James Dobson to end radio ministry in February

The New York Times/October 30, 2009

Denver - Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson will end his 32-year stint as the voice of the conservative Christian ministry at the end of February, the Colorado Springs-based nonprofit organization announced Friday.

Focus on the Family's board and the 73-year-old Dobson, the folksy family therapist who evolved into a key frontman for the religious right, have agreed to a parting of the ways, ministry spokesman Gary Schneeberger said.

Dobson's February exit from the airwaves probably doesn't spell his demise as an icon with political clout, experts say. And it isn't known whether his departure will help or hurt the ministry's efforts to attract new and younger families as listeners, readers and donors.

Focus on the Family could not say Friday who would replace Dobson as host of its flagship radio show, which has an estimated 1.5 million listeners.

And Dobson, who is reportedly in good health, did not release a statement.

"One word I don't suspect we'll hear him use is 'retirement,' " said Jim Daly, who replaced Dobson as Focus on the Family's president in 2003.

Last February, Dobson began distancing himself from the ministry's day-to-day operations when he stepped down as chairman of the board.

"It's been a long transition," Schneeberger said. "We've been kicking around strategies to replace him for a decade. There was never a firm deadline for it, until today."

Daly has said he and Focus on the Family will remain as committed as Dobson ever was to biblical principals, such as the sanctity of human life and sacredness of marriage.

Over the years, Dobson translated this into fierce opposition to abortion rights, gay marriage, pornography and even President Barack Obama's candidacy.

Daly, 48, has said his style is less confrontational and political - more conversational - than Dobson's. The culture at Focus is more relaxed now.

A new generation of evangelical leadership is coming into its own. And yet, Dobson as an icon is far from washed up, said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Cromartie, who directs the center's Evangelicals in Civic Life and Religion & the Media programs, said Dobson's influence is undiminished. If he tells listeners to call their representative in Congress about a concern of his, the phones still ring off the hook - and will until the end of February.

"His reach through the radio was much of his power," Cromartie said.

The death of the religious right as a political force has been often pronounced, yet the Evangelicals always revive it, usually in opposition to some other movement, Cromartie said. And Dobson's exit is not final.

Schneeberger brushed aside questions that Focus, which announced in September an 8 percent work force cut because of dwindling donations, would lose more funding as Dobson fades from the scene.

"The reality is we have 32 years of radio broadcasts that Doctor Dobson created that are still available to us," Schneeberger said. "Some of it is evergreen."

And Dobson has agreed to return to Focus as a guest, Schneeberger said.

"You can bet he'll be a guest," Cromartie said. "And he'll keep writing books. When he gives a speech, he'll get attention. He still has enormous influence."

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