With new radio signal, Christian music fans jump for JOY

2010-07-06T00:20:00Z 2012-01-25T08:57:00Z With new radio signal, Christian music fans jump for JOYBY TIM TOWNSEND • ttownsend@post-dispatch.com > 314-340-8221 stltoday.com

A poster in the Des Peres studio of Christian music radio station JOY-FM depicts Jesus wearing a crown of thorns, with the Gateway Arch in the background. Beneath it, a verse from the book of Joshua proclaims, "Shout! For the Lord has given you the city."

On Wednesday, with a move to a more powerful 100,000-watt signal and a new home on the FM dial, JOY and its listeners plan to start shouting.

In May, the Federal Communications Commission approved JOY's $18 million purchase of the signal at 99.1 FM from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which has broadcast classical music there as KFUO-FM since 1975.

The move means JOY gets to boost its signal and its audience substantially, but it has enraged classical music fans.

KFUO-FM devotees have tagged JOY's listeners as enemies of high culture — champions of derivative, evangelical schmaltz who killed off Brahms to win souls in St. Louis County.

On a Facebook page called "Stop the Sale of KFUO Classic 99 in St. Louis!," WLarry wrote, "as a Christian, I am sickened by this sale. I feel like I'm experiencing the death of a close friend."

But JOY's takeover of the stronger signal will also mean St. Louis becomes a bigger player in the fastest-growing musical radio format in the country. That could have economic ripple effects, including the prospect of more major Christian rock acts coming to town.

The station's new, more powerful signal "will allow me to reach people outside St. Louis who may not have heard my music," Christian music superstar Chris Tomlin said before a JOY-sponsored show at the Scottrade Center June 18.

END OF A LONG WAIT

Fans of contemporary Christian music, or CCM, in radio parlance, have waited a long time for a better signal in St. Louis. After JOY's CCM predecessor, WCBW-FM, was sold in 1997, fans endured three years without a significant Christian pop broadcast presence. Since JOY began filling that gap in 2001, its weak signal has broadcast as much static as music.

But music is only part of the show at the noncommercial station. Its listeners and members see it as more of a Christian community than a source of entertainment. While other FM rock stations sponsor bikini car washes or chicken-wing eating contests, JOY distributes Bibles at prisons, stages free concerts for single moms and collects books and toys for children in area hospitals.

As of May, there were 946 contemporary Christian music format stations in the United States, according to trade publication Inside Radio, second only to country music's 2,006 stations. Like JOY, 82 percent of CCM stations are listener-supported, compared with fewer than 1 percent of country music stations.

Meanwhile, the number of CCM stations has increased 72 percent in the last 10 years, according to Inside Radio, while the number of country music stations declined 9 percent.

Christians are "a huge segment of the radio audience," said radio industry consultant Donna Halper. "They just don't want to hear dirty lyrics when they get in the car with their kids."

JOY's existing transmitters — 50,000 watts in Potosi, Mo., and 25,000 watts in Bowling Green, Mo. — cover a potential audience of just over 500,000, according to Sandi Brown, the station's general manager and on-air personality. Today, the station has fewer than 100,000 listeners.

The new signal boosts its potential audience to 2.7 million; Brown expects JOY to double its listenership in the next few years.

TARGETING LISTENERS

Jeremiah Beck, station manager of WIBI-FM, a 50,000-watt CCM station based in Carlinville, Ill., said Christian stations tend not to go head to head. "We think of other Christian stations as partners or collaborators trying to spread the Gospel message," Beck said. "But we do want to compete within the demographic with secular radio stations."

That demographic is women, ages 18-45. JOY's main secular competition for those listeners comes from adult contemporary radio formats, including KYKY-FM, marketed as Y-98, and KEZK-FM, Soft Rock 102.5.

Grant Hubbard, vice president of national promotion for Nashville-based record label EMI's Christian Music Group, said that in the last decade, St. Louis has underperformed other markets in terms of Christian music sales and concert ticket sales. Hubbard attributed that to JOY's weak signal; he expects that to change when the station moves to 99.1.

The June 18 Scottrade concert featured EMI CCM acts Tomlin and TobyMac, who combine hip-hop, rock and funk with traditional worship lyrics. The show drew about 5,000 people. The same act in Houston, where CCM station KSBJ-FM is the largest in the country, would have sold nearly triple the number of tickets, Hubbard said.

TobyMac's manager, Laurie Anderson, said a healthy Christian radio market is crucial.

"When you're looking into tours, you choose markets with CCM, because the station has already cultivated your fans in that city," Anderson said.

THERAPIST, PASTOR, DJ

On a recent morning, JOY drive-time hosts Brown and Greg Cassidy sat across from each other in the station's studio. Cassidy worked the sound board, playing bands like Third Day, Casting Crowns and Starfield. Brown told listeners a Post-Dispatch reporter was in the studio, and asked them to call in to talk about what the station meant to them.

Brown and Cassidy are part therapist, part pastor and part DJ. One caller after another described how JOY helped them through a rough time in their lives. A woman's husband died unexpectedly, she said, and she tuned in to JOY for help. A father told of using the station to help him connect with his teenagers. A wife said her marriage was strengthened by the music.

"It's more like a ministry spreading the name of God," said a caller named Christine. "It gives the Christian community a voice in a cold, dark, decaying society."

Indeed, JOY's mission statement hangs, framed, on the studio wall. "We will use Christian music as a means of encouraging believers, uniting the body of Christ and sharing the clear, life-changing message of Jesus with the world."

MASSIVE FUND DRIVE

JOY's seeds were planted in 1981 with a 3,000-watt signal in Columbia, Ill., with the call letters WCBW-FM. After a move to south St. Louis County, an increase in signal strength and a name change to "The Bridge," WCBW's New York-based owner, Continental Broadcasting Inc., sold the station in 1997 to Jacor Communications Inc. for $13.2 million.

Soon after, Brown — who started as a WCBW intern in 1985 — and some members of the station's board of directors began planning their own noncommercial station. Brown spent the next three years fundraising full time, and plowed her own family's finances into the effort. In 2001, the group — now called Gateway Creative Broadcasting — was back on the air as JOY-FM.

Each May, the station stages a three-day fund drive, asking listeners to finance the next year of operations. That first May, it needed $480,000. This year, it asked listeners for $1.48 million.

"We've never spent more than the listeners have given," Brown said. "There's no deficit there. We can only do what our listeners allow us to do."

May's drive was separate from the $2 million JOY raised from October through February for the down payment on the purchase of the new signal. Brown said 80 percent of the total came from gifts of $1,000 or less; 95 people gave more than $1,000. Cardinals star Albert Pujols and retired Cardinals pitcher Andy Benes contributed to the down payment, though neither the players nor the station has said how much.

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod announced the sale of 99.1 to Gateway Creative Broadcasting in October, and in May, the FCC approved the deal. On Wednesday, the church will hand over the signal's license to JOY.

Vicki Biggs, the LCMS director of public affairs, said proceeds will be used to fund new ministries, "including broadening the use of technology to proclaim the Gospel worldwide."

David Strand, executive director of the church's communications board, said that while the exact number of KFUO-FM employees who will lose their jobs in the transition is not yet determined, it's likely to be "about 14." The LCMS will still run KFUO-AM.

Biggs and Brown denied reports that the LCMS preferred to sell the signal to another Christian ministry.

"We were told in our first meeting with KFUO, 'We're only going to sell if we get top dollar,'" Brown said. "No Christian card was played."

PERSONAL CONNECTION

JOY's listeners understand why classical music fans were angered.

"We've been there," Brown said. "They'll be in a better place when they control their own destiny. ... The Lutheran Church has its own mission, and that's not classical music."

But with new music technologies mushrooming, why the angst over an analog radio signal?

"There's a personal connection in radio that you don't get when listening to an iPod, and that's the upper hand local radio has over satellite or Internet radio," Brown said. "It's why you go to church — for that connection to like-minded people. We're not church, but we're a daily connection you don't get in church."

Church was exactly what Chris Tomlin re-created on stage at the Scottrade Center as thousands of fans — mostly parents with children — lifted their hands in praise as he sang. Dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, Tomlin led the crowd as it belted out his lyrics.

Matt Rector, 32, of Park Hills, and his three sons — ages 8, 10 and 12 — stood near the front of the stage. It was the boys' first concert experience, he said. Did they know the music from church?

They did. And also from the radio. "We have (JOY) on all the time," Rector said. "We never change the station."

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