Arts & Entertainment

Trinity Broadcasting Network founder Paul Crouch dies, 79

Paul Crouch during one of his shows on TBN.
Paul Crouch during one of his shows on TBN.
Paul Crouch during one of his shows on TBN.
TBN televangelist Paul Crouch

Paul Crouch, who founded Christian cable station the Trinity Broadcasting Network with his wife Jan, died Saturday, the network announced. He was 79 years old.

Trinity Broadcasting Network said it is believed he died from ongoing heart problems.

If Crouch's name doesn't ring a bell, his image surely will. You may have caught him hosting the two-hour variety show "Praise the Lord," along with his wife, who is known for her big pink hair and dramatic makeup.

Crouch's grandson Brandon, an evangelist based in Orange County, tells KPCC that he and his grandfather would often have theological debates.

“He was just so passionate about the word and just about his faith. I just remember vividly so many times sitting at dinner and just having those conversations with him," Brandon Crouch said.

Paul Crouch was a Christian television pioneer, Brandon Crouch said.

“My grandfather is a giant of the faith, and just it’s really an honor to stand on his shoulders and just to be a part of the legacy, the Crouch legacy," Brandon Crouch said.

Quoting a book chronicling the network, the Los Angeles Times reports that by the mid-1980s, TBN was "the country's most-watched religious network."

The Orange County Weekly paints a mixed picture of Paul Crouch. In its obit, the paper calls him both a "titan of American Christianity" and a man who spent the hard-earned money of his working-class viewers with little regard.

Crouch also became a pioneer in what's called the "prosperity gospel," which essentially holds that God wants his followers to be rich.

During the past couple of years, Crouch's family has been haunted by sensational scandals about their wealth.

The New York Times ran a long story  in which it chronicles the couple's two sets of luxury homes, the secrecy surrounding the millions they received in donations ($93 million in 2010) and the family's struggle to keep control of the empire.

As part of the story, the Times interviewed Crouch's grandaughter, Brittany Koper, who was fired for allegedly stealing $1.3 million, but who also opened up about what she said were the company's financial improprieties. The Times reported:

"In two pending lawsuits and in her first public interview, Ms. Koper described company-paid luxuries that she said appeared to violate the Internal Revenue Service's ban on 'excess compensation' by nonprofit organizations as well as possibly state and federal laws on false bookkeeping and self-dealing.

"The lavish perquisites, corroborated by two other former TBN employees, include additional, often-vacant homes in Texas and on the former Conway Twitty estate in Tennessee, corporate jets valued at $8 million and $49 million each and thousand-dollar dinners with fine wines, paid with tax-exempt money.

"In the lawsuits and interviews, Ms. Koper, 26, also charges that TBN has spent millions of dollars in sweetheart deals with a commercial film company owned until recently by a son of the Crouches, Matthew, including poorly monitored investments made after he joined the TBN board in 2007.

"'My job as finance director was to find ways to label extravagant personal spending as ministry expenses,' Ms. Koper said. This is one way, she said, the company avoids probing questions from the I.R.S. She said that the absence of outsiders on TBN's governing board — currently consisting of Paul, Janice and Matthew Crouch — had led to a serious lack of accountability for spending."

On his website, Crouch is described as an "amazing servant of God." Crouch was born in Missouri on March 30, 1934, son to a preacher. 

Brandon Crouch says his grandfather got into broadcasting at a young age by playing with a ham radio.

“He would go down and play with his ham radio that gave him the ability to talk about Jesus to people around the world," Brandon Crouch said.

Brandon says that is what really sparked the ideas that would one day become TBN.

As Paul Crouch pursued his theology degree, he became a broadcaster, helping build a station at his school. He graduated with a degree in theology, according to his official bio. He later became a radio announcer and moved through the executive ranks.

Crouch was great at doing business with others, grandson Brandon Crouch tells KPCC.

“My grandfather was a brilliant businessman," said Crouch. "He was impeccable when it came to business decisions.”

Paul Crouch was tasked in 1961 with operating the television and film division of the Assemblies of God church in Burbank. He worked at other California radio stations before founding the Trinity Broadcasting Network in 1973. It began with an obscure Orange County TV station and became the most watched Christian TV network in the world. The cable company even has programming in Spanish, Arabic and Farsi, as well as cable channels in Asia, Europe and Russia.

The network says it has more 18,000 TV and cable affiliates. Crouch also served on the board of a Bible theme park in Orlando, Florida, and was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the Private Sector Initiative Project.

This story has been updated.