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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