Al Kresta began his career as a radio talk show host in the 1980s, when he was still a Protestant pastor. He came back into the Catholic Church in 1992 and is now president and CEO of Ave Maria Radio, a Catholic nonprofit media apostolate that produces 16 radio programs and provides a wealth of online information and resources. His own show, “Kresta in the Afternoon”, demonstrates his dedication to giving a balanced assessment of “the things that matter most.”
With such a long and varied career in radio, Kresta is in an excellent position to comment on Catholic radio today. He recently spoke with CWR about his work in radio,
CWR: In 1996, WDEO, operated by Ave Maria Radio, became the first Catholic radio station to air EWTN programming full-time. How many EWTN-affiliated Catholic radio stations are there now?
AK: The number that’s commonly used is 350, but it’s been growing; I’ve heard people say 400. There was an explosion of Catholic radio stations over the last five years.
CWR: What caused that?
Kresta: A lot of low-powered FM stations. The FCC opened the band up, so people could begin applying for low-powered FM stations, and a lot of people did that.
CWR: So some Catholic stations are not EWTN-affiliated?
As I understand it, we’ve got 570 Catholic stations on the air—as of last month—and then there are 60 under construction or being modified.
You may not know this—but at the beginning, many bishops were very suspicious of Catholic radio, and it took a while for the ice to thaw. Some of them didn’t particularly like Mother Angelica’s style, so they were reluctant to support stations that were raising money to put on EWTN programming.
But that has changed, almost night and day, over 20 years. I can see it where I live, in southeast Michigan. When I first came to Ann Arbor in 1997, I began having lunch with local priests in the vicariate, and at that time we had about six priests, of 20 or so, who were actively opposed to what we were doing. I mean they would speak unkindly of us to their congregations; they would write bulletins sometimes. That was in 1997-98. I was at a priest appreciation dinner, about 2-3 years ago now, and it dawned on me that I don’t know a single priest in this vicariate—except one retired guy—who is actively opposed to what we’re doing now. Most people are very supportive. So things have changed in 20 years; it’s been really great.
CWR: There are many more Protestant stations than Catholic—
Kresta: Yes, absolutely.
CWR: Why is that?
Kresta: It’s another good question. First, Protestants vastly outnumber Catholics in America. Consequently, they generate more churches, bookstores, television and radio stations.
Another reason is that many of the Protestant-Evangelical stations are for-profit enterprises. Up until the rise of contemporary Christian music, they charged local preachers and national preachers. So programs would pay significant money to be on these stations. In the 1980s, Crawford Broadcasting decided to actually go heavy into selling advertising, and they began eliminating some of the teaching programs; Don Crawford was a real innovator there and did very well. When I worked for Crawford Broadcasting, we didn’t raise funds from our listeners; we got results for our advertisers. That’s actually how our success was determined: how many calls did the advertisers get from your listeners? So there’s a commercial incentive to the Evangelical stations, so that’s one thing. Catholics never went that route.
The third reason I would say is—the sad truth is that—Evangelical Protestantism is more innovative, it’s more energized, it’s more entrepreneurial—that’s the key word. It’s more entrepreneurial than the Catholic culture. I mean, the laity are only beginning to take co-responsibility for the Church now in Catholicism.
Mother Angelica began making programming available for free, and she just wanted lay people—or anybody—to go buy stations or lease stations, and she’d provide the programming. So there is no financial incentive for Catholic laity to start stations. Catholic laity started stations because they wanted to be an echo chamber for the Magisterium. Catholic radio grew up to make sure that magisterial teaching was accessible all day, all week, to Catholic listeners. That’s really what drove people. Everybody who started Catholic radio stations got into it to make sure that the messages were orthodox. Our problem would be creativity—trying to create a program. The next generation might have trouble with orthodoxy, or they might have to fight over it, but this first generation, that’s not a problem.
CWR: What need or needs in the Church is Catholic radio trying to help meet?
Kresta: There’s absolutely no doubt that Catholic radio’s principal mission has been catechesis. It’s a concern that many Catholics had after the Second Vatican Council. There was a lot of experimentation going on; there was lack of clarity as to what authentic Catholic doctrine was. This goes back to the fights over Humane Vitae and documents of the Second Vatican Council. People would talk about the “spirit” of the Council, but they would not read the documents of the Council.
So, for instance, when I was making my way back to Catholicism, I was told that the Catholic Church no longer believed in purgatory, that Mary wasn’t that big a deal, that the Catholic Church no longer thought that it was the one true Church. In all these things, there’s a tiny element of truth. But we do believe in purgatory; it’s just the Church’s thinking that it could be place—it could be process. But the truth about purgatory is still there; that hasn’t changed. The Blessed Mother: well, yes, there was a scaling back, a little bit, of Marian devotion, but that was because the Second Vatican Council saw the Blessed Mother in relationship to the entire Church. Rather than a separate document on Mariology, they included her under the document on the Church, Lumen Gentium. But none of the Marian dogmas changed, for heaven’s sake; there’s still the Immaculate Conception, bodily Assumption, perpetual virginity—all those things are still absolutely true. In fact, there’s been a little development in Marian theology, with co-Redemptrix and things of that sort.
So, people were confused, and one of the reasons Mother Angelica was such a vital force for good is because she was committed to making sure she taught in league with the Magisterium, and when she offered to make programming available, many Catholic laity, who knew their brothers and sisters were confused, wanted to help clarify what authentic Catholic teaching is.
The secondary motivation was they wanted to do the work of exhortation and encouragement. So I like to say: Catholic radio edifies, it evangelizes, it educates, it encourages, it exhorts, it engages the world, and … on occasion, we entertain. I’m not real big on the entertainment, but on occasion, we can be funny.
CWR: How can Catholic radio help with what seems to be a growing confusion in our own day?
Kresta: Catholic radio grew up during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and both popes were very chaste in the way they remarked on things. Pope Francis is a lot more free-wheeling. And his style—I don’t know if he realizes it or not—but his style has created some confusion on the people’s part. Catholic radio has to clarify that, absolutely.
We used to just have to clarify what the teaching of the Church was, but now we have to help clarify what the Pope meant. And we have to keep from being hysterical—I mean, there are some groups out there that are hysterical. And we have to also acknowledge the limits of papal infallibility. We have to point out: when is the pope speaking prudentially? When is he speaking dogmatically? If you want to keep sane, you have to make those distinctions. And Catholic radio has an important role to play there. We are basically champions of Catholic teaching. We’re an echo chamber for the Magisterium. You’re not going to see Catholic radio challenging the Magisterium, but we will make distinctions about prudential judgments.
I mean, even when George Bush decided to take military action in Iraq, John Paul II seemed to be very clearly opposed to the idea. That was the Holy Father’s prudential judgment; it wasn’t a dogmatic judgment. And so Catholic radio tried to make that clear.
I think that’s always going to be the case. That’s one of the great roles of Catholic radio. And I think in the next generation of Catholic radio that’s going to become increasingly clear. Because the last generation was spent defending the faith and defending papal infallibility and trying to get people to pay attention to what the Holy Father is saying. With Pope Francis now, we move to the next level, which is to continue to defend papal infallibility, to continue to defend the Magisterium, but also to say, “Okay, guys, these are the areas of prudential judgment, and, laity: this is our area; this is where we bring our expertise, and we can discuss these matters.” And I’m hoping that listeners will pick up on that and appreciate it. We’ll continue to defend magisterial teaching, but I think we now have to help people distinguish [between what] we owe religious assent and what are prudential judgments.
CWR: Why is radio is such a powerful medium to reach people with the Church’s teachings?
Kresta: People can listen anonymously. You can get questions answered by just listening, and nobody has to know you’re searching. It’s in the car; it’s portable. So you can listen to it when you’re cleaning the garage on Saturday. You can listen to it when you’re picking the kids up from school. You can listen to it on your way to the grocery store. So I think those are two things.
It’s also relatable. Radio is a warmer kind of medium than television. People feel a little more connected to radio personalities than television personalities. We’re not as polished; we’re not as image conscious. There’s also a theater of the mind that radio offers, so people can imagine what I look like, but they don’t know. In fact, one of the radio inside jokes used to be that when you went out for public appearances or speaking engagements, half the people you’d talk to would say, “You know, you don’t look anything like you sound.” Now with the Internet that’s changed, because now people can—they find you, they see you.
CWR: What is the relationship between EWTN Radio and Ave Maria Radio?
Kresta: It’s a good question. Let me tell you what Ave Maria Radio is first so that you can understand my answer.
My wife Sally and I had determined to move to Ann Arbor in the fall of 1996, and we were looking for property. Tom Monaghan [founder of Domino’s Pizza] called me in January of ’97 and asked me if I wanted to move to Ann Arbor to help create Ave Maria Communications. The timing was perfect; everything fell together. Tom funded the media enterprise for years; then he began to think about [Ave Maria] University and the law school. So we began going to our listeners, and since around early 2004, we’ve been independent, and we’ve never had to ask Tom for financial support. We’ve got an independent board, and we own and operate three stations in southeast Michigan. That’s one thing we do with Ave Maria Communications: we own and operate those stations.
The second thing we do—and the most important thing we do—is we’re a production company. We produce about 50 hours a week of original Catholic radio programming. And for years we were basically competing with EWTN. We didn’t want to compete, but at that time, EWTN didn’t take any of our programming. We had a good relationship—we were friends; we appreciated what EWTN was doing, and we ran EWTN programming on our stations, as well as our own original programming. But at one point I just called down there, and Doug Keck and I talked. They were thinking about making some changes to their morning and afternoon times, so I suggested that they take our programming. And so EWTN now distributes some of our programs. And so we no longer compete; we don’t try to displace any EWTN programming. We’re partners with them now. They don’t take everything that we produce, but they take “Kresta in the Afternoon,” “Doctor Is In” [with Dr. Ray Guarendi], “Catholic Connection” [with Teresa Tomeo], “More2Life with the Popcaks”, “Christ Is the Answer” with Fr. John Riccardo, and some of the shorter-form things that we do.
CWR: EWTN programming is free for the stations, so responsible listeners often support their local station and EWTN. Listeners of “Catholic Answers Live” are also asked to support their apostolate. How is Ave Maria Radio programming funded?
Kresta: Catholic Answers does raise its support over the EWTN stations. That is, in a certain sense, grandfathered in, I think because “Catholic Answers Live” is one of the earliest programs. But we don’t. The owners and operators of the affiliates do not want us raising support for our programming through their stations. So we raise our support independently, in southeast Michigan. Now if you’re listening on the app, or online, you’re able to hear our membership drives. But if you’re listening on a terrestrial station, you never hear us ask for money.
Let me say this though, EWTN has been just a tremendous partner for us. They still maintain a strong sense of family. That doesn’t mean we always agree on everything. But they treat us like partners.
CWR: What are your hopes for Catholic radio?
Kresta: Well, I expect that Catholic radio is going to continue to grow. I hope local stations will continue to focus on their local communities, raise money there, that they continue to work locally. Local control is very important. They have to own and operate those stations for themselves. I don’t think it’s a good idea for them to give up ownership of their stations to larger entities. In time there’s going to be succession issues: those who started Catholic radio are going to be getting older; I don’t know if their kids are going to want to maintain the stations like their parents did. So you need to have a strong board to make sure it continues into the next generation. That board needs to be working with the local parishes. Your donors come from your listeners, and you’ve got to be getting your listeners locally.
That’s what the new evangelization is about: it’s getting Catholics who’ve been maybe somewhat compliant, but not especially catechized … to awaken to their faith, to own their faith, to say, “I’m engaged; I’m on fire; I am a disciple.” In studies done by Matthew Kelly and Sherry Weddell, we’re told that only 6-9 percent of American Catholics consider themselves engaged, or dynamic, or on fire, or disciples. That’s a small percentage! And that’s where the work has to go. And that can only be done locally: you’ve got to have boots on the ground locally, challenging fellow Catholics.
We have to focus on relationships with priests in order to get the word out about Catholic radio, in order to get to people who are attending Mass, but not necessarily doing much more. Turning them into listeners really is a way of disciple-making. If a person finds out about Catholic radio and starts listening to Catholic radio, they have clarity about the faith, they have competent exhortation to live it faithfully, they begin to appreciate the idea of the domestic church, they begin to understand the co-responsibility of the laity, they begin to read the Catechism—all those things come alive for them.
CWR: It sounds like Catholic radio has the potential to be a game-changer for Catholics.
Kresta: Absolutely! I think Catholic radio is one of the most exciting developments in the post-conciliar Church. We started with four stations in 1997 up to 568 stations on air as of February 1, 2018—and 60 under construction. EWTN has 350-400 affiliates. So, if you develop strong local communities of Catholics who understand themselves as engaged, as disciples, these are going to be outgoing people who are sharing their faith in a variety of ways. They’ll give testimony; they’ll hand out books; they’ll invite people to parish missions. Catholic radio supports those people throughout the whole week, so that they’re not dependent on Sunday to Sunday. You see in 20 years what’s happened … and it’s entirely lay-driven. I like it because it’s focused on the Magisterium. It’s not renegade Catholics—of the liberal variety or a radical traditional variety. These are engaged—you might call them “evangelical” Catholics.
So I think Catholic radio can be a game-changer. I think we’re going to continue to see numerical decline in Catholicism, for the time being; there are a lot of people drifting away right now. Catholic radio might be able to change that. What I know we can do is take people who are not yet awakened, the many Catholics out there who were raised in the Church and do attend fairly faithfully but haven’t yet heard Jesus say, “Follow me” and said, “That’s my path; that’s my Savior; that’s my Lord, and I’m going to own this.” But I think we’re going to see a lot more of that. And we’re going to be seeing continued spiritual growth. We’re going to see a greater and greater percentage of the laity joyfully affirm the faith and be active in living it and sharing it.