KURL, a Christian radio station in Billings, has been ministering to listeners for more than half a century.
A lot has changed in that time, but at least one thing hasn’t, says owner Herm Elenbaas.
“We’re here to present the gospel through everything we do in a day,” said Elenbaas, sitting in his office in the station located on the South Side, next to a radio tower.
The station offers a mix of music, with local announcers, and programs that feature the teachings of both local preachers and national ministries. It shifted from its 730 AM slot to 93.3 FM in 2010.
Another thing that separates it from its early days is that people now can listen to the station online. They can also catch local high school athletic events that have been broadcast on the station since 1987.
Elenbaas started working at the station as manager in July 1982 and he bought it 12 years later. Over time, he’s come to know the station’s history well.
“Harold Erickson’s dream was to cover the entire state of Montana with Christian radio,” Elenbaas said.
So Erickson and his brother, Arvid, bought KGVW in Belgrade in 1958, the first Christian station in the state. Harold Erickson went on to buy KURL and KGLE in Glendive in 1962, Elenbaas said.
Eventually Erickson added stations in Mandan, N.D., Missoula, Great Falls, Albuquerque and Casper, Wyo.
“That was pretty phenomenal growth for Christian radio,” Elenbaas said.
All of the stations were on the AM band to begin with. Around 1972, KURL added an FM station on 97.1 that featured what’s called “beautiful music” – the kind you’d likely hear in an elevator.
But Harold Erickson and his son Bruce, who was working with him by then, eventually sold that station in 1981 and it became K-BEAR. In time the Ericksons disbanded the Christian Enterprise Network.
Some stations went out of business and others were sold to individuals or organizations. Elenbaas purchased KURL in 1994.
To be successful, he said, a Christian radio station can’t be like a church on a street corner.
“It has to interact and be involved in the community,” Elenbaas said. “So my goal when I came in was to get to know the local community as best as I could.”
That meant recruiting a number of local pastors to air shows on the station.
“We were encouraging and supporting their ministry through what we were doing,” he said. “Not everyone who listens goes to church, but we had to be visible and pastors needed to know about us.”
The station also relied on national programming. KURL was one of the early stations, in the 1970s, to broadcast such well known programs as "Focus on the Family," with Dr. James Dobson, and "Insight for Living," with the Rev. Chuck Swindoll.
KURL added another element in 1987, when one of its then-salesmen, Rocky Erickson, suggested to Elenbaas that they start broadcasting high school sports.
“There happened to be a state tournament involving the Billings Central Catholic girls – they had a phenomenal team – and we put together a plan to air it,” Elenbaas said.
One year, the station did 141 broadcasts, often with Erickson and Elenbaas at the microphone. It brought in new advertisers and new listeners, and Elenbaas looked at it as another kind of community service.
Technology has brought about changes. KURL still has on-air personalities during the morning and evening drive-times, but automation and computers run the station at other times of the day.
Some national ministries, which pay for air time, have fallen prey to the economy or have traded radio for the Internet. Local programming has also changed over time.
KURL also relies now on what Elenbaas calls “destination radio,” airing an afternoon call-in talk show with popular financial guru Dave Ramsey. The show is exclusive to KURL in this area.
The music on KURL has evolved over the years, offering a more contemporary sound that appeals to its audience of listeners age 35 and older. The station has also started streaming online so that people aren’t limited by the reach of their radio.
“Another huge thing for us was when we transitioned from 730 to 93.3,” Elenbaas said.
In September 2010, the station moved from AM to FM. In an ownership transition, Connoisseur Media needed to swap an FM station for an AM one, and Elenbaas agreed.
It took a little adjustment on the part of longtime KURL listeners. But Elenbaas saw an advantage moving to FM, losing some of his coverage area but gaining additional listeners more likely to tune to FM stations.
To remain on the air another 50 years, Elenbaas knows his station must continue to focus on “local, local, local,” and provide the best of what national ministries can offer.
“Whether it’s a local pastor they love or a national ministry or Dave Ramsey,” Elenbaas said. “It’s just continuing to give them something they can’t do without, and then package it with good music and information that they need to know as far as weather and all that.”