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Tuning In To The Truth: The Growing Witness of Catholic Radio | Valerie Schmalz | September 15, 2005

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Lively Catholic voices are being raised on the radio dial around the country in a movement that appears to be picking up steam, with a major Catholic station launched in New Mexico this month, joining more than a hundred others around the country.

"We have people listening to us because they are just sick and tired of the stuff on the air. It’s the rap music, the sexual content on the radio. They don’t want to hear it. They don’t want their kids to hear it on the way to school," said Teresa Tomeo, host of Ave Maria Radio’s "Catholic Connection" in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"People are going out of their way to tune in–if they can’t listen to you in the car, they are listening to you on the Internet when they come home."

"Our mission is to evangelize and share the Catholic faith," said Tony Holman, president of Covenant Network, founded in 1997 and now grown to seven stations and five translators in St. Louis, Missouri, as well as parts of Illinois, Nebraska, North Dakota and Indiana. Translators rebroadcast a radio signal to expand range.

The movement is new. Most Catholic radio stations began broadcasting less than ten years ago and most rely on base programming provided free by Eternal Word Radio Network, the radio arm of Mother Angelica’s highly successful 24-hour Catholic television broadcasting network, Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN).

"We’re not just in little towns any more," said Thom Price of EWTN Radio. "We’re in Seattle, Kansas City, Philadelphia. We just got a new affiliate in Tallahassee, the capital of Florida. It’s really an exciting time to watch all this happening."

Catholic radio is also available via satellite and the Internet, and EWTN even broadcasts short wave, Price said. "I got an e-mail from a man in Communist China who was listening to us on a short wave."

"When we started our first radio station in Reno, Nevada, eight years ago, it was the seventh radio station in the whole country," said Doug Sherman, president and founder of Immaculate Heart Radio and a founding board member of the Catholic Radio Association. The trade association was founded in 1999 to focus on supporting and expanding Catholic radio and counts as members most Catholic radio apostolates, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and several dioceses.

"Immaculate Heart Radio now has ten stations and there are about a hundred Catholic radio stations in the country," said Sherman.

In contrast, Evangelical Christian radio is entrenched. ChristianRadio.com lists approximately 2,400 stations around the United States, a 24:1 ratio to Catholic stations. The Catholic model is non-profit and relies on listeners and donors. Many of the non-Catholic Christian stations operate successfully on a commercial basis, selling time for both programming and spots.

Sherman is unfazed.

"There’s 30,000 Protestant denominations. We only need one Catholic station in each market." But Sherman admits "they got a head start while we were asleep," Thirty years ago, Protestants began acquiring stations from the Federal Communications Commission, when licenses were free, while Catholics, whose bishops were not interested in the idea after losing millions in a Catholic television venture, shied away from it.

"I think we were just asleep at the wheel. Here we led the way with Bishop Fulton Sheen, and then it’s as if the Evangelicals got it and we didn’t. Now the consequence is we’re faced with these huge price tags that we have to pay just to catch up," Sherman said. Sheen’s decades-long radio and television evangelism, beginning in 1930 with "The Catholic Hour" radio show, made him an American household name. (In 2000, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints officially opened the Cause of Archbishop Sheen and conferred on him the title, "Servant of God.")

Ave Maria Radio in Michigan, Starboard Network – which operates Relevant Radio from Green Bay, Wisconsin – Immaculate Heart Radio, and St. Louis-based Covenant Network are the major Catholic radio station networks. There are many more individual Catholic radio stations. Most rely on EWTN for a large portion of their base programming, and some also supply local programming. While most of the Catholic radio stations are independently owned non-profit stations, there are seven diocesan radio stations, mostly in Texas and Florida, directly under the local bishop’s operational control.

In a way, Catholic radio in New Mexico is something of a hybrid. Santa Fe Archbishop Michael Sheehan asked Immaculate Heart Radio, which owns stations in California and Nevada, to collaborate with the archdiocese. The Archdiocese of Santa Fe raised $1 million to purchase a 100,000 watt FM station in Milan, New Mexico, as well as stations and translators to spread the signal, and then handed the station over to IHR to own and operate the stations in cooperation with the archdiocese. This is the first time lay Catholic radio people and a bishop have collaborated in such a unique relationship. IHR president Sherman predicts, "This thing is going to snowball. The first few years, the bishops didn’t know what to do with us, they didn’t know if we were vigilantes."

Indeed EWTN, Immaculate Heart, and the other Catholic radio organizations are financially and organizationally independent of Catholic hierarchy and tend to be more loyal to Magisterial teaching than the majority of U.S. Catholics. EWTN vets its shows with its own theology department, for instance, and also has a working relationship with Vatican Radio, broadcasting some of its shows, Price said.

Pat Ryan Garcia manages the radio arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, producing the show Catholic Radio Weekly and overseeing five other shows that are distributed to stations. On September 13, the bishops’ conference inaugurated their own, in-house studio, with an eye to expanding their programming, she said. "It’s a booming thing," Garcia said.

Most Catholic stations do not participate in the Nielson or Arbitron ratings, which are what tell advertisers how many people listen to a station. But Ave Maria radio host Tomeo is convinced that Catholic radio and live Catholic talk shows in particular are drawing listeners. "We are just blown away by the number of listeners and the response we get on the pledge drive," Tomeo said.

Tomeo got her start in commercial broadcasting and switched over to Catholic radio. She is part of a small cadre of professional broadcasters who are leading the way in Catholic radio.

Southern California-based Catholic Answers produces radio programming as part of its apologetics apostolate. Jerry Usher, host of "Catholic Answers Live", is another radio professional. "The majority of people starting stations now are not radio people. Their background is not in the industry. But,what is fueling them is much more important – this zeal for souls."

While Usher says the Holy Spirit is at work, this lack of expertise can at times make progress more difficult: "If you take someone who’s been in the business for fifty years, they know who to call, what buttons to push. There are groups forming and it is sometimes taking them years to get on the air. None of this is a criticism. In fact, even though we’d all like to see it happen more quickly, the whole process is a marvel to watch unfold."

Catholic Radio Association President Stephen Gajdosik says that is where the Catholic Radio Association comes in–with support and help to start and operate stations.

The Federal Communications Commission has indicated it will open up the noncommercial end of the FM dial by year’s end and later on will allow application for Low Power FM (LPFM) stations, Gajdosik said.

The Catholic Radio Association plans to provide the engineering studies and help with the applications of 200 Catholic organizations or people who want to apply, Gajdosik said. Gajdosik encourages interested Knights of Columbus Councils, Regnum Christi and Opus Dei chapters, and other groups to contact the radio association for more information. Local groups are preferred by the FCC and will have an advantage even over such well-known organizations as National Public Radio, Gajdosik explained.

"We’re undergoing a huge push. It’s the biggest we’ve ever done," Gajdosik said. In addition to helping with engineering studies and FCC applications, the association is also helping some bishops start Catholic Spanish language stations. Gajdosik is assisting the bishops of Charleston, South Carolina and Amarillo, Texas, with Spanish language stations as well as in Sacramento, California, Sherman is working with the bishops to develop another one. (For those interested in starting a station, Gajdosik recommends attending the 2005 Global Catholic Radio Conference October 20-22nd in Birmingham, Alabama, sponsored by EWTN and the association.)

The goal, broadcasters said over and over, is evangelization. "When you hear the beauty of the faith, truthfully expounded, it’s like a tuning fork," said Gajdosik. "You hear Christ and it resonates in your soul."

"The stories, we hear them all the time," said Usher. "We give God the glory, obviously, but for Him to use our humble little radio program–to see what’s going on is amazing.  We have people who have been away from the church for thirty years, and they’ll go back to confession," Usher said. "It’s just the day-to-day, rubber hits the road, diaper-changing moms, truck-driving dads, who are having their lives changed by Catholic radio."

"I got a phone call from a man who identified himself as a Protestant minister," Immaculate Heart Radio’s Sherman recounts. "He said he had never heard the Christian message delivered in such a loving way and he was planning to go to his first Catholic Mass on Sunday."



Valerie Schmalz is a writer for IgnatiusInsight. She worked as a reporter and editor for The Associated Press, and in print and broadcast media for ten years. She holds a BA in Government from University of San Francisco and a Master of Science from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is the former director of Birthright of San Francisco. Valerie and her wonderful husband have four children.



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