Radio Radio

We search the airwaves for signs of intelligent life

"So she wants to run Satan out of town," Knapp crows. "I have to agree." He then launches into a rapid-fire monologue that ranges from the weather to the Winter Carnival to a fishing house that has inexplicably been deposited on Interstate 35. "You're probably not having a good day if you lose your fish house on the highway," Knapp quips at one point. "Can I get an 'amen' for that?"

Knapp has a head of wispy gray hair, wire-rim glasses, and a bug-eyed expression of constant bemusement on his face. He stands behind the microphone in the station's gray-walled St. Paul studio, located on the campus of Northwestern College, occasionally clapping and singing along to the music. "My vision of morning radio is 'wake 'em up, get 'em up, stand below their windows with a garbage can or something,'" Knapp says. "Woo-hoo! Wake 'em up!"

A live track by Christian-music superstar Michael W. Smith is playing on the airwaves. "How many of you are hungry for God?" Smith calls out to the crowd.

Apparently a lot of people in the Twin Cities are feeling spiritually famished each morning, because in the last four years the Knapper and the Pastor have quietly become a drive-time powerhouse. While Tom Barnard's shock-jock routine on KQRS (92.5 FM) continues to dominate the early morning hours, among the prized 25-to-54-year-old demographic KTIS now routinely lands among the top five most listened-to stations between 6:00 and 10:00 a.m. And the station's audience is steadily growing. According to last summer's Arbitron ratings, the number of people listening to KTIS has increased by 43 percent since the beginning of 1999.

Jesus, it seems, is making serious inroads on the airwaves. In some ways it's a stealth campaign. KTIS mimics the tactics of commercial FM radio, with polished on-air personalities and music that at first blush wouldn't sound out of place on Cities 97 (97.1 FM). A third of the station's listeners aren't even regular churchgoers. Knapp says that people routinely tell him that KTIS sounds no different from other stations on the FM dial. "Are they starting to praise the Lord at KQ?" is his retort.

KTIS has become a financial phenomenon as well. In each of the past three years, the station--which is owned and operated by Northwestern College--has raised its annual operating budget of $2.5 million entirely through listener donations--during pledge drives that last just a few days. Hundreds of thousands of dollars more have been contributed to help deliver Christian radio to parts of Russia and Belize. Last year, between the station's annual "Shareathon" fund drive and a special campaign to pay for a new headquarters, KTIS raised more than $5 million. "I'm almost positive that no [Christian radio station] has hit that [number] nationwide," says Todd Isberner, president of ShareMedia, a consulting firm that helps KTIS and other religious stations around the country with fundraising.

Isberner adds that most Christian radio stations bring in closer to $200,000 or $300,000 annually: "You can't find a cleaner, more solid organization than Northwestern in terms of their financing and their funding."

This year's Shareathon was slated for less than two weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The station contemplated postponing its fundraising drive in deference to the victims and, allows station manager (and ordained minister) Rev. Jon Engen, because they feared listeners would be in no mood to shell out money for radio in the wake of the tragedy. Ultimately KTIS decided to proceed, but with ten percent of the donations earmarked for the Salvation Army to assist attack victims. The result was no different than in previous years: more than $3.5 million raised in three days. About 1,000 people contributed at least $1,000 and received a complimentary American flag. "We leave Shareathon each year with our jaws on the floor amazed at what God has done," says Reverend Engen, who works as Knapp's drive-time partner.

The rise of KTIS has been driven in part by the recent boom in contemporary Christian music. In July Newsweek declared it the "hottest genre in the entire music industry," with annual sales totaling $747 million. While much of the music industry staggered through 2001, sapped by the sluggish economy, sales of Christian music were up 13.5 percent, according to the Christian Music Trade Association. The godly fare apes every genre of popular music, from hardcore to country, but with a distinct focus on Jesus Christ. Steven Curtis Chapman (think Michael Bolton for the Bible set) has sold more than seven million albums. Last month Warner Music Group purchased Word Entertainment, one of the leading producers of religious music, for $84 million. "Christian music has finally come out of the closet," declares Knapp.

KTIS has also been helped by the lack of competition in the Twin Cities market. While religious stations are present on the dial, such as the Jesus-centric talk radio of KKMS (980 AM) and the traditional praise music of WCTS (1030 AM), no other full-powered FM station offers a contemporary Christian music format. "They've been very, very fortunate to really be the only player on the block here," says radio consultant Isberner.

That is likely to change before long. As Christian music has morphed into big business in recent years, two chains have spread across the country. K-LOVE, a nonprofit network based in Sacramento, now operates 45 stations nationwide. It also owns 122 translators that relay its signal over smaller areas, including the Twin Cities, where it is heard on 90.7 FM. K-LOVE president Dick Jenkins allows that the network is interested in acquiring a full-power station in Minnesota, but he declines to get into specifics because of pending business negotiations. "Demographically, the Minneapolis area is one of the best Christian-radio markets in the country," Jenkins notes. "There is a strong Christian influence from churches and colleges."

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