Family Talk, Family Business
This piece is a sidebar to our cover story on "Refocusing on the Family."
About seven miles from Focus on the Family, Ryan Dobson uses his iPad to prepare for his next radio recording in a mostly bare studio at Family Talk's rented offices. His father's show carries a dynamic different from Focus on the Family, since he shares airtime with his son and LuAnne Crane, former senior producer at Focus.
Ryan says despite some rumors that he was unable to lead the organization because of a divorce in 2000, Focus never had plans to hand him the reins. Nor, he said, was Family Talk an attempt to punish Focus by competing head-to-head.
"The insinuation is that people are taking money away from Focus—if that was true, we'd have millions of dollars," Ryan says. "We don't have $30 million; we don't have $2 [million]."
Much of the ministry's startup revenue, Ryan says, came from his parents' Christmas card list of about 300 people. And $1 million of it came as a gift from Focus on the Family, a move that surprised many observers. In its remarks on the donation, Focus leaders noted that Dobson had never taken a salary from the ministry and had lived off the royalties from his books.
"Was it the easy thing?" Focus on the Family president Jim Daly says about donating during a recession. "No, but it was the right thing."
Does Daly see Family Talk as competition? "I don't think Christians like to talk in terms of competition," Daly answers. "He still wanted to speak on radio, and that's why he started Family Talk. I don't know all the reasons why he would continue at  to do that, but his public comments about that [were that] he felt invigorated."
Dobson's cousin and former pastor, H. B. London, spoke of the tension between family and work in the Focus legacy.
"With 310 million people in the U.S., it's obvious there need to be many ministries committed to helping families," says London, who retired from his position as vice president of Focus's ministry outreach/pastor ministries in June. "One more boat in the ocean is not going to matter to the other boats in the ocean. Friendly competition, if you want to call it that, is healthy for both sides. It makes you sharper."
London says he had not discussed Family Talk matters with his cousin while he was a Focus employee. "The only thing I've heard him say is that he feels like he's doing the best radio he's ever done," London says.
But it may not be the most successful. In an October 2010 newsletter, James Dobson acknowledged that Family Talk, which then employed 22 people, was dropped by 82 stations because it could not pay for airtime. That represents about 10 percent of its 800 stations.
During my chat with Ryan Dobson, his father walked into the radio studio and looked surprised to see me. He shook my hand warmly and said, "Give my regards to the folks at CT." I was escorted out of the room, but invited to take a peek into James Dobson's office, grounded by leather furniture and accented with a decorative telescope. Cathedral-style glass windows offered a stunning view of Pikes Peak, while the Winston Churchill portrait that used to hang in his office at Focus hangs just outside his Family Talk office.
In contrast, several pieces of colorful art hung in Ryan Dobson's office; a gaming system sat under a flat-screen television, and a deer he shot stared at us from the wall. We walked through the hallways of Family Talk, where his father's silk hoods from honorary doctorates hung on the walls.
Ryan was ordained in 2007 by a Southern Baptist pastor and attends downtown Colorado Springs's First Presbyterian Church, whose pastor is at the forefront of evangelical renewal within the Presbyterian Church (USA). Although Ryan says he agrees with his Nazarene father on political philosophy and ethical issues like homosexuality, their styles differ.