The year was 1954, and Alvin Rueter was settled in at his second parish in California. But when the call came to form a new Lutheran congregation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Alvin was ready for the adventure. Together, Alvin and his wife, Beulah, developed strategies to publicize and grow this fledgling parish. This was a time of new communications technology, but they passed up the allure of television in favor of an electronic medium that was better-established and steeped in tradition— radio.
Within a year, Alvin and Beulah began a radio program of sacred music on an FM station.
"To survive, radio had to be transformed, and many stations chose to become a music box with a friendly voice," recalls Alvin. "In going house to house inviting people to our church, I ran across the head of the department of radio and TV at the University of Tulsa. I told him I'd decided to become a disc jockey with sacred music, and he suggested I try out the idea on the university's station."
Finding a Structure
From the beginning, Alvin recognized the usefulness of selecting music with a thematic focus. "Like other DJs, I tried to keep my remarks to a minimum. But unlike others, I wanted my talking to add up to an important message. So having a theme helped those minimal announcements, in tandem with the music, achieve a unified impact."
But before long it became a challenge to find meaningful themes that could be expressed through the available music. At that pivotal moment, Alvin settled on one of Sing For Joy's defining traits: using Western Christendom's "common lectionary"—a specific, predictable schedule of scriptural readings—as the basis for Sing For Joy and the music it presents through the weekly themes of the church year.
In recent years, the lectionary has been adopted by a larger and larger circle of interdenominational church bodies, including Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Mennonite, Disciples of Christ and Congregational churches. By some accounts, the lectionary is now the basis for worship in the services attended by the majority of churchgoers in America. Sing For Joy, in turn, presents musical works that give voice to the scriptural texts designated for each week.
After several years of success on the University of Tulsa's radio station, the program, then called Music on High, switched to KVOO, a 50,000-watt station. Listenership rose dramatically, and soon it was being picked up by other stations. Even so, Rev. Rueter had to "consider the program a hobby, since it did very little to support my family of seven."
In 1960 the Rueters and their children moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, taking the program with them. Their next stop, in 1970, was St. Paul, Minnesota, where they once again looked for a receptive station. The station they found, WPBC, did not provide free studio time, so Alvin negotiated with the Media Services Department of the American Lutheran Church (one of the forerunners of the ELCA) for facilities to record a master tape. Eventually, the ALC took over the program, paying Alvin a salary of $25 a week (which also constitued his record budget!).
It was at this time that Beulah Rueter began contributing to the program more actively by auditioning music, balancing the books, ordering records, and offering advice. Eventually financial difficulties at the ALC led to the possibility of cancellation of the program, which had by then changed its name to Joy.
Sing For Joy and St. Olaf College
Alvin found himself at a crossroads. It was clear that in order to sustain Joy, a new home for the progam would have to be found. As a member of the choir at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Rev. Rueter had befriended Director of Music and Organist at Central, Dr. John Ferguson, who later joined the faculty of St. Olaf College. When it came time to find a place for Joy to continue, Rueter and Ferguson brought the idea to St. Olaf and its public radio station, 89.3 WCAL.
St. Olaf found a natural partnership with Rev. Rueter. To emphasize the fresh start, a new name for the progam was chosen after a write-in suggestion campaign from listeners: Sing For Joy. From 1984 through 2002, Rev. Rueter and the program flourished through the support and dedication of WCAL, its staff, and distributors. It was also during this time that the Sing For Joy monthly newsletter was established. The program was now being distributed on over 150 radio stations, and in 1993, thanks to the support of the Sukup Manufacturing Company, the program began to be produced on Compact Disc, resulting in a substantial increase in fidelity.
"Through the Church the Song Goes On ..."
In 2002, Sing For Joy marked the end of an era: Rev. Rueter, who had recently celebrated his 81st birthday, announced his decision to retire from his role as Sing For Joy's host and producer. Alvin, the father and visionary behind the show, was obviously irreplaceable, but he worked closely with St. Olaf College to choose the accomplished members of the college community who, beginning with the Advent broadcasts in 2002, would carry on his legacy: College Pastor Bruce Benson and Professor of Organ and Church Music John Ferguson. Members of the staff at WCAL, including a recent graduate, Jeffrey O'Donnell, would serve in production and leadership roles.
August 2003 brought about an important moment in Sing For Joy's history, when the progam (along with WCAL and St. Olaf Catholic Church in Minneapolis) presented "Home, Harvest, and Healing: A Sing For Joy Hymn Festival," the first of nine hymn festivals featuring host Bruce Benson and organist John Ferguson, along with guest choirs and congregations. The hymn festivals are an important part of Sing For Joy's public outreach and commitment to presenting the best in sacred music and commentary in many forms. In 2004, one such hymn festival celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the program with a special appearance and Gospel reading by Rueter himself. 2005 saw the begninning of online streaming from the Sing For Joy website, an initiave that allows the program to be heard internationally by thousands of listeners each month in areas where we are not served by radio stations.
Now in its sixth decade, Sing For Joy is proud to uphold our mission as established by Rev. Alvin Rueter, sustained by our listeners and sponsors, and carried out by a dedicated staff.