KTIS: The New Radio King
Lauren Daigle, seen performing in the season finale of The Voice in 2021 above, is regularly aired on contemporary Christian radio stations like KTIS. Lauren Daigle's YouTube account

KTIS: The New Radio King

What’s behind the contemporary Christian radio station’s improbable success story in the Twin Cities?

What’s the most popular radio station in the Twin Cities?

KQRS? OK Boomer, that era ended a while ago. KNOW? That was a blip during peak pandemic/Trump paranoia. Mainstream adult contemporary KS95 and classic hits Kool 108 would be good guesses; they’re always in the hunt. But that would be wrong too. The most popular radio station in the Twin Cities for several months running has been KTIS (98.5 FM).

Owned by the University of Northwestern in Roseville, KTIS is as niche as those stations are mainstream. It plays contemporary Christian (CC) music. It’s a live and local radio station, unlike many religious broadcasters, which play satellite-fed programming from a central site. Pam Lundell, part of its morning drive show, is in the Minnesota Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

In July, KTIS attracted an 11.6% share of listeners age 6+, which is more than the shares of MyTalk 107, Cities 97, and WCCO Radio combined. (Like commercial radio, 70% of KTIS’ listening happens in cars.) The Twin Cities is a top 50 radio market (#15 to be precise). The only other top 50 markets with a religious broadcaster in the top five are Tampa-St. Pete (3rd place, 6.4 share) and Houston (5th place, 5.4 share). (Northwestern’s CC station in Kansas City, KJNW-FM, draws a respectable 3.7 share, good for 10th place among 31 stations in the market.)

These stations are outliers by and large. In nearby Milwaukee, the largest religious broadcaster garners a 0.1; in Des Moines, a 0.2.

San Francisco and Boston have no religious broadcaster that attracts a measurable share.

Still, KTIS is not a business, per se. It’s a noncommercial, nonprofit broadcaster which operates not dissimilarly from a public radio station. It holds pledge drives to raise funds and receives support from individuals. It airs no advertising but accepts underwriting sponsorships. Fundamentally it’s part of a religious outreach mission. The station took to the air in 1949, when iconic evangelist Billy Graham was the college’s president.

Programming is predominantly music and its air talent adopts a tone similar to that of commercial radio. It actually sounds a lot like the two stations that follow it in the ratings, KS95 and Kool 108. Contemporary Christian music has a few crossover artists such as Lauren Daigle, for King & Country, and Switchfoot, or Amy Grant from an earlier era, but it’s largely a closed loop (though CC artists record for major labels). The air staff uses the word “uplifting” a lot and shares inspirational stories of people in turmoil whose lives were redeemed by finding God—but it’s a soft sell, not fire and brimstone.

“We wanted to be part of making Christian radio more fun,” explains station manager Dave St. John. About two decades ago it split religious music and talk into different formats. (Northwestern has a “faith radio” format at 90.7 FM/900 AM which is predominantly talk and teaching.) Like a commercial station, KTIS tests its music with audiences in email surveys. “The goal is to play the music that reaches as many people as possible,” St. John says.

The station has 15 direct employees which includes three whose job is to be “on the street engaging with people face to face.” 90% of revenue, says St. John, comes from donors/underwriting. “We’re an expensive way of doing this, a throwback to the older days of radio,” he says, referencing the various technological solutions and tricks that have allowed commercial and religious broadcasters to program stations with a minimum of staff and programming that is rarely live or local. (There are six Christian broadcast signals in the Twin Cities, including a hip hop station at 92.9 FM.)

The way the data breaks out, KTIS reaches roughly 10%-15% of the local radio audience, nearly 400,000 different people a month. It has repeater signals in Mankato, Rochester, Albert Lea, New Ulm, and Willmar. It shares its listeners with other commercial stations, research shows, though St. John says his number one competitor is smartphones. The CC audience is typically a desirable one says St. John: homeowners, college graduates, employed, with children. But that’s of little relevance, since it’s not selling ads or even demographics to underwriters, but a faith journey.

KTIS first hit number one in April and by the July ratings its lead over KS95 was substantial. The station tasted growth during 2020, when it rose to number two in the market. St. John believes its message of “hope, encouragement, and faith,” was resonant in one of the most destabilizing years in anyone’s memory.

“It’s very well done, it’s good radio, produced quite well,” notes competitor Dan Seeman, VP/regional manager for Hubbard Radio Minnesota, which owns KS95 and MyTalk. “They’ve got resources, marketing, a feeder system for talent and producers at the University.”

How long KTIS’s run may last is anybody’s guess. Also anybody’s guess is why the station resonates in this community in a way religious broadcasters don’t in other markets.

KTIS has always been relatively well-received by audiences, and its growth during the Covid/Trump/George Floyd era may have been predictable as well. A few hours listening makes it clear that KTIS works hard to speak to people who are struggling, vulnerable people who may be ready to turn to religion for help. “We try to be vulnerable and transparent,” St. John adds, “there’s connection in that faith journey.”

KTIS’s growth and ongoing resonance, three years after the most painful year, after most religious broadcasters peaked and American life returned to a semblance of normal, presents an uncomfortable question: in KTIS’ success is there more than a validation of a station’s competence and professionalism? Is there an acknowledgement that this community is enduring greater depths of struggle and despair than most? Allowing a radio station that speaks to people in hard times to enjoy its greatest success ever.

Unfortunately, that’s a question Nielsen’s audience meters don’t answer.