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SBC broadcast pioneer Paul Stevens dead at 86; led RTVC from 1953-77

EDITORS’ NOTE: The following story, replacing one with the same headline in BP 7/10/02, includes additional information about the family and career of Paul Stevens.

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Paul M. Stevens, the man credited with shaping the Baptist Radio and Television Commission into one of the most influential forces in religious broadcasting during his tenure as president from 1953 to 1977, died the morning of July 10.

Stevens, 86, had recently suffered a major heart attack while in surgery and never fully recovered, said David Clark, who currently holds Stevens’ office as president of FamilyNet Inc. and vice president for broadcast communications of the North American Mission Board (NAMB).

“Paul Stevens was one of the most innovative, insightful Christian broadcasters that we have ever had,” said Clark, a former National Religious Broadcasters chairman. “He was politely assertive. He was always a gentleman, but he knew how to get things done and make things happen. And we’re going to miss him.”

Jack Johnson, the last president of the Radio and Television Commission before the entity became a part of NAMB in 1997, said Stevens was “an entrepreneur before that term became common.”

“He brought the Southern Baptist Convention out of the dark ages of communications, and he was one of the early leaders not just among Southern Baptists but among other Christian organizations as far as television and radio were concerned,” Johnson said. “Paul was recognized in the communications industry as one of the leaders of the industry. He was on a first-name basis with all of the leaders of the major networks at that time.”

The funeral will be at 10 a.m. Saturday, July 13, at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth. Survivors include his wife, Betty; three sons, Paul Stevens Jr. of San Diego, John Stevens of Fort Worth and Mark Stevens, also of Forth Worth; a daughter, Mary Stevens of Fort Worth; and six grandchildren.

Stevens had a goal of becoming a physician when he entered Mississippi College as an undergraduate, but after turning to Christ in 1935 and being called to ministry he transferred to Baylor University in Texas. After his ordination, he served as a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force from 1942-46 with the 450th Bomber Group based in England and Italy.

He later received the master of theology degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth and served as pastor Bolivar (Texas) Baptist Church and First Baptist Church of Wharton, Texas and associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Greenville, Texas, First Baptist Church of Denton, Texas, and Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky. Then, during a pastorate at First Baptist Church in Ada, Okla., he was called to serve on the Southern Baptist Radio Commission.

Clark said Stevens had become familiar with broadcasting during his Ada pastorate, doing a daily devotional program with a local radio station. And in 1953 he was chosen to take the lead for the entity, which eventually moved to Fort Worth where it remains today.

Many of the RTVC’s core strategies for reaching the nation through broadcasting were birthed by Stevens, Clark said. Initially the commission’s only offering was “The Baptist Hour,” but Stevens was an innovator in developing programs designed to appeal to non-Christian audiences. Those programs — “Powerline,” “CountryCrossroads” and “Master Control” — are still core offerings today, airing free of charge on more than 1,500 stations around the country.

“A lot of people talked about doing crossover programming, but Paul Stevens did it,” Clark said. “The idea was to put something out there that has some general interest, but always being careful to bring it back to, ‘Do you have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ?’ And Paul was the one who initiated that.”

Stevens also raised the profile of Southern Baptist broadcasting efforts in the broader culture to a point that they were unmatched by any other Christian group.

“I believed that if I could make the commission a valuable aid to the industry,” its success would be assured, Stevens was quoted as saying in a 1977 profile in Broadcasting magazine. “We tried to become a part of the industry, standing on the inside working as a program producer for stations, rather than most other religious broadcasters who stand on the outside, doing what they want and then passing it on.”

Stevens also was effective in drawing in the broader community into supporting the RTVC’s efforts, making connections locally and nationally that helped him to raise millions to fund the commission’s extensive studios in Fort Worth.

When television became popular, Stevens faced many challenges in convincing Southern Baptists to embrace the new medium, which Clark said was termed by some pastors at the time as “Hellivision.”

“Frankly, the Radio and Television Commission always had tremendous challenges in getting support from the denomination, but Paul was bigger than life,” Clark said. “He was a loquacious speaker at the convention. And he had many, many friends, and he raised millions of dollars on his own.”

Clark told one story of how Stevens was able to secure a personal meeting with “General” David Sarnoff, the president of RCA who became known as the “Father of Television.”

“He goes to Sarnoff in New York and he said, ‘I want you to go to the Southern Baptist Convention and tell our people that television is the wave of the future,'” Clark recounted. Sarnoff liked Stevens; he wound up attending the convention and doing just that.

“It showed Paul was the kind of person who thought outside the box. And he was very bold, but always a gentleman,” Clark said.

Johnson added that in whatever project Stevens tackled, he did so with a “childlike enthusiasm” that was contagious — whether at the RTVC or later as teacher of a men’s Bible class at Broadway Baptist Church, his home church in Fort Worth.

After his retirement from the RTVC in 1977, Stevens became active in the Rotary Club, Clark said, and continued in a variety of leadership roles in the community. He also worked as a consultant with Cargill Associates, a church capital fundraising firm, and wrote and produced spots against drunk driving for broadcast on radio station WBAP. From 1980-85 he also served on the Texas State Board of Education.

Stevens also was honored with numerous awards and honorary degrees, including a Milestone Award from the National Religious Broadcasters in 1998, recognizing his 50 years in religious broadcasting. He is the author of two books, “The Ultimate Weapon — Christianity” and “Gathered Gold.”

Clark said he had invited Stevens on several occasions to speak to current employees, and he always was supportive and encouraging. An episode of the FamilyNet program “The Call” will air this fall focusing on Stevens’ life, a project that has been underway for several months, Clark said.

Although Stevens will be missed, Clark said there is also cause for rejoicing as the broadcast pioneer greets those whose lives he has touched in heaven.

“Paul is surrounded by people today who are saying, ‘Dr. Stevens, you don’t know me. But I heard the gospel on that program,'” Clark said. “He’s going to get a crown. I don’t know all the pillars of our Southern Baptist heritage, but Stevens was one of the greats.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: PAUL STEVENS and VISIONARY DIES AT 86.

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  • James Dotson