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Radio Arts Foundation

Nonprofit celebrates first anniversary of bringing classical music back to St. Louis

A shorter version of this article was published in the West End Word, February 26, 2014

By Eileen P. Duggan

After Classic 99 (KFUO-FM 99.1) left the airwaves on July 6, 2010, St. Louis classical music lovers endured nearly three years of FM radio silence. But on April 8, 2013, classical music returned to FM radio in the form of the Radio Arts Foundation, airing as RAF-STL 107.3 FM with a hybrid digital version on KIHT HD2 96.3 and live streaming at http://www.rafstl.org.

Radio Arts Foundation celebrated its first anniversary with an inaugural gala on March 19 at the Sheldon Concert Hall. The fund-raiser included a concert by violinist Gil Shaham, pianist Orli Shaham and David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Joining RAF-STL General Manager Jim Connett (second from right) in the studio are, (from left): Jim Doyle, on-air host; Tom Sudholt, program director (seated) and Kathy Lawton Brown, on-air host. Photo by Diana Linsley

Joining RAF-STL General Manager Jim Connett (second from right) in the studio are, (from left): Jim Doyle, on-air host; Tom Sudholt, program director (seated) and Kathy Lawton Brown, on-air host.
Photo by Diana Linsley

The fledgling station already is receiving accolades. The St. Louis Cathedral Concerts series presented its 2014 Great Music Award March 2 to the Radio Arts Foundation–St. Louis Board of Directors and General Manager Jim Connett for their work in creating a new radio home for the arts in St. Louis. The award was presented at a benefit auction featuring a performance by St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster David Halen and pianist Peter Henderson.

Although RAF-STL’s immediate task was to fill the void created by the exit of Classic 99, the new station’s programming more closely resembles the classical incarnation of KWMU-FM during the 1970s and ’80s, but with a decidedly local focus. RAF plays a wide range of classical music both popular and obscure, and it presents educational segments, performer interviews, live performances, syndicated shows, jazz and blues programs, and youth-oriented programs.

“It is a great gift to have our beloved classical music station back on the air again,” said Minoo Mehta, past president of the Artist Presentation Society. “However, the station’s programming goes beyond classical music. It is really the voice for our entire arts community. I recognize it took an incredible amount of dedication and hard work by a host of people (not to mention a great deal of money) to bring this jewel back to life. My sincere thanks to all of them.”

For those who missed it, the news in early 2009 of an impending sale of Classic 99 set in motion a drama of operatic proportions, complete with villains and heroes and shocking plot twists. The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, which had owned KFUO-AM and FM for more than 60 years, quietly decided to sell the FM station, Classic 99. There was dissension among the church board and congregants and outrage among loyal listeners. When it was revealed that the church had a deal to sell the dial position to a Christian rock station, several suitors emerged to try to stop the sale and save Classic 99.

But it was a group of members from the KFUO arts board that finally prevailed, although not in keeping Classic 99 on the air. “The Radio Arts Foundation was formed out of the ashes of the KFUO arts board,”’ said Connett, who was program director and an announcer at Classic 99. “It was brought together to raise money and get classical music back on the airwaves in St. Louis.”

Those board members had made the church an early offer to buy Classic 99, but they never got a response, Connett said. In May 2009, more than a year before Classic 99 went off the air, Radio Arts Foundation incorporated as a Missouri 501(c)3 not-for-profit corporation, with the purpose of promoting classical music through operation of a radio station and other programs.

Connett was hired by the new foundation and one of its leaders, Centene Corporation President Michael Neidorff, to scout opportunities to secure a spot on the saturated radio dial for a new station. Working with John Beck, senior vice president and general manager of Emmis Communications, Connett quickly secured Emmis’ KIHT HD2 position.

“John Beck was upset that there wasn’t a classical musical station on the air,” Connett said. “Because if a classical station is not in your market, you’re a secondary music market.”

Connett knew that an internet radio station would be easy to set up, but getting an analog frequency was a tougher performance to pull off. “It was very daunting to find what could fit,” he said. Eventually, he found a translator in Cave Springs that could be “walked in” to a St. Louis tower through a complex legal process with the FCC.

Finally, the station began broadcasting at the 107.3 FM frequency in an approximate 20-mile radius of Clayton. At first the signal was rough, but it has improved, Connett said.

Listeners also can find RAF-STL on the Internet using a variety of formats, including iTunes, QuickTime, 4G mobile, Windows Media Player and other players. Android and iPhone users can download the RAF-STL app to listen through their phones and/or Bluetooth.

The old Classic 99 still exists in an online-only format at http://www.classic99.com, operated by the LCMS. For its part, KWMU-FM 90.7  (St. Louis Public Radio), spun off an HD and internet station devoted to classical music, but its focus is not local. KWMU’s main FM channel did take over the late Classic 99’s live broadcasts of St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Saturday night concerts.

Radio Arts Foundation operates out of a new studio in Centene’s Clayton headquarters with two state-of-the-art broadcast booths and a performance studio. The station also has access to Centene’s new 280-seat concert hall, equipped with a Steinway grand piano.

“Just in the past three years since Classic 99 closed, the technology has changed so much,” Connett said. “Everything has gone digital. We have CDs, but they go right into the computer. So your whole library is sitting on a computer somewhere and you pull up what you want to play.”

The digital format “is a very clean sound,” he said. “You have more choices, at least we do.” Although classical music has been around for centuries, it continues to grow. “Now contemporary composers are getting more and more recognition because musicians want to play it more and more, so newer music is cropping up. It’s very vital, not only for a classical music format, but for any type of music, to keep going, to keep pushing the envelope.”

Like the rest of the music business, RAF is challenged by people who want to download their music or just hear it on the internet. “Our challenge is that we need to come up with new things so you can surprise people,” Connett said. “Radio is a surprise. If you do your own programming, eventually you wear it out and there’s nothing new for you. So what we try to do is provide something that people have never heard before and get them interested in listening more because of that.”

That’s one of the reasons that RAF is not the new Classic 99. “We’re playing for a listenership that’s really involved in the arts and the community and really wants to listen to other things besides Beethoven’s 9th Symphony over and over again. We don’t have to play the ‘Top 99’ kind of idea. We’re going to lead our audience instead of following.”

The other difference, and the reason for this independence, is that the station is not-for-profit. According to the 501(c)3 rules, RAF can run only 72 minutes per day of commercial ads. With only 5 percent advertising, the station doesn’t have to participate in the Arbitron ratings game. “So that puts us in a unique position that we are not necessarily going to have to pander,” Connett said.

But RAF does have to rely on donations and community support. The foundation raised $1.2 million to establish the station, spending about $600,000 of that for start-up infrastructure costs, Connett said. The $1.2 million annual budget is funded by memberships, donations, a Young Friends Organization, foundations, corporate support, a Regional Arts Commission grant and other grants.

“Even the loveliest flower needs to be tended with loving care,” said APS’s Mehta. “RAF-STL is no different. I hope those who derive much joy by listening to its wonderful programs will not take the station for granted. Financial support from our entire community is going to be vital. We cannot run the risk of ever losing it again!”

The station’s seven employees include Connett, executive assistant Debbie Robb, sales manager Oather Kelly and production manager Brandon LaMew. On the air, Jim Doyle handles the morning drive from 6 to 10 a.m.; Kathy Lawton Brown covers mid-day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Tom Sudholt, another Classic 99 alumnus, carries the 2 to 6 p.m. slot and fills any other gaps. Two volunteers, Julie Schuster and Melissa Littlepage do some on-air work.

The other hours consist about 16 syndicated programs and several locally produced live programs. The live shows include a regular St. Louis Classical Guitar Society program; “Required Listening,” an a cappella vocal show hosted by St. Louis Chamber Chorus director Philip Barnes; the National Blues Museum Radio show with Christian Cudnik; “Juxtaposed,” featuring comparative studies of contemporary and classical music; St. Louis Symphony previews; and jazz shows hosted by Calvin Wilson and Jason Church. The station plans to air four St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra concerts a year. Opera lovers can find opera on Saturday afternoons, courtesy of the Houston, San Francisco and Lyric Operas as well as previews in season of Opera Theatre St. Louis.

Although the new station has received a fair amount of publicity, especially during the pre-debut drama, not everyone knows about it yet, Connett said. He emphasizes that the station has no connection to the Lutheran Church, but is owned by the public.

“We only receive support from our community,” he said “So support from the public is vital to keep this rolling. And to hear new things.”

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