A New Frequency of Faith

In May 2000, the nation’s first commercial Catholic radio network went off the air after just 18 months in operation. Catholic Family Radio’s launching in 1998 had been accompanied by a fanfare of publicity in the Catholic and even the secular trade media, and when it crashed and burned a little over a year later, it garnered almost as much press attention. The signal seemed loud and clear: “All Catholic, all the time” was a format without a future.

The long-running drama of Catholic Family Radio’s rise and fall, however, has distracted attention from a genuine success story in Catholic radio: the quiet but steady growth over the past few years of small, independent Catholic stations around the country. With tiny budgets, grassroots listener bases, nonprofit structuring, and a local approach to programming and securing audience loyalty, these young stations may prove to be Catholic radio’s real future.

Catholic Family Radio had been backed to the tune of nearly $60 million by a who’s who of the nation’s wealthiest Catholics, including former Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn and Domino’s Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan. It had been launched in a heady mix of evangelistic fervor and optimistic business forecasts. Its key players wanted to wave off and set themselves apart from existing Catholic media. Their aim, they said, wasn’t to preach to the choir, the little old ladies who faithfully subscribe to Catholic publications. Instead, Catholic Family Radio’s backers were taking to the airwaves with the ambitious goal of engaging in “stealth evangelization” of the entire secularized American culture, according to the network’s former CEO, John Lynch, a former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker and broadcast executive who came out of early retirement to run Catholic Family Radio during its short life on the air.

Lynch and his confreres had sketched a bold game plan: a lineup of hard-hitting talk shows, hosted by the Catholic equivalents of Rush Limbaugh and Laura Schlessinger, that would win back fallen-away Catholics, make converts out of unbelievers and Protestant scoffers, and gain a hearing for conservative Catholic political ideas such as school vouchers and charitable choice. Starting with a base of nine small AM stations in strategic markets in major cities across the country, Catholic Family Radio promised investors that within one year it would be up and running in the nation’s top 50 radio markets and selling stock to the public.

None of that happened. Unable to attract listeners, ratings, or advertisers, Lynch and his colleagues were up to their ears in red ink when they finally pulled the plug. Today, the investors are scrambling to recover just a fraction of their multimillion-dollar outlay. Nearly a year after shutting down, the network still hasn’t found a buyer for four of the original nine stations, including KPLS, a 50,000-watt station in Los Angeles with a $40 million price tag, and KDIA in San Francisco, which investors are hoping will fetch $10 million.

Meanwhile, in a different kind of Catholic stealth operation, about 30 new noncommercial Catholic radio stations have gone on the air, and license applications are pending for at least a half-dozen more nationwide. Most of the new stations have been started by small entrepreneurs with no previous experience in radio: They’re dentists, home-builders, and computer programmers. What’s driving them is a missionary zeal to find a place on the radio dial for Catholic teaching and devotion.

“We’re getting letters from people who say we’ve saved their souls,” says Douglas Sherman, who owns four stations in California and Nevada. “They’re coming back to the Church and to the sacraments—some have been away from confession for 30 years. We’ve got non-Catholics telling us that after listening, they now realize that what they thought they knew about the Catholic faith isn’t true.”

The Reno Revolution

Sherman is typical of this new breed of Catholic apostles of the airwaves. A building contractor for 28 years, he heard the call of radio in 1996 while driving from Reno, Nevada, to Vermont to visit his son in college. In between listening to the Catholic instructional and apologetics cassettes that he’d brought along, Sherman found himself scanning the radio dial. “I could pick up a Protestant radio station, sometimes four or five of them, at any point across the country,” he recalls. “I never heard one Catholic radio station during the whole trip.”

Sherman went home determined to change that situation. He received enthusiastic support from engineers and programmers at the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), founded by Mother Mary Angelica, P.C.P.A., and now the world’s largest Catholic communications concern, which had started providing shortwave and radio services over its satellites. The link to EWTN allowed Sherman to fill his airtime with free Mother Angelica-supplied programming. With the help of the popular Catholic convert and apologist Scott Hahn, who lent his name to a promotional mailing that Sherman sent out nationwide, he raised $165,000 to buy a tiny 5,000-watt station in Reno. “We paid for the station one $25 donation at a time,” Sherman recalls.

Sherman’s KIHM, otherwise known as Immaculate Heart Radio, 920 on the AM dial in Reno, was born in early 1997, becoming one of the first stations in the country to air EWTN radio programming 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sherman has since bought a stronger station in Reno and started three new AM stations in Sacramento, Stockton, and Fresno, California. All four are listener-supported, and when their listener bases are added up, Sherman’s signal goes out every day to a potential audience of five million.

Changing Audio Landscapes

There are now 46 full-time Catholic radio stations in the country, only nine of which are officially connected to the Church via ownership by local Catholic bishops or dioceses, according to Michael Dorner, a New Orleans-based federal employee who moonlights as publisher of Catholic Radio Update, an e-mail newsletter that chronicles the fledgling industry. “There hasn’t been a new diocesan station started since the late 1970s,” Dorner says. “The growth is all coming from laymen and laywomen who are broadcasting as EWTN affiliates. They’re mortgaging their houses for a second time or risking their retirement savings and the kids’ college funds to buy these stations.”

In a country with 16,000 radio outlets, including 1,600 religious stations operated by Protestants, nobody is claiming that these upstart Catholic stations are poised to replace the “shock jocks” of secular talk-format, or even Christian rock, on Americans’ car-radio preset buttons. But they are building intense listener loyalties in their markets and changing the audio landscape in parts of the country where the Catholic population is sparse and the airwaves are at times still thick with old-time anti-Catholic prejudice.

In Biloxi, Mississippi, a group of men and women studying to be Third Order Franciscans got together to start a station after their priest was maligned and the Catholic Church attacked on the air by a local Protestant radio evangelist. “The Body of Christ is never going to be healed as long as there are misconceptions and falsehoods being told about the Catholic faith,” explains Ann Seale, one of the owners of the station, which should be on the air early this summer.

Seale’s group received assistance from the Catholic Radio Association, which Sherman and two other pioneering Catholic station owners started in 1998. The association, based in Jacksonville, Mississippi, provides free consulting services—everything from engineering and technical solutions to legal and marketing advice—to Catholics looking to get into radio. Association director James Jarboe said he has helped start eight stations in the last two years and is getting calls every day from interested groups in the United States and Latin America.

The EWTN Connection

Scanning the program logs of these new stations, the reader figures out pretty quickly that without EWTN, there wouldn’t be much Catholic radio to speak of in the United States. Roughly two-thirds of the new stations in the country are, like Sherman’s, airing EWTN programming at least 20 hours a day. Some are slowly developing their own local programs. Sherman’s stations, for instance, now carry a pro-life program called Voice for Life, jointly hosted by a Catholic laywoman and a Protestant minister. WDEO-AM in Ann Arbor, Michigan, produces a successful drive-time talk show, Al Kresta in the Afternoon, that’s carried by nine other Catholic stations.

But at least for the foreseeable future, Catholic radio means EWTN. Heavily weighted toward devotional programs such as daily Mass and the rosary, EWTN also airs news, apologetics, and instructional shows. Its most popular program remains Mother Angelica Live, hosted by the cloistered nun and spiritual writer who founded the network in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1981. As with its cable television shows—which reach 55 million homes in 38 countries—EWTN offers all its radio programming to stations free of charge.

Affiliated stations are free to air as little as one half-hour a week or as much as 24 hours a day of Mother Angelica’s feed. (Crisis editor and publisher Deal W. Hudson hosts radio and television programs for EWTN.) While EWTN doesn’t permit individual programs to be interrupted with advertising, its schedule does allow local broadcasters to insert two minutes of commercials every half-hour between programs. EWTN’s generosity is a sign of contradiction in the profit-hungry world of broadcasting and is perhaps the single most important factor spurring the growth of Catholic radio. “The biggest expense of a radio station is programming,” explains Thomas Price, EWTN’s radio programming director. Because EWTN is able to fill the airwaves at no cost, all the prospective station owner has to worry about is buying the station itself and paying for the equipment, Price adds. “Stations can be founded inexpensively,” he says. “And because we provide the programming, they don’t need to hire a big staff of people.”

Lord of the Drive Time

Not all independent Catholic stations want to lock themselves into EWTN’s format, however. EWTN “has a lot of great stuff” but too many of its devotional and liturgical programs air during the peak listening hours when commuters hit the road in the morning and afternoon, according to Henry Root, operations manager of WDEO in Ann Arbor. “The Mass is essential, it’s our sustenance, the rosary too,” says Root. “But they aren’t evangelistic in scope. You’re not going to reach the Lutheran guy who’s punching around to find something to listen to. If he lights upon the rosary, he’s going to hit the button again, and we’ve lost him. ”

As a result, Root says, “we do a lot of time-shifting”—rebroadcasting some of EWTN’s issues-oriented and apologetics programs such as “Catholic Answers Live” during peak commuting times.

KBVM-FM, a small Catholic station in Portland, Oregon, employs local anchors and a contemporary Christian music format during the day and saves its EWTN programs for after the evening rush hour. General manager Caron Fox says this setup is the best way to evangelize her 40,000 listeners, half of whom are non-Catholics and nearly one-quarter of whom “don’t go to any church at all.” KBVM’s strategy is to sprinkle 30- to 60-second inspirational spots in between upbeat songs: Scripture verses, quotations from Pope John Paul II, and mini-lives of the saints.

“Most people are having a difficult time—we hear it all the time,” Fox says of her audience. “We try to lift them up, to remind them that God loves them and cares for them, that they’re not alone, that He knows what they’re going through and they can offer it up to Him.”

What’s the Frequency, Bishop?

For the most part, the American Catholic hierarchy has failed to catch the new radio wave. With only nine of the nation’s 185 dioceses and archdioceses owning their own stations, few bishops have made any investment in evangelizing over the airwaves. There are some notable exceptions. Perhaps the most ambitious is Radio Paz in the Archdiocese of Miami. The station broadcasts 24 hours a day and beams its Spanish-language programs via satellite to 98 stations in 16 countries in Latin America as well as south Florida. Binding together a far-flung Hispanic Catholic population, it produces 100 shows each week, including talk shows, three daily newscasts, devotional and spiritual programs, and sporting events ranging from Miami Heat pro basketball games to University of Miami football.

Station vice president Deacon Rafael de los Reyes says the diocese contributes only 10 percent of the station’s $3 million annual operating budget. The rest comes from donations and advertising sales. The station is working to break even and still loses about $200,000 annually, he says. “But our success is serving the people with our message of the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of letters from people [whose lives have been changed],” he adds.

Nationally, however, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has shied away from media ventures since the collapse of its disastrous Catholic Telecommunications Network of America (CTNA), launched in 1981, the same year that Mother Angelica began her cable network. CTNA, which offered Catholic television programming, lost $14 million before the bishops’ conference shut it down in 1995. A number of bishops had complained publicly that its shows were embarrassing and “amateurish.” Having studied various options in the ensuing six years, the bishops now seem poised for a reentry into the media business, but this time in radio. This month, the bishops’ conference is scheduled to begin airing pilots for a weekly half-hour radio show in select dioceses. If successful, the program will be offered to dioceses across the country in the fall. The show would be provided free to the local bishops, who could either air it on their stations or buy time to air it on local Catholic or secular stations in their dioceses.

Frank Murock, a 30-year veteran of television and radio broadcasting and president of Unda-USA, the nation’s largest association of Catholics in the broadcast industry, is producing the new program. “You’re not going to hear bishops pontificate, but there will be news and information on the Church and current events,” says Murock, who also serves as communications director of the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina. The show will, in addition, include human-interest segments, he says, such as an upcoming feature on a priest who races stock cars.

Asked how the bishops’ show would compare with the popular daily and weekly newscasts on EWTN, Murock replies: “The bishops’ conference believes there needs to be news and perspective out there generated by the bishops’ conference. This has nothing to do with anything that’s out there in the landscape already.”

Edgy Airwaves

Relations between the bishops and EWTN, which overshadowed the ill-fated CTNA, have been strained since the beginning. That history is casting a shadow over the new Catholic radio ventures, some observers say. Mother Angelica is known for her blunt-spoken opinions on Church issues. In 1997, she enraged Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles by urging her audience to take a stance of “zero obedience” toward a draft document on the Eucharist he had proposed, and other bishops have privately grumbled that she drives a wedge between them and the faithful in the pews. When Catholic Family Radio came on the air, it was greeted with silence by many bishops and priests. Archbishop Rembert Wealdand, O.S.B., of Milwaukee, the nation’s leading liberal Catholic hierarch, said flatly, “I told them I didn’t want them in my diocese.”

The new independent Catholic stations seem eager to avoid such conflicts. “We absolutely didn’t want the image that we were riding into town on a white horse to clean up the Catholic Church,” says Sherman, adding that he has good relations with the bishops in the four dioceses he serves. In addition to offering their local bishops free airtime, many of the new stations have encouraged them to meet regularly with station owners or appoint liaisons to serve on the board of directors. But one knowledgeable observer, who declined to be quoted by name, says that many bishops continue to eye the newcomers warily, fearing that their authority will be tuned out by Catholic radio’s listeners.

Despite lingering official resistance in some dioceses and the uncertain economics of running stations financed almost solely by listener donations, these new evangelists of the airwaves seem confident that they can succeed where Catholic Family Radio so loudly failed. Most are reluctant to speak ill of the now-defunct network, at least on the record. But from their remarks it seems clear that Catholic Family Radio’s business plan got some important things wrong that they hope to get right. The network handicapped itself by buying small-signal stations in large markets where it would have to compete against huge AM and FM stations. Then it decided on an all-talk format. That meant pitting its relatively inexperienced hosts against seasoned professionals with large and loyal followings such as Limbaugh, Schlessinger, and James Dobson. In sending out weak signals and carrying a decidedly second-string lineup of hosts, it was little wonder that the Catholic Family stations couldn’t attract ratings or advertisers, observers say.

As the postmortems continue, so does the sell-off of the Catholic Family stations. Chief operating officer John Bitting, who is overseeing the sales, says the network is getting “fair prices, a little bit over our estimates,” for the stations that have sold so far in Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Kansas City. But the $22 million those sales have brought in won’t begin to pay back the losses incurred by investors, estimated to be nearly $100 million.

In the meantime, the new kids on the Catholic radio block, who pitch to medium-size and small markets and don’t try to compete with Limbaugh or Dobson, are measuring their success, not in terms of ratings or revenues but in terms of lives changed. They all have amazing stories to tell: the cop who regularly tuned in while on patrol and one day decided to return to Sunday Mass; the husband who listened to a program while driving off to leave his wife and turned toward home to give his failing marriage another shot; the death-row inmate who asked to see a priest; the Protestant ministers who are now taking instruction to join the Church. “We have the potential to save lives here,” says WDEO’s Henry Root.

In the 1960s, media guru Marshall McCluhan, himself a devout Catholic who went to Mass daily, described radio as the most “personal” of the mass media. Forty years later, these new broadcasters of belief say radio is the perfect medium for the Catholic message in a highly mobile society, sound salvation for the new economy. With a growing ability to send their programs over the Internet via “streaming audio,” they see work spaces and desktops as mission territory. And as urban growth, suburban sprawl, and fast-paced lifestyles have increased the amount of time that Americans spend in their cars, they envision turning drive time into devotional hours of power for legions of soccer moms, salesmen, and commuters.

“Radio can be very penetrating and personal,” says James Jarboe of the Catholic Radio Association. “People can listen to it in the privacy of their car and not feel embarrassed. I know I always wanted to listen to something Christian when I was driving, but I’d turn it on and they’d be bashing Catholics. Now I listen to Catholic radio, and every day I learn something new.”


  • David Scott

    David Scott is an author with a special interest in religion and culture. He has published several books, including studies of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Dorothy Day. Hundreds of his essays and articles have appeared in journals and periodicals throughout the world, including the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, as well as National Review, Commonweal, Crisis, Inside the Vatican, National Catholic Register, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Beliefnet.com and elsewhere.

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