When the nation’s first commercial Catholic radio network went off the air in May 2000 after just 18 months in operation, the signal seemed loud and clear—“all–Catholic, all–the–time” is a format without a future.
Catholic Family Radio, backed to the tune of nearly $60 million by a who’s–who of the nation’s wealthiest Catholics, had been launched with a heady mix of evangelistic ambition and optimistic business forecasts.
Its key players were quick to wave off and set themselves apart from existing Catholic media—they didn’t get into this business to preach to niche markets of little old ladies in the choir, they said in so many words.
They were taking to the airwaves to engage in “stealth evangelization,” said C.E.O. John Lynch, a former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker and broadcast executive who came out of early retirement to run the network.
In early interviews, Lynch and company sketched a bold game plan—a line–up of hard–hitting talk shows that would win over fallen away Catholics, make converts out of Protestant scoffers and unbelievers, and gain a hearing for conservative Catholic political ideas.
Starting with a base of nine small AM stations in strategic markets, 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.
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, investors are scrambling just to recover 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.
The long–running drama of Catholic Family Radio’s rise and fall has distracted attention from another story, one that may prove more instructive for understanding the future of Catholic media—the quiet but steady growth of small independent Catholic stations around the country.
In the last few years, roughly 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 are being started by small entrepreneurs with no prior experience in radio—dentists, homebuilders, computer programmers and the like. 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,” said 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.”
Radio Free Reno
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 on a cross–country car trip from Reno to Vermont to visit his son at 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 recalled. “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 Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), the world’s largest Catholic communications concern, which had recently begun providing short–wave and radio services over its satellites.
And with the help of 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 recalled.
KIHM, 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 California—in Sacramento, Stockton and Fresno. All four are listener–supported and taken together, Sherman’s signal goes out every day to a potential audience of 5 million.
Changing Audio Landscapes
There are now 46 full-time Catholic radio stations in the country, only 9 of which are owned by local Catholic bishops and dioceses, according to Michael Dorner, a New Orleans–based federal worker who moonlights as founder of Catholic Radio Update, a small–circulation e–mail newsletter that chronicles the fledgling industry.
“There hasn’t been a new diocesan station started since the late 1970’s,” Dorner said. “The growth is all coming from lay men and lay women 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 run by Protestants, nobody is claiming that these upstart Catholic stations are poised to replace “shock jocks” or even Christian rock on Americans’ car–radio preset buttons.
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,” explained Ann Seale, one of the principals in the station, which expects to be on–air early this summer.
Seale’s group received assistance from the Catholic Radio Association, which was started in 1998 by Sherman and two other pioneering Catholic station owners. The association, based in Jacksonville, provides free consulting services—everything from engineering and technical questions 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 groups in the United States and Latin America.
The EWTN Connection
Scanning the program logs of these new stations, it doesn’t take long to figure out 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, air a pro–life program called “Voice for Life,” hosted by a Catholic laywoman and a Protestant minister. WDEO–AM in Detroit 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 equals EWTN.
Heavily weighted toward devotional programs like the 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 its radio programming to stations free of charge.
Stations can air as little as one half–hour a week or as much as 24 hours a day. 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.
EWTN’s generosity is a sign of contradiction in the profit–hungry world of broadcasting. And this generosity is perhaps the single most important factor spurring the growth of Catholic radio.
“The biggest expense of a radio station is programming,” explained Thomas Price, EWTN’s radio programming director.
Because EWTN provides that piece at no cost, all the prospective station owner has to worry about is buying the station and paying for the equipment, he added. “Stations can be found inexpensively,” said Price. “And because we provide the programming, they don’t need to hire a big staff of people.”
Lord of the Drive–Time
It’s not that all of the nation’s Catholic stations are locked into EWTN’s format.
EWTN “has a lot of great stuff,” but too many of its devotional and liturgical programs air during peak listening hours in the morning and afternoons, according to Henry Root, operations manager of WDEO in Detroit.
“The Mass is essential, it’s our sustenance, the Rosary too,” said 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 said, “we do a lot of time–shifting”—rebroadcasting some of EWTN’s issues–oriented and apologetics programs such as “Catholic Answers Live” during drive times.
KBVM–FM, a small Catholic station in Portland, Oregon, employs local anchors and a contemporary Christian radio format during the day, and airs EWTN programs after the evening rush hour.
General manager Caron Fox said this set–up 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 approach is to sprinkle short, 30–60 second inspirational spots in between upbeat songs—quotes from the pope, lives of the saints, a Scripture verse.
What’s the Frequency, Bishop?
For the most part, the American Catholic leadership has failed to catch the new radio wave.
With only 9 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. 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 said the diocese contributes only 10 percent of the $3 million–a–year operating budget. The rest is made up from donations and ad sales.
The station is working to break even and still loses “a couple hundred thousand dollars” annually, he said. “But our success is serving the people with our message of the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he said. “We have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of letters from people” whose lives have been changed.
Nationally, however, the U.S. bishops conference has shied away from media ventures since the collapse of its Catholic Telecommunications Network of America, launched in 1981, the same year as Mother Angelica began her cable TV efforts.
CTNA lost $14 million dollars before the bishops conference shut it down in 1995, and a number of bishops had complained publicly that its shows were embarrassing and “amateurish.”
Having studied various options in the ensuing five years, the bishops now seem poised for a reentry into the media business—this time in radio.
On April 1, the bishops’ conference will begin airing pilots of 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 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 TV news and radio broadcasting, and president of UNDA–USA, the nation’s largest association of Catholic communicators, 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,” said Murock, who also serves as communications director of the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina.
The show will also include human–interest segments, he said, 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 replied: “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.”
Airwaves Not So Angelic
While few bishops will criticize her publicly, privately some take issue with Mother Angelica’s often blunt–spoken opinions on issues in the Church, accusing her of driving a wedge between them and the faithful in the pews.
Private tensions spilled into public view in late 1997 when she outraged Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles by urging her audience to have “zero obedience” for a draft document on the Eucharist that he was proposing.
And when Catholic Family Radio came on the air it was greeted with the sound of silence by many local bishops and clergy. Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland, O.S.B. 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,” said Sherman, adding that he has good relations with the bishops in the four dioceses he serves.
In addition to offering them free airtime, many of the new stations have encouraged their bishops to meet regularly with them or to appoint liaisons to serve on the station’s board of directors.
But one knowledgeable observer, who declined to be quoted by name, said that many bishops continue to eye the newcomers warily, fearing that their authority will be tuned–out by the listeners of Catholic radio.
“Weakland said out loud what many people feel,” he said. “EWTN has made a lot of enemies among priests and bishops.”
Message in a Medium
Despite lingering resistance in some dioceses and the uncertain economics of running stations almost solely on 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:
First, 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 like Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Rush Limbaugh and James Dobson. Sending out a weak signal and carrying a decidedly second–string line–up of hosts, it’s little wonder the stations couldn’t attract ratings or advertisers.
As the post–mortems continue, so does the sell–off of the Catholic Family Radio stations.
Chief operating officer John Bitting, who is overseeing the sales, said the network is getting “fair prices, a little bit over our estimates,” for the stations that have sold thus far in Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Kansas City.
But the $22 million brought in for those stations won’t begin to pay back the losses incurred by investors, estimated to be near $100 million.
In the meantime, the new kids on the radio block are measuring success, not in terms of ratings or ad revenues, but in terms of lives changed.
In conversation with them, the stories tumble on top of each other—the cop who regularly tuned in while on patrol and one day decided to return to church; the husband who had a change of heart while listening, turned around and went back 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,” said WDEO’s Henry Root.
In the 1960s, the 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 the ability to send their programs over the Internet via “streaming audio,” they see workspaces 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, these new stations of the cross envision turning drive–times into devotional hours of power for legions of soccer moms, salesmen and commuters.
“Radio can be very penetrating and personal,” said James Jarboe, head 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.”