Faith Conversations: Faith-based radio lifts souls through local airwaves

Rev. Scott Karnik is welcomed as a guest by Jeanine Bitzan and Brad Gray on their morning show for Real Presence Radio, which has a station in the Meadowlark building in downtown Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

MAYVILLE, N.D. — Thirteen weeks into her third pregnancy, Allison Johnson and her husband, Ross, learned their baby had anencephaly and wouldn’t live long past birth. Their options: carry their child full-term or induce.

“I just didn’t think I could, emotionally, (carry her),” Johnson says. But on the way home from the hospital, she turned to Life 97.9 FM, or KFNW, a local, faith-based Christian radio station.

“I was listening, and crying, and within a day or two, I decided, ‘I’m going to carry her. I’ll have those months with her at least,’” Johnson says. “She was just fine in my tummy.”

Born in November 2009, VernaAnn lived for 44 minutes post-birth. While her mom labored, KFNW played in the background — as it had throughout the pregnancy. “We actually used a song from it for her funeral, ‘What Faith Can Do,’ by Kutless,” Johnson says. “Because that’s what faith can do.”

When another pregnancy brought the same diagnosis two years later, she admits she was mad at God, asking, “How could you do this to us again?” But those feelings dissipated as KFNW played. “If we were angry, a song would take away that anger.”

“Blessings” by Laura Story, another KFNW favorite, became the theme song for their Lily, who lived for 99 minutes. “It’s almost like God is the DJ,” Johnson says of the perfect timing of the songs, sharing that their older daughters, Faith and Sophie, and youngest, son Micah, also enjoy the family-friendly station.

Tim Unsinn and Teresa Lewis as seen July 22, 2014, while broadcasting their morning program on Life 97.9 FM from the KFNW studio in Fargo. Forum file photo

Jarrett Stevens worked in mainstream radio many years before crossing over into the faith-based realm as a disc jockey at KFNW just three months ago. “My faith is really important to me,” Stevens says. “When the door opened for me to go to KFNW, it was pretty much a no-brainer.”

In mainstream radio, he says, the focus tends to be news of the world, farm markets and updates, but Christian stations lean toward encouragement.

“Listeners like to be reminded that in spite of the harsh world we all live in, there’s a God that loves them,” he says.

KFNW manager Doug Smith has spent his career in faith-based radio, recently joining the Fargo station after working in Waterloo, Iowa.

“Back in the day, we were playing records, and now we’re playing .wav files off a computer hard drive,” Smith says, noting that despite vast changes in technology, Christian radio’s impact has remained constant. “Sometimes, it’s dramatic — marriages pulled from the brink of divorce, lives saved after contemplating suicide and young people who wandered away, then came back to the faith."

Part of the nondenominational University of Northwestern in St. Paul, KFNW was purchased in the 1950s as an AM station before transitioning to the FM dial in the mid-1960s.

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Real Presence Radio (RPR), a local Catholic radio station that broadcasts on 1280 AM in the Fargo-Moorhead area, came into being in 2004 and has expanded rapidly since. Its network includes 24 signals reaching 2.1 million potential listeners across North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Executive Director Steve Splonskowski states the station's mission: “To bring the Gospel message to every area willing to receive it, and souls closer to Christ through our daily programs.”

Unlike KFNW with its more music-minded format, RPR generates and shares mostly talk-radio shows discussing what it means to live as a Catholic in today’s world, as well as community outreach. Jay Hershberger, a piano instructor at Concordia College and concert pianist from Hitterdal, Minn., says he was inspired while visiting the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., in June 2014.

“I remember vividly, as I walked out of that building, realizing, ‘I think I need to (become Catholic),’ but I had no idea how this was going to work,” he says.

Program Coordinator Brandon Clark works from his office space at Real Presence Radio in downtown Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

Hershberger’s brother-in-law, a Catholic convert, encouraged him to check out RPR, so he started to listen, especially to shows explaining how Catholicism differs from Protestant denominations.

“I have a 50-minute commute one way every day, so that drive time listening to Catholic radio, both during that conversion period and after becoming Catholic, was very important,” he says.

Not only did he convert, but so did his wife, Cindy, and their four young adult children.

Brad Gray, a local radio host for RPR, also helps catechize potential new Catholics at St. Mary’s Cathedral in downtown Fargo, and says he’s assisted some who’ve come to Catholicism after stumbling upon the station inadvertently. While delivering pizzas, one man happened “to flip on the station randomly. He said what he was hearing responded to what his heart had been asking,” Gray says, noting that he and his family later came into the church.

“(Radio) is such an easy way to share our faith with those around us and invite them into an encounter with Jesus,” he says.

And despite being an older medium, he says radio has been largely unaffected by changes in technology. “Particularly talk radio can meet us in the midst of where we are at any given moments of our lives,” he says.

Gray continues, “To hear the penetrating power of Christ’s mercy and love and his design for our lives and realize there is a purpose for what we’re going through — that can bolster us up and be a call to prayer. And it can become not just a community bond, but a source of support and strength for individuals.”

Both stations exist through the generosity of donors. While each produces several drives annually to fundraise, RPR also hosts a yearly fundraising banquet with a national Catholic-radio personality as guest speaker to unite the community .

The 2019 fundraising banquet for RPR will take place the evening of Feb. 18 at Delta Hotels by Marriott, 1635 42nd St. SW, Fargo, with 1,000 guests expected. Visit yourcatholicradiostation.com to check availability or call 701-795-0122.

Salonen, a wife and mother of five, works as a freelance writer and speaker in Fargo. Email her at roxanebsalonen@gmail.com, and find more of her work at Peace Garden Passage, http://roxanesalonen.com/.