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Requiem for KFUO? Sale of classical music station may come later this week

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 24, 2009 - The future of KFUO-FM -- and classical music on the radio in St. Louis -- could be determined later this week.

A committee presentation last week to the board of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which operates the station, did not result in any final action, the synod said in a statement Monday.

But the statement added that additional information is expected to be announced later this week.

The Beacon first reported earlier this year that KFUO was up for sale. Since that time, a committee of the board has been studying the best way to find a buyer and also keep classical music on the air. Joy FM, which airs contemporary Christian programming on two smaller frequencies, has expressed interest in obtaining the 99.1 spot on the FM dial that KFUO uses in its broadcasts from Concordia Seminary in Clayton. Neither Joy nor the synod would confirm that Joy has made an offer.

Kermit Brashear, an Omaha, Neb., lawyer who heads the synod committee handling sale negotiations, said last week that he hopes a deal could be worked out under which KFUO could use a high-definition signal that would be translated to an FM frequency to continue airing classical music.

Classical music fans in St. Louis may be closer to finding out whether their one radio station will continue to play their favorites.

A committee of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod will report to the synod's board this week on efforts to sell KFUO-FM, which is operated by the church out of studios at Concordia Seminary in Clayton.

The synod has been exploring a sale of the station for more than a year. A committee headed by Kermit Brashear, an attorney in Omaha, Neb., will update board members on negotiations. No deadline has been set for a final decision.

Two scenarios appear to the most likely. Brashear said in an interview that a "firm" $18 million offer has been made to operate at 99.1 FM. He declined to identify who made the offer, but broadcasters at Joy FM, which airs contemporary Christian music on two smaller frequencies, have openly discussed their interest and negotiations for KFUO.

At the same time, Brashear said, he personally would like to see KFUO continue broadcasting classical music by following the route of several other stations in the St. Louis market -- using a high-definition signal, then translating it to an FM signal that would run simultaneously and parallel to the HD signal.

"Speaking only for myself," Brashear said, "I'm going to encourage the church to consider that so that we're not denying anybody anything and they can take it or leave it on those terms."

He said a group of KFUO supporters has raised the possibility that it could assume the station's license. But Brashear said the financial terms of that deal -- under which the station would be valued at $8 million and the group would buy 60 percent of it over time -- is not as attractive as the larger, firm offer.

Brashear noted that in his home city of Omaha, the classical music station is about to give way to sports broadcasting, and in New York City, longtime classical music mainstay WQXR has been sold by the New York Times.

"That may tell intelligent people whether the formats are sustainable," he said, "particularly on a highly desirable, wide-ranging overpowered and underutilized system."

While no firm deadline has been set for the synod to make a decision, Brashear said, the realities of the market may dictate when a deal has to be completed.

"A ready, willing, able and capable buyer is going to put up with only so much indecision and delay," he said. "We are beginning to run out of time to maximize this extraordinary opportunity, extraordinary in terms of economic return on assets."

While she would not confirm that her station is seeking to buy KFUO, Joy general manager Sandi Brown did say that "we are looking at all opportunities to strengthen our presence in St. Louis."

Asked how she felt about being portrayed as a broadcaster trying to rob classical music fans of their radio station, Brown said:

"We are passionate about one thing. This is not about doing harm to anybody. It's about using this format to reach people who might be hurting and would need the love of Jesus Christ."

Dennis Stortz, director of broadcast operations at KFUO and a member of the station's staff since 1975, said that since the Beacon ran the first story about the possible sale in February, he has been overwhelmed with e-mails and phone calls of protest.

"People are saying, 'I can't believe this is happening, tell me it's not so, what can I do to prevent this?' " Stortz said. "I tell them to make their feelings known to the board of directors of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod."

Will those protests make any difference?

"I think I'll take a pass on that," Stortz said.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.