Bill Johnson has never been a student or an employee at Northwestern. Neither have any of his family members. Yet the founder of Audio Research Corporation (ARC), a high-end audio equipment manufacturer, has devoted much time, support and resources to the college and radio for more than 40 years.
His longtime support of Northwestern is due primarily to just one relationship: Jesus Christ.
"Bill is just a dear man who is so in love with Jesus," explained Don Malley ’59, a 47-year KTIS veteran and engineer who now volunteers for the station. The Lord’s work in Johnson’s life also led him to his lifelong friendship with Malley.
Bonding over business and breakfast
It’s 3 a.m. when Bill Johnson and Don Malley arrive at a radio tower in Golden Valley, Minn. They work on a transmitter to get KTIS back on the air. After restoring the signal, "we went out to breakfast at White Castle," recalled Johnson.
"We did that a lot. And ate at all crazy times of the night," recollected Malley fondly of the years in the 1960s they’d make such excursions together.
They met at a church when both men were asked to evaluate a sound system. Their technical expertise, mutual appreciation for electronics and shared faith forged an instant bond. As their friendship grew, Malley, who later worked part time for Johnson, learned that Johnson had come to know the Lord just a few years earlier. When one of Johnson’s business partners became a Christian, the colleague began witnessing to him.
"It took three years. I was obviously a hard case," he shared with a smile. "And Don was one of the most influential people in my early Christian life. He discipled me."
But as a direct result of his conversion, Bill suffered a painful and personal loss when his first marriage ended and he lost connection with his six children for several years.
"It broke him," shared Malley. "He would call me in the middle of the night and he would just weep. Bill wore his faith on his sleeve and became a changed man from who he was before."
Because he’d experienced loss, Johnson began to exercise his spiritual gift of giving. Malley related one of the times the KUNW signal in Sioux Falls, S.D. went down. Johnson, who was also a pilot, flew Malley in his twin-engine plane so they could fix it together faster. Johnson even closed up his own store for two-and-a-half days to help KTIS fix a technical problem.
"When the Lord found me, I didn’t have a lot," said Johnson, "but over the years business has been good and the Lord has been very good."
Generosity matched only by his genius
As a child, Johnson discovered the joy of playing with the guts of electronics. But while many only played at it, Johnson excelled at it. He built his first radio in grade school, designed and sold his first amplifier at age 23, and later launched what would become a multi-million dollar company.
With no formal training beyond high school, Johnson thanks the Lord for his God-given talent. After serving during World War II, he returned to work in the service and repair department at a Minneapolis TV and appliance store. He eventually worked his way up at other stores and began building more custom electronics and designing breakthrough circuitry technology.
In 1970 he launched ARC, a high-end audio equipment manufacturer dedicated to building amplifiers, preamplifiers and CD players through international distributers and specialty retailers. ARC products, hand crafted in Minnesota, bear the registered trademark "High Definition," which Bill trademarked.
ARC soon became the preferred brand for audiophiles, hi-fi audio enthusiasts who have the ears—and the money—for only the best. True audiophiles who own thousands of CDs and LPs wouldn’t dream of subjecting their collections to a factory assembly line product. To them, William Z. Johnson is a hero of the audio equipment industry.
He is credited, and criticized, by the industry for bringing back vacuum tube amplifiers, which audio purists the world over believe are superior to transistors for their sonic quality. "I’m passionate about the technical virtues of musical sound," explained Johnson.
After 38 years, he was ready to "retire" from his ownership and CEO role with his company. In January 2008, a private equity firm in Italy purchased ARC. Johnson remains Honorary Chairman of the company and continues to contribute circuitry designs for future products.
Sharing in Bill’s life is Nancy, his "Godsend" to whom he’s been married 32 years. They’d known each other for 15 years prior to marrying—they went to the same church and became business associates when Nancy’s father, who was an investor in Audio Research, passed away and Nancy managed his estate.
Together, Bill and Nancy have chosen to bless University of Northwestern by supporting the Envision Excellence capital campaign for student spiritual life. In 2010, when students walk into the new Community Life Commons for the first time, they’ll be reminded of God’s faithfulness and His provision through generous partners like the Johnsons, faithful stewards who are supporting those who will serve the Lord for generations to come.