LeSEA Links Middle America to the Middle East

Amid a papal conclave and the approach of Easter, Christian broadcaster’s roots in Israel run deep

It is many thousand miles from Indiana to Jerusalem, but the connection between South Bend-based LeSEA Broadcasting and the birthplace of Christianity gets stronger all the time. There’s a special place in the LeSEA principals’ hearts for Israel, and if viewers can’t partake in the group’s tours to the Holy Land, they can at least learn about the region by catching a daily newscast out of Israel that airs on the 10 LeSEA stations.

“We enjoy a great relationship with Israel,” says Peter Sumrall, president of LeSEA. “We hope to open people’s eyes to the spiritual and Biblical significance of Israel.”

Given the escalated tension between Israel and Syria, the recent papal conclave in Rome and Easter’s approach, it’s a busy time for LeSEA. Short for Lester Sumrall Evangelistic Association (Lester died in 1996; Peter is his son), LeSEA acquired Middle Eastern Television in 2001. Based in Cyprus and airing throughout Israel on cable and satellite, the network shows—among other things—live NFL games.

LeSEA also owns stations in midsize markets, including WHME South Bend, KWHE Honolulu, KWHB Tulsa and WHMB Indianapolis. The broadcaster’s reach extends, quite literally, around the world. Besides a trio of FM stations, LeSEA has shortwave radio transmitters strategically placed in South Carolina and the remote nation of Palau, located between the Philippines and Guam. “That covers nearly every square inch of the planet,” says Wes Hylton, LeSEA director of engineering.

Holdings also include cable networks World Harvest Television and Family Entertainment Television.

The TV stations air around 70% religious programming and 30% sports. They also air IBA News From Israel, a daily half-hour newscast produced by Israeli Broadcast Authority in English that LeSEA execs say is of abundant interest to Christian communities in the U.S. “Christians are very interested in what goes on in the Middle East,” says Hylton. “It’s where the Bible was written.”

The stations do not subscribe to Nielsen, so LeSEA brass does not know how many viewers in, say, South Bend tune into the 7 p.m. airing of News From Israel. This time of year, Hylton suspects it’s as much as “many thousands.”

LeSEA also has a Jerusalem-based correspondent, Brian Bush, who reports 3-5 times a week for its daily talk program The Harvest Show. Bush’s dispatches include everything from the conflict between Israel and Syria to nuclear talks in Kazakhstan, and he’s the point person on papal news from his post in the Middle East.

LeSEA’s connection to Israel goes back to the late ’40s or early ’50s, when Lester first visited. Peter lived there as a boy for a short spell, and is now a regular visitor. LeSEA hosts three tours a year to Israel, bringing a total of 500-1,000 people annually to the Holy Land.

Sumrall says the tours are not a significant moneymaker—they at least cover their costs—but are part of the company’s mission. “We feel very committed to people visiting at least once in their lifetimes,” he says, “so they can literally see the Bible come to life.”

LeSEA has also filmed the country’s significant religious sites in hidef on behalf of the Israel Ministry of Tourism.

While some televangelists’ lavish lifestyles have given the segment a bad name, those who know the LeSEA leaders call the group solid corporate citizens—active in hunger relief (Peter says LeSEA feeds 45,000 hungry children worldwide each day) and in the broadcast community. Sumrall was interviewed from Washington last week, where he was going over key broadcast issues, including spectrum repacking and stations’ public files, with FCC representatives and Congressional members.

“They’re well thought of in the community,” says one South Bend business leader.

The stations’ revenue performance is modest. WHME South Bend took in an estimated $1.65 million in 2011, according to BIA/Kelsey, while WHME Indianapolis did around $3.2 million. Station staffs are around 15-20 people, and local offerings include high school and college sports.

But Sumrall is intent on growing his broadcast footprint. The group sold KWHD Denver to Liberman Broadcasting in 2010 but continues to air LeSEA programming on the station’s dot-two. LeSEA may swing a deal or two for a small or midsized market station. “There are several things in the works,” Sumrall says, though he would not specify.

But he is quite open about his aim to bring more and more American people to Israel—and vice versa. “It’s part of our mission,” Sumrall says. “It’s something I’ve been very much a part of for a long time.”

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