In October, part of the tower that broadcasts one of Family Life Radio’s Tucson stations fell to the ground in a mangled heap of steel.
No one knows what happened — maybe it was the wind, says Ken Kwilosz, the local general manager for tower owner Lotus Communications Corp.
But Family Life Communications Inc. hopes to see the fallen tower restored this summer, says Randy Carlson, president of the ministry.
The nondenominational Christian nonprofit has three frequencies serving the Tucson area: 830 AM and 101.7 FM, still on the air, and the downed 88.5 FM.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the national ministry, headquartered near Oracle and Ina roads, has grown to broadcast not just Christian music but programs meant to offer practical and spiritual inspiration.
From a basement studio in Michigan to its Tucson headquarters, Family Life Radio now reaches 40 stations nationally and 150 countries online.
In 50 years, this isn’t the first time the network has suffered damage.
In the first year of broadcasting, lightning struck the station transmitter, taking them off air for months.
But then, as now, the family behind it all had faith.
“At the end of the day, we trust God,” Carlson says. “This is his work.”
So on this Easter Sunday as they celebrate their belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the family waits and prays to see the tower repaired, restored and risen again.
Donna Carlson, 63, remembers when her father, Warren Bolthouse, started the Christian music station out of the family’s Michigan basement in 1966.
“I was 12 when it started, with five kids in a little bedroom upstairs trying to keep quiet for the radio station,” Donna says.
At the time, Christian music was less contemporary and more traditional. Donna describes it as “homey.”
Originally, her father was given time on a local radio station, and guests tromped up and down the basement stairs.
During the share-a-thons that still help fund the ministry, Donna’s mother, Char Bolthouse, cooked meals to keep volunteers going.
After the lightning strike knocked them off air for eight or nine months, supporters returned the favor.
“My dad had to go out and do construction work to keep food on the table,” Donna says. “We had people drop off food. I mean, we were a real charity case for a while.”
The ministry started broadcasting out of its first purchased station in Michigan in 1969.
“We started in Michigan and built up around Michigan and really thought our growth should move into areas of the country that were expanding,” says Donna’s husband, Randy.
So when Warren took a 1970s trip to Tucson in the winter, that did it.
“You can imagine, with snow up to your eyeballs in Michigan, he said, ‘Wow, this is a beautiful place,’” says Evan, the executive vice president of the ministry and one of Randy and Donna’s three children.
The ministry soon made its headquarters in Tucson, purchasing a station from cowboy singer Gene Autry and renting space downtown in La Placita Village.
“We love the natural beauty around here,” says Derek Carlson, 31, the youngest of Randy and Donna’s children. “I have grown up here my whole life, so I love the desert.”
This is their home. On Oct. 12, 2015, Warren died at age 88, following his wife Char’s death in 2007.
Led by Warren’s vision, the family “saw Arizona as a mission field opportunity,” says Evan, 37. “At the time, there was no Christian radio (here). … We saw that as a great mission field opportunity to reach people for Christ.”
An intentional life
Randy Carlson met Donna Bolthouse as a teenager volunteering at her father’s radio station.
Their parents were friends already. As the Bolthouses launched the radio network, the Carlsons were starting Youth Haven, a Michigan ranch that hosted summer camps and retreats for kids living in tough situations. That ministry now has a second campus around Picacho and is a “sister ministry” to Family Life Radio.
In 1996, Randy took over management of the ministry while Donna stayed home with their kids.
Andrea Stroop, 34, remembers spending Saturdays at work with her dad, wandering the office as he put together a show.
In the Tucson studio, a second ministry within Family Life Communications Inc. developed.
“The Intentional Living Center is the brainchild of my dad,” Evan says. “He has a real heart and passion for marriages and parenting.”
Every day at 11 a.m., Randy, 64, hosts “Intentional Living.” With a doctorate in education, “Dr. Randy Carlson,” as he is known, takes callers from across the country to discuss marriage, family, finances and life. The show encourages listeners to tackle “One Thing” at a time and is carried on many Christian radio stations outside of the Family Life network.
The Intentional Living Center also produces conferences and materials for churches and individuals. Randy has five books — some co-authored — to his name.
“To be intentional every day you have to decide, what are my priorities?” Randy says. “And then you follow through as much as you can, and when you blow it, ask for forgiveness and get back up and keep going. We really feel like we’re on the same journey as everyone else, and we want to be cheerleaders and encourage people that they can do it if they trust in Christ.”
A family business
Peter Brooks, the general manager at the Midland, Michigan station and one of the morning show hosts, has worked for Family Life for almost 40 years. The Midland and Tucson locations are the only stations with hosts. In 2006, the network removed its physical presence at most locations.
“When you know someone as well as I know this family, you see the good and the bad, just like you see it in me ...” Brook says. “Their faithfulness and commitment has not wavered.”
That has provided consistency for listeners, even as the Christian music industry has changed, Brooks adds.
“When you step into this position of being in a family business, your family connections change from just being family to being coworkers and ministry partners,” says Derek, who does video production under the management of his older brother Evan.
No one in the family expected Evan or Derek to join the ministry, but both grew up watching their father manage to make birthday parties while still traveling for conferences and running the network.
“We are trying to bless other people’s families, but we don’t want to neglect our own,” Derek says.
More than music
Stroop, who didn’t join the family business, is accustomed to hearing her father’s voice on the radio.
But for her kids, ages 3 and 1, it’s a thrill.
“They recognize his voice and when they hear him, they yell, ‘Papa on the radio!’” she says, laughing.
They’re not the only ones. Sometimes at restaurants, fellow diners recognize Randy’s voice, Donna says.
With a staff of about 70, most of them in Tucson, Family Life Radio can interact with listeners locally, whether through the station’s work with nonprofits such as Gospel Rescue Mission or through attendance at local churches.
Across the network, about 85 percent of the ministry’s $7.8 million annual budget is funded by listeners, Randy says.
The restoration of the 88.5 FM signal is another way to serve some of those listeners. When it returns, the frequency will broadcast more preaching and teaching than music.
“We see today the opportunity to really fulfill this mission in helping the Christian community to live intentionally with Christ, and we just think that’s sort of our niche, to present a lot of hope,” Randy says. “That’s what we want our mission to be, for people to feel hopeful.”