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With touch of sadness, area's classical music radio station bids farewell

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The farewells for KFUO (99.1 FM) came to an end on Tuesday night with the playing of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, "Choral."

That ended a week of goodbyes for 62-year-old "Classic99." Its owner, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, has sold the signal of St. Louis’ classical music station to Gateway Creative Broadcasting’s JOY-FM, which will use the signal for Christian contemporary pop music, beginning today.

In place of the usual ads in the last days, there were thank-yous from prominent figures in the arts, including Susan Slaughter, the just-retired longtime principal trumpet of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. "Thank you for your ministry of great music to the St. Louis area and the whole world," Slaughter said.

Operations manager and announcer Ron Klemm read selections from some of the "literally thousands" of letters and e-mails of appreciation that the station has received from listeners in recent weeks.

"Some of them are really heart-wrenching," station manager Dennis Stortz said. "They say things like, ‘You’ve been a part of my life; you got me through my breast cancer.’ "

The music library will stay with all-religious KFUO-AM, which will continue to operate. Stortz will stay on as manager, but 14 other station employees have been laid off. Most of them have been at KFUO for a long time, from 19 years for program director Jim Connett — the junior member of the firm — to 33 for Klemm.

The 16 months since the synod’s board of directors decided to seek a buyer for the station have been stressful for the staff, they say. "We call it ‘Radio Hospice,’ " said one.

None of the full-timers report having a new job. Announcer John Clayton said his only plans are to get married and have a brief honeymoon next month; he doesn’t know whether he’ll stay in radio or try a different career. Klemm plans to produce a recording in the fall. "After that, who knows?" Klemm said.

At 8:30 Tuesday night, a surprisingly young crowd gathered in the parking lot in front of the station on the Concordia Seminary campus for a candlelight vigil promoted on Facebook. It was organized by Alex Blank, 18, a bassoon and composition student at Indiana University and alumnus of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra.

Among those present was Diana Haskell, assistant principal clarinet of the SLSO, and a Lutheran. "My heart is heavy," she said. "KFUO-FM has made us a better city. My prayer is that out of these ashes will come a new station."

Erica Fishel, 25, a graduate student at Washington University, was there with a friend, Lutheran church musician Kevin Huchshold, also 25. "KFUO is an old friend," Fishel said. "The last couple of days, it’s been like watching someone die."

Blank was expecting "maybe 30 people," but the lot and grassy field were filling by the time Stortz said his last words.

"For one last time," he said, "this is Classic99, KFUO-FM, Clayton, St. Louis. To everyone: Thank you for listening."

As those at the vigil began lighting candles, the first measures of Beethoven’s 9th began. The final count was about 150. They were quiet, not quite somber, talking in low voices or listening. A downpour hit ("Even God is crying," said one woman), but nobody left, and it soon passed.

When the final majestic chord died away, there were shouts of "Bravo!" and applause. Someone quoted Martin Luther — "Music is a great and glorious gift of God" — and those at the vigil held up their candles.

Then one voice started "Auld Lang Syne," and soon the whole crowd was singing it softly. Then they sang Luther’s great hymn, "A Mighty Fortress" — and then it was really over.



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