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Interview
May 21, 2013
Solid programming and improved technology have spurred the growth of Catholic radio networks
Catholic radio has had a slow start in the United States in comparison to the success of non-Catholic Christians on the airwaves, but in recent years it has come on strong with solid programming and improved technology which has enabled the message of the Gospel to reach throughout the globe.

In a previous article, “Proclaiming Christ Through Catholic Radio” (May 9, 2013), CWR interviewed Steve Gajdosik, president of the Catholic Radio Association. In this second article on Catholic radio, CWR spoke to several people involved in the industry to share their reflections on working with Catholic radio.

Mike Kendall is chief programming officer for Relevant Radio (www.relevantradio.com). Relevant Radio is headquartered in Green Bay, Wisconsin, produces its own programming, and airs it through 13 stations it owns and 20 with which it is affiliated. Most of its stations are in the Midwest, including Chicago. Through a contract with Arbitron, “the gold standard in measuring a radio audience,” Kendall believes its weekly Chicago audience is in the 60,000-70,000 range, and total audience 150,000-200,000.

“Our audience is engaged, and we’re a part of their daily lives,” Kendall said. “Our audience might be small compared to commercial radio stations, but they’re very committed. In fact, over 80% say Relevant Radio is their first choice in radio listening.”

Relevant Radio is funded primarily by donations, mostly smaller donors, and some traditional advertising. Their spring 2013 pledge raised $1.3 million, more than expected.

Listeners can hear programs on AM-FM stations in some markets, as well as through the Relevant Radio website or by downloading their free mobile app through any iPhone or Android device. Kendall noted that listeners from all over the world had reached out to the network to let them know they were listening.

Some of Relevant Radio’s most popular programs include Morning Air with Sean Herriott, The Drew Mariani Show and Go Ask Your Father (featuring different priests answering questions about the Faith). The network offers ten hours of live, interactive programming during weekdays.

“We find we’re successful when we address topics that impact the everyday lives of our listeners,” Kendall commented. “Radio’s strength is that it is live, interactive and ‘in the moment.’ We act as the town square where people can call in and express their opinions.”

Radio hosts must be careful to connect with a wide array of listeners, from educated Catholics to potential converts who know little of the Faith. Kendall continued, “We’re good at it, but it is a continual challenge.”

In addition to talk, in the afternoons listeners are invited to pray with the Relevant Radio staff. The network broadcasts a Divine Mercy Chaplet, with pauses so listeners can call in with their intentions. In this way, thousands of listeners can pray for each intention mentioned.

About 70 employees work for the network, some in Green Bay and others at other studios throughout the country.

Kendall began with Relevant Radio in 2004, after 20 years working in the commercial radio industry. The key difference between secular and Catholic radio, he said, is that secular radio is driven by ratings and revenue, whereas Catholic radio is driven by mission. Other Catholic networks are not the competition, he said, but commercial radio. He said, “We’re competing for the same listeners.”

Technology has greatly improved Relevant Radio’s reach since he began, he noted. Anyone with an internet connection or iPhone can listen; thousands download their phone app each week. He continued, “We’re always looking for new opportunities to use technology to reach consumers throughout the world. It’s a huge opportunity for the Catholic media community.”

Matthew Arnold is host of Shield of Faith, a new program offered through Radio Maria. Arnold is a convert to Catholicism who heads an evangelization apostolate (www.matthewarnold.org).  He was a host for St. Joseph Radio in Southern California, and developed and produced live and pre-recorded shows for the Catholic Family Radio network (which is no longer in operation).

Arnold believes that live, call-in programs work well with Catholic radio. He explained, “People love Q&A shows and like to offer their opinions.”

Key to any Catholic program he added is that hosts and producers “stick with the authentic teaching of the Church.”

He continued, “I’ve found that ‘Joe Catholic in the pew’ has a hunger for the authentic teaching of the Church and how it relates to his life. There is a genuine desire for orthodoxy, which is all-too-often ‘under-represented’ by official organs of the local Church. Heterodox programming may be underwritten by those with money and an agenda, but does not enjoy the grassroots support that keeps Catholic radio going.”

Shield of Faith’s purpose, he said, is to help listeners to understand and live out their vocation as Catholic laity. His prep work includes a careful study of both the Catechism and Bible.

Arnold said he was uncertain how large his radio audience was, but has noted a significant increase in subscriptions to his YouTube channel and email lists. He also said that the network’s annual spring “Mariathon” took in a record number of donations.

Noting his 15 years of experience in the industry, he added, “I know from personal experience that Catholic radio can have a life-changing effect on listeners that goes far beyond ratings or fundraising. Catholic radio can be a channel of grace for people of good will to encounter the living God. What greater impact is there?”

While national and international programs certainly have their impact, he believes, “nothing beats local radio that speaks to and interacts with the events and concerns of the faithful in their own dioceses.”

Networks of local stations can provide a training ground for future national hosts, but more importantly, “they give the faithful hope. An increase in the supernatural virtue of hope is absolutely necessary for Catholics to rebuild our culture.”

Mike Jones is vice president and general manager of Ave Maria Radio in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ave Maria has 23 shows, and produces 54 hours per week of Catholic talk radio. They work in collaboration with the EWTN network, and reach 230 stations in the United States. They have the distinction of being the first Catholic talk radio network, he said, established in 1996.

All of Ave Maria’s programs seek to be faithful to Church teaching, he said, “Because our audience knows if we’re not.”

Its programs also strive to be “pertinent, applicable to listeners’ lives and interactive.”

A successful host, he continued, cannot just have an idea for a single show to be effective, but must have day-to-day ideas to keep audiences interested.

Additionally, he noted, with the plethora of media options available to the public today, Catholic radio will only be effective to listeners ready to hear the message. He explained, “When people wake up to their faith, our program will resonate with them.”

Ave Maria operates with a staff of 12, and most of its funding comes from listener donations. The most popular of its programs, Jones said, is its flagship program featuring Al Kresta. Kresta also serves as president and CEO of Ave Maria.

Jones remarked, “The motto of Al’s program is ‘We look at life through the lens of Scripture and the teachings and traditions of the Church.’”

The network is always looking for ways to expand its reach. Jones remarked, “We want people to buy, build and borrow radio stations, and we’ll give them content free of charge.”

Thom Price is Director of English Language Radio Programming for EWTN. EWTN began its foray into radio in 1992, 11 years after it launched its television network. It began with shortwave and was broadcast worldwide, and entered the AM-FM world in 1996. Today, it can be found on 215 AM-FM stations, as well as on Sirius Satellite Radio and through the Internet. It is funded entirely by donations, with many of its listeners sending in just a few dollars per month. EWTN produces its own shows, and carries the shows of other Catholic networks.

Price is a convert, and became energized about his new faith after meeting a charismatic young priest. Price had had a career in radio, and the priest predicted he’d work for EWTN one day. He was right.

He said, “I’ve worked with country music, rock ‘n roll and classical music, as well as talk radio. Now I’m giving back to God what I learned in the industry.”

He joined EWTN in 1997, reporting directly to EWTN’s founder, Mother Angelica. At that time, EWTN was a much smaller organization, with only five or six radio stations. But, he said, “Mother would tell me, ‘If you need something, let me know. If we have the money and the timing is right, we’ll get it for you.’”

Mother is age 90 and, due to poor health, is no longer involved in the production of the radio programming. However, Price has remembered what she said, “We’ll get you what you need, do the best you can with what you have and make sure your content is in line with the Magisterium of the Church!”

Listeners can enjoy the wisdom of Mother Angelica on the network’s daily Mornings with Mother program, which features excerpts from her former television show. At Home with Jim and Joy is a family-oriented program EWTN produces that is popular with listeners, as well as Catholic Answers Live produced by Catholic Answers in San Diego. Other favorites include The Son Rise Morning Show with Brian Patrick and Vocation Boom Radio with Jerry Usher.

Price believes interactivity is an important aspect of Catholic radio. In 2006, the network first reached the “tipping point” of producing more live than pre-recorded shows; today, they’re “wall to wall” with live shows. He personally loves music, but is rarely able to broadcast it on EWTN. He explained, “It bogs down our affiliates, who have to pay for music licensing. They asked us to cut back on it. It makes me sad, as I love music and I’m married to a singer.”

Following Mother Angelica’s directive, Price is always looking to leverage technology to broaden EWTN’s reach. He said, “If there’s new media, that’s where we need to be.”

EWTN is headquartered near Birmingham, Alabama. In addition to its television and radio broadcasting facilities, it has a theology department to help ensure that all programming is an accurate reflection of Catholic teaching. Price noted, “We’re here to support the Church. We have no reason or need to start up a new one. We love the Church that Jesus started.”

Price encourages his fellow Catholics to encourage others to listen to EWTN radio, and noted its positive impact on communities worldwide. He said, “We get letters all the time from, say, someone who was contemplating suicide or a pregnant woman heading to an abortion clinic who was set on the right path after hearing our message.”

Elena Rodriguez works with Price and serves as a producer for EWTN radio. She produces At Home with Jim and Joy, as well as other programming. The show is focused on conveying the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of life, and features guests and listeners calling in.

Key to her work, she says, is prayer, especially before the Blessed Sacrament. She must also keep abreast of the news of the day, finding what topics would be of interest to listeners. Working as an EWTN producer gives her the ideal opportunity to combine her two passions in life, evangelism and journalism.

And, she added, she must also have the professional competence to make the program a success. There is a daily challenge, she said, to avoid mistakes in production as well as to maintain the show’s orthodoxy.

Screening callers is an art. The show welcomes friendly debate, but “if we have an indication that someone is unstable or has a violent attitude, we ask them to refrain from being on the air. And, we explain to them why.”

The show has a ten-second delay, lest a caller sneak through the screening process and attempt to use vulgarities on the air. She said, “We have moms in their cars with kids listening to the show. I have to be aware of what’s going on all the time, so that if someone were to, say, drop the f-bomb, we can prevent it from being heard.”

Rodriguez is from Costa Rica and grew up watching EWTN. She said, “I remember telling my mom I’d like to work for them someday.”

She worked in Catholic radio, and was invited to join the EWTN staff four years ago. Her job has brought her many memorable moments. Earlier this year, for example, she spent 18 days in Rome covering the election and installation of Pope Francis. She said, “It was the highlight of my journalistic career.”

She hopes to have many more good years with EWTN, sharing the teachings of Christ. She remarked, “The reason we do our shows is to teach the Gospel; to bring the Splendor of Truth to the airwaves.

 
About the Author
Jim Graves 

Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.
 

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