Today, three decades later, he has advanced well beyond, spending time at Baptist Press, Sacramento's KFBK radio station in California and FOX News in New York. He also underwent open heart surgery in 2005 that left him with a new appreciation for life and a renewed thankfulness for God's grace.
"You're going to have some tough times," Starnes, the keynote speaker at the 2010 Baptist Press Collegiate Journalism Conference, told BP. "But God's grace is sufficient to get you through those difficulties."
For Starnes, sweeping the floor of the newspaper segued by age 15 to working as a reporter. He remembers his first story vividly -- covering a local school board meeting.
"It was so funny because my mom had to drive me because I didn't have a driver's license," he said. "My mom had to drive me to the meeting and pick me up afterwards."
After working that job for several years, Starnes attended college at Georgia State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and did additional reporting for the Fulton County Daily Report, Atlanta's legal newspaper.
That led to what he describes as a period of wilderness wandering that included working for the Chattanooga Times Free Press and the Charlotte News and Observer. Eventually he landed at Baptist Press as an assistant editor.
"In this business you don't stay in one place very long," Starnes said. "You just kind of go from place to place trying to figure out where you're going and what you're going to be doing. I think there was a spiritual application because I felt for a long time like I was in this wilderness trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing.
"I was pulled in so many different directions, and ultimately I think it was at Baptist Press that I really came to understand. I was sort of getting an idea of where God was taking me."
From BP, he served briefly as communications director at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. Yet in that position he realized that God's calling on his life was to be a reporter, not a communications professional, he said. So he began working at a small news talk radio station in Jackson, WTJS, where ratings were abysmal.
Knowing that it might take drastic action to renew the station, he cashed in his retirement account and rented an entire movie theater for the opening night of Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of The Christ." Then he gave away all the tickets on the air.
The feat created a buzz surrounding the station, and the next time ratings came out, WTJS had gone from a zero share to a 4 share in the market -- an amazing turnaround.
In the wake of that success, Starnes got a job at the much larger KFBK in Sacramento. Yet after moving to California, his focus quickly shifted from radio to something far more serious.
Doctors discovered that his aortic valve was in the final stages of failure and required surgical replacement quickly. Without the surgery, they said Starnes would die. So he had the surgery and went through months of painful recovery.
"As hard as the physical part of the recovery was, the emotional part was the worst," he said, adding that sometimes he lay awake at night with his cell phone on the pillow ready to call for help, worried that his artificial heart valve would stop working.
In that position he has covered the Obama presidential campaign, the White House and major news events across the country.
He says that while he cannot always emphasize his Christian faith on the job, he was honest about it when hired and he seeks to help the cause of Jesus through his work.
"For me as a Christian reporter, I think my job is to be the very best reporter I can be and quite frankly suggest stories that are important to the body of Christ, bring those to the forefront when we have our morning meetings to talk about stories," he said.
In the future, Starnes says he hopes to continue reporting the news and writing books. His first book, "They Popped My Hood and Found Gravy on the Dipstick," tells the story of his surgery and recovery, and his next is due out in June.
Through all of his ups and downs, Starnes says learning from mistakes and relying on God's grace has been the key to his success.
"Every time I'm able to talk to a senator or a lawmaker or somebody, I'm just shocked that this is my job, that the Lord has given me the opportunity to do this," Starnes said.
David Roach is a pastor and writer in Shelbyville, Ky.
Copyright (c) 2010 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net