. It was to found and grow American Family Association (AFA). It was that special calling.” It was His plan all along.
At the time, little could he have anticipated how God’s plan would grow and expand beyond belief to include a law center, a film and documentary ministry … and a totally unexpected avenue of far-reaching communication, the American Family Radio Network (AFR).
Through it all, Bro. Don grew with the vision God gave him, not always knowing where it would lead, but always confident that God had a plan.
Behind every good man
Lynda Wildmon, Bro. Don’s beloved wife of 60 years, told AFA Journal how radio first became a part of the plan for American Family Association in the late 1980s.
“One night before bedtime,” she recalled, “Don said to me, ‘We need a radio station.’ That was the moment when AFR began.”
The radio station idea seemingly came out of the blue. But Don Wildmon was always a reader, and he had been reading and studying Religious Broadcasting magazine.
There, he learned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had begun allowing noncommercial FM stations to deliver signals via satellite. Immediately, Bro. Don saw satellite translators as the next step in faithfully following God’s plan.
In fact, he coined a new word for this technology – satellator. And he hoped to build a network of satellators across the nation.
“Just think,” he told Lynda, “if we worked with local churches, we could put satellator in many small communities that don’t have access to Christian radio right now. They could all hear the message.”
Never one to procrastinate, Bro. Don immediately began applying for a license to operate a radio station. But it took four years of filing applications, denials by the FCC, and refiling applications to gain permission to build a station.
Finally in August 1991, WAFR 88.3 went on the air in Tupelo, Mississippi.
On that summer morning 30 years ago, AFR’s first listeners heard J.J. Jasper say, “Good morning!” Jasper recently spoke of that initial broadcast with amazement, “I was the very first voice on the very first morning when we flipped the switch for AFR to be on the air.”
In early 1993, the AFR network was officially born with the licensing of its first satellator – 88.1 in Jackson, Tennessee.
Another of AFR’s original employees, John Riley, recalled that milestone as Bro. Don invited staff members to a small room, now a janitor’s closet, to listen as the first audio programming was sent via satellite to the Jackson satellator.
“There were tears and excitement as the vision to reach the nation was happening at that moment,” Riley recalled. “The humble beginnings of AFR happened in that small room, and today the ministry continues to touch millions with the hope that only Jesus can bring.”
Amazingly, AFR’s network grew to 100 stations in 25 states by October 1995. AFR now broadcasts via 179 stations nationally, much as Bro. Don envisioned over 30 years ago. Unfortunately, the FCC later enacted a regulation that in effect prohibited Christian radio networks from adding stations to their networks.
“It has always been Don’s main prayer,” said Lynda, “that no matter what, we would remain faithful to God.” Through the years, countless others have joined the AFR family to faithfully answer God’s calling to spread the message of His truth via radio.
On the mic
Ultimately, American Family Radio is just that – a family.
Consequently, many of AFR’s current employees have worked with the ministry more than a decade. Some, like Jasper, Riley, and Sherrie Black, have been at AFR since before it went on the air.
Jasper was the first morning show host, and he now co-hosts that timeslot with Riley. During the past 30 years, listeners have shared in every aspect of Jasper’s life, even before he met and married his wife Melanie and before they dreamed of having seven children.
“We have truly lived our lives out loud on the radio,” said Jasper. “Our AFR listeners are like family, and our children have grown up loving, meeting, and praying for many of them over the years.
“Growing up ‘on the radio’ helped shape our children’s lives. They are more Christ-like because of it.”
Riley has also shared his family’s life with listeners on AFR. But co-hosting with Jasper is only one of many roles he has played at AFR, including producer, music director, and Middle East Report host.
When Riley and his wife Lennie brought their young family to Tupelo, it was an act of faithful obedience.
“My first contact with Don Wildmon,” explained Riley, “was in the late 1980s when I heard about a Methodist preacher boycotting the 7-Eleven stores because they were selling porn magazines. At the time I was working at a small station in Minnesota. Wildmon’s dedication and vision inspired me so much that I decided I could do something similar locally.
“I contacted AFA and received the support I needed. As a result, all of the porn magazines were removed from the convenience stores and an anti-obscenity ordinance was passed in that small town. But I never dreamed that I’d work for Bro. Don just a few years later.”
Faithful, not successful
After joining AFR, John and Lennie’s family grew from three children to nine. As his roles changed at AFR, one thing remained constant.
“I am always reminded of Don Wildmon’s words,” said Riley. “He told us that ‘God has not called us to be successful. He has called us to be faithful.’”
Black joined Riley and Jasper as AFR’s first on-air personalities.
“Officially, I began work in July 1991,” Black explained. “At first, I was helping John get the music library organized and all of the CDs labeled and organized.
“I was originally hired to work mid-day on the air, and that first day, I came in to work and was told to go home and come back at one o’clock because I would be working the evening shift. So I headed home and came back at one o’clock. I worked that shift for a couple of years before moving to middays.”
Over the decades, Black’s career reflects her versatility. In fact, she has served various arms of AFR including the AFR news team and Urban Family Talk radio.
A gifted speaker, organizer, producer, and writer, Black is especially proud of her work with Wil and Meeke Addison, hosts of Airing the Addisons, when they hosted AFA’s first Marriage, Family, Life (MFL) Conference in 2018.
“The MFL Conference attendance has grown exponentially since its inception,” Black stated, “and God continues to bless the ministry of AFA as we all earnestly seek the face of God and seek to do His will in sharing the gospel through AFR and in our personal lives, as well.”
Behind the mic
While AFR’s on-air personalities are crowd favorites, their shows would be lacking without the diligent assistance of behind-the-scenes workers. Three of AFR’s most important groups are the creative, engineering, and production teams.
Producers work hard at keeping their shows orderly as well as highlighting their hosts’ ideas. Their job is to assist in planning the show, gather last-minute items, secure guests, and post the show’s podcast on afr.net for listeners who are unable to listen live.
Jeff Reed, producer of The Hamilton Corner and Focal Point, has served at AFR for 12 years. During his time here, Reed has noticed one thing – the Lord is going to get His Word across.
“The life of a producer can be taxing,” Reed continued. “It can be disheartening to hear bad news throughout the week continually. But there are special moments that make it all worthwhile.”
Those moments are something most AFR producers recognize. It’s when they feel God’s spirit moving throughout the programming. During these “magical moments,” as Reed said, everyone in the room can recognize that the Lord is present and dealing with someone on the phone or in the recording studio.
Director of radio, Jonathan Coker, has been on staff at AFR for 19 years. Coker started in engineering and moved to management in 2013. Seeing both sides of the picture, Coker remembers AFR’s humble beginnings with Bro. Don and has seen the station and listening areas grow.
“Looking back on that part, it is only by God’s hand being over AFR that we were able to accomplish the things we did,” said Coker.
Engineers are another critical AFR department. Their tasks differ depending on their specialty, but all diligently work to ensure that programming stays on the air. Groups of two engineers are assigned roughly 40 of AFR’s 179 national radio tower sites, requiring them to travel. Engineers are often on call and the first on the scene when something goes amok at tower sites.
Kevin Robbins has served the engineering department since 1999. After surrendering his life to Christ and studying electronics in college, he came to work at AFR.
“I have seen miracle after miracle,” said Robbins. “The most common thing that all of our engineers have seen is when we get to a station and see something about to break. It’s usually a part that has run for a while, but it is going to die while we’re there.
“It’s like the Lord holds it together until we drive across the country. And when we get there, it’s as if He’s saying, ‘OK, this needs to be replaced. Fix it.’ He blesses us and keeps His hand on our sites.”
The creative team produces radio spots for events and promos for AFR programs as well as promos for other AFA arms such as One News Now, American Family Studios, AFA Foundation, and AFAJournal. (See related story here.)
Behind the mic or on the air, God has blessed every aspect of AFR, especially through the wide variety of programs and hosts that are part of daily broadcasts.
When it comes to AFR programming, shows have come and gone. But the one thing that has never changed is the truth that is proclaimed. From the outset, Bro, Don carefully selected programs to air.
In AFR’s early days, Bro. Don’s first show, AFA Report, was co-hosted by Pat Trueman (via telephone) from Washington, D.C. They talked with senators, congressmen, and other national leaders on political and cultural issues of the day.
Adding biblical balance to the lineup, AFR offered Focus on the Family (at the time with Dr. James Dobson), Love Worth Finding with Dr. Adrian Rogers, and Turning Point with Dr. David Jeremiah – all of which continue on AFR along with numerous other pastors and Christian apologists.
Tim Wildmon began hosting Today’s Issues in 1992 and has grown it into one of AFR’s leading shows. Each weekday Tim and his team deliver insights on current events, and moral, social, and political issues. Tim believes part of the show’s success is due to Learnin’ University.
Roughly 15 years ago, Tim decided there should be time for fun on Fridays after discussing the hard news throughout the week. He started Learnin’ University as a way to invite listeners to join in with laughter, trivia, and fun. The tradition continues today as Tim, J.J. Jasper, Ed Vitagliano, and listeners fill 90 minutes with humor on Trivia Friday.
On the current lineup, AFR also airs talk shows produced in-house focusing on biblical faith, family, finance, and more. They include Focal Point (Bryan Fischer), Sandy Rios in the Morning, The Hamilton Corner (Abraham Hamilton), Airing the Addisons (Wil and Meeke Addison), and Exploring the Word (Bert Harper and Alex McFarland).
Just as Tim followed in the footsteps of his father, Tim’s sons Walker and Wesley are stepping up to ensure that the next 30 years of AFR are just as faith-filled as the first.
In fact, on Saturday nights, Wesley co-hosts Share Truth, Apply Scripture with the Engage millennial team. And in May, Walker debuted AFA at the Core. The idea behind the show is to focus on the mission, vision, and core values of AFA. The core of AFR’s mission has always been faithfully obeying God’s call to strengthen America’s family with truth – and the Wildmon family is carrying out that call.
Even from the very beginning, faithful AFR listeners have responded with prayers; words of encouragement; participation in local, state, and national government; and financial support.
A nonprofit ministry, AFA is supported through financial contributions of donors. Once Bro. Don envisioned an entire network of radio stations broadcasting God’s truth nationally, he also knew those stations would become reality only through the prayers and donations of listeners.
Thus the first AFR Share-a-thon was held in 1992. Even then, listeners eagerly joined the ministry through Share-a-thon as true partners in the goal to keep God first in our families, churches, schools, and government.
Listeners picked up their phones, called Share-a-thon Central, and made financial pledges to support the ministry. Thirty years later, some of those original Share-a-thon donors are still faithful supporters.
Durick Hayden, retired AFA human resources director, shared memories of Share-a-thons through the years.
“Of course, early Share-a-thons consisted of staff and family members answering landlines and writing down listeners’ pledges by hand,” Hayden explained. “I can remember vividly when we first received over 1,000 phone calls during one of those early Share-a-thons. We were so excited.”
It quickly grew into a biannual event with volunteers from across the nation joining staff to help answer the phones during three days of Share-a-thon, once each spring and once each fall. It was almost like a big family reunion.
Volunteers often planned family vacations and took off work to volunteer at Share-a-thon, and AFR began planning earlier and earlier to get dates on the calendar.
“By the time we got a good breath after the spring one, it was time to start planning for fall,” said Jim Stanley, AFR director of underwriting and partnerships (formerly general manager).
“Another important part of each Share-a-thon is choosing a scriptural theme. We pray about it, then we wait for God’s direction.”
Stanley went on to explain how God always puts the pieces together. Often, after He guides the AFR team to a thematic Scripture, a new song will debut that seems tailor-made for Share-a-thon.
“It’s changed a lot through these three decades,” Stanley said. “But our listeners have stayed the same – except that they’ve grown in number and in their generosity. They always respond above and beyond expectations.”
The 2021 spring Share-a-thon was a perfect example of listener faithfulness. Over 19,000 listeners responded, pledging more than ever before. Over 17% of those donors were nontraditional listeners who listen via the AFR app or online podcasts. (See below.)
“We are very excited that so many people are availing themselves of this technology,” said Ed Vitagliano, AFA executive vice president, “because it allows us to reach countless people who cannot access a terrestrial radio station.”
Reaching people for the cause of Christ is why Don Wildmon did what he did 30 years ago. It was calling; it is his legacy, and it is the past, present, and future of American Family Radio.
(Editor's Note: This article was first published in the August 2021 Edition of the AFA Journal and was posted online HERE. It was also co-authored by Hannah Harrison).