Since he began broadcasting in 1977, Dr. James C. Dobson's "Focus on the Family" has become the second most popular radio program (in number of stations) behind Paul Harvey's news and commentaries. From 43 stations nine years ago, "Focus on the Family" has spread to 970 stations in 17 countries today, and it's still growing.
"We doubled in income, number of stations, number of employees and growth every year up until 1983," says Dobson, founder and president of the Focus on the Family organization.
The reason for such growth?
"The family is under severe stress today," says Dobson simply. "Our reason for existence is to help preserve the institution of the family."
The half-hour programs on Mondays through Fridays (an hour called "Weekend" on Saturdays) usually find Dobson hosting experts talking on subjects of concern to families.
Although approximately two- thirds of the stations carrying the program are religiously oriented, Dobson himself is not a minister, and the program does not follow a religious format. Guests are usually psychologists, medical doctors, educators, survivors of child abuse, homemakers, journalists, battered women.
"The programs reflect the problems, interests and concerns of family members," says Dobson. "They deal with the disciplining of children, self-esteem, handling rebellious teens, handling problems of chemical substance abuse as well as adult concerns, such as marital sexuality, conflict in marriage, financial management, the problems associated with overcommitment and time pressure and living with adult children."
The nonprofit organization also dispenses family-oriented films, videotapes and books. Spokesmen estimate that last year Focus on the Family distributed more than 700,000 cassettes of the radio broadcast, more than 36 million pieces of free literature to families around the world and provided answers to more than 130,000 personal questions submitted by listeners.
The organization's founder says it has outgrown its six-building complex in Arcadia and is now considering leaving the state, where it can expand at real-estate prices that are not so expensive.
Dobson says he, as much as anyone else, is astonished by what has happened in nine years. It "just exploded," he says. "The next thing I knew I had a very large organization on my hands."
Dobson, who holds a doctorate from USC in child development, started "Focus on the Family" while holding dual posts as associate professor of pediatrics at USC School of Medicine and at Childrens Hospital. But after publication of his first book, "Dare to Discipline," and with a $25,000 grant from his publisher, Tyndale House, he left the paid faculty at USC to begin "Focus on the Family."
Dobson said he enjoyed the research at USC and Childrens Hospital but became "increasingly concerned about the instability I perceived in American families.
"That's what led me to resign in 1977 in order to devote my full- time effort to the preservation of the home."
The problems facing the family in 1977, according to Dobson, were increased divorce rate, rampant juvenile delinquency and drug abuse and rising violence in the home. "Practically every index of unrest was reflecting the high level of stress on the institution of marriage and parenthood.
"I had to find some way to get the message out to convey the principles I believe in, so I turned to the media."
Thus began the radio program and, later, a film series by the same name. Through rental by churches, YMCAs and YWCAs, parent groups, the military and other organizations, Dobson says, that initial film has now been seen by more than 50 million people.
The programs are based on "traditional principles and concepts that have come down to us from the time of Christ and before, which have worked. You can count on them. They are not faddish," he says.
"Focus on the Family" is built on four basic or traditional values, according to Dobson: "The value of bearing and raising children, permanence of the marital situation, the worth of the individual and Christian concepts."
The programs generate an average 6,500 letters a day, or 125,000 to 150,000 a month, he says. Many contain financial contributions, and about 10% of the letters require personal answers. "Focus on the Family" employs a large staff of readers and correspondents. Mailers handle routine orders of books, cassettes and other counseling materials. Those who write in are put on the mailing list for the organization's 16-page monthly magazine, whose circulation exceeds one million.
Nine licensed part-time counselors contact those with immediate psychological needs, but "Focus on the Family" has no on-site counseling. Those seeking ongoing therapy are referred to outside help.
The organization also provides materials and financial aid to other groups that deal with the problems of families, inner-city youths, children, Crisis Pregnancy Centers and others.
Dobson refers to "Focus on the Family" as a "media ministry."
"By ministry we mean an organization whose purpose it is to care for and give to those who seek our assistance," says Dobson. "It requires a staff of 400 people to accomplish this purpose on a day-to-day basis."
Dobson consults with the U.S. Army Chief of Staff and members of Congress on family-related topics and has served on commissions in the Carter and Reagan Administrations, including Attorney General Edwin Meese's controversial Commission on Pornography. As an author, his books are perennial best sellers, having sold more than 6 million copies.
In Los Angeles, "Focus on the Family" is heard over KKLA-FM (99.5) Mondays through Fridays at 4, 7:30 and 11:30 a.m. and at 10 p.m., Saturdays at 8 a.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m.; on KFSG-FM (96.3) Mondays through Fridays at 6:30 a.m. and Saturdays at 10 a.m.; and KBRT-AM (740) Mondays through Fridays at 9 a.m., Saturdays at 7 a.m.
In Orange County, it is broadcast on KYMS-FM (106.3) Mondays through Fridays at 7 a.m., and on KWVE-FM (107.9) Mondays through Fridays at 2:30 and 8 a.m. and at 10 p.m.
"It's overwhelmingly well-received," says Rich Buhler, program director at religiously formatted KBRT-AM in Los Angeles. "I don't think there's any question it's the most listened-to program on our station outside of our own locally originated programs."
At KATY-AM, an MOR-news-sports-talk station in San Luis Obispo, listeners petitioned the station to carry the program.
"It was on another station that was moving it all over the place because of their sports programs," says general sales manager Jeff Russinsky. "We were approached by listeners and sponsors who wanted a consistent time. It does very well for us and seems to have built a good following. We're happy to carry the show."