Based on what I know of KFUO-FM’s management and value, I support the sale of the radio station. Still, I think it’s terribly sad that it came to this and I think the sale reflects poorly on the leadership of the Synod. This is a tremendously complex story but I’d like to share some of what I know from my experience. But know that there’s so much more I am unable to share.
Let’s first explain the difference between KFUO-AM and KFUO-FM.
KFUO (850 AM) is “America’s longest continually running religious broadcasting radio station. Richard Kretzschmar, John Fritz and Dr. Walter A. Maier, who originated the famed Lutheran Hour broadcast, founded the AM station in 1924. Three years later, they moved the station to its permanent home on the Concordia Seminary campus in St. Louis, Mo.” It’s a low-wattage station that operates during daylight hours and has talk religious programs and banal Christian music. Prior to David Strand inexplicably canceling the show and firing its hosts, Issues, Etc. was syndicated from KFUO-AM.
KFUO-FM is located at 99.1 and plays classical music as “Classic 99 KFUO-FM”. It’s a 100 kW station. KFUO-FM is one of the oldest FM stations west of the Mississippi River, broadcasting since 1948.
Studios for both stations are located on the campus of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. KFUO began as a listener supported station, but moved to a commercial format. KFUO-FM costs a lot to run, did fairly poorly in terms of selling ads, and had an abysmal fundraising record. (The August 20-21 LCMS BOD minutes report, for instance, that “fundraising efforts costing KFUO $402,000 over the past year generated gifts of only $448,000.”) It also was completely secular in its programming approach. It had a bloated staff and resisted cost-saving moves such as automation.
In 2004, I was placed on the Board for Communication Services. That is the LCMS operating board that, among many other things, oversees the management and operations of KFUO. I can not begin to tell you how horribly managed this station was. It’s not a secret that the BCS issued a vote of no confidence in the management of the station back in 2007. But that followed years of failure on the part of KFUO management to address concerns the board had about how the stations were being run. This is just a small example, but we had reason to believe that a bulk of the expenses were being attributed to the small AM station (when expensive new equipment was purchased, for instance), while donations that were clearly from, for instance, Issues, Etc. listeners were attributed to the KFUO-FM side. Or a large foundation would give a six-figure grant to the AM side and it would be allocated across both stations. We never got a better accounting.
Year after year, we’d ask station management to fix the institutional problems that led it to devalue the programming of authentically Lutheran shows at the expense of secular programming. Nothing ever changed. Well, in light of the fact that Issues, Etc. — the one program with national listenership! — was canceled, I guess it’s not right to say nothing ever changed. Things did change, and almost always for the worse.
The FM station routinely underplayed its connection to the LCMS. Once people began discussing selling the station on account of its failed programming and financial performance, they did a couple of “smoke and mirrors” moves to keep the concerned Lutherans at bay. One thing they did was mention time-to-time that the station was owned by the LCMS. Another thing they did was put out a newsletter that highlighted Lutheran themes. What’s hilarious about this newsletter, however, is that it only went to Lutherans. An exact copy of the newsletter was sent to secular supporters of the station with almost every mention of Christ, the cross and Lutheranism excised! It was unbelievable.
Oh, one time our board met on the campus of Concordia Seminary. And it turned out that one of the managers of the station instructed employees to play Lutheran composers that day. As opposed to the normal programming. I’m not kidding.
And fundraising was wretched year after year. But Synodical officials wouldn’t let us get out from under the borderline corrupt LCMS Foundation in charge of fundraising.
And any time we tried to hold management accountable, Synodical leaders would intervene and enable the management to continue without improvement.
Once, the board actually took serious action of making significant personnel changes. Shortly after we took our vote, we received letters informing us that various individuals holding positions of Synodical leadership wanted us to reverse our vote. They would strong arm us (although the naivete and weakness of the Board for Communication Services members can not be denied. And I include myself in that indictment.).
The truth is that KFUO-FM could have been a glorious asset. It could have been a point of pride for the church at large and the St. Louis community specifically. But it has been horribly managed for decades and the leadership of Synod has enabled that horrible management for years.