Northwestern radio stations bring faith to life
By John Nemo
Kim Ketola F’07 closes her eyes, leans toward the microphone and listens to the woman whose heart is breaking over the telephone line.
“My daughter is out in California, and tonight she’s going to confront her husband about his drug and alcohol addiction,” the woman says, her voice faltering. “And I’m here in North Dakota. I can’t be there tonight, and I know how hard this is for her to go through. I just—I just want to be there right now, holding her in my arms, like I did when she was little…”
The woman begins to cry, her words trailing off into tears. As she does, radio producer Karl DeRocher ’06 looks at the computer monitors in front of him, clicks a mouse and slides up a volume control on the studio’s soundboard, bringing up a soft piano instrumental.
“Can we take a moment and pray for you right now?” Ketola asks gently, and in their mind’s eye, radio listeners all over the Northwestern Radio network are transported to a lonely North Dakota kitchen at mid-afternoon, sitting around a table with a mother whose heart is grieved by what her daughter is going through 2,000 miles away.
“As believers, how can we not pray for the challenge she is facing?” Ketola asks after finishing up that day’s edition of Along The Way, a daily, two-hour talk radio show that originates from the KTIS studios on the Northwestern campus.
“The purpose and the perspective are different in Christian radio,” Ketola continues. “It’s pretty unique, especially in talk radio. To have a place to share what is really in your heart, to feel safe doing that, and to pray for one another—it’s pretty unique that we’re able to do that every day on the radio.”
And whether it’s a talk program on one of Northwestern’s AM stations or a quick word of encouragement between songs on one of the network’s FM stations, Ketola and her counterparts are continuing a broadcast mission that started when KTIS first began broadcasting in 1949. Stories and songs for the masses.
“The whole point of why we’re on the air is to relay a message of the hope we have in Jesus Christ in a way that connects with our listeners,” says Jeff Rupp ’92, station manager at KUNW in Sioux Falls, S.D. “And we need to do it with today’s language. Just as Jesus did by sharing parables with the masses, we want to give our listeners stories and songs that are going to connect with their lives.”
With contemporary Christian music continuing to soar in popularity—46 percent of all adults listen to Christian radio at least once a month, and 1 in 6 listen on a daily basis, according to a 2005 study by The Barna Research Group—the climate has never been better to share the message Rupp is talking about. Even more, the Barna Group’s study revealed that nearly 30 percent of Christian radio’s audience is non-Christian.
“Our studies continue to show that people are using the Christian media to provide elements of ministry that are not adequately provided to them by their local church,” George Barna, who founded the research group that bears his name, noted in the study’s findings. “The faith-oriented media have become the primary means through which the gospel message is presented to non-Christians on a regular basis.”
As Ketola and DeRocher take time inside Northwestern’s Mel Johnson Media Center to talk off-air about that day’s broadcast, KTIS web producer Carl Bliss ’98 is on the building’s roof, shooting digital video of the station’s program director, Jason Sharp, casting with a fishing pole toward the pedestrian traffic milling about three stories below.
“Oh, oh, I got one!” Sharp chirps, pretending to reel in a student shuffling along on the sidewalk. Later, inside an office littered with multiple computers, CD burners and video equipment, Bliss will use today’s footage—aimed at helping promote a local fishing ministry—in KTIS’ weekly online video update.
“I want to meet our radio listener where he or she is consuming technology right now, and where he or she will be consuming technology tomorrow,” Bliss says. “It’s another way to share the message.”
And from innovative online features like KTIS’ video updates to podcasts, blogs and more, Northwestern’s radio stations are making sure connecting with and impacting listeners on a personal level keeps up with the ever-changing technology that continues to change the face of radio.
“It’s not a question of content, but rather the delivery system,” says Dick Whitworth, station manager at KNWI in Des Moines, Iowa. “It still will be a long time before AM and FM radio go away, but I also believe in the process there will be opportunities for things like Internet radio and podcasting. Because with improving WiFi technology and cars getting Internet radio connections, someone can pick up their local station no matter where they are. And people still want that connection to their local hometown community, because they’ve become friends with the announcers, and they know our stations are going to keep them plugged in.”
Adds Doug Poll, station manager at WSMR in Sarasota, Florida: “What I see happening is our stations continuing to penetrate the lives of local listeners and be relevant with them with whatever media that might be. Things like satellite radio and XM radio are great, but there’s no personality in that. When you have a Christian station that combines a great format in music with local talent and personalities and that gives listeners information about local events, that’s going to be winning radio.”
Real radio for real people
Aaron White ’03, KTIS’ director of creative services, is charged with putting together winning production work on everything from on-air promos to his work hosting the overnight DJ shift on KTIS-FM.
“In this job, people want you to be transparent,” he says. “They want to get to know you and hear who you are. It’s important to remember that you are a real person and that you are talking to a real person. And it’s OK to share with listeners if you’re having a tough day, and maybe here’s a verse that’s helping you get through it, or a song that really lifts your spirits.”
As Ketola and DeRocher put the wraps on another show, the Along The Way host reflects on the mission at Northwestern Media.
“We’re not just talking on the radio or playing songs,” she says. “We’re really inviting people to allow the Holy Spirit to offer them a very different perspective to what it is on their hearts. It’s a perspective of hope, encouragement and a fellowship of believers reminding you that you’re not alone.”
John Nemo is a freelance writer and author living in the Twin Cities. His latest Christian novel, The King’s Game, is about fathers, sons and baseball. Find him online at johnnemobooks.com.