Sunday, October 11, 2009

Radio Station KFUO Sold - A Loss of High Art

FOR SIXTY-ONE YEARS, radio station KFUO-FM has been broadcasting classical music in Saint Louis. This past week, its owner — the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod — sold the station to Gateway Creative Broadcasting, who will change its format to contemporary Christian praise and worship music, starting next year.

Those who are devoted to the high-art Western music tradition are dismayed that the city's sole remaining broadcast classical music station is going off the air. Classical music groups and venues are also worried, since KFUO was their major advertising forum, leading to the majority of their ticket sales. I listen to KFUO when I am in my car; its local and free content makes it potentially more interesting for Saint Louisians than many of its media alternatives, such as satellite radio or Internet sources, which will often broadcast only music with no commentary.

Classical music was one of the topics of my second posting on this blog, High art or low? from December 2004. With the sale of this radio station, its music will shift from high to low art.

The most important things ought to be done with the highest and best art, and as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the pinnacle of Man's life here on earth, the art associated with the Mass ought to be the best and highest. And so the Mass, through its musical settings, forms the core of the Western classical music tradition as its source, and is where the best of that tradition ought to return.

Of all the theories of art proposed, the virtue theory of art, coming from the Greek philosophical tradition through the Church, has the greatest explanatory power, and is universal: modern art theories are at best subsets. This provides a framework for judging artists and their work. According to this theory, the artist has in-born ability towards this virtue, intellectually understands this virtue via education, and builds upon and expresses this virtue through practice and from feedback from other artists who have perfected this virtue. The virtuous artist must master his tools and reliably make what he intends (or for the apprentice artist, what he is directed) beforehand. The artist also has to be open to divine inspiration. The virtuous artist makes his art a part of himself, he enjoys making his art, and the making of his art appears graceful and effortless. As this theory is not tied to culture, nor does it limit itself to merely non-utilitarian aesthetic works of art, it is applicable to all the various works of humans in all manner of places and times. Thusly we can judge the making of art objectively outside of the realm of personal preference. Classical music is very greatly a matter of artistic virtue as outlined here.

Good art is simultaneously true, artfully executed, and provides a lively response from its audience; the deficit of any of these three characteristics can indeed be judged negatively, and this judgement can and ought to be done using the full range of objective, subjective, and relative factors. That this framework has Trinitarian overtones is no accident, as we are made in the image and likeness of God, and is related to the three transcendental values of truth, goodness, and beauty.

Art can be judged as being closer to the high or low ends of the artistic spectrum depending on the transcendental factors and the virtue of art described above. While it is fitting that high art ought to be used for important occasions: the Mass, formal celebrations of a community, inaugurations or coronations of leaders, and such forth, most art will necessary be of the lower varieties. For example, a play put on by young children may have little appeal outside of their friends and family, but it will nonetheless have great value within that narrow circle: but still, it is not unreasonable to suggest that this play ought to be done as well as possible within the circumstances available.

“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly,” wrote G.K. Chesterton. So true: a badly prepared meal is better than no meal at all if you are very hungry and have no alternatives. But the intent of making a poorly made meal shows a contempt for the eaters. This can lead to a reductionistic morality that excludes the feelings of others. Sadly, the decline of listenership to classical music seems to be due partially to apparent contempt for its listeners, with the introduction of unlistenable atonal works, as well as an elitist attitude that would often exclude the living, contemporary, and very popular works that are nowadays found in the best music for film and stage.

KFUO is criticized within its owner's ecclesial body as not being much of an instrument of evangelization, although it operates at a profit, which in turn is used for preaching the Gospel. But certainly the new owners of the radio station intend to make it explicitly evangelical, in preaching the Gospel through song in a way that is open to casual listeners.

Much of classical music is the Latin liturgy of the Church, some of which is broadcast on this radio station. But certainly the Latin texts of the Mass are lost on those who do not follow along in the Missal, particularly when divorced from its natural setting within the liturgy. The change of liturgical texts from Latin to the vernacular languages was done specifically for an evangelical purpose. However, even if a listener of sacred music fails to grasp the intellectual aspect of the music, he still may appreciate the technical ability of the musicians and feel his soul being pulled upwards, giving even untranslated music of the Latin liturgy power. On the contrary, much sacred music in the vernacular, although intellectually understandable, often is not artfully done, nor does it often inspire a lively uplifting response in the listener. Also, the vernacular texts are often poorly translated and hymns sometimes have questionable content. Certainly the use of classical music and the traditional Latin liturgy is somewhat of a challenge to worshippers: but active participation requires a certain preparation and intellectual understanding on the part of the congregation, in other words, the people have to do their part.

The apparent opposition between non-evangelizing high art of classical music and the explicitly evangelical content of low-art praise and worship music, as shown with KFUO, is false. High art, including the sacred core of the canon of classical music ought to be placed back into its natural environment of the liturgy of the Church, and ought to become a source of inspiration of new works within this living tradition. Popular devotion has been greatly reduced within the Church, but a recovery of this practice will mean that there is a greater opportunity for lower art to thrive. As Protestant worship tends to be entirely popular devotion, we shouldn't be surprised that they have an abundance of popular arts.

One strange thing I noticed about KFUO was how much of its advertising was explicitly Catholic, from ads run by various religious orders to Mass announcements from my parish, Saint Francis de Sales Oratory. In times such as these, you have to know who your friends are. I cannot imagine that the new owners of the station would care to run such advertisements, nor would the station's listeners care to hear them.

The station format change is scheduled for about March of 2010.


  1. I think it is worth noting that KFUO does (or at least did when I was living in St. Louis) broadcast a sacred music program on Sunday mornings, as well as sacred music all day on high holidays. While it's certainly not the majority of their programming, neither do they shy away from it. It is a more subtle form of evangelization that doesn't attempt to appeal to some lower common denominator.

  2. Ack! That was my standby station for (a) relaxing evenings, and (b) when my other favorite stations played commercials. It was sad they never went digital (HD), and now it will be sad that we'll have yet another 'Christian praise and worship' station... something around 97.x, as well as KEZK (102.5) FM's HD2 station, both play Christian music all day.

    We don't need another station like this. It's kind of like the old Y98 vs. the River battle - they both played the exact same thing, and there's not enough room in our market for two identical stations, much less *three*!

  3. The sale of KFUO is a heartbreaking loss, not only for lovers of classical music in general, but for the Christian community of St. Louis. As others have noted, KFUO broadcast a great deal of explicitly Christian sacred music, and I would add that it routinely provided background information educating listeners about Christian sacred music. I would venture to guess that many hearts that once were hardened against Christianity, have been changed via KFUO.

    I hope and pray that, during the transitional period between now and next March, KFUO's listeners, the local religious entities that advertise on KFUO, and a corpoarate sponsor or sponsors yet unknown, will be able to work together to insure a future for classical music on our airwaves.