The Rev. Billy Graham was president of then-Northwestern College in 1949 when it launched KTIS radio station inside a tiny studio, with an opening prayer by Graham and a serene organ rendition of the hymn “Blessed Quietness.”
The modest venture into Christian broadcasting this year marked its 70th anniversary, today reaching at least 400,000 listeners a week through 23 radio stations in 10 states from Kansas to Connecticut, the station reports. That includes two stations in Illinois acquired last month.
The traditional organ recitals and church melodies have morphed into contemporary Christian music on KTIS FM 98.5. Its sister station, KTIS AM 900, has a “talk and teaching format” and is the flagship for the Faith Radio Network.
“KTIS is one of the top noncommercial Christian radio stations in the country in terms of audience and reach,” said Jason Sharp, senior vice president of the Northwestern Media network, of the University of Northwestern-St. Paul.
A rich history and consistent ownership gives KTIS and Faith Radio an unusual niche in the Christian broadcasting world, he said.
Thousands of people drive by the KTIS call letters on Snelling Avenue in Roseville every day, but most are unaware of its roots. The first studios were located near Loring Park in Minneapolis, then home of Northwestern, and it was often college employees behind the microphone.
Secretaries sang solos and formed trios, a stenographer played the organ and live programming was broadcast from Graham’s office, according to station histories.
Today KTIS is housed in a modern building on the Northwestern campus in Roseville. On a recent afternoon, KTIS host Andy Youso played music and fielded audience calls in the FM studio, while in the Faith Radio studio, a few feet away, host Bill Arnold interviewed on-air guests for a segment called “Guy Talk.”
In addition to broadcasting, KTIS has been a hub for organizing Christian events big and small in the Twin Cities. Click onto the KTIS website and find some of the best known, such as the annual Joyful Noise concerts, which last year drew about 20,000 fans, and an annual Christmas concert, which this year features Amy Grant with Michael W. Smith at the Target Center.
The radio station also sponsors a “Drive-thru Difference” campaign, encouraging folks to pay for a meal for the person behind them, and a “PrayerWorks” website that lets people request prayers anonymously and receive a notification every time a KTIS listener prays for them.
“Billy Graham was a pioneer in pointing people to Christ and used whatever format was necessary, and adapted to the times,” said Dave St. John, KTIS station manager. “98.5 KTIS works hard to adapt to the pace and attitudes of the community and the listeners through the ages.”
This year, for example, KTIS staff handed out kazoos and hosted a booth at a Children’s Hospital event. It gave away Bundt cakes to nurses at medical clinics during National Nurses Week. It’s now showing up with cups of cocoa for Salvation Army bell ringers, said Marianne Milano, director of audience engagement.
KTIS longevity could be attributed to several trends, said Neil Stavem, station manager of Faith Radio Network and veteran manager. The Christian music industry surged in the 1980s and 1990s, creating an audience size unheard of during Graham’s time. Minnesota became home to a variety of large evangelical churches whose worship music reflected what KTIS was playing. And “people liked what we were doing,” he said.
KTIS strove to be uplifting and non-divisive, he said, noting that Graham “wasn’t about dividing up people by denomination.”
While the radio station’s mission is spreading the gospel of Jesus, it is also about spreading the word that listener-sponsored radio requires financial support from its audience. The KTIS FM network has a $7 million annual budget and the Faith Radio Network has a $1.6 million budget. The vast majority must come from listeners.
In the case of Christian music, listeners are typically ages 25 to 54, skewing female, Sharp said. Faith Radio fans run a bit older, about 35 to 64 years old, he said.
About 5% of listeners contribute financially each year, Sharp said. Attracting more donors can be a challenge because the faithful “have so many options” right now, he said.
As the station moves into its seventh decade, its leaders pledge to continue to evolve with the times — with one caveat. Said Sharp: “The [musical] sound matches the sound of today, but the message is the same as yesterday.”