G.K. Chesterton wisely observed that a “dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” Against the deadening dictatorship of noise persists the still, small voice of Catholic radio. The vitality of this voice is nowhere more apparent than on Catholic Answers Live. CA Live is a daily, two-hour radio show dedicated to Catholic apologetics and evangelization. The program celebrates its twentieth anniversary this month and is a favorite among listeners across America.
The program uses a call-in format to connect listeners to prominent Catholic guests, including nuns, priests, bishops and cardinals. Discussions range across doctrine and practice. Recent topics include Mary and the Modern Woman, Issues in Bioethics, and Why Beauty Matters. There is also an Open Forum where callers pick the topics. Apologists such as Jimmy Akin, Trent Horn, and Tim Staples regularly appear on this segment, offering depth and breadth to a dizzying array of questions.
Founded as an outgrowth of Catholic Answers, the apologetics apostolate founded in 1979 by Karl Keating, the first broadcast in January 1998 was heard on only a handful of stations. The apostolate now reaches listeners on nearly three hundred and sixty. It has also expanded into other platforms. The show can be heard on satellite radio, streamed online, podcasted, or downloaded in MP3.
Jerry Usher, inaugural host of the show, believes the live Q&A format is the essence of the apostolate and is crucial to its success. For those that listen while driving, he says, it is like having “an apologist in the car.” Usher, who spent many years behind the microphone juggling “quite a few balls in the air,” said he “can hardly believe God allowed me to be a part of it.” Usher’s road eventually led him elsewhere though he still returns to the show as a guest. His successor Patrick Coffin’s path to the microphone also had traces of divine intervention.
“Back in late November, 2008,” Coffin says, “a writer friend named Kevin Aldrich sent me a one-line email, ‘you’d be perfect for this.’ It came with an attachment, and upon opening it found out it was a job description: Host, Radio Show.” He had not listened to CA Live but had met Jerry Usher at a conference ten years prior. So he applied and after filling in for Usher on the show one day in December, 2008 (Coffin says it was “his audition”), “by God’s grace, I was the last candidate standing and I got the job.” For Coffin, the success of the show comes down to “a combination of access to experts in apologetics and evangelization and answers couched in a way that is charitable—more focused on winning the caller than winning the argument.”
In this way, guests are often a vehicle of grace. Coffin relates his experience with the late Father Andrew Apostoli, CFR. Fr. Apostoli, who succumbed to cancer on December 13th, appeared with Coffin on CA Live on April 27, 2016. Ordained by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, Fr. Apostoli was, according to Coffin, “a saintly’, impressively kind priest.” The topic that day was the spiritual works of mercy. Coffin remembers a caller from Texas who “was angry about the idea of praying for the dead (or to the dead he claimed)”. Coffin says “the call began with ‘you Catholics are something!’ Off to a bad start. Well, after sticking around long enough to hear my best shot at helping him understand the biblical roots of purgatory—but mostly because of Father Apostoli’s gentle treatment—our friend David slowly softened. After five or so minutes, David went from agitated sarcasm, to sincere questioning, to silence, to tears. At that point, I did something I hadn’t done before and didn’t do again. I asked Father to say a prayer for David.”
For his part, Usher’s most memorable guest was Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, not merely because of Cardinal Schönborn’s rank in the Church, but because that particular appearance was arranged last minute. Some guests prefer not to be memorable, at least for the wrong reasons. Of his recent appearance, guest apologist Douglas Beaumont, a self-described “armchair philosopher” and “backseat theologian,” said that the “show went well. I didn’t throw up or choke or pass out.” Other recent guests include Fr. Mitch Pacwa, Scott Hahn, and Rose Sweet.
Callers, too, are a source of life for the show and have contributed to audience growth and quality. When CA Live launched, Usher says, “the questions were very basic.” “They are even more sophisticated now,” he observes. Coffin agrees. “The nature of the questions,” he says, “has kept pace with the changing interests and needs of the listeners.” It is clear evidence of the program’s impact. Of the thousands of callers Usher engaged during his stint as host, he remembers his mother most. She called in numerous times to check up on her son. Apologist Beaumont enjoyed taking calls. “The callers were great,” he says, and “one thing I really appreciate about CA Live is the two-way kindness that generally exists between the host, guest, and callers.”
Kindness is one dimension of the show’s evangelistic impetus. More than a radio show disseminating information, CA Live brings people together. Darin DeLozier, the show’s producer, says that “for many people CA Live provides a sense of community. It’s an audible connection to a community of faith— the callers and guests are separated geographically and don’t know each other, but through CA Live they experience the unity of the Church and a spirit of fraternity.” Cy Kellett, current host of the show, agrees. Kellett says “one of the most beautiful things” about Catholicism is that it is “communal” and “conversational.” We are not, he asserts, “just saved out of our sins, but we’re saved into a community.” This is a truth with special resonance for DeLozier whose conversion was aided by CA Live.
He explains, “I first heard of CA Live when I was in high school, before I was Catholic. One weekend out of town for a baseball tournament, I asked my Catholic friend Robbie, ‘What does Catholic mean?’ All I knew was Catholics wore uniforms to school and I was pretty sure they had something to do with the pope. That night in a Taco Bell parking lot Robbie introduced me to Catholicism. He encouraged me to check out Catholic Answers to investigate further. On the Catholic Answers website, I stumbled upon their radio program which had only started a few months prior.” It didn’t take long for the program to have an effect.
“I quickly got hooked on listening to the show on www.catholic.com. After listening to dozens of episodes I thought, these guys have an answer to everything! By the time I entered RCIA I was already fairly knowledgeable about the Faith. CA Live served as a kind of pre-catechesis for me and the RCIA classes felt like a review of what I had already learned.” DeLozier is just as surprised as anyone that he wound up working for the very organization that played a role in his conversion. And it informs his work for the apostolate every day. “Because CA Live played such an important role in my conversion I strongly feel the responsibility we have to present the truth in charity.”
It is a responsibility the program takes seriously. “People listen to the show because they are looking for the truth,” DeLozier says. “In that sense our message is very simple because we don’t have to come up with original material. We simply explain what the Church teaches and why. People love to hear stories. The Catholic teachings we explain inherently tell people about their story — about God’s plan and their role in it.”
Still, there are challenges. DeLozier believes the greatest competition “is not any particular radio program or network, but the pervasive noise in the wider culture. A plethora of screens and thousands of advertising messages vie for our attention every day.” While CA Live maintains the tried and true Q & A format in the midst of the worldly cacophony, the program does make use of technology and new media platforms. Indeed, this is where former host Patrick Coffin thinks the biggest challenge exists.
“The biggest challenge,” Coffin says, “is adapting to the next wave of social media technology. Radio is not going anywhere, but to keep up with the hunger for great content is going to be paired with the necessity of provide alternate avenues of engagement with younger audience members. On my new show, at www.patrickcoffin.media/show, I am constantly trying to multiply the size of the listenership. If people don’t know you exist, it doesn’t matter how good it is.” Current host, Cy Kellett thinks this is a challenge for which the program is well suited. “The best thing about Catholic Answers,” Kellett maintains, “is the energy and willingness to push out in every direction, using every mode of communication to share Christ. Catholic media is just booming, and Catholic Answers is rock solid in its teaching and cutting edge in its media approaches.”
DeLozier sees the biggest change in recent years as being the explosion in visual media. CA Live rose to the visual challenge but it became clear that greater efforts were necessary. “At first we just set up a couple cameras in our tiny studio and posted some clips to YouTube. It looked pretty rough—huge microphone stands obstructing faces, waste baskets in the background, awkward angles. The gospel deserves more than that so we decided to fully commit to taking quality video of CA Live.” To that end, DeLozier says, “In 2015 we hired a professional set designer to design and build a new studio. We purchased professional lighting and cameras. Immediately our YouTube clips started getting more traction. Now we live-stream video of almost every show and with the footage we also produce a television program for EWTN.”
It is a way for radio—the thing Kellett calls “a persistent and weirdly intimate medium”—to interact with new media and extend its reach. It requires a different kind of planning, though, and production takes on a multifaceted approach. DeLozier notes that “we spend a lot more time thinking about the visual aspect of the show. This includes improving the aesthetics of the set, working with guests to establish Skype video connections, and interacting with our Facebook and YouTube viewers.” And like all media, CA Live has had to deal with the speed of technological change. “We’re always adjusting to a changing landscape,” DeLozier says. “In a matter of years, we went from basic podcasting to video and social media. We can never get comfortable because there is always something else around the corner. But that’s a good thing.”
The fruits of the apostolate’s efforts, as with all else, are in God’s hands. DeLozier knows from personal experience. “We’re having conversations with human beings whom God loves. We have something beautiful that we want to share with them. And we have to remember that we don’t convert anybody. God does that.” It is, current host Cy Kellett says, the “perfect place to be sharing the Gospel.”
As for the next twenty years, DeLozier thinks CA Live will be on platforms not yet invented. But the essence and mission will remain the same. “I think it will be accessible in dozens of ways, but at it’s core will still be a radio show. CA Live will always stick to explaining Catholic teaching, nothing more or nothing less, and strive to do so in the clearest, most precise, and most charitable way possible.” Former host Coffin agrees. CA Live will continue to be successful he says, “by doing the same thing 10,000 more times and not trying to innovate itself to death. The original recipe is copied often. That’s a nice way to stay—copied by imitators.”
Note: Catholic Answers Live airs every Monday through Friday from 6-8 PM Eastern (3-4 PM Pacific) on over 360 AM and FM stations in the United States, Sirius Satellite Radio channel 130, through the Internet at www.catholic.com, subscribe to the podcast, or download individual shows from our MP3 archive.