From Ode to Joy-FM
James Hitchcock on the Sale of a Lutheran Classical Station
Shortly after nine o’clock on a hot night this past July, the closing strains of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony carried over the radio, bringing with them an end to a venerable St. Louis institution. The finale of KFUO-FM also brought into focus some of the anomalies of the relationship between the Church and contemporary culture.
KFUO-FM was, as listeners were reminded each day, “owned and operated by the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod” (LCMS). It had broadcast classical music for 62 years and, during that time, had ceased to be a Christian station, devoting itself almost exclusively to the classics and featuring religious music only around Christmas and Easter. Presumably it attracted aneducated and financially successful audience—the station was richinadvertisements, including ones for automobiles and gourmet restaurants.
When the LCMS first announced its intention to sell the station, a group called the Radio Arts Foundation was formed to buy it. Later, this group charged that it had been frozen out of the negotiating process, but an LCMS spokesman countered that Radio Arts had been the first group approached about the sale and had simply been unable to meet the price paid by the ultimate buyer.
Instead, the LCMS sold KFUO-FM to a group called Gateway Creative Broadcasting, for $18 million plus interest, to be paid in installments; and overnight the station became JOY-FM, a “Christian rock” station that proudly proclaims its evangelistic mission.
Affront to the Religion of Art
KFUO-FM was one of the few remaining classical music stations in the United States, and news of the sale brought many protests, including some from politicians and from prominent members of the LCMS itself.
The sale unavoidably took on a religious dimension, both because of the buyer and because the LCMS candidly said that the musical format did not serve the synod’s mission and that the money from the sale would be used for better purposes.
But in addition to the Lutherans who sold KFUO and the nondenominational Christians who bought it, a third creed quickly entered the picture—the Religion of Art, whose beliefs do not seem to include understanding of and tolerance for other faiths. For the Religion of Art, the sale was nothing less than a sacrilege.
Its rhetoric became increasingly feverish and self-pitying (“a wound that will never heal,” “a dull, throbbing pain”), and some of the complainants manifested a kind of spoiled self-indulgence, given that, as a number of people pointed out, technology now makes classical music available in many ways and the complainants seemed miffed primarily because they could no longer access it by a simple touch of the radio dial.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch is a typical American newspaper of this generation, which means that it is bemused and suspicious at any manifestation of conservative Christianity. But even so, when the paper published a largely factual article about JOY-FM, a reader accused the Post-Dispatch of spreading Christian propaganda.
After the newspaper revealed that St. Louis Cardinals baseball star Albert Pujols was among those financing the purchase of the station, another reader expressed satisfaction that Pujols had dropped a fly ball in a recent game, presumably as punishment for his donation, and still another ordered Pujols to “keep his personal religion to himself” and urged fans to jeer him every time he came to bat.
Dangerous & Illegitimate
The Religion of Art’s ultimate objection to the sale was articulated by a reader who charged that it was part of a conspiracy to “control the media, education, government, politics, and other instruments of power, so as to expunge free expression, spirit, and thought and to put in their place sectarian scripture, holy spirit, and religious faith.” The “freedom-loving people of St. Louis have been abandoned,” he complained.
Not too many years ago, St. Louis had two classical music stations. But the local National Public Radio station, KWMU-FM, run by the University of Missouri, eventually shifted exclusively to a “talk” format. Significantly, those who complained bitterly about the sale of KFUO did not urge KWMU to return to its older format, nor did anyone suggest that one of the other local universities, which are presumably the guardians of high culture, should step into the breach.
These aroused passions ignored the most elementary fact about the sale—that the LCMS does not exist to promote high culture, however laudable that might be, but to promote the gospel, and that it has both the right and the obligation to ensure that its resources are used for the purposes it considers proper.
In the KFUO case, the Religion of Art could not recognize the LCMS as a legitimate activity to be respected on its own terms. Indeed, as more than one protestor intimated, it represents a dangerous influence on society. According to them, it has no legitimate religious purpose and therefore can justify its existence only by whatever services it provides for the general community.
The AM Side of the Story
But there were aspects of the sale that affected Christians as well.
The LCMS also owns and operates KFUO-AM, which, in the current state of the radio industry, is financially far less valuable than the FM station. Unlike the FM station, KFUO-AM has remained religious in content, broadcasting church services and religious music almost exclusively.
But some years ago, after having long featured traditional church music, KFUO-AM switched to a “contemporary” style, interspersing the “pop” songs it now features every day with folksy exhortations from pastors who function, in effect, as religious disk jockeys. Thus, for years, neither AM nor FM KFUO did justice to the unequalled richness of the Lutheran musical tradition, which the AM station largely confines to Sundays.
KFUO-AM also broadcasts various religious “talk shows,” some of them of rather sophisticated content. However, several years ago, the station ceased broadcasting the syndicated program Issues, Etc., reportedly because Gerald Kieschnick, the president of the synod, was unhappy that the program is often critical of the “nondenominational, evangelical megachurch model” of pastoral strategy that he promoted within the LCMS itself.
There is no indication that the LCMS sold KFUO-FM specifically for the purpose of promoting “Christian rock” music. However, JOY-FM takes the same kind of pastoral approach.
Shortly after the sale, Kieschnick was defeated for reelection, after nine years in office. His opponents, who identified themselves as “confessional Lutherans,” were critical of his pastoral strategy but gave no indication that the sale of KFUO-FM played a significant role in his defeat.
A Troubling Conundrum
After JOY-FM came on the air, a Post-Dispatch reader said that his wife was threatening to rip out their car radio rather than listen to the new station, and he asked, “Since when is it godly to get rich from popular, supposedly religious music?”
It is time for full disclosure. My wife and I were devoted listeners to KFUO-FM for more than forty years, and we miss it. I find the music on KFUO-AM at best uninspiring, and often sounding as though traditional hymns have been adapted by a cocktail-lounge pianist (“Oh, oh, oh Jeee-eee-zuz!”). I have several times sampled JOY-FM and find it physically unendurable for more than a few seconds—the sheer cacophonous volume assaults the ears, and the (presumably) Christian lyrics are unintelligible.
But another Post-Dispatch reader’s claim that “99 percent of the listening audience disdains this music” is doubtful. Reportedly, “Christian rock” is the fastest-growing radio format in the country, and JOY listeners testify fervently to the ways in which the station has helped them in their needs.
It is one of the troubling conundrums of contemporary Christianity that sincere believers now sometimes find it impossible to worship with one another, not primarily because of doctrine or church polity, but because of liturgical “styles” which everyone senses are more than merely that, but whose deepest significance remains elusive.
James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“From Ode to Joy FM” first appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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