When the Eyes of Canton Were on Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker
The new film “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” chronicles the rise and fall of the PTL empire run by televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. But nearly a decade before their downfall, the couple established an important connection to Northeast Ohio.
The scandal which brought down the Bakkers first broke in 1987: a sexual assault, covered up by hush money that was supposed to be used for PTL’s ministry, which included one of the largest cable networks in the country. That network was built from a series of small, mom-and-pop TV stations which dotted the nation, such as “family television” WJAN TV-17 in Canton.
Mike Tonges has owned Image Video Productions in Canton for almost 40 years, but he got his start in the business watching — and then working at — WJAN.
“I started working at WJAN-TV when I was a junior in high school. [WHBC-AM News Director] John Baker started doing news there," Tonges said. "I remember watching him as a kid. By the time I started working there, he had moved on to another career or retired.
"We did have Carl Day, who was a very well-known broadcaster," he continued. "And when he left Channel 17, he moved on to Dayton and was the main anchorperson at WDTN , Channel 2. I ran into him a couple times [when] we went down there and televised some Wright State basketball games. He was at one of the events, and I got to see him and talked to him. It was kind of neat to see somebody that you worked with back here in Canton, because he was like the Ted Henry-type since people would recognize him because he was the main anchor in Dayton. We had a lot of career starts for a lot of people."
Mike Tonges recalls, “We had some famous people coming through the station. Andre the Giant was there when we were doing wrestling. They played those tapes on Sunday afternoons, and the wrestlers would come into the studio and do live hits between the segments. ‘Wrestling fans, tonight at the Canton Memorial Auditorium! I'm gonna kill him!’— that kind of stuff. But Andre the Giant was there one time, and he took an apple and just literally just squished it with his hand down into a pulp. So, I mean the guy was pretty strong. We had Rosalynn Carter there [and] a lot of politicians. I know Sen. Howard Metzenbaum was there once.”
Channel 17 went on the air in 1967, christened WJAN after its owners, the Janson family. The programming was a mix of regional sports plus religious and secular news and entertainment. Denny Hazen hosted and produced shows in all of those categories.
He passed away in 2015, but his son, Denny II, remembers accompanying his dad to work. Today, the younger Hazen works behind the scenes for several Northeast Ohio media companies and television stations and has gained fame for his series of “Blazin’ Hazen” music videos.
“He did a lot of sports: football, basketball. We did a lot of stuff from the Canton Civic Center. Back then, the sporting league in Stark County was the Federal League. So, we did a lot of Federal League games.” That includes this 1983 edition of the Blue and Silver Game:
Very little Channel 17 programming was saved, since videotape was expensive back then and the few tapes which were archived are mostly unplayable almost 50 years later. But recently, a series of shows were unearthed from 1975, hosted by The Rev. Ernest Angley’s sister.
Bea Medlin passed away in 2010. Her friend, Barbara Davis of Ravenna, worked as part of Medlin’s traveling ministry for many years.
“The purpose of those TV shows was to get people to go to church, any church. She believed in healing; she had an angel who stood by her right side [but] no one else could see the angel. In fact, one time [I was standing next to her onstage], she said, ‘Move out of the way. You’re blocking the angel,’” Davis said.
WJAN was also the local affiliate for the annual MDA telethon, hosted at that time by Jerry Lewis in New York. In a smaller city like Canton, funding and resources were limited. Tonges remembers some creative ways they kept the lights on, such as buying government surplus equipment.
“This may be a broadcast urban legend, but there were five Norelco [PC-70] color cameras which were used on the [U.S.S. Hornet during the] Apollo 11 splashdown recovery. When those cameras came back, they sold them; three of them were purchased by [WAKR] channel 23 in Akron, and the Jansons bought the other two.”
Another source of revenue was syndicated programing like Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker’s daily “PTL Club.” Hazen recalls meeting the Bakkers when they visited the station in the 1970s.
“I have four sisters. My younger sister was sitting in one of those fold-up chairs — those old wooden fold-up chairs — and she kind of fell off the back and cracked her head. Well, Tammy came over and held her and helped her stop crying. I think she had stitches. I'm not sure, but I remember Tammy really was sweet and helped her with that," Hazen said. "So yeah, we got to see them, and they were nice people. Jim Bakker had a great vision, and God blessed him with many things. Now, just like anything in life, it takes a lot of responsibility when you're endowed with so much.”
Tonges, too, recalls actually driving down to North Carolina to tape shows on-location with the Bakkers, not long after they left PTL in 1987. When Jim Bakker learned that the crew would be driving straight back to Northeast Ohio, he insisted they stay and have a cookout before hitting the road.
The Bakkers even bought Channel 17 outright in 1977, the only station whose license they owned. And that’s when the trouble started. Fundraising was a cornerstone of North Carolina-based PTL. The “Charlotte Observer” regularly covered PTL, as it would any large, local employer. After reporting that $350,000 earmarked for a Korean broadcasting hub had never actually made it overseas, the FCC began investigating. Bakker himself took to the airwaves, including on Channel 17, to make his case.
“What we want is what every American wants: a right to worship our God as we want to be. We do not want this church, or any other church, destroyed or intimated by the government,” he said.
An FCC report was delivered in 1980 but languished under a newly appointed chairman after Ronald Reagan took office. Mark Ethridge, the managing editor of the “Charlotte Observer” back then, says it’s not a stretch to view the situation as politically motivated.
“It seems to me, in retrospect, that it was very clear that the top people in the Reagan administration put the brakes on any investigation of Bakker by the FCC or the Justice Department. I think that's indisputable," Ethridge said. "Now, why did they do that? Was it out of a sincerely held belief that this was unwarranted prosecution? Or was it an attempt to curry favor with the evangelicals?”
Eventually, the Bakkers transferred the station’s license to another ministry, thwarting the investigation as well as any further government scrutiny of PTL for a few years. The station soldiered on for a few more years as WJAN before changing call letters to WDLI and the TBN network, dropping all local news or programming.
Hazen’s family severed ties with the station soon after.
“Paul Crouch and TBN were very aggressive and pretty cold-hearted for being Christians," Hazen said. "They bought up stations around the world and what they do is they're kind of like the Gordon Gekko of ‘Wall Street.’ They'll buy up a station, let everybody go, and then put their satellite signal in from California. Paul Crouch walked in and said, ‘pack up your stuff and the doors are getting locked.’ My Dad asked him if he could buy airtime and Paul Crouch refused.”
Today, the Channel 17 building on Rt. 62 in Canton sits idle. WDLI is now a digital subchannel running Court TV and based in Akron. And the original call letters, WJAN, belong to a small Spanish-language station in Miami.
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