By Paula Schlueter Ross
“So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
The three men credited with starting KFUO-AM must have held the message of that Scripture verse close to heart when they enlisted seminary students, Walther League members and other Lutheran groups to help raise $15,000 to construct a radio station in the attic of the old Concordia Seminary, then on Jefferson Avenue in St. Louis, in 1924.
One of the three, seminary professor Rev. Dr. Walter A. Maier — who served as the first “Gospel voice” of the station — said the call letters KFUO could stand for “Keeping Forward, Upward, Onward,” a principle the station has not abandoned in its 90-year history of sharing the Gospel.
“The vision of those who brought about the birth of KFUO was another example of Lutherans who saw new opportunities for mission and ministry and set out to seize the opportunities and technologies of that day,” said the Rev. Dr. Paul Devantier, who has been closely associated with the station as the voice of the 60-second “By the Way” devotionals for four decades, and as executive director of the LCMS Board for Communication Services from 1982 to 2000. “KFUO was the first of its kind and it remains today the world’s oldest religious radio station.”
Dedicated on Dec. 14, 1924 — four years after the first U.S. commercial radio station was licensed to broadcast in Pittsburgh — KFUO has announced a 90-day celebration to mark its first 90 years.
The Rev. Rod Zwonitzer, director of Broadcast Services for the station, says he’s “convinced that people in our Synod do not know that they have an official radio station” — one that today is not just heard locally but is accessible worldwide via the Internet at KFUO.org.
At the last LCMS national convention, in 2013 in St. Louis, Zwonitzer said a woman approached KFUO’s live broadcasting booth to say how much she enjoyed listening to the station during the convention and would miss it when she returned home to Chicago. A young page standing there asked to borrow the woman’s iPad, “and in 30 seconds [he had] KFUO streaming over her iPad — she couldn’t believe it was that easy.”
Zwonitzer said he wants Lutherans to “discover your radio station” — a distinctively Lutheran broadcast station “they can trust,” with Gospel-focused weekday programing featuring new subject areas such as apologetics, vocations and Lutheran confessional study.
The current schedule includes “His Time” at 7:15 a.m. weekdays, “Morning Prayer” at 9 a.m., “Law and Gospel” at 9:30 a.m., followed by “Faith ‘n’ Family” at 10 a.m., “Thy Strong Word” at 11 a.m., “Moments of Assurance” at noon, then a variety of programing in the 2 to 3 p.m. slot that explores topics such as Christian vocations and book reviews, “Issues Etc.” at 3 p.m., “Reformation Rush Hour” at 5 p.m. and “Evening Prayer” at 6 p.m.
Weekends offer staples such as live Lutheran worship services, sacred music and “Moments of Assurance.”
“We’re not out to be your generic Christian station — we’re out to be Lutheran,” says Zwonitzer.
The 90-day, 13-week anniversary celebration begins on Monday, Nov. 3, with a kickoff in the lobby outside the station’s state-of-the-art studios at the LCMS International Center in St. Louis. Synod employees and visitors there and at the Lutheran Church Extension Fund building down the street will be treated to cookies decorated with the anniversary logo. KFUO 90th anniversary T-shirts will be available for $15, there will be a drawing for “air time” on KFUO, and a Lego display, custom-made for the observance, that illustrates the station’s history.
Other planned weekly activities include:
- sharing of “KFUO Moments” related to the station’s nine-decade history, compiled and presented by Devantier. Those brief glimpses of KFUO history will likely include references to the start of KFUO-AM in 1924 (considered by many to be “too risky” at the time, since few AM radio receivers were in use), the start of KFUO-FM — the first FM station west of the Mississippi — in 1948, the brief devotional program “Portals of Prayer” (now known as “By the Way”) — an everyday feature of KFUO since 1956, the start of Classic 99 — a classical-music station — in 1976, the satellite broadcasts of “The Jubilee Network” in the 1980s, and the “landmark victory for religious freedom” in 1998 by KFUO in a lawsuit filed by the Federal Communications Commission.
- a look at KFUO technology over the years, which now includes an iPhone app and soon-to-be-released Android app. “Those who founded KFUO back in 1924 would be shocked at the technological wizardry available today,” notes Devantier. “But what the founders and early supporters of KFUO set out to do — to use radio for the proclamation of the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ — is still, after all these years, being done.”
- an anniversary-related mailing to KFUO donors and prospective donors that includes a fold-out Christmas card/ornament in the shape of a world globe, with a gift tag for special messages to be hung on a Christmas tree in the KFUO studio. The names of those who make charitable donations will be announced on the air.
- an emphasis on family, including the Holy Family, Lutheran families and the families of KFUO staff.
- a Dec. 15 anniversary worship service at the International Center chapel featuring Synod President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison as preacher. Those who become KFUO “day sponsors” during that week will receive a signed print by St. Louis liturgical artist Kelly Schumacher, and their names will be announced several times on the air.
- a look at music during Christmas week. KFUO traditionally airs only Christmas carols, hymns and songs that week, and special guests will share their favorite holiday songs and why they like them.
- a focus on the future of KFUO, including its vision of broadcasting to a specific country in that country’s home language. Test cases are being investigated for Africa, Asia and South America. KFUO has listeners in more than 200 countries, including non-Christian ones such as Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea, notes Zwonitzer, who says, “We know they’re listening to the Gospel.” Another goal is to start a program for college students, and possibly another one for younger listeners in high school and even middle school.
- a discussion of books reviewed on KFUO, including a contest that allows listeners to choose the “Book Talk 2014 Book of the Year.”
- a Concordia Historical Institute (CHI) exhibit on KFUO history. CHI — located on the campus of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis — is the Department of Archives and History for the Synod.
- the unveiling of a new hymn in honor of KFUO’s 90th anniversary, written by noted hymn writer Rev. Stephen P. Starke of Bay City, Mich.
Zwonitzer, who has served in his current KFUO post for two years now, says he’s “touched and humbled” to be involved in the ministry. He’s proud, he says, of his 9-member staff (several are part time) who’ve worked hard “to offer the world even more Gospel proclamation, in more different ways, to more demographics and more generations than ever before.”
He encourages LCMS Lutherans to get to know their official radio station at KFUO.org and to take part in its 90 days of celebration.
“To me, the future is bright,” he says. “We’re pleased to represent the Missouri Synod. And we’re looking forward to the next 90 years, if the Lord allows.”
Posted Oct. 31, 2014